Ecuador: The Battle for Natural Resources Deepens

Source: Americas Program

A new indigenous uprising began in defense of water sources threatened by open air mining in Ecuador in late September. This time indigenous organizations find themselves up against a government that claims to be anti-neoliberal, a player in the "socialism of the 21st century," and one that has begun a "citizen’s revolution."

"What happened in Cochabamba in the fight for water will be dwarfed by what is about to happen in Ecuador. An uprising is coming because it is coming," affirms a convinced Carlos Pérez Guartambel, president of the Azuay Union of Community Water Systems (Unión de Sistemas Comunitarios de Agua del Azuay).1 Pérez is referring to the Water War of Cochabamba, Bolivia, a vast social insurrection that put a stop to the privatization of water and, in April 2000, began a succession of protests that brought Evo Morales to the presidency.

"My parents taught me that water and electricity are to be shared, not sold," he says almost indignantly as we walk toward a community assembly in La Victoria del Portete located in an immense and beautiful valley, 15 kilometers from Cuenca, (capital of the southern Azuay Province) a pretty colonial town plagued by tourists. As we turn right onto the Pan-American Highway, he points out his parents’ home where he was born a little more than 40 years ago.

"When I was a child I would go to a spring to look for water with a ceramic jug. The jug was sealed with a pocón, a biodegradable corn stalk leaf. I never imagined that I would one day buy a bottle of water, never. Each liter costs one dollar and 30 cents, in other words, a liter of water costs more than a liter of milk or a liter of gas. The struggle for water will be the struggle for life." The social distinctions caused by the remittances sent back by emigrants is obvious: next to modest homes with roofs made of sheet metal they are building three story houses, affecting an affluent appearance though the inhabitants remain campesinos.

Carlos Pérez is Quichua (Quechua) and a lawyer specializing in community rights with a postgraduate degree in environmental studies and he has also written an important book on community justice. In the last few years he has dedicated himself to the resistance against the introduction of mining companies with eloquent names like IAM Gold, in and around Quimscocha, where a source of springs is located that irrigate the valley where thousands of campesinos practice animal husbandry. Pérez belongs to a new generation of university educated indigenous leaders that speak several languages, attend international forums, and are trained in the use of new technologies, but who also remain dedicated to their communities and continue to speak their native languages.

When we arrive in Victoria del Portete, he parks on the side of the highway where hundreds of community members are congregating in a wide terrace between the parish office and the church. He climbs up to the municipal balcony and an assembly of the local water system where many important decisions will be made begins. "While earlier governments threatened us with the privatization of our water systems, that specter has disappeared and been replaced with the larger threat of mining companies," says Pérez before opening the event.

The Nero Project—that has been in place in this region for 24 years—is perhaps the largest community water system in the country servicing 6,000 families, some 30,000 individuals in 45 communities. Pérez relates the history of water in his community explaining that, "Initially, the families lived near the river or close to a spring but never close to the road because they preferred to be close to the water. After a while the rivers became contaminated and the springs provided less water. It was at this point, in the 60s and 70s, that organizations like Caritas began to appear and install manual pumps in the parish centers where the people lined up to get water. But in some community councils the people began to think about installing the water infrastructure themselves, making it unnecessary to carry water on their backs by installing indoor plumbing in each house."

As years went by, community water systems spread throughout the country. In the province of Azuay alone there are 450 systems that supply water to 30% of the population, especially in rural areas and in the urban peripheries. In all, Ecuador has some 3,500 water systems, built, maintained, and administered by the communities themselves.

A Different Kind of Uprising

On Sept. 27, the Confederation of Ecuadoran Indigenous Nationalities (CONAIE, Confederación de Nacionalidades Indígenas del Ecuador) began a new front against a water law that they were not permitted to participate in. The government law went to parliament in mid-August but CONAIE had already put together its own initiative in 2008 that was never taken into account by the administration.

The movements’ critique of the Hydraulic Resources Law is that it allows for the development of mining projects in areas occupied by springs that are major sources of water. In addition, the law ensures water provisions for the mining companies but not for indigenous and campesino communities and does nothing to attend to the issue of the contamination of waterways. The law also attempts to bring all of the water systems under one centralized state authority implying the loss of community control over this resource.

