Meet the Indigenous Leaders Reshaping Ecuador’s Politics
They have slowly but steadily attained political power. What will they do with it?
Welcome back to Foreign Policy’s Latin America Brief.
Welcome back to Foreign Policy’s Latin America Brief.
This week, we’re mixing up our coverage to bring you exclusive interviews with leaders at the forefront of Indigenous politics in Ecuador.
I just returned to Rio de Janeiro from Ecuador, where I spoke with Nemonte Nenquimo, Salvador Quishpe, and Yaku Pérez. As Latin America experiences pandemic-related economic and political stress, these Indigenous leaders and their communities have used the levers of formal politics—such as the courts and legislature—to build power. How far they will go has implications for their country and the region at large.
We’ll return to our regular programming next week, including with a look at the results of Chile’s presidential runoff election this Sunday, Dec. 19.
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Ecuador’s Indigenous political party, Pachakutik, founded in 1995, was voted into the country’s National Assembly in February’s general elections in record-high numbers. It is now the second-largest party in the Assembly, holding 18 percent of seats.
Seven percent of Ecuadorians are Indigenous, according to the most recent census, though other surveys based on factors such as language spoken at home estimate the number lies at 15 percent or higher.
Momentum from countrywide Indigenous-led protests in October 2019 helped sweep these lawmakers into office, as did the popular presidential campaign of Kichwa environmental lawyer Yaku Pérez, who fell shy of the runoff election by a mere 0.35 percent of votes.
Only in Bolivia has a Latin American Indigenous movement been this successful in reaching national elected office, Universidad Andina Simón Bolivar historian Pablo Ospina Peralta told Foreign Policy. But they are gaining momentum elsewhere, too: In July, Chile elected Mapuche linguist Elisa Loncón as president of its Constitutional Convention, tasked with rewriting the country’s constitution.
In Ecuador, the Pachakutik lawmakers took office in May promising to protect the environment and, above all, the poor.
Their core demands are especially significant because environmental issues have ranked low on the agendas of leftist movements holding political power in Latin America today, such as Argentina’s Peronists and Mexico’s Morena. These groups are instead pursuing oil-focused growth models, as Ecuador itself did under the leftist presidency of Rafael Correa (2007 to 2017) and centrist President Lenín Moreno (2017 to 2021). Ecuador’s current president, conservative Guillermo Lasso, has announced he aims to double petroleum production in the country.
The Pachakutik representatives have now been in their new jobs for seven months. Though they have tried to push forward their legislative agenda, the party has also been criticized by some who say its lawmakers have gotten too close to Lasso. With his own party holding few seats in Congress, Lasso negotiated a deal with Pachakutik to prevent his chief rivals, Correa’s bloc, from gaining control of the presidency of the Assembly. As a result, the position went to a Pachakutik congresswoman, Guadalupe Llori.
Meanwhile, Indigenous activism has continued through street protests organized by the umbrella organization for Ecuadorian Indigenous federations—the Confederation of Indigenous Nationalities of Ecuador (CONAIE)—as well as in the justice system. One lawsuit brought by an A’i Kofan Indigenous community against the national government has advanced to Ecuador’s Constitutional Court. It could alter the course of Ecuador’s energy sector by introducing a requirement that Indigenous consent must be given for any oil and mining projects to be launched on their land, according to Amazon Frontlines lawyer María Espinosa, who won a 2019 case representing the Waorani people.
“The vitality and power of Indigenous political projects don’t only depend on the congress,” Ospina, the Universidad Andina Simón Bolivar historian, said.
Even so, he added, Pachakutik’s size in the Assembly has contributed to at least one important legislative outcome: Lasso adjusted his plans for a tax reform so that its burden would fall more heavily on the rich. “It’s not a bad reform from the perspective of the left and center-left,” Ospina said.
“What remains to be seen now for Pachakutik is if, with these numbers, they are actually able to advance policy”—and what exactly those policies might be, Leiden University political scientist Diana Dávila Gordillo told Foreign Policy.
I spoke to three Indigenous leaders who have different strategies for pushing for change in the current government. They discussed their approaches to building power and what they’ve learned along the way.
These interviews were conducted in Spanish. They have been translated and edited for length and clarity.
Nenquimo, 36, is the president of the Waorani organization of Pastaza province, in the eastern Ecuadorian Amazon. She co-founded the nongovernmental organization Amazon Frontlines and the Ceibo Alliance, a coalition of A’i Kofan, Siona, Siekopai, and Waorani Indigenous groups on the borders of Ecuador, Colombia, and Peru. In 2020, she won the Goldman Environmental Prize, known as the “Green Nobel.”
Foreign Policy: You recently mobilized people to attend a Constitutional Court hearing in the case involving consultations for new mining and petroleum projects. Why organize around this case?
