On September 28, 2008, 64% of voters in Ecuador approved a progressive new constitution, launching a new political era in the country.1 For more than a year leading up to the vote, Ecuador had been gripped with “constitution fever,” as thousands of people lobbied the Constituent Assembly’s 130 delegates, who were organized into 10 thematic roundtables. The resulting document consisted of 444 articles centered on reforming Ecuador’s institutions, including several groundbreaking environmental measures touted as among the most progressive in Latin America.
Yet, although the passing of the new constitution represented a moment of unity between Ecuador’s popular movements and the electoral left, these two entities have clashed recently over the question of environmental protection—showing that they are hardly synonymous and sometimes not even allies. After the Constitution was ratified, Ecuadoran president Rafael Correa, who was instrumental in establishing the Constitutional Assembly, began a public campaign to pass legislation that would expand the operations of gold-, silver-, and copper-mining corporations in the Amazon and the southern highlands around Cuenca, as well as initiate new mining sites in the northern highlands. Moving away from the firm anti-neoliberal rhetoric he used on the 2006 campaign trail, Correa described his vision of a socially responsible mining sector whose profits would be harnessed to break the country’s dependence on extractive industry.
“[Passing the proposed Mining Law] is urgent, because this industry represents the country’s future,” Correa said in an October 2008 press conference. “But obviously, I’m talking about mining companies that pay taxes, respect the workers, and develop social and environmental responsibility projects.”
He added: “Unfortunately, some people are ‘childish’—in quotations—like the ones opposed to mining. But what country in the world has rejected mining? The dilemma is not ‘no’ or ‘yes’ to mining. It is well-developed mining. There is simply no dilemma. . . . [The childish environmentalists] believe that bringing an end to an extractive economy is to shut down the oil wells and close the mines. That is absurd. Getting out of that economy means using this sector surplus to revive other sectors of the economy: services, agriculture, industries, etc.”2
While other Latin American countries, like Argentina, Peru, and Guatemala, have long been at the epicenter of the international mining industry, Ecuador was until recently more known for its (often disastrous) oil industry. Large-scale Ecuadoran mining did not begin until the early 1990s, after a mining law was passed in 1985 that encouraged foreign corporations to explore for minerals. Since then, Ecuador has increasingly attracted the attention of foreign mining corporations, sometimes provoking headline-making conflicts with affected communities.3
In January, the Ecuadoran congress approved Correa’s plan, passing the Mining Law to allow Canadian mining corporations, including Kinross Gold, Iamgold, and Corriente Resources, to begin operations.4 Specific articles in the Mining Law have come under intense scrutiny by the anti-mining opposition; for example, Article 2 (“Applications”) mandates the participation of both private and public figures in policy discussions but does not include community members who will be affected by mining. Moreover, Article 15 (“Public Utility”) declares mining a public activity, which some members of the opposition argue can be used to expropriate indigenous land for a supposed collective good. Article 16 (“State Dominion Over Mines and Oil Fields”) allows the government alone to define “national interest,” which critics believe will focus solely on income. And Article 28 (“Prospecting Freedoms”) allows any business to “liberally prospect for mineral substances” on community and indigenous land.5
After the Mining Law passed, social movements, led primarily by indigenous nationalities throughout the country, mobilized in response, claiming that the law violates the new Constitution’s environmental provisions—especially those that declare access to clean drinking water and access to a healthy environment to be inviolable human rights, as well as those that ascribe to the environment itself the right to be respected, sustainably maintained, and regenerated. Critics further argue that the track record of Ecuadoran mining demonstrates that the industry’s practices fundamentally conflict with these constitutionally protected rights.
While many Ecuadoran groups have worked for years at the local level either to oppose particular mining projects or to lobby for environmental improvements or cleanup of specific mining sites, a national opposition movement—including indigenous, urban, environmental, Afro-Ecuadoran, and humanitarian groups—with the more ambitious goal of banning large-scale metal mining was first built after Correa’s election. The Mining Law thus provided a focal point around which this movement’s nationwide efforts have coalesced.6
Several protests have demonstrated the cross-national and cross-organizational unity against the Mining Law and the Canada-based transnational mining corporations. On November 10, 2008, about 200 activists from throughout the country, including executive members of the Indigenous Nationalities of Ecuador (CONAIE), marched on the Canadian Embassy in Quito, where they declared Canadian miners “unwelcome” in Ecuador. A week later, thousands throughout Ecuador protested the Mining Law, then still pending, in marches led by the Unified Community Water Systems of Azuay (UNAGUAS) and the Federation of Campesino Organizations.7
It was not until the passage of the Mining Law, however, that protests and debate became widespread. January 12, the day the law was passed by Congress, was designated by the anti-mining movement as the Day of Mobilization for Life; thousands mobilized that day throughout Ecuador. About 4,000 indigenous people blockaded the Latacunga-Ambato highway in the south, and tens of thousands mobilized in Quito, Cuenca, the Amazon, and on the coast.89 Some protest leaders were detained and charged with terrorism; one Amazonian leader disappeared only to reappear later with a gunshot wound in his head. Police officers were also wounded.
