Ecuador and the Rights of Indigenous Peoples
Author: Paola Santamaria
Originally Published at Peace and Conflict Monitor on: 07/03/2013
Talking about indigenous peoples, we must also talk about colonization, oppression, discrimination, marginalization and exploitation, and the ongoing struggle to survive against colonizing states’ efforts to eradicate them culturally, politically and physically. According to Taiaiake and Constassel (2005), there are approximately
350 million Indigenous peoples situated in some 70 countries around the world. All of these people confront the daily realities of having their lands, cultures and governmental authorities simultaneously attacked, denied and reconstructed by colonial societies and states.
In today’s era of contemporary colonialism, indigenous peoples face the threat of being stripped of their very spirit as nations and of all that is held sacred, their sources of connection to their distinct existences and the sources of their spiritual power: relationships to each other, communities, homelands, ceremonial life, languages, histories; connections that are crucial to living a meaningful life for any human being. Considering the discrimination and oppression that indigenous peoples continue to face, many international instruments have been developed with the aim of ensuring that their rights are protected at all times. Among the most important is the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples, which was adopted by the UN General assembly on September 13, 2007. Among the most controversial provisions of the UN Declaration involves the “rights of indigenous peoples to their ancestral lands and to the natural resources located on or under those lands.” Article 26(1) and (2) of the UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples state that:
Indigenous peoples have the right to own, use, develop and control the lands, territories and resources that they possess by reason of traditional ownership or other traditional occupation or use, as well as those which they have otherwise acquired.”
Besides the UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples, many human rights instruments like the American Convention on Human Rights have recognized the protection on the right of indigenous peoples to the ownership of their ancestral land, given the “close ties that members of indigenous communities have with their traditional lands and the natural resources associated with their culture and the intangible and spiritual aspects of those ties.” Despite this recognition, in practice, this has hardly ever been achieved. Indigenous peoples have long suffered violations of their basic land rights, either perpetrated by the state or by third parties who operate free of state interference. In South America, many states are engaged in oil exploitation and natural resources extraction in order to increase their economic development, without taking into account the detrimental effects that this has in the lives of the indigenous communities inhabiting those lands. This particular situation is what is happening in Ecuador at the present moment.
Of Ecuador’s population, “nearly two million belong to the 14 native nationalities – or indigenous peoples – and Afro-descendant peoples.” Ecuador has ratified the International Labor Organization Convention 169 (1998) and voted in favor of the UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples (2007).  The rights of indigenous peoples, as distinct from other countries, have been recognized in Ecuador’s constitution under Chapter 4 “Rights of communities, peoples and nations”. Article 57 of the Ecuadorian Constitution states:
Indigenous communes, communities, peoples and nations are recognized and guaranteed, in conformity with the Constitution and human rights agreements, conventions, declarations and other international instruments, the following collective rights.
Among those collective rights, the Ecuadorian government recognized the indigenous people’s rights to own their ancestral lands and territories “without subject to a statute of limitations, of their community lands, which shall be unalienable, immune from seizure and indivisible.” Although, the rights of indigenous peoples have been recognized in Ecuador’s constitution, government authorities in name of what they called “development” have largely ignored their existence and have failed to protect their rights as guaranteed by many international as well as regional conventions and declarations that the state is party to.
When the current President of Ecuador, Rafael Correa, was elected in 2007, indigenous leaders handed him a scepter with colorful ribbons, making him the county’s “first president to be officially invested according to indigenous traditions.” Six years have passed since that moment, and now, the same indigenous leaders are considering taking back that scepter – a sign of how unpopular the president has become among those who helped him come to power in the first place. The main reason for this is due to the mining policies that the Ecuadorian state has adopted in its constitution which gives them the total control over “nonrenewable natural resources, and in general, products coming from the ground and petroleum deposits, substances not subject to a statute of limitations.” It also gives the state the total control of the “benefits produced by the exploitation of natural resources, even if this activity is delegated to private or joint ventures through concessions.”
The extraction of natural resources either by both state and foreign companies has not only contaminated the environment, but has destroyed the lands of indigenous peoples, has brought scarcity of natural resources that are fundamental for their survival, has ignored the sacred and spiritual link that many groups have with their lands that is the basis of their culture and identity, has brought many deadly diseases, especially to uncontacted tribes, and in general, has posed a profound existential threat. What we are seeing right now in Ecuador and the projects that the government has been involved in, only shows the colonial and racist vision that the government and the overall society still maintains toward the indigenous peoples.
In the presence of the imminent destruction of the Amazon jungle, the Ecuadorian government decided to create in 1999 “untouchable zones” inside the national park of Yasuni, which “scientists believe is the most biodiverse place on Earth.”, as a way to ensure the protection of the environment and the well-being of the indigenous tribes living there. The main problem with this national decree is that it does not question the state extraction of natural resources, the way of how they are been extracted or the impacts that these are posing to many indigenous groups. Even though it was created with the sole purpose of isolating many uncontacted indigenous tribes from the impacts of the exploitation of oil and other natural resources, it has done the completely opposite.
This area has become a permissible space that encourages the presence of oil and tourist activities, allowing for the intervention of external actors. This national decree has left the door open to the exploitation of natural resources, which had been the vehicle for the genocide of uncontacted tribes. According to conservationists, two of the world’s last uncontacted tribes, “The Tagaeri and the Taromenane – who have fought off illegal loggers and Catholic missionaries with spears and blowpipes to maintain their isolated, nomadic existence – are now at risk from the construction of roads and drilling wells as petroleum firms carve up the Yasuni national park.” This geographical delimitation has been elaborated with the complicity of powerful multinational corporations, who have put excessive pressure on the government, who in turn have modified the limits of the zones responding to the interests of the oil companies and not to the practices of mobility and settlement of the Tagaeri and Taromenane people.
