Bread and Land- 500 years of struggle in Ecuador, Bolivia

clean eReturn of lands usurped from indigenous communities, unpolluted water for drinking and irrigation, bilingual education programs, forgiveness of national debts on behalf of indigenous communities, deregulation of national import/export industries, basic infrastructure construction in indigenous communities. Such are a few of the 16 demands of the Ecuadorian Confederation of Indigenous Nationalities, CONAIE, in 1990 (Field 41). These demands aimed to dispel of indigenous subjugation in the country once and for all. This year marked either the sixth indigenous insurrection (according to conservative publication El Comercio) or the 145th one (sited by CONAIE) since the Conquest in 1533 (Field 40).

The Ecuadorian indigenous peoples, as well as indigenous communities throughout the Andes and all of Latin America, have been struggling for such basic rights literally since the first day of Conquest contact, nearly 500 years ago, when the Spanish began undermining “communal land and the minga [collective labor],” forging a division between political leadership and the majority population of the country: native farmers (Field 40).

Even as Ecuador won national independence from the Spanish crown in 1822, the power was simply passed from Spanish hands to Creole hands. It is pessimistically known as  “the last day of despotism and the first day of the same” by the indigenous (Field 41). The Creole elite continued turning communal lands held by the indigenous over to large export-crop hacendados, ignoring demands for multi-cultural and bilingual recognition and amelioration of ecologically destructive practices of petroluem, gold and rubber extraction in the Amazonian Oriente. Even a series of so-called agrarian land reforms seemed always to benefit large capitalism-oriented land-owners rather than native farming populations.

In yet another effort to check non-indigenous power, the ECUARUNARI, or Confederation of Peoples of Kichwa Nationality, organized a congress in 1975 to acknowledge the link between class struggle and the “peasant-indigenous movement” (Field 43).

Despite ongoing “indian insurrections,” grassroots uprisings, these native groups still struggle today for land, social and economic rights. They now stand against police intimidation and harassment and hacendado land-owners. As an extra blow, the government even opened the gates of the Yasuno National Park, a refuge of plant and wildlife diversity, for petroleum exploration. CONAIE and many other indigenous-rights groups still strive to transform the government and economy of their nation.

Perhaps, with cautious skepticism, we can turn to the current political situation of Bolivia to examine one possibility of indigenous national leadership. After a series of unstable presidencies (such as Gonzalo “Goni” Sánchez de Lozado, raised on foreign neoliberal values), indigenous leader Evo Morales took office in 2006. A native of Aymara descent, Morales has a distinct history of cocalero organizing. Unlike his predecessor Goni, who won his title with just 22% popular vote, Morales won with a striking 53% popular vote. He was re-elected in 2009 with 64% of the vote. (Our Brand is Crisis, Cocalero, BBC News 2011).  Morales is wary of, and in fact openly opposed to, US foreign policy and multinational corporation intervention in national industry. Interestingly, he was named “World Hero of Mother Earth” by the UN General Assembly in 2009 (Latin American Herald Tribune, Nov. 2010). In the documentary Cocalero, Morales speaks affectionately of the Pachamama, or Earth Mother. He proposed “10 Commandments to Save the Planet” in 2008 as he addressed the UN, which included a payment of “ecological debt” on behalf of capitalist endeavors, the expulsion of privatization of water, education and electricity, which are a human right not consumer product, clean energies, international coexistence not domination, and the promotion of cultural and social diversity (UN’s VII Indigenous Forum, 2008).

Lofty goals as they are, this declaration is nonetheless inspiring and uplifting given the current neoliberal landscape in much of Latin America. Morales, a fighter since before his presidency for cocalero, indigenous and ecological rights, serves as an example of the potential of indigenous leadership in the many countries with an indigenous majority in South and Central America.