In response, Correa again called those who oppose his mining law “childish,” “nobodies,” and “allies of the right.”10 “It is absurd that some want to force us to remain like beggars sitting atop a bag of gold,” he said in a January 24 radio address, promising to move forward with the mining plan.11
These accusations deepened the rift between Correa and the social movements that supported the Ecuadoran constitution and are now increasingly disillusioned with the possibility that Correa represents a continuation of neoliberal policy. Humberto Cholango, the president of Ecuarunari, an indigenous organization representing the Ecuadoran sierra, contended in a recent statement: “The president needs only to look to either side to see the right.”12
Already in 2008, before the Constitution was approved, the leaders of Women for Life, the Coalition in Defense of Water, and other popular movements in Quito made clear in interviews that their support for the Constitution should not be mistaken as support for Correa. Said Gonzalo Guzmán, secretary for natural resources for Ecuarunari: “[Our organization] will vote yes for the new Constitution, but we are voting for the Constitution, not for Correa.” Luis Esparza, executive council member of the Urban Forum coalition of popular groups, echoed this feeling: “We are not a Correa fan club. We are social organizations.”
Such tensions were already evident in the deliberations that took place on the Constituent Assembly’s Roundtable 5, which focused on natural resources and biodiversity. Composed of eight assembly members from Correa’s party, Alianza País, along with two from the right-wing, militaristic Sociedad Patriótica, one from the right-wing Partido Renovador Institucional Acción Nacional, and one from the socialist Movimiento Popular Democrático, Roundtable 5 began by mapping out the use of natural resources and protection of Ecuador’s biodiversity in an international, national, and local context. National meetings were held to garner public opinion on the issues involved, granting civilian groups the opportunity to submit proposals. Roundtable 5 ultimately approved 23 articles. Together with its comprehensive prohibition of water privatization, it also included a remarkable declaration that nature itself is entitled to legally enforceable rights.
Yet the issue of privatization divided the roundtable’s Alianza País delegates, with some favoring leeway for privatization under certain circumstances. Although privatizing natural resources and water was ultimately prohibited, an exception was added to allow the president to ask Congress for permission to extract resources. Mónica Chuji, the chair of Roundtable 5 and former communications secretary for the Correa government, describes this as “one of biggest deceptions of the Constitution.”
Another contested proposal, which was ultimately defeated, stated that the government must be given consent from indigenous people residing on land where natural resources are to be extracted. The final article states that indigenous groups must only be “consulted”; they do not give permission.
Although the Constitutional Assembly members drafted and approved the articles pertaining to natural resources, a long process of social-movement engagement led to their implementation. Since the 1980s, indigenous organizations like CONAIE and Ecuarunari, as well as nonprofit organizations like Acción Ecológica, have fought the exploitation of oil, water, and precious metals, and they have protested pollution, deforestation, and the use of genetically modified organisms (GMOs). Moreover, fierce fights against the privatization of oil, electricity, and telecommunications have taken place, largely generated by popular mobilization in rural areas.
According to Ecuarunari’s Cholango, the result has been a shift in the culture toward respect for indigenous ancestral knowledge and the rights of land, and this is now reflected in the constitution: Chapter 2, Article 12, states that access to water is a fundamental human right. Article 13 asserts that the population has the right to live in a healthy and sustainable ecological environment—abiding by sumak kawsay, a key indigenous principle meaning “living well,” representing the need for people and the environment to coexist harmoniously. Article 15 declares that the state will promote clean technology and alternative, nonpolluting energy, and that energy sovereignty should not affect the population’s right to water.
Chapter 7 outlines the specific rights of the environment. Article 71 states that the environment, or Pachamama, has the right to be respected and that its cycle structure, functions, and evolutionary processes should be maintained and regenerated. Every person, community, and nationality should enforce the rights of nature, the article maintains, while the state is to provide incentives to protect nature and promote its rights. Article 73 states that introducing organisms, i.e., GMOs, or organic and inorganic material that will change Ecuador’s national genetic patrimony is prohibited. Article 74 describes the right of people, communities, and nationalities to benefit from the environment and natural riches that allow them to live well.
Yet the environmental movement is divided over whether the Constitution really does provide a sound legal basis for opposing Correa’s mining plans. Ivonne Ramos, president of Acción Ecológica, argues that the Constitution does not fundamentally question the state’s reliance on natural resources as its primary source of income. She adds that this is a particularly challenging reality when coupled with the ambitious social programs called for in the Constitution: How will Ecuador’s government finance these programs without exploiting natural resources? Ramos argues that Correa, as a capitalista popular (people’s capitalist), will be unable to deliver on the progressive promises of fully protecting natural resources.
“Correa has stated that his principal enemy are ecologists and thus politicized these problems,” she says.