Something that should be recalled is that in 2006, the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights granted precautionary measures in favor of the free indigenous peoples and called on the Ecuadorian state to adopt effective measures to protect the lives and personal integrity of the Tagaeri and Taromenane peoples, something that, as we have seen, has been completely disregarded by the Ecuadorian government.
A case that really exemplifies how the Ecuadorian government has put the supposedly national interests above the respect for indigenous peoples rights and their ties to their ancestral lands is the case brought to the Inter-American Court of Human Rights in 2011 by the indigenous Kichwa people of Sarakayu against the Ecuadorian state for granting an Argentinean oil company concession over their ancestral lands. The indigenous people of Sarayaku’s main argument to the court focused on the fact that the Ecuadorian state’s granting of the concession was illegal because it was within an ancestral territory and because there had been no prior consultation of the communities affected, a principle that is not only safeguard in the American Convention on Human Rights, but also in Ecuador’s constitution. As well, the indigenous people claim that they have suffered threats and assaults, and that the company by planting land mines in their traditional hunting areas, detonating explosives that destroyed their springs and sacred sites, and pose a threat to their overall existence. This case brought immense public attention to the way indigenous peoples were been treated in Ecuador. One might think that after this case, the Ecuadorian government would have complied with its international obligations in regards to the respect of indigenous peoples rights; however, this has hardly been the case.
One last issue that is worth mentioning, is that Ecuador’s President, Rafael Correa, has also lost the support of the indigenous peoples due to the government’s persecution of indigenous people in an attempt to bring social protest under control in the country. After the mining law was passed in Ecuador, many indigenous groups organized protests and went on to the streets demanding that the law be amended. In response to that, the government criminalized many long-used methods of protest by any social movement. Humberto Chilando, President of the Confederation of Indigenous Nationalities of Ecuador (CONAIE), during a public hearing before the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights (IACHR) stated that many leaders “are persecuted, subjected to tortuous legal processes, imprisoned and or in hiding following sentencing” and that the state “has no appropriate mechanisms with which to dialogue or to resolve the presence of mining, oil or transnational companies”. It is undeniable that the government, by prohibiting people’s their right to express their opinion freely in all of its forms and manifestations, was violating its international obligations as state party to the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR), the American Convention on Human Rights, as well as its own national laws. During Correa’s term in office, “some 200 Ecuadorian indigenous leaders have been accused of terrorism, sabotage or other security-related crimes.” Even the international organization Human Rights Watch in its 2011 World Report, expressed its concern at the “exaggerated charge of terrorism” used against protesters. It is undeniable that the current Ecuadorian government, has failed to defend the interests of Ecuador’s indigenous populations, and given their own economic interests much more priority than the protection of the rights of its citizens.
In conclusion, it is very sad to see how a country that for decades was under the domination of colonial powers, and for so long has criticized the neoliberal model, has continued the very same policies of exploitation and abuse. The president of CONAIE has expressed the well-founded sentiments that indigenous peoples have toward the current government in the following statement:
I call all the nationalities, peoples and social organizations to be alert to the national government’s onslaught against the Ecuadorian people and to be united and organized in the face of the civil dictatorship we are suffering in Ecuador, which comes couched in the guise of democracy and civic participation.
Bonilla Nathalia and Jose Proano. (2007). Ecuador: Critican decreto de zona intangible en Parque Nacional Yasuni. SERVINDI. Available at: http://servindi.org/actualidad/opinion/1524 (Accessed on: 25 May, 2013)
Caselli, Irene. (2011). Ecuador President Rafael Correa loses indigenous allies. BBC News. Latin America & Caribbean. Available at: http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/world-latin-america-12944231 (Accessed on: 25 May, 2013)
International Work Group of Indigenous Affairs. (2011) Updated 201 – Ecuador. Available at: 1http://www.iwgia.org/regions/latin-america/ecuador/863-update-2011-ecuador (Accessed on: 25 May, 2013)
National Assembly (2008). Constitution of the Republic of Ecuador. Political Database of the Americas. Available at: http://pdba.georgetown.edu/Constitutions/Ecuador/english08.html (Accessed on: May 25, 2013)
Pasqualucci, Jo. M. (2010). International Indigenous Land Rights: A critique of the jurisprudence of the Inter-American Court of Human Rights in Light of the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples. Wisconsin International Law Journal
Saavedra Luis Angel. (2012). Ecuador: Legislative reforms favor mining companies. International Work Group for Indigenous Affairs. Available at: http://www.iwgia.org/news/search-news?news_id=602 (Accessed on: 25 May, 2013)
Taiaiake, Alfred and Jeff Constassel (2005). Being Indigenous: Resurgences against Contemporary Colonialism. Blackwell Publishing; Oxford
Watts, Jonathan. (2012) Wildlife at risk as Amazon tribes come under threat from oil exploration. The Guardian. Available at: http://www.guardian.co.uk/environment/2012/sep/03/uncontacted-tribes-wildlife (Accessed on: 25 May, 2013.)
Bio: Paola Santamaria is a student at the University for Peace in the Department of International Law and Human Rights.