The Indigenous World 2021: Ecuador
The current population of Ecuador is 17,475,570 inhabitants (National Institute of Statistics and Census INEC, August 2020), and there are 14 Indigenous nationalities totalling nearly 1,100,000 inhabitants, grouped into a number of local, regional and national organisations. 24.1% live in the Amazon and belong to 10 nationalities; 7.3% of the Andean Kichwa live in the Southern Highlands; 60.3% of the Andean Kichwa live in six provinces of the Central-Northern Sierra; and the remaining 8.3% live in the Coastal region and the Galapagos Islands. More than eight years after the new Constitution came into force and 20 years after ILO Convention 169 was ratified in the country, there are still no clear and specific public policies to prevent and neutralise the risk of the disappearance of these peoples.
Four events directly affected the living conditions and economic and social rights of Ecuador's Indigenous Peoples and nationalities in 2020: the aftermath of the great popular protest of October 2019; the unleashing of the COVID-19 pandemic; the rupture of the main oil pipeline and subsequent oil spill; and the political dispute surrounding the 2021 presidential and congressional elections.
Criminalisation of the October 2019 social protest
The first months of 2020 were clearly marked by the negative reaction of the Ecuadorian government, headed by President Lenin Moreno, to the popular protest unleashed in October 2019. On the one hand was the President’s insistence on a conspiracy theory in the form of a coup led by former President Rafael Correa and involving governments (including that of Venezuela) together with different Indigenous groups and leaders. On the other was the fact that he has continued regardless to impose the economic adjustment package agreed with the International Monetary Fund (IMF) to mitigate the difficult economic situation the country is going through, exacerbated by the COVID-19 pandemic.
On the first point, the Moreno government rejected the report presented on 14 January by the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights (IACHR). An IACHR mission visited the country at the end of October 2019 and received testimonies from 439 people including police, journalists, military, authorities, social leaders and relatives of those injured or killed during the demonstrations.
In its conclusions, the IACHR held the National Police and Armed Forces responsible for allegedly committing “grave human rights violations against the Indigenous movement”. Among its recommendations, the IACHR called for respect for and a guarantee of the people’s right to protest, freedom of expression, peaceful assembly and political participation. It also called for an immediate action plan and comprehensive reparations for the victims of the protests and their families; a strengthening of measures to punish those responsible for acts of violence; and the convening, at the highest level of government, of a national dialogue process that would enable those likely to be affected by the authorities’ economic decisions to obtain information.
In response to these statements, María Paula Romo, Minister of the Interior, questioned what she called a “lack of objectivity and bias in the work of the IACHR” and, with the support of the mainstream media allied to the regime, launched a counter-offensive to highlight the conspiracy theory of a coup, emphasise the “vandalism and attacks on private property” and deny that the deaths and injuries caused to the demonstrators were the responsibility of the state’s repressive forces. She also moved from mere rhetoric to action: legal cases coordinated between the Ministry of the Interior and the State Prosecutor's Office resulted in court summonses and arrest warrants against members of the so-called Citizen's Revolution Movement (Movimiento de la Revolución Ciudadana), linked to former President Correa.
In addition, more than 500 social leaders and members of social, women's, student and Indigenous organisations were called to testify in court. Most significant were the actions against Jaime Vargas and Leonidas Iza, against whom the Prosecutor's Office opened an investigation into alleged crimes of instigating sabotage, rebellion and terrorism.
Alongside these events, the Confederation of Indigenous Nationalities of Ecuador (CONAIE) filed a lawsuit against the state for alleged “crimes against humanity” and called on the Constitutional Court to declassify documents related to the October 2019 strike and mobilisation, arguing that part of the complaint contained evidence regarding the “state’s systematic violation and persecution of social leaders”.
The COVID-19 pandemic, its impact and the Indigenous communities’ responses
The COVID-19 pandemic arrived in the country at an advanced stage in the so-called “Austerity Plan” that was being implemented by the government, and which was focused on dismissing more than 50,000 public sector employees and reducing the education and health budgets. According to the National Institute of Statistics and Census, by the end of 2019, poverty levels had increased to 25.5% nationally and 43.8% in the countryside, affecting the peasant and Indigenous population disproportionately, among whom almost double the national average was recorded. Indigenous Peoples suffer the highest indicators of malnutrition, infant mortality, unemployment and underemployment, the consequences of a highly exclusive socio-historical and territorial structure.
