Reencounter of the Original Peoples and Nationalities of Abya Yala in Ecuador

Representatives of the original peoples and nationalities of the Americas returned to Ecuador last week for the twentieth anniversary of a historic gathering that advanced hemispheric unity. The Continental Encounter of the Original Nationalities and Peoples of Abya Yala met from June 14 to 16. Abya Yala is a word for the Americas in the language of the Kuna people in Panama that has gained broad usage as an aboriginal term for the hemisphere. Representatives of the original peoples and nationalities of the Americas returned to Ecuador last week for the twentieth anniversary of a historic gathering that advanced hemispheric unity. The Continental Encounter of the Original Nationalities and Peoples of Abya Yala met from June 14 to 16. Abya Yala is a word for the Americas in the language of the Kuna people in Panama that has gained broad usage as an aboriginal term for the hemisphere.

In July 1990, the Confederation of Indigenous Nationalities of Ecuador (CONAIE) together with the National Indigenous Organization of Colombia (ONIC) and the South American Indian Information Center (SAIIC) organized the First Continental Conference on Five Hundred Years of Indigenous Resistance. Four-hundred representatives from 120 Indigenous nationalities and organizations throughout the Americas formed a united front against oppression, discrimination, and exploitation. Delegates demanded autonomy and self-government, including respect for customary law and traditional justice systems within their own communities.

Twenty years later, 250 representatives from 16 countries returned to the same Nueva Vida (New Life) camp outside of the capital city of Quito in the highlands to continue these discussions. Both meetings drew on a prophecy that a new era would be ushered in when the southern condor met up with the northern eagle. Both birds are powerful representatives of original peoples of Abya Yala.

CONAIE organized the 2010 meeting together with its three regional affiliates (the Confederation of Kichwa Peoples of Ecuador [Ecuarunari], the Confederation of Indigenous Nationalities of the Ecuadorian Amazon [CONFENIAE], and the Confederation of Indigenous Nationalities of the Ecuadorian Coast [CONAICE]), as well as the Scientific Institute of Indigenous Cultures (ICCI), the Intercultural University of Indigenous Nationalities and Peoples (Amawtay Wasi) in Ecuador, the regional Andean Coordinating Body of Indigenous Organizations (CAOI), as well as Tonatierra and the Seventh Generation Fund For Indian Development in the United States.

The meeting was organized around 16 workshops grouped into four themes. The most explicitly political discussions took place in the workshops grouped under the theme of self determination. Because of the low level of participation, rather than meeting in four workshops as planned delegates grouped the discussion of “plurinationalism and interculturality” and “democracy vs. self government” together. Another group discussed “economic systems” and “identities.”

At the other end of the discussions was the much more spiritual theme of cosmology. Again, because of the low level of participation delegates discussed the four themes of “thought systems of original peoples,” “transmission of knowledge,” “symbolism,” and “cosmology” together rather than meeting in separate breakout sessions.

The other two overarching themes were knowledge and Pachamama or the mother earth. Under the theme of knowledge, delegates discussed “systems of information and communication,” “ancestral geometries,” “administrative forms,” and “ancestral technics.” Under the theme of the Pachamama were “territoriality,” “development vs. living well,” “being,” and “food sovereignty.”

The conversations provided an opportunity to link continental struggles. For example, Art Manuel from Canada raised the issue of how much of the mining currently being undertaken across the continent is financed by Canadian capital. Mining companies had brought First Nations members from Canada to Ecuador to claim that they were in favor of mining, but that was simply not true. Manuel pointed out that Indians were the poorest of poor in the wealthy country of Canada. They represented their own third-world country, existing economically at roughly the same level as Latin America.

Much of the anti-capitalist discourse advocated a return to ancestral economic systems rather than building a new and better socialist future. After an Aymara from Bolivia presented on ancient vertical archipelago economic exchange systems in the Andes, a delegate from Argentina pointed out the ludicrousness of advocating pre-monetary systems at an international gathering. Were they supposed to bring a plane loads of potatoes to barter for their needs at the meeting? Instead, he pointed to the take over of factories in the aftermath of the collapse of Argentina’s economy as a credible, positive, and viable alternative.

Some participants complained that the conversations were long on rhetoric but lacked concrete proposals. Men heavily dominated the presentations.

Representatives from several Indigenous universities were present at the meeting, and how to build alternative knowledge systems became a recurrent theme. Delegates from Ecuador, Colombia, and Nicaragua presented the published findings of meetings in Ecuador in 2008 and 2009 where leaders formed a network of Indigenous universities. A third meeting of Indigenous universities is planed for next year in Bolivia.

The encounter concluded with delegates reporting the resolutions from the working groups in a plenary session. As part of the culturalist orientation of the meeting, organizers emphasized that people could express themselves in a variety of ways, not just with long-winded speeches. Responding to this suggestion, those involved in the cosmology working groups presented their conclusions in the form of rituals. In advocating a break from western organizational forms, Kitu-Kara yachak (shaman) Jaime Pilatuña had participants move their chairs in the auditorium into a semi-circle. The other three groups resorted to the now standard power point presentation. Even the more political of the presentations still had a strongly culturalist flavor.

Organizers plan to publish the resolutions of the working groups in July. Unlike with many meetings, this one did not end with the presentation of a proclamation. The Quito Declaration that emerged from the 1990 conference is a landmark document in the advancement of Indigenous rights struggles.


