An American's Dispatches from Ecuador

  • 13th November
  • 13

Ecuador’s Indigenous Leaders Oppose New Oil Exploration Plans in Amazon Region

Country set to open 11th licensing round of oil exploration in 10 million acres of pristine, undeveloped rainforest

by Lauren Johnson – November 13, 2012

Earth Island Journal

“The Sapara do not believe in cemeteries,” said Rosa Dahua, an Indigenous leader from the Ecuadorean Amazon. She was seated on a wooden stool with an anaconda carved into its base, and she leaned forward as she spoke, her dark hair falling in waves over her shoulders.

Photo by Caroline Bennett / Rainforest Action Network. A2010 image of an open toxic pool in the Ecuadorean Amazon rainforest near Lago Agrio that was
 abandoned by Texaco (now Chevron) after oil drilling operations ended in 1990. Indigenous leaders 
worry more drilling would spell disaster for their communities.

Dahua is the vice president of the Association of Sapara Women of Ecuador, an organization dedicated to maintaining the cultural identity of the Sapara and promoting equality for Indigenous women. She was eager to describe some of the ancestral customs that are still practiced by the Sapara today.

“We bury our deceased alongside the rivers, in the mountains, or in the lowlands of the forest. These burial sites then become sacred and are inhabited by the spirits of loved ones,” she said. “We might say something like, ‘my mother lives in that mountain’, or ‘my father lives by the river over there’. However, if the oil companies enter our territories and deforest our land, then we worry that they will also destroy the spirits of our ancestors.”

The Sapara are one of seven Indigenous nations that will be affected by a new oil boom in the central south region of the Ecuadorean Amazon.  On Nov 28, Ecuador is set to open its 11th licensing round for oil exploration — a chance for private oil companies to bid for 13 blocks in the Amazonian provinces of Pastaza and Morona Santiago.

Petroamazonas, Ecuador’s state run oil company, has also announced plans to collaborate with foreign companies to develop three additional oil blocks in the region.
Ecuador’s Minister of Nonrenewable Natural Resources, Wilson Pastor, has said that companies will have until May 30 to place offers and that all contracts should be cemented by September 2013. Ecuador is expecting some $1.2 billion in investments from the oil blocks.

According to Amazon Watch, the 11th round will affect up to 10 million acres of primary forest that encompass the ancestral territories of the Indigenous Andoa, Achuar, Kichwa, Sapara, Shiwiar, Shuar, and Waorani nations.

Ecuador’s largest Indigenous organizations, including the Confederation of Indigenous Nationalities of the Ecuadorean Amazon, CONFENIAE, have made public statements denouncing the 11th round.

The CONFENIAE alleges that the undersecretary of hydrocarbons entered Achuar, Kichwa, and Sapara communities without permission in October in order to hold consultations with the local people. The CONFENIAE says that these consultations were illegitimate because they engaged a select group of individuals, rather than the traditional government structures of these nations.

"[The Ministry of Hydrocarbons] used members of Indigenous communities who are uninformed [of decisions being made by community leaders] because they are actually living outside of their communities,” said Patricia Gualinga, a Sarayaku leader and member of the CONFENIAE.

The leaders of the affected Indigenous nations say that the hydrocarbons ministry’s consultation process violates the judgment that was made this July by the Inter-American Court of Human Rights in the Sarayaku vs. Ecuador case. The ruling specified that consultations should be conducted in good faith following appropriate cultural procedures and must aim to reach an agreement.

Sarayaku territories aren’t part of the areas to be opened up for exploration in the 11th round, but land adjacent to theirs are, and the Sarayaku fear that if there are oil explorations nearby, their land and water sources will be also be contaminated.

The Sapara, whose territory straddles the border of Ecuador and Peru, have much at stake since their land is within one of the exploratory blocks. “The majority of Sapara communities are against oil exploration,” said Marco Montaguano, vice president of the Sapara Nation. T

he Sapara were once among Ecuador’s most populous Indigenous peoples, but the arrival of the Spanish colonists and subsequent onslaught of smallpox led to a steep decline in their numbers. There are less than 50 people alive today who can claim full Sapara ancestry, according to the Association of Sapara Women.  Additionally, only 10 elders speak Saparoano, the mother language of the Sapara. For this reason, UNESCO declared the Sapara nationality an “Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity” in  2001.