When evaluating compliance with the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) for 2020 in relation to access to water, sanitation and hygiene, data from the National Council for Equality of Peoples and Nationalities establishes that only 43.8% of Indigenous people have access to safe water; in the Amazon the figure is less than half the population (42.5%) and, in the case of rural communities, it is scarcely 51.4%. This survey specifies that handwashing products are scarcer in the Amazon (72.8%) and among the Indigenous population (68.6%).
In this context, the social determinants of poverty with regard to health pose a highly unfavourable and high-risk scenario for Indigenous communities throughout the territory, even more so in remote regions such as the Amazon rainforest. According to Andrés Tapia, head of communications for the Confederation of Indigenous Nationalities of the Ecuadorian Amazon (CONFENIAE):
(...) the situation is becoming critical due to the geographical location of many communities, which can only be accessed by air or river, complicating any kind of healthcare. In these circumstances, we are talking about very high vulnerability, especially among peoples and nationalities with low population densities (...) Among the Indigenous Amazonians, the risk of infection is higher due to the lack of infrastructure, testing and access to basic supplies.
One illuminating case was that of the Siekopai nationality. When COVID-19 hit the Siekopai communities, the first victims to die were never examined. The government response was extremely slow: the first test results only arrived two weeks after the first death. Justino Piaguaje, President of the Organisation of the Siekopai Nationality (OISE), accused the government of abandoning them to their fate in remote communities, surrounded by oil fields and palm plantations. “We are 700 people and the death of one of our elders, in addition to the pain of being a beloved member of our family, results in the disappearance of our language, historical memory, spirituality and the knowledge of our ancestral sciences,” explains Piaguaje. For Jimmy Piaguaje, a filmmaker: “We live in fear of extinction.”
At the peak of the outbreak, dramatically epitomised by the overflowing morgues of Guayaquil, the largest city in the country, it became evident that the Moreno government was not going to conduct mass testing but was instead relying on a questionable “herd immunity”.
In the meantime, the Indigenous communities were trying to establish lockdowns on their own. In the case of the Amazon, led by CONFENIAE, some support institutions and grassroots organisations launched an interactive online monitoring platform to track cases of the disease in Indigenous communities and identify outbreaks so that medical brigades, PCR tests and emergency kits could be directed wherever they were most needed. As of November, the platform had recorded more than 3,000 cases among the 10 Indigenous nationalities. Carlos Mazabanda, Amazon Watch's field coordinator for Ecuador who helped create the platform, said: “In the absence of a government response, Indigenous Peoples were forced to take matters into their own hands”.
One of the most outstanding actions, in the case of the Siekopai, was the relocation of the entire community to the interior of their territory in Lagartococha, on the border with Peru, where their relatives also live, in order to improve social distancing and take preventive measures based on a knowledge of their ancestral medicine, in which the role of the wise healers and spiritual leaders is crucial. Alfredo Payaguaje, one of their wise men, describes the functions of each plant: a herb called umu'co, or cat's claw, helps with fever; wild ginger relieves coughs; the bitter bark of the cinchona tree, full of quinine, relieves inflammation. The forest is like a big supermarket, he says: “(...) there are things that you eat; others with which you build, but also others that cure you”.
Not all actions were successful, however. The pandemic claimed many lives, and the risk is threatening the integrity of entire communities.
In an environment marked by an absence of public healthcare, communities decided to follow CONFENIAE’s prevention protocol. This explains what COVID-19 is, how to prevent it and what to do in case of virus-related symptoms.
As of 25 November 2020, CONFENIAE had conducted 9,522 COVID-19 tests. Of these, 3,240 were positive, 5,619 negative and 663 were suspected cases. So far, 2,229 people have recovered and 50 have died. While the Indigenous organisations have tried to isolate their communities and enforce a stricter lockdown, the oil, mining and forestry industries have continued their operations regardless thus increasing – through workers in the field – the risk of transmission to the communities.