A recent series of Indigenous summits in Ecuador (2004), Guatemala (2007), and Peru (2009) have represented the growing strength of international organizing efforts, with thousands of delegates attending the recent meetings. The 250 people in Quito pale in comparison, and even that number was less than the 400 that organizers had expected. The low attendance was due in part both to a lack of international participation as well as the absence of local delegates.

In recent summits, the most vocal and politically militant delegations have come from Bolivia. In fact, given their rising stature in a continental movement the next continental summit is tentatively scheduled for 2011 in Bolivia. Only a handful of representatives from that country, however, attended the Quito meeting. Many Bolivian groups had decided instead to focus their time, efforts, and resources on the climate change summit that president Evo Morales had organized in April. Other countries such as Guatemala, Nicaragua, and Colombia also contributed similarly small delegations.

In contrast to the diminished participation from the south, the Quito meeting had a much more sizeable presence of representatives from the north than other recent continental gatherings. Tonatierra and the Seventh Generation Fund brought delegations of about 15 people each, giving the United States the second greatest presence at the meeting next to Ecuador. Considering that northern groups typically have a more culturalist orientation while southern groups tend to be more political, this presence notably influenced the flavor of discussions. Furthermore, groups in attendance from Argentina and Uruguay were also interested in reclaiming and reconstructing ancestral identities, further reinforcing that focus.

As a result, the flavor of the discussions at the meeting were heavily oriented toward spiritual and culturalist themes, rather than the overtly political themes of how to gain state power clearly present in recent gatherings due to the election of Evo Morales as the Indigenous president of Bolivia. Curiously, despite the culturalist orientation at Quito few delegates introduced themselves in their original languages as has typically been common at these types of meetings.


The Quito meeting took place in the midst of a proposed shift in language to refer to the aboriginal peoples of the continent. In the 1970s and 1980s, some of the most radical organizations embraced the colonial term “indio” or “Indian” that historically had connotations of ignorance and filth. In a “queering” of the language, militants stated that they were colonized by that term and that they would use it to liberate themselves.

In the 1990s, “indígena” or “Indigenous” replaced Indian as a more proper or respectful term. Some activists and scholars, however, resisted the use of a term that implied the homogenization of hundreds of distinct peoples and nationalities across the continent. Instead, they argued, it should be more appropriate to refer to different peoples by their own names.

Now, in an influence that comes from Bolivia, some activists are advocating employing the terms original or ancestral peoples. Indigenous, these advocates contend, is an imposed and derogatory term. Several delegates from the North, however, resisted this linguistic shift. The term, they argued, had legal force, specifically in the context of the United Nations Permanent Forum on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples, and it could be used to advance their struggles. One person claimed that the term was their own, something that they had created as a tool to unify their struggles. Although they agreed that a transition in terminology might eventually prove to be beneficial, discarding the term “Indigenous” now was premature and would prove to be a mistake.

Minga for a Plurinational State

At the same time as delegates were discussing cosmologies at the Nueva Vida camp, another similarly sized group of a couple hundred people were engaged in a CONAIE-organized march billed as a “minga” for a plurinational state. Minga is the Kichwa term for a communal work party.

The march began on June 10 in Puyo, the capital of the Pastaza province in the eastern Amazon. Participants arrived in capital city of Quito in the highlands before dawn on June 21, parading through the streets with torches to light their path. It concluded with a day of public actions.

In communities along the way, marchers held assemblies to discuss proposals for the construction of a plurinational Ecuador as promised in the 2008 constitution. The objectives of their proposal include forcing the government to respect their territories and to include their concerns in debates on a water law and food sovereignty bills currently under consideration in the national assembly. Their goal is the construction of a truly plurinational state where all sectors of society can participate in debates and decision-making processes. They also demanded the clean up of Amazonian rivers that have been contaminated by transnational oil, mining and logging companies.

Similar to the meeting at Nueva Vida, the march comes on the twentieth anniversary of a massive uprising in June 1990 that visibly placed their political, economic, and culture concerns in the public eye. In that event, communities across Ecuador blocked major highways in a non-violent demonstration to bring the discrimination and unjust policies facing Indigenous peoples to the forefront of public consciousness. The march, however, retraced the path of an April 1992 “caminata” or walk to demand recognition of Indigenous territories. In both events, leaders talked about the participants as the children of the historic 1990 movements who were now ready to begin assuming leadership roles and greater responsibility in the movements.

Initially the minga was to arrive in Quito on June 14 in time to join a march from plaza San Francisco to the Itchimbia cultural center that inaugurated the encounter. Instead, however, the two events ran parallel to each other, with some leaders shuttling back and forth. The low attendance at both indicated that the majority of the grassroots bases simply stayed away. This diminished participation contrasts dramatically with a massive popular mobilization a month earlier against threats of water privatization that brought congressional debates of the legislation to a standstill. In that uprising, CONAIE successfully built an alliance with competing organizations including the Federation of Farmer, Indigenous, and Black Organizations (FENOCIN) and the Federation of Indigenous Evangelicals of Ecuador (FEINE). The grassroots responded to the concrete and materialist demands of the water mobilizations, but seemingly found less value in the vaguely culturalist discourse of both the encounter and minga.

The last 20 years have been a period of tremendous struggles and remarkable advances for movements of the original peoples and nationalities in Ecuador. As the Quito encounter and minga for a plurinational state indicat, however, activists are still struggling to make their voices heard in the public realm.

Marc Becker is a historian who studies Indigenous movements in Ecuador.