Nemonte Nenquimo: I’ve seen how the government makes deals with oil companies. When I was founding the Ceibo Alliance, I spent time with another Indigenous group in the north, where the oil companies made their first contact in the Chevron case, [when the company’s pollution over decades was linked to environmental and health problems]. I saw lots of contamination. Lots of spills. And there was no compensation. They didn’t have clean water or food. So this movement is us uniting to say: What happens on our territory, we should decide.
[In a 2019 case between the Waorani people and the national government] we carried out a long process of mapping out our own territory, knowing the government had it all mapped out, too. We sued the government and won, because the consultation that occurred was not carried out as it should have been. The A’i Kofan went through the same thing, but with mining.
This is historic. We want the Constitutional Court to give the opportunity for consultation to all [Indigenous] nationalities. If they say “yes,” you can move forward [with a project]. If not, the government should respect it.
FP: What are some of your goals with the Ceibo Alliance on a more local level?
NN: We monitor what happens on our territories and have projects related to education and food security, which means we work with women and families so that they can grow food. We also exchange knowledge about plants that can be consumed to fight disease. Thanks to this, we fought the coronavirus.
The government supposedly provides intercultural education, but the teachers are unprepared, so we train teachers ourselves, so that young Waorani people value their own culture and language. We’re in the process of writing our own curriculum. I think we’ll need two or three years, and then we’ll show it to the government, [aiming for official support].
FP: In the future, would you ever think about running for Congress?
NN: No. I don’t want to be a politician. I’m a defender and activist for my people. I can’t sell my blood to the government.
FP: In the last few years, international organizations like the United Nations have begun to acknowledge the importance of Indigenous groups for environmental preservation. What should they know?
NN: I feel like lots of times there are talk and proposals, but no guarantee. I sometimes feel like I myself am putting my life at risk. Imagine—a young woman, deciding to go against oil, mining, against the whole government.
As far as big international organizations are concerned, we want them to come visit us or to have a dialogue with us. We want guarantees that they are protecting our lives as well as the rights of nature. This battle is for the future of all people. And we can make change in the world, with people and societies who have a good heart.
Often, very big green funds give money to the government to protect nature, but it doesn’t get used for that. It would be better if money was given directly to communities. We have so many initiatives going. We’re fighting to protect the forest. It’s billions of dollars, but we don’t see the support. This is why I didn’t go to COP26—I got angry thinking about how it’s just meetings.
Quishpe, 50, hails from the Saraguro Indigenous group—part of the Kichwa nationality—in Ecuador’s southern Zamora Chinchipe province. He ran for National Assembly in February’s general elections as part of Pachakutik and received the second-highest votes nationwide of any candidate for that office. He had previously served as president of the Confederation of Kichwa Peoples of Ecuador (Ecuarunari), prefect (akin to a governor) of Zamora Chinchipe, and national legislator representing Pachakutik from 2003 to 2007.
Foreign Policy: Why run for the Assembly again? What can you achieve as an Assembly member that you can’t as a provincial prefect?
Salvador Quishpe: In the day to day, it’s nicer to be a prefect. You can respond very practically to people’s needs. But looking at the medium to long term, it’s much better to be an Assembly member.
My previous time as a national legislator, beginning in 2003, was an important period of learning. Before that, I was only a social leader. And that is one thing: You have some clear ideas about what we should do, and can complain to the government about things you don’t agree with. But it doesn’t go beyond that.
In the National Assembly, it’s not enough to complain. You have to introduce bills and all these other things. Before, [during my first term as a legislator], we [Pachakutik legislators] didn’t have experience. We approved some laws that had to do, more than anything else, with the life of Indigenous people. The law about intercultural, bilingual education. The creation of Amawtay Wasi University [a public, Indigenous university].
I dreamed of making a law to lower interest rates. We introduced a bill, but it wasn’t embraced. It was “approved,” but all of the content was changed. I ended up voting against my own bill. It was a learning experience. Because we don’t have a tradition of doing politics, in the legislative and administrative sense.
Now that the party has existed for a little over 25 years, we could say that we have collective experience. I agreed to be a candidate for the legislature again primarily because I felt people’s support. Roughly, by the force of will, we have sustained ourselves and grown, little by little by little. We don’t have financial resources. We don’t have a clear strategy. But our mistakes are small in comparison to our dreams and our desires.
FP: What are your legislative priorities now?
SQ: We presented a bill so that all children can [manage the requirements to] attend universities. There are a lot of barriers and requirements to being able to enroll.
I wrote a bill for a new hydrocarbon law. Among other things, it aims to require that petroleum not only be sold as crude, but also be refined here in Ecuador.
And we introduced a bill called the Organic Food Sovereignty Code. We need to guarantee the just distribution of water and reestablish farmers markets. Until recently, there were farmers markets in Ecuador where producers sold their goods directly. But they have practically disappeared as big supermarket chains have grown. Intermediaries in this process are killing the producers and the consumers.