Ricardo Buitrón of Ecological Action (Acción Ecológica) has undertaken a detailed study of the law and concludes that "it contains elements of privatization for both water and land usage in as much as those resources become the sole property of the benefitting industry or business for other uses. The hydraulic infrastructure becomes private property in addition to surface water—such as wetlands."2 The law allows for water resources to be acquired in the purchase of land and permits the owner to use the water as he/she sees fit.

Buitrón also criticizes the fact that the law contains no clauses that allow for deprivatization that would make it possible to take back control over water resources that are currently under private ownership. In addition, thousands of potable water councils are given no real recourse as their members are now merely consumers subject to the Sole Authority of the state that controls the entire hydraulic network.

Humberto Cholango, director of Ecuarunari, the Quichua organization of the sierra, offered some compelling facts during a press conference held on Sept. 24.3 Forty-five percent of water resources have been privatized through legal concessions, but 55% of it is being used illegally; 1% of those using water resources consume 64% of the water available and 86% of Ecuadorians consume just 13%. "The law does not say anything in regard to these points and the National Development Plan favors the mining companies and flower growers."

The law does not contemplate sanctions for contamination or water quality control. "The human right to water is restricted to access to potable water and domestic uses without considering the rights linked to health, food sovereignty, and culture," adds Buitrón.

For his part, Cholango insisted in the role of the indigenous communities in the construction of water system networks: "We have constructed irrigation canals, consumer water systems, and now, with this Executive Law, they want us to simply be consumers and not actors. Even in article 97, they are trying to exclusively administer and take control of community water systems through the Sole Authority. This is a threat to our water councils."4 The result, in his opinion, is prioritizing the use of water for mining exploits.

The protests began with roadblocks and demonstrations to force the government into a dialogue and a chance to present their own Water Law inspired by the Sumak Kawsay, the idea of "Buen Vivir" or "Good Living" that is guaranteed in the constitution. President Rafael Correa’s response was harsh: "Who do these leaders think they are?" He accused them of being "extremists," of "playing the game of the right," and of being coup mongers, comparing the situation in Ecuador with that of Honduras.5

On Sept. 30, the police fired shots against indigenous Shuar in the Amazonian province of Morona Santiago. According to a communiqué from Ecological Action, Bosco Wizuma, a bilingual professor, was killed when he joined a group of 500 that blocked the bridge spanning the Upano River. It seems that it was a "trap" because the leaders were called to a dialogue "in order to distract the leadership and the local media."6

There were dozens of wounded, including several police. President Correa quickly changed the discourse and called for the dialogue: "Welcome brothers. This government is for all of you, the indigenous people, the Carondelet Palace [Presidential Palace] is yours."7 This was perhaps the only way to defuse the conflict that threatened the stability of his government. In effect, although the uprising did not originally have the strength of other indigenous actions, professors and members of other social sectors began to join the movement. And when there is a death, anything is possible.

Dialogue and Tension

The CONAIE leadership decided to suspend the actions of the struggle when the government opened a negotiation period. However, a good portion of the country, the grassroots movement, the communities, continued to stage roadblocks and shut down markets. There is a division between the organizations that make up CONAIE, in particular between those from the sierra (Ecuarunari) and those from the jungle (Confenaie).

The climate of distrust did not abate. On Monday, Oct. 6, the televised dialogue began in the seat of government, the Carondelet Palace. Thousands of indigenous people came together outside of the palace, waiting several days for the results of the dialogue. Under a tense climate, 130 leaders entered the palace to meet with Correa. On the first day they came to agreement on six points. Among those highlighted were the institution of a permanent dialogue between both parties, the government will take into account the Water Law initiative of CONAIE, and that it will receive a Mining Law proposal from the indigenous movement.