After the January protests, the Correa administration moved to close down several organizations that helped lead the protests against the mining plan, including the Development Council of the Indigenous Nationalities and Peoples of Ecuador (CODENPE). Correa argued that CODENPE’s executive secretary was misusing the organization’s funds to favor her home province. In February, Correa placed the National Directorate of Intercultural Bilingual Education (DINEIB), which had supported the anti-mining movement, under control of the Ministry of Education, thus undermining its autonomy.-
Then, in March, the government withdrew the legal status of Acción Ecológica via the Ministry of Health, through which Acción Ecológica had obtained its NGO charter. Health Minister Caroline Chang said the organization did not fulfill the objectives it was registered for, while the organization countered that the imposed legal complications were a form of censorship due to the group’s activist opposition to the Mining Law.13 Acción Ecológica received support both nationally and internationally, with author-activist Naomi Klein writing an open letter to Correa denouncing “something all too familiar: a state seemingly using its power to weaken dissent.”14
In response to widespread criticism, the health minister released a statement claiming that the revocation was not politically motivated, but was rather an administrative decision—Acción Ecológica, Chang said, should be registered under the Ministry of the Environment, which did not exist when the group formed in 1986. Acción Ecológica’s legal status was then temporarily reinstated, though a final legal decision was still pending in early August. Ramos, however, remains concerned about Correa’s attempt to reorganize grassroots organizations and NGOs by placing them under the National Secretariat for Planning and Development, thereby co-opting their organizational objectives and work.15
Despite the growing animosity between social movements and the Correa government, Correa was re-elected to a second term as president on April 26, winning 52% of the vote and becoming the first Ecuadoran presidential candidate to win an election without a runoff in 30 years. Yet in interviews, social movement leaders continued their refrain: Support for the new Constitution is not necessarily support for Correa.
The official narrative of the new Constitution centers on Correa’s efforts to chart an alternative trajectory for Ecuador. But this narrative obscures the decades-long struggle of the country’s social movements for radical change. Indigenous organizations like CONAIE and its partner political organization, Pachakutik, have worked since the early 1980s to fight for an Ecuador that, among other things, respects the plurinationality of the populace and opposes the privatization and exploitation of natural resources.
These decades of organizing have resulted in at least a partial shift toward reorganizing the state apparatus to show greater respect for natural resources. Correa has not been at the forefront of these movements, however, and natural resource protections granted in the Constitution stem more from the grassroots than from the National Palace. This tension is likely to foster continued conflict in the months and years ahead.
Paul Dosh teaches political science at Macalester College, where Nicole Kligerman is majoring in Latin American studies.
1. Jesús Valencia and César Flores helped interview members of Ecuador’s Constitutional Assembly and leaders of popular movements in Quito. This research was supported by a Wallace International Research Grant, a Student-Faculty Summer Research Grant from Macalester College, and a grant from the Associated Colleges of the Midwest in support of innovative faculty-student collaboration. We are also grateful to Emily Hedin, Glen Kuecker, and David Seitz for their feedback on earlier drafts.
2. Silvia Santacruz, “Correa Confirms WFT, Condemns Eco-Extremists,” Ecuador Mining News, October 14, 2008, ecuadorminingnews.com/archives.php?id=105.
3. Glen Kuecker, “Fighting for the Forests: Grassroots Resistance to Mining in Northern Ecuador,” Latin American Perspectives 34, no. 2 (March 2007): 95–97.
4. Daniel Denvir, “Resource Wars in Ecuador: Indigenous People Accuse President Rafael Correa of Selling Out to Mining Interests,” In These Times, February 28, 2009.
5. Raúl Zibechi, “Ecuador: The Logic of Development Clashes With Movements,” Americas Program Report, March 17, 2009, americas.irc-online.org/am/5965.
6. Jennifer Moore, “Ecuador: Mining Protests Marginalized, but Growing,” Upside Down World, January 21, 2009, upsidedownworld.org/main/content/view/1673/1.
7. Daniel Denvir, Jennifer Moore, and Teresa Velasquez, “In Ecuador, Mass Mobilizations Against Mining Confront President Correa,” Upside Down World, November 19, 2008, upsidedownworld.org/main/content/view/1588/49.
8. Zibechi, “Ecuador: The Logic of Development.”
9. Denvir, “Resource Wars in Ecuador.”
10. Zibechi, “Ecuador: The Logic of Development.”
11. Denvir, “Resource Wars in Ecuador.”
12. Zibechi, “Ecuador: The Logic of Development.”
13. Jennifer Moore, “Swinging From the Right: Correa and Social Movements in Ecuador,” Upside Down World, May 13, 2009, upsidedownworld.org/main/content/view/1856/49.
14. Naomi Klein, “Open Letter to President Rafael Correa Regarding Closure of Acción Ecológica,” March 12, 2009.
15. Moore, “Swinging From the Right.”