Oil pipeline collapse and oil spill in northern Amazon
On Tuesday 7 April, almost a month after the start of the health crisis, another catastrophic event occurred: the rupture of the Trans-Ecuadorian Oil Pipeline System and the Shushufindi-Quito polyduct, causing a spill of crude oil and fuel of undisclosed quantities in the San Rafael sector, on the border between the provinces of Napo and Sucumbíos.
The cause of the disaster was erosion in the bed of the Coca River, which caused a land slip resulting in a 70-metre sinkhole together with reduced pressure in the pipelines. Petroecuador and OCP Ecuador reported the incident and that they had suspended pumping crude oil but did not warn of the oil spill, so the communities using the water of the Coca and Napo rivers did not take the necessary preventive measures to protect themselves.
Just three days later, on Friday 10 April, René Ortiz Durán, Minister of Energy and Non-Renewable Natural Resources, ventured to estimate the oil spill at 4,000 barrels. The residents of communities living along the banks of the Coca River, however, stated that this spill was the largest they had ever seen. Some experts estimate that the amount easily exceeded 15,000 barrels.
The impacts have been enormous along the Coca River, and this flows into the Napo River, a tributary of the Amazon. According to CONFENIAE, the spill is likely to have affected at least 150 Indigenous and peasant communities, home to some 100,000 people. The oil slick crossed the Ecuadorian border down the Napo River and reached the town of Cabo Pantoja in Loreto department, Peru. In addition, the route of the spill ran near or through three national parks: Cayambe Coca, Sumaco-Napo Galeras and Yasuní.
State-owned Petroecuador and the private company Oleoducto de Crudos Pesados (OCP) announced environmental remediation activities in response to the spill. According to Pablo Flores, General Manager of Petroecuador:
(...) it is essential that each point addressed and remediated complies with environmental standards, including the removal of contaminated vegetation, the placement of absorbent material and the removal of crude oil and contaminated soil identified in order to be treated by a qualified handler (...) we have delivered water and food kits, non-perishable items considered basic and essential.
According to official sources, they have invested close to USD 4 million in environmental remediation actions, involving 1,191 people 85% of whom belong to local communities. For the local communities affected, however, these actions have been insufficient.
In view of the environmental, economic and health damage caused by the spill, several organisations filed a protective action and requested precautionary measures from the state, OCP and Petroecuador, including the provision of drinking water and sufficient food for all members of the affected communities until the Coca and Napo rivers return to their pre-spill conditions.
According to Carlos Jipa, President of the Federation of Communes Union of Natives of the Ecuadorian Amazon (FCUNAE) and representative of those affected: “We are already suffering from several diseases caused by oil and now we also have to face a pandemic. The state, once again, has not included us in its emergency plans. We feel discriminated against. That is why the FCUNAE families have decided to file this lawsuit, because we do not want this to happen again”. On Tuesday 1 September, Jaime Oña, judge of the First Court of Criminal Guarantees of the province of Orellana, rejected their requests.
Political disputes in the run-up to the presidential and legislative elections
In the midst of the various economic, social and health crises resulting from the pandemic and the neoliberal policies being implemented by the Moreno administration, the process of nominating candidates to run in the next presidential and legislative elections (due in February 2021) began in mid-2020.
For Indigenous Peoples, the process has been mired in controversy and internal difficulties. The most prominent of these has been the tension between CONAIE and the Plurinational Movement Pachakutik (MPP).
This primarily relates to the exclusion of leaders Jaime Vargas, President of CONAIE, and Leonidas Iza, President of the Indigenous and Peasant Movement of Cotopaxi, and the decision of the National Political Council of the MPP to nominate Yaku Pérez Guartambel as candidate for the presidency of the Republic instead. Until the time of his appointment, Pérez was the Prefect of Azuay, having won the sectional elections of 24 March 2019.
Iza and Vargas were the two most visible leaders during the popular protests of October 2019 organised against the neoliberal policies of the Moreno government, placing them in the sights of the authorities, as explained earlier in this chapter.
According to Iza, the designation of the Indigenous movement's candidate should above all be a democratic exercise, with the participation of the grassroots organisations and CONAIE itself. Additionally, he pointed out that there were surveys, studies and statistics that showed that he had the highest acceptance rate among the electorate. However, the decision of the MPP leaders was arbitrary, explains Iza: “(...) none of the processes of Pachakutik have been democratic (...) even the candidacy of Pérez Guartambel was announced on 28 July when primaries had not even been held, as required by the Code on Democracy (electoral law)”.