Gloria Ushigua, president of the Association of Sapara Women, worries that the oil companies will completely annihilate the Sapara Nation.

“We’ve seen how communities in the northern Amazon were impacted by Texaco and other companies,” said Ushigua. “The companies come in with promises of economic development but the oil money never stays in the communities, it goes right back to the capital. The companies promise jobs, but they never explain that that means washing the oil workers’ clothing for next to nothing. Meanwhile, the people can no longer practice their traditional agricultural systems because the land has become completely contaminated.”

Humberto Cholango, president of the Confederation of Indigenous Nationalities of Ecuador or CONAIE (of which CONFENIAE is a member), said that Indigenous groups plan to hold demonstrations in the upcoming months. The CONAIE also intends to take action in Ecuador’s Constitutional Court.

Meanwhile, Indigenous youth are using communications technologies, such as video sharing on YouTube, to start conversations both in their communities and internationally.

Nina Siren Gualinga, a 19 year old from Sarayaku has been working with her uncle, Eriberto Gualinga — this year’s winner for Best Documentary at the 2012 National Geographic All Roads Film Festival — to develop short films that convey how the 11th round threatens indigenous culture (see video link below).

“We want to drink clean water directly from the rivers. We want to live in an unpolluted land that is abundant in natural resources and continue to be self-sufficient. We want to practice our ancient customs and traditions, while using modern technologies as a tool to maintain our culture,” said Nina Siren Gualinga. “I have seen the horrible impacts of oil drilling in other places, and we will not let this happen here.”

Video: Niña y Petroleo

  • 17th September
  • 17

All Aboard the ‘Kidnap Express’

When Emily decided to join her friends for sushi at Quito’s upscale Swissôtel on July 12, she knew dinner would be pricey, but she wasn’t expecting to pay $400, plus her cell phone, iPod, and Kindle.

“When I left the Swissôtel, I was very careful about which cab I decided to take home,” said Emily, a 26-year-old from Washington, DC who is working in Quito as an English teacher. “I chose a cab that was inside the hotel’s roundabout because I thought that it was affiliated with the Swissôtel. I also made sure the cab had an orange license plate, which means that it is registered with the city.”

But despite taking precautions, the cab driver took Emily for a ride on the infamous secuestro exprés.

In English, this translates to express kidnapping, a form of robbery in which the victim is abducted for a short period of time, usually in some sort of vehicle, and is forced to hand over bank cards, pin numbers, and any items of value. The purpose of this crime is theft, and once the thieves have completely emptied the victim’s bank account, he or she is often abandoned in a deserted area.

Express kidnappings have been reported around the world, including the US, but in Ecuador, they are particularly common, especially in the country’s largest cities, Guayaquil and Quito.  Last year, the National Directorate of Judicial Police reported 488 cases of express kidnappings in Ecuador.

“50% of express kidnappings occur in yellow taxis. 23% of express kidnappings occur in pirate taxis, and 27% of express kidnappings occur in owner’s vehicle, “ states the Latin America Current Event’s 2012 report, Facts and Figures Kidnap Express (Secuestro Express) for Guayaquil.

In Guayaquil alone, 342 victims have reported express kidnappings this year, according to a report in the Ecuadorean publication, Hoy.

Only 17 cases have been reported this year in Quito, according to the Metropolitan Observatory for Citizen Security, however that doesn’t necessarily mean that this type of crime doesn’t happen more frequently. In July, the United Nations released a report stating that in Ecuador, 80% of crime victims do not report the attacks.

I personally know 6 people who have been held up by cab drivers within the past year here in Ecuador’s capital. Their stories were similar to Emily’s.

