Monday, 15 March 2010
(IPS) - "This is not the end. It is not even the beginning of the end. But it is, perhaps, the end of the beginning." The words of British Prime Minister Winston Churchill after the 1942 defeat of Germany's forces in Africa are an apt description of the situation between the government of Ecuadorean President Rafael Correa and the powerful Confederation of Indigenous Nationalities of Ecuador (CONAIE).
The alliance of social movements, including indigenous people's organisations, that impelled Correa, then a political novice, to unprecedented victories in two successive presidential elections, the constituent assembly that rewrote the country's constitution, two referendums and a parliamentary election, has clearly come to an end.
At a special assembly in late February, CONAIE decided to launch a "progressive escalation" of anti-government protests, and called on workers and students to join them in rejecting what they called Correa's "neoliberal and colonialist" policies.
The president, who prides himself on having done volunteer work in an indigenous village before going off to university, said the decision was "separatist," and that the indigenous people were "playing into the hands of the (political) right."
In a nationally broadcast address, Correa used harsh terms to describe the indigenous leadership, saying CONAIE head Marlon Santi was not qualified for his position.
Santi "could be a 'teniente político' (a local administrator representing the central government in small towns or villages in Ecuador), something along those lines, but not the president of CONAIE," he said.
Santi's response, in an appearance on the private TV channel Ecuavisa, was that "Correa is sick with his own hatred and vanity." He accused the president of betraying the principles of the alliance that swept him to power. He also said the indigenous movement's protest actions would not become violent.
CONAIE was one of Correa's main allies in the 2006 elections, the 2007 constituent assembly and the latest presidential race in 2009. But a falling-out between them was already evident last year, especially over the issues of mining, oil extraction and water management.
With the aim of attracting foreign investment, particularly from Canada, to exploit the country's copper and gold deposits, the government pushed through a mining law last year creating the state mining company ENAMI and paving the way for huge mining concessions to be granted to Ecuadorean and foreign companies.
CONAIE and other associations that represent indigenous people - who account for nearly 40 percent of the population - as well as environmental organisations felt betrayed, as they believed they had Correa's word that large mining projects would not be allowed.
As for water, the 2008 constitution ordered the legislature to enact a new law on water use and permits, to ensure formal regulation and equitable distribution.
But although the deadline stipulated in the constitution has expired, the bill, which has been heavily criticised by CONAIE, is still winding its way through Congress.
Meanwhile, indigenous communities and their organisations at local and provincial levels are constantly at loggerheads with the Secretaría del Agua, the government body set up to administer water concessions for irrigation.
Oil has also been a source of conflict for years, as drilling in the Amazon has caused severe damages to the jungle territories where indigenous communities have lived for centuries.
Native communities, along with environmentalists and several prominent close allies of Correa - such as Alberto Acosta, who presided over the constituent assembly, and Fander Falconi, foreign minister until February - are angry at the government's policy of allowing oil drilling to continue and opening up the mining industry to foreign companies.
Tension with indigenous groups reached a bitter crisis point in September 2009, when Bosco Wizuma, a high school teacher belonging to the Shuar (or Jivaro) ethnic group, was shot to death during a police crackdown on a demonstration in the Amazon against the government's oil and mining policies.
A truth commission was set up to investigate where the shots came from, with the government alleging they were fired by demonstrators, and indigenous leaders claiming they came from the police. No conclusion has been reached.
Relations with native groups in the country's Amazon region have been further soured by legal action taken by the Superintendencia de Telecomunicaciones, the telecoms authority, against the Shuar Federation's radio station "LaVoz de Arútam", which almost had its broadcasting license suspended because of alleged "incitement to violence."
Mounting indignation within the Confederation of Indigenous Nationalities of the Ecuadorean Amazon (CONFENIAE) has brought pressure to bear on CONAIE's other two regional branches, in the Andean highlands and the coast, to withdraw from the negotiations set up by the government after Wizuma's death.
According to political analyst Pedro Saad, a former member of the Commission on Indigenous Affairs during the government of president Rodrigo Borja (1988-1992), the CONAIE leadership's call for an uprising will not get much response from the country's indigenous people, "at least not in the unanimous, monolithic way they are accustomed to."
The strategy of organising progressive protests is, in Saad's view, a way of playing for time to work with the grassroots indigenous movement, "much of which, especially in the highlands, still supports Correa," he told IPS.
The decision reached at the CONAIE special assembly was a victory for "the point of view of the Amazon indigenous groups. But the vast majority of native people live in the highlands, so I would expect the protests, if they occur, to be strongest in the Amazon region, moderate in the northern sierra, and non-existent in the centre and south of the sierra and along the coast," Saad said.
Meanwhile, university professor Francisco Muñoz, editor of Tendencia, a centre-left political journal, told IPS that the Correa administration is losing its opportunity to represent an important social base.
Worse still, said Muñoz, the government appears to have decided to confront the indigenous movement rather than negotiate with it - the same way it previously dealt with the environmental movement.
"I'm afraid the government is opting for a repressive approach based on the use of force," he said. "If so, Correa will be up against serious difficulties among his own support bloc in parliament, where rifts are already occurring."