A good example of the climate in the negotiations is the following dialogue: "Marlon Santi, head of CONAIE, asked for respect for the indigenous people. His words are in relation to the declarations in which they were referred to as ‘crazies’ and were not given representation. The response was direct. Correa interrupted and asked for the names of the officials in order to ‘dismiss them from government immediately. Who is that idiot?’ Correa asked twice. ‘You, Mr. President,’ the leader responded."9

The indigenous organizations were able to institute the dialogue, as they had hoped. On Oct. 14, the Executive Office released Decree No. 96 that establishes the formation of a Mixed Commission made up of CONAIE and its three affiliates (the Coast, Sierra, and the Amazon) as well as the government represented by the Ministry of Justice, the Secretary of Communities, Social Movements, and Citizen Participation and several other institutions. This commission will debate the two water laws (the government’s and that of the indigenous movements) as well as the proposals to reform the Mining Law.

But the accusations continue. After Correa’s weekly address on Saturday, the Amazonian leader and ex-assembly member, Mónica Chuji, accused the president of being a racist: "The president proved me right through his words, gestures, and actions that characterize him as a racist. References to indigenous leaders as ‘hook noses,’ ‘long hairs,’ and ‘golden ponchos’ are racial slurs. Using kichwa [indigenous language] for demagogic purposes and later denying its official use is a racist attitude. Marginalizing the Ecuadorian indigenous population by reducing their votes at the polls is a racist attitude."9

Although the defusing of the conflict is important, the precedent set by the massacre in Baguá, Peru,10 makes many fear the worst, though the differences continue to be important. Pepe Acacho, president of the Shuar Federation (of the Amazon), does not agree with the resolutions: "We have been struggling for eight days and it is an injustice that we are not demanding that Morona Santiago be declared an ecological province, free from mining and petroleum exploration."11

The Problem of the Country’s Model

The new Ecuadorian Constitution is one of the most advanced in the world on environmental issues. In one point it defines nature as having rights. The constitution was approved on Sept. 28, 2008 by 64% of Ecuadorians in a plebiscite. "Nature or Pacha Mama, where life is created and carried out, has the right to integral respect concerning its existence, maintenance, and the regeneration of its life cycles, structure, functions, and developmental processes," as stated in Article 71, consecrated in the "Rights of Nature."

The problem is open air mining, on which Correa’s administration has made a major bet. Alberto Acosta, founder of the Country Alliance (Alianza País)—the movement that brought Correa to the presidency—and ex-president of the Constitutional Assembly, is raising a discussion very close to that of the indigenous movements: "The mining law, approved after the constitution, is putting the Magna Carta in danger. This is the root of the problem. Why is this? Without a doubt it is the incoherent aspects of the government that clearly continue to inspire neoliberal policies, that continue to represent the interests of the most traditional economic groups."12

Acosta maintains that the progressive South America governments "have not discussed nor have they put into question the extractionist model," not even the "most advanced" countries such as Venezuela, Bolivia, and Ecuador. In his opinion, the firm belief that "the practice of natural resource extraction will show us the road to development" has up until now impeded the ability to get passed this model and maybe even find "a new form of insertion into the international market."

A second problem is Correa himself. Acosta comments that Correa recently entered into political life in 2005, when in Ecuador, the indigenous uprisings have been ongoing since 1990. He tends to think in personal terms: "He is assuming the role of the bearer of collective political will and he doesn’t realize that in large part the earlier historic process is the explanation for the positive results of Correa and Alianza País." The absence of an organic structure, movement, or party, according to Acosta, creates a situation in which Correa does not understand "that he is there, in the presidency, thanks to the great effort made by the Ecuadorian society."13

The economist Pablo Dávalos agrees with this idea but he also believes that Correa’s government continues to be a neoliberal one. Today, capital needs to "link with territories at the vortex of financial speculation" as a way of moving beyond the crisis.14 Meanwhile, the movements have declared the Amazonian region in the south, including Zamora and Morona, mining-free territories. A collision with multinational mining companies seems inevitable.

Within the Correa government as well as in the party that supports him, Alianza País—and this is key—there are several members of the right. As a consequence, concludes Dávalos, beyond the declarations about socialism and revolution, Correa’s movement is "derived from post-neoliberalism, that is, a continuation of neoliberalism but under the categories of territorial and resource dispossession, and the deterritorialization of the state.