“The driver started off in the right direction,” Emily continued,  “but then he told me he didn’t know the exact location of the address I told him to take me to. He said he was going to take a different route, and then started to turn down a side street. When I tried to guide him back, he ignored me.”

“Then he stopped, put on his blinkers, and unlocked the doors.  Two guys got in the back with me and one went to the front.  The put me in a headlock and pushed a cap over my eyes. They told me they just wanted money and I knew that at that point, there was nothing I could do, so I didn’t try to resist.”

Emily said that the robbers took her rings and emptied her pockets. They took her bankcards and demanded her pin numbers.

“We pulled up to an ATM and one of the guys got out to withdraw money with my card. They told me to be very quiet and not move, otherwise ‘boom, boom,’” Emily recalled, making a gun gesture.

 “Once they had taken everything from me, which was $100 in cash, another $300 in my bank account and then my iPod, phone, Kindle and speakers for English class, they dumped me on a hill side.”

 Emily reported the theft to the police the following day, but was frustrated when the police proved to be unhelpful. She couldn’t remember the license plate number, whether the car had had a sticker with a government registration number, or what the drivers looked like.

“They just told me this happens all the time, and because I didn’t have a lot of information, they didn’t really try to do anything.”

Even more frustrating was the fact that Emily’s bank, Capital One, denied her fraud report because she had “willingly surrendered” her pin number. Even though Emily faxed in her police report, Capital One did not return her stolen money.

As a tall slender blonde, Emily’s appearance might have made her an easy target for theft. However, Ecuadoreans find themselves crime victims just as frequently as foreigners do.

The manager of the Kallari chocolate shop and restaurant in the Mariscal Foch is a robust Ecuadorean from the country’s Amazonian region. This summer, he was also robbed in a renegade taxi after leaving work one evening.

In order to combat the secuestro exprés, Ecuador is preparing a program called “Pasejero Seguro” or Safe Passenger. In this program, passengers will be able to send a text message to a city center with the taxi’s registration numbers. Within a few seconds, the passenger will receive a message letting him or her know whether the taxi is legal.

Additionally, the city center will call the passenger after 30 minutes. If the passenger does not answer the call, the Safe Passenger program will call his or her emergency contacts.

The program is set to launch later this fall. In the meantime, when taking a taxi from the street, the language program from Quito’s Center for Continuing Education, CEC recommends that passengers should make sure the cab has:

•    a sticker on the side from the government with the taxi’s number
•    an orange license plate
•    the taxi’s number on the roof of the vehicle
•    also, always take a yellow taxi.

However, taking precautions won’t necessarily guarantee a safe ride, especially at night. Google “taxis seguros Quito” or safe taxis in Quito and you’ll see that taxicabs with all the correct government registration can be easily bought and sold online.

Many Ecuadoreans say the safest bet is to call a taxi straight from the company. Here are some numbers for popular taxi companies and co ops in Quito: 222-2222, 222-2999, 241-9000, and 255-5777.  For Guayaquil, the  US Consulate in Ecuador suggests:

•    FastLine: (04) 282-3333
•     Solservice: (04)287-1195 / (04)287-2837
•    Wayose: (04) 212-0234 / (04)212-2569

  • 23rd August
  • 23

Pro-Assange Asylum rally in the Plaza Grande, Quito, Ecuador. August 20, 2012.

With the demonstrators dressed in their finest lime green, the official color of President Correa’s party, Alianza Pais, this looked more like a pro-government rally to me.

  • 18th August
  • 18

Ecuador grants Assange asylum while indigenous and social leaders face political persecution

"To protest is a right, to repress is a crime"

Though internationally, Ecuador is being heralded as a human rights champion for its decision to grant diplomatic asylum to Julian Assange of WikiLeaks fame, President Rafael Correa has some ‘splainin’ to do in his own country.  

This week, several social movements have declared that if Ecuador is willing to protect Assange, then it should also stop persecuting its own citizens for speaking out and demonstrating against government policies.