With an eye on the presidential elections, the political agreements established between the MPP and the Moreno government during the first part of his term in office from 2017-2019 shed light on the change in political direction of this group, once part of the left-wing and anti-neoliberal current. The MPP supported the referendum promoted by Moreno and a broad coalition of right-wing parties, making possible the restructuring of the Council for Citizen Participation and Social Control (CPCCS), a body created in the 2008 Constitution with responsibility for designating the authorities of state control (Public Prosecutor’s Office, Attorney-General's Office, Comptroller-General's Office and National Electoral Council). The CPCCS, now restructured and comprising “anti-Correa” figures, has also appointed similar members to these bodies in order to proscribe the Citizen's Revolution Movement (MRC) and block former President Correa’s possible participation in the electoral process.
During the October 2019 crisis, Pérez was one of the leaders who agreed to a truce with the government and directly influenced the demobilisation of the Indigenous grassroots, while the MPP – through its assembly members – has directly supported several of the laws tabled by Moreno in the legislature since 2017. The most controversial of these have been the so-called Production Development Law and, more recently, the Humanitarian Support Law and the Health Code. The first was part of the government's agreements with the IMF and made it possible to eliminate subsidies and the remittance and/or deferral of payment of taxes owed to the Treasury, among other things; the second has enabled employers – in the midst of the pandemic – to ignore their obligations set out in the Labour Code and to proceed to the untimely dismissal of workers with the excuse of reviving the pandemic-affected economy. The third law, related to health, was rejected and would have made the right to abortion a public health problem and enabled women to have a termination, without fear of sanction, when they are the victim of rape.
Pérez Guartambel, a lawyer from the Maoist ideological tendency – and who has stood for the Popular Democratic Movement (MPD) in previous sectional elections – has moved in recent years towards a more environmentalist position and has been a prominent member of the so-called “anti-Correa” movement; he has built a strong image around the defence of water, of ‘pachamama’, and the anti-mining struggle in the southern region of the Sierra. He enjoys enormous sympathy from urban-mestizo environmental groups, right-wing movements and in the mainstream media.
Iza has rejected accusations from the government and its allies that he is close to Correa: “I am not a part of ‘Correism’ and I will not stand as a candidate for another political organisation; however, the leadership of Pachakutik and its actions is leading to a divorce between the party and CONAIE,” he concluded.
This article is part of the 35th edition of The Indigenous World, a yearly overview produced by IWGIA that serves to document and report on the developments Indigenous Peoples have experienced. Find The Indigenous World 2021 in full here
Notes and references
 “IACHR presents observations on its visit to Ecuador”. OAS, 14 January 2020. Available at http://www.oas.org/es/cidh/prensa/comunicados/2020/008.asp
 Document already cited.
 “La CIDH no tiene competencia para investigar la violencia civil” [IACHR has no jurisdiction to investigate civil violence]. Primicias, 23 January 2020, Cf. Available at http://www.primicias.ec/noticias/politica/cidh-competencia-investigar-violencia-civil
 “Leonidas Iza y Jaime Vargas rinden versión por supuesto secuestro: hubo una marcha para apoyar a dirigentes indígenas” [Leonidas Iza and Jaime Vargas give their version of alleged kidnapping: there was a march to support Indigenous leaders]. El Comercio, Quito, 26 October 2020 Cf. Available at https://www.elcomercio.com/actualidad/iza-vargas-fiscalia-secuestro-protestas.html
