Whither Ecuador? An Interview with Indigenous Activist and Politician Monica Chuji

Monica Chuji

Monica Chuji is an indigenous Kichwa activist from the Ecuadorian Amazon. She served as an Assembly Member from President Rafael Correa’s Alianza País party in the National Constituent Assembly, drafting Ecuador’s new constitution. In September, she broke with Correa and left Alianza País, the culmination of months of increasing conflict between the President and Ecuador’s social and indigenous movements.

Monica Chuji

Monica Chuji is an indigenous Kichwa activist from the Ecuadorian Amazon. She served as an Assembly Member from President Rafael Correa’s Alianza País party in the National Constituent Assembly, drafting Ecuador’s new constitution. Prior to Chuji’s election to the Assembly, she was Correa’s Secretary of Communication and spokeswoman. In September, she broke with Correa and left Alianza País, the culmination of months of increasing conflict between the President and Ecuador’s social and indigenous movements.

Colombia’s March 1st bombing of a FARC camp in Ecuadorian territory and moves to seize the property of bankers responsible for the 1999-2000 economic crisis have strengthened support for Correa. But acrimony between the President and the Left has increased over social, economic and environmental issues. Social movements were shocked when Correa declared a state of emergency in November 2007 and violently repressed protests at oil installations in the Amazonian town of Dayuma. In July, longtime social movement ally Alberto Acosta broke with Correa. The former Minister of Mines and Petroleum, Acosta resigned as President of the Constituent Assembly over procedural and political disputes with Correa. Over the past month, there have been recent signs of rapprochement between the two wayward friends.

The Confederation of Indigenous Nationalities of Ecuador (CONAIE) and other groups criticize Correa’s support for large-scale mining and development megaprojects. Social movements unsuccessfully pushed for the inclusion of constitutional provisions that would recognize communities’ right to "prior consent" before mining or oil exploitation projects take place on their land. Another pressing issue is the Manta-Manaus project, which would build a multimodal transportation infrastructure between the Ecuadorian and Brazilian coasts, causing massive destruction to the Amazon rainforest. Indigenous Assembly Members also clashed with Correa’s allies over a proposal to make Kichwa Ecuador’s second official language. The dispute was settled by a compromise making Kichwa "an official language of intercultural relation" along with Shuar, the implications of which are unclear.

The CONAIE is Ecuador’s strongest social movement. They played a key role in overthrowing President Jamil Mahuad in January 2000 and led successful nationwide struggles against a Free Trade Agreement with the United States and the multinational Occidental Oil. But internal divisions under former president Lucío Gutierréz, who co-opted some of the organization’s senior leadership, have shaken the organization. Now the CONAIE and other social movements are struggling to remobilize against the policies of a President with high approval levels and a Leftist discourse.

Why did you leave Alianza País?

It is important to give the context of how I initially came to form a part of Alianza País. It began when I was the Secretary of Communication and Spokeswoman under Rafael Correa. I was attracted to Alianza País’ project because I saw that the President and his party were speaking to popular demands during the campaign. These are historic demands for change that first came from the unions. After 1990, they came from the indigenous movement, who were among the first to propose a structural reform of the Ecuadorian state. They proposed a National Constituent Assembly as the only way to reform the Ecuadorian state. Later other forces joined—women, campesinos, Afro-Ecuadorians, the LGBT community and, very importantly, environmentalists. Many of the indigenous movement’s demands were, of course, already around territorial and environmental issues related to natural resources.

How have these movements interacted with President Correa?

Correa’s regime has capitalized off of all of this. He has collected this accumulation of historic social and political demands. Other presidents have done this, such as Lucio Gutierréz, who quickly broke this [government-social movement] alliance. Rafael Correa is also usurping this [political] capital, these demands, and beginning to push forward. Among these demands, of course, was the Constituent Assembly, to transform the country and put an end to neoliberalism. Social movements and the indigenous movement proposed an Assembly and a plurinational state as a model that would break with neoliberalism. Many of us began to identify with this project. This is when I decided to join Correa’s cabinet.

When I decided to leave the cabinet and run for the Constituent Assembly, I made it clear that I would focus on the defense of the environment, natural resources, sovereignties, communication, collective rights—overall structural political reform.

How were your relations with Correa at this point?

Rather good. We always had an agreement that I would never take an assignment just because I was indigenous. I would never lend myself so that the President could say, "this cabinet is diverse because we have an indigenous woman." I was excited because there was a possibility to contribute and to construct a different sort of communications system. Not to continue with the same old folkloric image that we are always used for. But we parted on good terms, although the President always had a certain resentment of the indigenous movement after they didn’t support his presidential campaign.

He would sometimes say to me, "You, from the CONAIE, are only 2%." I told him, "You cannot judge, disqualify, and underestimate a historic movement when you know that the indigenous movement, led by the CONAIE, is a very strong political force."

You can’t judge the CONAIE based on one year’s election results. [The CONAIE’s 2006 presidential candidate, Luis Macas, received only 2.18% of the vote.]