The Confederation of Indigenous Nationalities of Ecuador CONAIE—which is the country’s largest indigenous organization—released a public statement in favor of the Assange decision. However, the CONAIE also stated:

“At the same time, we denounce the huge contradiction and double standards in which President Rafael Correa is acting within the country through insulting, pursuing and persecuting indigenous leaders and social activists as terrorists.”

Since Correa took office in January 2007, the CONAIE has organized 25 demonstrations and marches against government policies. These demonstrations have frequently been against the extractive industries, since oil and minerals are often found in indigenous lands.

Though the right to demonstrate is protected in the Ecuadorean Constitution of 2008, protesting often comes with a price. During the course of the Correa administration, nearly 200 indigenous and social leaders in Ecuador have faced allegations of terrorism, sabotage, conspiracy, and other crimes for organizing and participating in protests.

In July, Amnesty International released the report, “So that No One Can Demand Anything: Criminalizing the Right to Protest in Ecuador.” This report investigates the cases of 24 leaders who face charges and argues that these allegations are “unfounded”, “arbitrary” and used as a means to silence government critics.

 Marlon Santi, former president of the CONAIE, and vocal Correa critic, is one leader who has been dealing with terrorism investigations for the past two years.

On June 25, 2010, the Bolivian Alliance of the Americas Summit ALBA was held in Otavalo, Ecuador. This summit brought together over 300 dignitaries from across Latin America to discuss social issues impacting marginalized populations. Ironically, the CONAIE and other representative indigenous organizations were not invited.

Santi joined nearly 3,000 demonstrators in a march to the ALBA summit to deliver a declaration outlining the concerns and demands of the Ecuadorean indigenous movement. The summit was guarded by police and military barricades and at one point, a group of particularly boisterous youth spooked an officer’s horse, prompting the police and military to fire off rounds of tear gas. In the following moment of chaos, two horses were injured and a police officer lost a set of handcuffs.

Though there were no major injuries—erm, aside from the horses—much less casualties, Santi and other indigenous leaders were accused of terrorism. To add insult to injury, President Correa then referred to Santi and other leaders on national television as “incompetent”, “leftist clowns”, “ragamuffins,” and “infantile ecologists.” The terrorism investigations continue to this day.

Another way to land oneself in hot water in Ecuador is to build a roadblock. In Ecuador and throughout the Andes, demonstrators tend to obstruct major arteries with burning logs and tires, rendering it difficult for cars to pass. In Ecuador, this tactic has been successful in major mobilizations including protests against IMF policies in the 90’s and 2000’s, and the outster of President Lucio Gutiérrez in 2005.

However, illegally blocking roads could land a demonstrator one to three years behind bars according to article 129 of Ecuador’s Penal Code. However, it’s often worth the risk.

“For many groups, public protest may be the only way in which they can make their views heard…In Ecuador, the state has consistently failed to respect the rights of Indigenous and campesino communities to consultation over the Mining and Water Laws, leaving these communities little option but to express their demands through mass mobilization.” So that No One Can Demand Anything: Criminalizing the Right to Protest in Ecuador (2012), page 29.

Marco Guatemal is a Kichwa leader from Ecuador’s Imbabura province. In 2010, the Imbabura justice system tried to nail him for sabotage and terrorism after he helped organize marches against the country’s proposed Water Law—which critics feared would lead to water privatization. The marches were peaceful and because there was no evidence of sabotage, the case was suspended.

However, Guatemal was then charged for blocking roads during the protests. In the summer of 2011, Guatemal was subpoenaed to court to defend his case, but he didn’t arrive. He later stated that he hadn’t received any notice that he was due to appear in court. In October 2011, Guatemal was arrested for 21 days, but then released. The judicial system still hadn’t been able to find him guilty of any crimes, and all charges were dropped.

Today, in light of the Assange asylum decision, Ecuador would be wise to seize this moment as an opportunity to evaluate its treatment of non-violent demonstrators. But more importantly, the country must ask itself a hard quesion: If there really is a “citizen’s revolution” brewing here, then why are so many people still protesting?

  • 17th August
  • 17