 “Sarzosa: En 10 días estará lista la demanda de la Conaie contra el Estado” [Sarzosa: In 10 days Conaie's lawsuit against the State will be ready]. Diario Expreso, Guayaquil, 6 February 2020, Cf. Available at https://www.expreso.ec/actualidad/sarzosa-10-dias-estara-lista-demanda-conaie-4778.html
 National Institute of Statistics and Census (INEC), “Living Conditions Survey 2020". Quito. Cf. Available at https://www.ecuadorencifras.gob.ec/condiciones-de-vida-y-problemas-sociales/
 Technical Planning Secretariat, Ecuador. “Informe de Avance del Cumplimiento de la Agenda 2030 para el Desarrollo Sostenible” [Progress Report on the Implementation of the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development]. Quito, 2019. Available at https://www.planificacion.gob.ec/wp-content/uploads/downloads/2019/07/Informe-Avance-Agenda-2030-Ecuador-2019.pdf
 Romero Edgar, "¿Por qué los pueblos indígenas de la Amazonía ecuatoriana están en ‘riesgo inminente’ ante la pandemia?” [Why are the Indigenous Peoples of the Ecuadorian Amazon at ‘imminent risk’ from the pandemic?] Amazonía Socioambiental, 14 May 2020, Cf. Available at https://www.amazoniasocioambiental.org/es/radar/por-que-los-pueblos-indigenas-de-la-amazonia-ecuatoriana-estan-en-riesgo-inminente-ante-la-pandemia/
 Riederer, Rachel. "Fighting COVID-19 in the Amazon, with Herbs and the Internet". The New Yorker, 11 December 2020 Cf. Available at https://www.newyorker.com/news/news-desk/fighting-covid-19-in-the-amazon-with-herbs-and-the-internet
 “Coronavirus en Ecuador: cuerpos en las calles de Guayaquil en medio de la pandemia” [Coronavirus in Ecuador: bodies in the streets of Guayaquil in mid-pandemic]. CNN, 1 April 2020, Cf. https://youtu.be/f7L9ZIK3xIQ. Also in OECD. “Making Development Happen. Impacto Social del Covid-19 en Ecuador: desafíos y respuestas” [Making Development Happen. Social Impact of COVID-19 in Ecuador: Challenges and Responses]. Vol.4. Available at https://www.oecd.org/dev/Impacto-social-COVID-19-Ecuador.pdf
 CONFENIAE. "Actualidad, autogestión e impacto de la pandemia en territorios Amazónicos” [Update, self-management and impact of the pandemic in Amazonian territories]. Cf. Available at https://confeniae.net/2020/actualidad-autogestion-e-impacto-de-la-pandemia-en-territorios-amazonicos
 Taken from Riederer, Rachel. "Fighting COVID-19 in the Amazon, with Herbs and the Internet". The New Yorker, 11 December 2020 Cf. Available at https://www.newyorker.com/news/news-desk/fighting-covid-19-in-the-amazon-with-herbs-and-the-internet
 CONFENIAE. "Monitoreo Covid-19. Actualización de registros de Covid 19 y lanzamiento del portal interactivo para monitoreo del impacto de la pandemia en territorios amazónicos” [COVID-19 monitoring. Update of COVID-19 records and launch of the interactive portal for monitoring the impact of the pandemic in Amazonian territories]. Available at https://confeniae.net/covid19
 Paez, Antonio. “Ecuador: demandan al Estado y a empresas petroleras por derrame de crudo en los ríos Coca y Napo” [Ecuador: State and oil companies sued for oil spill in the Coca and Napo rivers]. Mongabay Latam, 30 April 2020, Cf. Available at https://es.mongabay.com/2020/04/derrame-de-petroleo-rio-coca-indigenas-demandan-a-ecuador/
 “Más de 150 comunidades indígenas en el Oriente del Ecuador siguen afectadas por el derrame de petróleo” [More than 150 Indigenous communities in eastern Ecuador still affected by oil spill]. El Universo, 30 April 2020, Cf. Available at https://www.eluniverso.com/noticias/2020/04/30/nota/7827513/derrame-petroleo-afecta-mas-150-comunidades-indigenas-oriente/
 “Organizaciones y comunidades amazónicas demandan a entidades del Estado por el derrame de petróleo causado por rotura de oleoducto” [Amazonian organisations and communities sue state for oil spill caused by pipeline rupture]. El Universo, 29 April 2020, Cf. Available at https://www.eluniverso.com/noticias/2020/04/29/nota/7826484/ongs-comunidades-amazonicas-demandan-entidades-estado-derrame-crudo/