Exactly. And I always told him so very respectfully. But he always had his doubts. The same with environmentalists, whom he would call "a group of extremists." And he campaigned with a strong environmentalist discourse. So, while I left on good terms, I also saw that he was beginning to open up his cabinet to opportunists, people who were coming in through the back door. This started to become clear after his second month in office. I realized that I couldn’t have much influence inside the cabinet and thought that I could have a greater effect in the Assembly.

Was there any sort of a general consensus in the cabinet at this point?

There wasn’t a plurality or a clear idea of where we were going. But I thought, well, the President is the one in charge here and perhaps he is changing direction. I began to see the effects of this shift when I arrived in the Assembly. I began to see a continuation of the same old line and of the extractivist model. There was no change on this issue. In fact, there was a deeper radicalism: "here comes large scale mining, period. We’ll continue with extracting oil, period." There wasn’t a discussion about a post-oil economy.

Was there a moment earlier on in his Administration where these issues were more under debate?

Yes, when I was in the cabinet there were discussions. At this point there was a lot of support from Alberto Acosta. For example, there was a proposal from the Ministry of Agriculture to plant 20,000 hectares of African palm. I said, "This isn’t an alternative for the country. African palm is a monoculture that endangers crop diversity and food sovereignty." And Alberto Acosta argued the same line. We began to be a minority within the government.

Another clear example is ITT. The Taegheri and Taromenane peoples [in voluntary isolation] live in the Ishpingo-Tambococha-Tiputini area. This is the Huaorani people’s territory. Ecuador’s indigenous people, in accord with international agreements and the 1998 constitution, asked for this area to be protected. The President, who is very intelligent, said, "Great. Let’s leave the oil underground and see how many countries will supplement the $500 million a year we would lose." He knew that this would be very difficult to accomplish.

Will the new constitution help protect these areas?

The same sort of doublespeak continued into the Assembly. We have an article that states ‘Exploitation in protected areas is prohibited. But, in exceptional circumstances, the President of the Republic, with the permission of Congress, can exploit.’ He knows that he’ll have a political majority and will be allowed to exploit the ITT or whatever protected area. We opposed this, but couldn’t muster the votes. The majority of people in Alianza País are people who obey, who have electoral ambitions. They follow what the president and the [party] executive committee say.

What do you think are the most worrying things about Correa?

The people mobilized in Dayuma and were repressed. There was a mobilization in Cuenca against mining projects and the president got on the radio and said, ‘If twenty of these crazy ecologists are protesting, I’ll call 20,000, or 200,000, residents to confront them.’ What is this? What sort of regime is this? This is socialism of the 21st century?

What sort of party is Alianza País?

From the beginning, it was clear that there were two tendencies within Alianza País. A Left and a Right. And the indigenous members have, even though we aligned ourselves with the Left, always had our own distinct identity, as well. We were many more at the beginning, but a lot of people have become afraid. We thought that our biggest opponents would be the Right, but it turned out to be people inside our party.

The people the President called a lot of you infiltrators.

What I said is that he is the real infiltrator. I didn’t come in through the back door. I didn’t infiltrate this process.

Why did you decide to leave the party now?

There were three moments when I almost resigned. The first was during the repression in Dayuma. I decided not to, because I thought that outside of the party I would not have influence. The second time was the day when we were voting on the constitution in the Assembly, but I didn’t because many of my colleagues convinced me that the Right would take advantage of it. But a third time, with his rhetoric against social movements and human rights activists becoming more extreme, I couldn’t do it. It became clear that there were now two political projects: Alianza País’ project and the original project.

Why did you support the new constitution?

The new constitution, albeit in a limited manner, reflects a lot of the people’s aspirations. It is the product of a collective force. It is one step forward in this process. Maybe that’s an end for Alianza País, but for me and for the Ecuadorian people, it is just a step forward.

What were the most important advances for indigenous people?

A big point was the recognition of collective rights. Article 57 states that the government "recognizes and guarantees indigenous commons, communities, peoples and nationalities in conformity with the constitution and agreements, conventions and declarations and other international human rights instruments for the protection of collective rights."

Will there still be a struggle for prior consent before natural resource projects are undertaken?

A lot of this will be determined through secondary laws and through peaceful resistance and uprisings. We must be protagonists. The President was just in Brazil negotiating the Manta-Manaus project. Were we, the people of the Amazon Basin, consulted? No. Do we have a right to be consulted? Yes. This is another example of this administration’s rightward drift. Changing everything to change nothing at all.

We need to demand honesty, transparency and plurality. I think that one has to be coherent in life, to die with a clear conscious.


Daniel Denvir is an independent journalist in Quito, Ecuador, and a 2008 recipient of the North American Congress on Latin America’s Samuel Chavkin Investigative Journalism Grant. He is the editor in chief of caterwaulquarterly.com.

Photo from Presidencia de la República del Ecuador