Conservation news

Ecuador Indigenous accuse state of crimes against humanity

Kichwa demonstrators accompany a march to commemorate last year’s protests. San Isidro, Cotopaxi, Oct 10, 2020. Photo by Kimberley Brown.

  • Ecuador’s Indigenous movement has declared this month “Rebel October” to commemorate the violent 11-day anti-austerity protests last year that saw 11 people killed, 63 severely injured, and more than 1,300 protesters arrested.
  • Last year’s protests ended after Indigenous leaders forced the government to promise to repeal IMF-imposed austerity measures; but one year later, the government has used the pandemic as an excuse to pass the same measures and increase extractive activities, say Indigenous leaders.
  • Indigenous communities also say they have been forgotten by the state during the pandemic.
  • The month is also meant to show the government the Indigenous community will continue to fight for its rights.

QUITO, Ecuador — Katy Mochoa marched down the streets of Quito on Oct. 12, holding in one hand the corner of a large Wiphala flag — the rainbow-hued banner of the Andean Indigenous peoples — and throwing her other fist in the air, shouting, “Assassins! Assassins!” as she and other protesters passed government buildings.

Mochoa was one of dozens of Indigenous leaders who marched to the Attorney General’s Office to submit a demand that four top government officials be investigated for crimes against humanity for their role in the violent 11-day anti-austerity protests in October of 2019.

“There are many people that the police shot [tear gas canisters] at directly, without hesitation, and that cannot be left to impunity,” Mochoa, a Kichwa Indigenous woman from the Amazonian province of Napo, told Mongabay.

The Indigenous movement was the largest organized body present in last year’s demonstrations, its members showing up in massive numbers not only to protest against the IMF austerity measures but also against increasing oil and mining extraction activity on or near their territory. Over the past two years, President Lenin Moreno has been promoting the Southeast Oil Round, an international oil auction in the Amazon rainforest, home to several indigenous communities who oppose these activities. He also expanded oil extraction in the Yasuni National Park, which also encroach on the Intangible Zone where two of the country’s non-contacted indigenous nations live.

Indigenous communities in Ecuador have a long history of being organized and defending their territory. Revolts largely led by the movement have led to the overthrow of three governments since 1997. Over the past two years, this struggle has shifted to the judicial realm, as nations like the Waorani and the Kofan peoples have both successfully sued the government for trying to sell their territory for oil and mining extraction, winning a temporary halt to these activities.

“We have to heal these wounds. This process is to heal us with justice. A society in pain cannot advance,” Mochoa said.

The Confederation of Indigenous Nationalities of Ecuador, CONAIE, presented the demand for investigations together with the Association of Victims of the National Strike Inocencio Tucumbi, named after one of the Kichwa leaders killed during last year’s demonstrations.

Their lawyer, Carlos Poveda, says the two organizations represent 11 people killed, 63 severely injured and more than 1,300 arrested during the protests, including Indigenous leaders who continue to face persecution today.

“The attacks came precisely from the state, from a chain of command … this is a serious crime for international human rights,” Poveda said at a press conference preceding the march. It also violates Article 89 of Ecuador’s Penal Code, he added.

The demand they presented to the Attorney General’s Office is for an investigation into four state officials in particular for their alleged role in ordering and allowing the violence, including President Lenín Moreno; Interior Minister Maria Paula Romo; State Comptroller General Pablo Celi; and the police commander, Hernán Carillo.

Poveda told Mongabay if an investigation isn’t carried out, they will take their demand to international bodies, as the alleged crimes fall under universal jurisdiction.

The Ecuadoran government did not respond to Mongabay’s request for comment by the time of publication. But Romo has publicly stated that police did not use undue force, rather that the violence and destruction came from protesters, who threw rocks and Molotov cocktails and set fire to road barricades. She also launched her new book, titled October, Democracy Under Attack, on the same day as the march.

Ecuador’s Indigenous movement has declared this month “Rebel October!” to commemorate last year’s uprisings, and also to ratify their commitment to fight for their rights in the face of new neoliberal policies, according to CONAIE.

CONAIE president Jaime Vargas says the government has not only evaded justice from the 2019 protests, it also used the COVID-19 pandemic as an excuse to implement austerity measures and expand extractive activities that threaten Indigenous territory, including increased calls for international investment in mining. It also abandoned the Indigenous people during the recent health crisis, he added.

“We are going to keep fighting until we get justice. And if they do not want to respond to the Ecuadoran people, there will be no freedom for this government,” Vargas said during a press conference Oct. 12, adding that a national mobilization is already being planned in Indigenous territories.

The day’s actions were one of the first Indigenous concentrations in Quito since the pandemic began in Ecuador in March. The protesters started out in El Arbolito park in central Quito, the epicenter of last year’s protests, where Indigenous leaders engaged in an ancestral ritual around the Andean cross, outlined on the pavement in seeds, grains and flower petals, to commemorate the victims of last October.