 “Gerente general de EP Petroecuador, Pablo Flores, minimiza el impacto del derrame de crudo en los ríos Coca y Napo por la ruptura del SOTE/OCP/Poliducto a 7 comunidades” [General Manager of EP Petroecuador, Pablo Flores, minimises impact of oil spill in the Coca and Napo rivers due to rupture of the SOTE/OCP/Polyduct to 7 communities]. 16 April 2020, Cf.https://ddhhecuador.org/sites/default/files/documentos/2020-04/Alerta_21_Hipervinc.pdf; Petroecuador EP. “Gerente General de EP Petroecuador informó a la Comisión de Biodiversidad de la Asamblea Nacional sobre acciones de remediación ambiental y trabajos en el SOTE” [General Manager of EP Petrocuador, informed National Assembly’s Biodiversity Commission of environmental remediation and works in the SOTE]. 20 April 2020. Available at https://www.eppetroecuador.ec/?p=8480
 “Organizaciones sociales demandan al estado ecuatoriano por derrame de crudo en la amazonía” [Social organisations sue Ecuadorian government for oil spill in the Amazon]. Amazonia Ambiental, 29 April 2020, Cf. Disponible en https://www.amazoniasocioambiental.org/es/radar/organizaciones-sociales-demandan-al-estado-ecuatoriano-por-derrame-de-crudo-en-la-amazonia/
 Nación Siekopai. “Carlos Jipa, presidente FCUNAE, sobre derrame de crudo” [Carlos Jipa, FCUNAE president, on oil spill]. Facebook, 27 April 2020, Cf. Available at https://ms-my.facebook.com/siekopai/videos/carlos-jipa-presidente-fcunae-sobre-derrame-de-crudo/237806380765705/
 “Jaime Vargas marca distancia con Pachakutik de cara a las elecciones” [Jaime Vargas marks distance from Pachakutik with a view to the elections]. El Comercio, 16 December 2020, Cf. Available at https://www.elcomercio.com/actualidad/vargas-pachakutik-elecciones-conaie-organizaciones.html
 “‘No estamos necios' dice Leonidas Iza, tras inscribir su precandidatura para las presidenciales del 2021 que organiza Pachakutik” [‘We’re not idiots,’ says Leonidas Iza, after registering his pre-candidacy for the 2021 presidential elections organised by Pachakutik. El Universo, 8 August 2020, Cf. Available at https://www.eluniverso.com/noticias/2020/08/08/nota/7935240/elecciones-presidenciales-ecuador-2021-candidatos-leonidas-iza/
 “Leonidas Iza: 'Ninguno de los procesos de Pachakutik ha sido democrático’”. [Leonidas Iza: ‘None of Pachakutik's processes have been democratic’]. Diario Expreso, 17 August 2020, Cf. Disponible en https://www.expreso.ec/actualidad/leonidas-iza-ninguno-procesos-pachakutik-sido-democratico-88131.html
 Sánchez, Gonzalo. “Pachakutik, partido de Yaku Pérez, ha sido uno de los sostenes de Lenín Moreno” ["Pachakutik, Yaku Pérez's party, has been one of Lenin Moreno's supporters]. El Estado.Net, 1 February 2021, Cf. https://elestado.net/2021/02/01/pachakutik-yaku-perez-sostenes-lenin-moreno/; Cf, also in: Ramírez Gallegos, Franklin. “Las masas en octubre. Ecuador y las colisiones de clase” [The masses in October. Ecuador and class collisions]. Nueva Sociedad No. 284, November-December 2019. Available at https://nuso.org/articulo/las-masas-en-octubre/
 Toscano, Dax. “Pachakutik y su relación con la derecha: nada nuevo bajo el sol” [Pachakutik and its relationship with the right: nothing new under the sun]. Ruta Krítica, 13 February 2021, Cf. Available at https://rutakritica.org/blog/2021/02/13/pachakutik-y-su-relacion-con-la-derecha-nada-nuevo-bajo-el-sol/?v=3fd6b696867d
José Rabalino. “Según Leonidas Iza, los procesos internos en Pachakutik no han sido democráticos” [According to Leonidas Iza, the internal processes in Pachakutik have not been democratic]. Pichincha Comunicaciones, 17 August 2020, Cf. Available at http://www.pichinchacomunicaciones.com.ec/segun-leonidas-iza-los-procesos-internos-en-pachakutik-no-han-sido-democraticos/