The alternative would look more like the ITT Initiative that seeks to leave petroleum in the ground and search for another development model.15 ITT are the initials for the three exploration wells found in the Yasuní Park zone in the Amazon (Ishpingo, Tambococha, and Tiputini). In mid-2009 the Correa government took on the project, the brainchild of Acosta when he was minister of Energy and Mining. The proposal was to abandon petroleum exploration as a contribution on the part of Ecuador toward the struggle against climate change.

The ITT represents 20% of the country’s entire reserves. The Ecuadorian economy is based on petroleum: 22% of the GDP, 63% of exports, and 47% of the state budget depends on petroleum. But therein lies the significance of the proposal: it would avoid some 410 tons of CO2 emissions, slow deforestation and contamination, and it would be a major contribution to the development of a post-petroleum economy.

On the other hand, the Ecuadorian government is asking the international community to compensate the equivalent of 50% of the income that could be gained by drilling for the petroleum. The German government and parliament responded positively, putting forward 50 million Euros annually for the 13-year duration of benefits that the oil wells would have produced. Norway and the Community of Madrid have also shown interest.

Although there are many people involved in the project that see it as an ecological revolution, Acosta maintains that "it emerged from the indigenous peoples’ resistance movements, particularly in the central-south of the Amazon, that were struggling against the expansion of petroleum activities toward their territories, in addition to groups of mestizo communities in the northern Amazon and the indigenous peoples affected by the activities of Chevron."16

End Notes

  1. Interview with Carlos Pérez.
  2. Ricardo Buitrón, El Telégrafo, ob. cit.
  3. See the press conference at:
  4. Ecuarunari communiqué in Ecuachaski, Sept. 17, 2009.
  5. Agencia AFP, Quito, Sept. 25, 2009.
  6. "Noticias del Levantamiento en Defensa del Agua-1" at:
  7. El Comercio, Quito, Oct. 3, 2009.
  8. El Comercio, Oct. 6, 2009.
  9. Oct. 11 declarations at:
  10. See "Massacre in the Amazon: The U.S.-Peru Free Trade Agreement Sparks a Battle Over Land and Resources" at:
  11. El Comercio, Oct. 6, 2009.
  12. Interview with Alberto Acosta, Sept. 6, 2009.
  13. Idem.
  14. Pablo Dávalos, ob. cit.
  15. Matthieu Le Quang, interview with Alberto Correa; Alberto Acosta, Eduardo Gudynas, Esperanza Martínez, and Joseph H. Vogel, "Leaving the Oil in the Ground: A Political, Economic, and Ecological Initiative in the Ecuadorian Amazon," Americas Program Policy Report (Washington, DC: Center for International Policy, August 13, 2009),
  16. Idem.


Translated for the Americas Program by Monica Wooters.

Raúl Zibechi is an international analyst for Brecha of Montevideo, Uruguay, lecturer and researcher on social movements at the Multiversidad Franciscana de América Latina, and adviser to several social groups. He writes the monthly "Zibechi Report" for the Americas Program (

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Acción Ecológica:

Confeniae (Amazonian indigenous organization):

Ecuarunari (Quichua indigenous organization):

Hydraulic Resources, Water Uses, and Implementation Law (Republic of Ecuador)

Water Law for Good Living (CONAIE)…/Ley_de_aguas_para_el_Buen_Vivir.doc.

Alberto Acosta, Eduardo Gudynas, Esperanza Martínez, and Joseph H. Vogel, "Leaving the Oil in the Ground: A Political, Economic, and Ecological Initiative in the Ecuadorian Amazon," Americas Program Policy Report (Washington, DC: Center for International Policy, August 13, 2009),

Pablo Dávalos, "Levantamiento indígena y revolución ciudadana: los impasses del posneoliberalismo,", Oct. 10, 2009.

Raúl Zibechi, interview with Carlos Pérez Guartambel, Cuenca, May 22, 2009.

Ricardo Buitrón, "Comentarios al 29 de setiembre" on the Water Laws.

Ricardo Buitrón, "Si el río suena", El Telégrafo, oct. 13, 2009, at

Yasser Gómez, "Los gobiernos progresistas de Suramérica no han puesto en tela de juicio la validez del modelo extractivista", interview with Alberto Acosta in Mariátegui, Sept. 6, 2009 at