FP: After the 2019 protests, Indigenous groups drew up a wide-ranging policy platform, covering issues from agriculture to economic policy. Should we expect to see more bills from Pachakutik lawmakers based on that platform?
SQ: Yes. We’re not going to stop. We also have a bill about reforming monetary and financial policies by, among other things, introducing expert regulatory bodies for each. Ecuador is officially a plurinational country [that recognizes the existence of multiple peoples and cultures contained within a single state], but that’s not represented in its institutions. So these regulatory bodies would be required to include someone representing Indigenous groups.
We learned over the years that monetary policy is not something static, untouchable. It’s a political decision. But it was a long process to get there. In the past, we didn’t have this ability to transform a need into a policy proposal.
FP: You said you want to increase domestic oil-refining capacity. Some Indigenous groups have sued Lasso’s government in opposition to a decree that aims to increase oil production. What role should petroleum play in Ecuador’s economy?
SQ: We need to improve management at the wells that are already in progress. But we are opposed to the expansion of the petroleum frontier. We have brothers [Indigenous groups] who are still in voluntary isolation who need to be respected. And it would cause all kinds of problems related to biodiversity.
Additionally, if the world is leaving behind fossil fuels, why are we expanding them? Cars are moving toward alternative sources of energy, and the price of petroleum could drop. We’re proposing this hydrocarbon law knowing that we are on the final leg of the petroleum journey.
FP: CONAIE and the Lasso government have clashed in recent months. What is your role when they cannot reconcile their positions?
SQ: Our responsibility is to support CONAIE’s proposals. They don’t come from just one, supposedly illuminated, director. They are set through grassroots assemblies, which many of us personally attend.
Pérez, 52, is a Kañari Kichwa lawyer and activist. He has served as city councilor and prefect in the highland Andes province of Azuay as well as president of Ecuarunari. His campaigns against mining projects led authorities to arrest him multiple times during the Correa government. In February’s presidential election, he outperformed polls and nearly made it to the runoff, falling 32,000 votes shy.
Foreign Policy: You left Pachakutik after they negotiated with the Lasso government to obtain the presidency of the Assembly. But isn’t Pachakutik arriving in a position of power good for Indigenous demands?
Yaku Pérez: They betrayed the people. During the campaign, we preached the “third way”—not the old, neoliberal right of Lasso, or the old, extractivist left of Correa, but rather a renewed, ecological, feminist left that cultivates democracy, not authoritarianism. In the presidential runoff, we called for a null vote, because neither of the two options really represented us. But when Lasso won, Pachakutik made deals with him to reach the presidency of the Assembly.
From the presidency of the Assembly, you can’t change structures in Ecuador. You can’t achieve anything with a presidency that is just decorative, that doesn’t have real power. I think we made the wrong choice. In these more than six months in the Assembly, there has not been a single change.
FP: In August, you launched a new movement, We Are Water. What are its main proposals?
YP: Ecuadorian Indigenous groups have organized around water access for a long time without forming a unified political force. But nothing is apolitical in a social struggle. One thing that Correa used to say was, “If you guys want an ecological agenda, win elections.” He had a good point.
We Are Water is an ecofeminist space. We have community roots and are based in solidarity and an ethical, honest vision. More than our interest of eventually reaching the presidency, it’s a means, not an end. A means to make our longings and utopias a reality and wake up people’s dreams.
FP: So running for political office is an explicit goal.
YP: Most immediately, in the 2023 midterms.
FP: What are some of your policy proposals?
YP: The overarching proposal is to move into post-extractivism. Oil and mining resources stay in the ground, and we instead opt for tourism, agriculture, and various other programs you can develop. Water should be managed in a public and community-based manner. And we support policies for energy that don’t contaminate the environment or produce greenhouse gases.
FP: One of the main demands of the Indigenous movement has been to reinstate gas subsidies that Lasso removed. But many people point out that keeping the price of gas artificially low hurts efforts toward a green transition. What is your response to that?
YP: From a social justice perspective, although I believe in an ecological transition, I don’t think a petroleum-exporting country should sell gas at international prices. People are living on the edge of destitution. And the national government has not done anything to support or subsidize electric vehicles. They should start with public transportation.
FP: How do you see Ecuador’s Indigenous movement changing in the future?
YP: There are so many things that unite us. What divides us is elections. The Indigenous movement has created its own space and will keep moving forward.
Update, Dec. 20, 2021: This newsletter has been updated to include lawyer María Espinosa’s affiliation with Amazon Frontlines.
Catherine Osborn is the writer of Foreign Policy’s weekly Latin America Brief. She is a print and radio journalist based in Rio de Janeiro. Twitter: @cculbertosborn
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