The previous weekend, the Indigenous movement also threw a two-day commemoration event in the Kichwa community of San Isidro, Cotopaxi province, where they guided workshops about state violence, strengthened the Indigenous guard to provide security and autonomy in their territories, and honored last year’s victims through ancestral rituals.

President of CONAIE, Jaime Vargas, blows tobacco on Indigenous leaders and supporters surrounding the sacred circle, during a ceremony in Quito, Oct 12, 2020. Photo by Kimberley Brown.

Lasting impacts

Last year’s protests saw everyone from labor unionists, students and feminists in the streets to denounce IMF austerity measures, mainly the ending of fuel subsidies that families have long depended on, in a country where the minimum wage is less than $400 per month.

Thousands of Indigenous men, women and children traveled from their homes in the Andes Mountains or the Amazon rainforest to protest in the capital, against both the austerity measures and the growing oil and mining extraction activity on or near their territory. Others protested from their communities and blocked highways across the country, which brought the economy to a screeching halt.

The protests finally came to an end Oct. 13 when Indigenous leaders sat down with government officials, who agreed to annul the austerity measures, reinstate the fuel subsidies, and work with social organizations to find alternative cost-cutting measures. In the weeks following the protests, CONAIE and other social organizations created the Peoples’ Parliament, which put forward a proposal for a series of economic alternatives. These included raising taxes for wealthy individuals and businesses and deprivatizing banks, prioritizing community and small farmers to strengthen food sovereignty, permanently suspending all oil and mining activities, and shifting to renewable energy, among others. Their proposals were never accepted by the government, however.

A year later, Indigenous leaders say the government has used the pandemic to pass the same austerity measures it promised to annul, and included a few others.

Over the past eight months, as Ecuador has struggled with the global economic crisis and its own massive external debt problems, President Moreno has ”liberated” gas prices, which essentially eliminates the subsidies people fought so hard to keep last year, and cut $98 million of funding from 32 public universities. Massive layoffs and both in the public and private sectors have seen Ecuador’s unemployment and underemployment rate skyrocket to more than 80%, which doesn’t include those working in the informal sector.

In efforts to boost income, President Moreno has also passed new regulation to facilitate oil palm agriculture, and has been actively soliciting international mining investment — two major threats to Indigenous lands in the rainforest. The new Mining Development Plan 2020-2030 revealed in August shows the sector’s intent to increase mining GDP by 75% and mining exports by 200% by 2024. More than 15% of Ecuador’s territory is currently under mining concessions, with the largest projects located in the southern Amazon region and already sparking conflicts with local Shuar communities.

“We have already told the government ‘no,’ there are other ways, but the extractivist logic is still present,” Mochoa said while marching down Amazonas Street in central Quito. “With more concessions, mining or oil, this will bring more social conflict.”

The Indigenous movement is not alone in its demands, as labor unions, informal workers, students, unpaid public workers and feminists have also taken to the streets throughout the pandemic in smaller protests in both Quito and Guayaquil. These have also increased during October.

“All these economic measures implemented by the national government are simply to comply with the orders of the IMF,” CONAIE president Vargas told Mongabay. “Today, almost a million Ecuadorans are laid off, without work. So that allows us to make strong decisions and take actions over the coming months.”

Indigenous leaders hold up photos of people who were killed in last year’s protests on an Andean cross, while standing in front of the Attorney General’s office. Oct. 12, 2020. Photo by Kimberley Brown.

Forgotten during the health crisis

Vargas also said Indigenous territories “were forgotten” during the pandemic, accusing the government of making no effort to supply COVID-19 testing or additional health care to remote communities.

“Thanks to Pachamama, thanks to the jungle and to natural medicines, these have allowed us to face this crisis,” he said, using the Kichwa word for Mother Earth. “But the government has not arrived, not with any pill or any tablet, in the Indigenous territories.”

Since April, Indigenous communities have filed various lawsuits against the government over its failure to protect them. This includes the Waorani community who sued the government demanding better aid, COVID-19 testing, and coordination with Indigenous communities trying to quarantine in remote locations to contain the quickly spreading virus. The Kichwa federation also sued the government and responsible oil companies after a massive oil spill in the Amazon rainforest contaminated two main rivers, the only water source for thousands of families trying to quarantine.

In early October, various communities also testified before the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights about “the situation of vulnerability and legal insecurity in the guarantee of collective rights of Indigenous peoples in the context of the COVID-19 pandemic in Ecuador,” they say.

Vargas said Indigenous communities across the country, from the coast to the Andes to the Amazon, have been protesting in their territories, and are ready to join a national movement and “return with greater strength this Rebel October.”

“We have to defend ourselves,” Mochoa told Mongabay during the Oct. 12 march. “We are fighting with dignity, but the government doesn’t care because the IMF is setting its own conditions, and that is affecting us.”

Banner image: Kichwa demonstrators accompany a march to commemorate last year’s protests. San Isidro, Cotopaxi, Oct 10, 2020. Photo by Kimberley Brown.