In September 2019, hundreds of people gathered at the headquarters of the local Indigenous organization, PONAKICSC,1PONAKICSC refers to Pueblo Originario de la Nacionalidad Kichwa del Cantón Santa Clara, an organization representing Amazonian Indigenous communities based near the Piatúa River, in Ecuador. in the Santa Clara canton of Pastaza (part of the Ecuadorian Amazon region). Indigenous communities were angered by the possible construction of a hydroelectric dam in their local Piatúa River, known as one of the cleanest rivers in the world and one of the few in the region still relatively protected from the effects of deforestation and mining. As a consequence of highly organized protests and strategic media campaigns on the local, national, and international levels, the provincial court eventually ruled against the hydroelectric project in early September 2019, but the company’s machinery remained by the river weeks after the court’s decision. For days, Indigenous peoples from communities that would be affected by the project came together, listening to speeches, making, and sharing the traditional chicha2Chicha is a type of fermented drink native to Latin America. Many variations of the drink can be found (corn, rice, or quinoa based, for example) depending on the specific country/region, but in the Ecuadorian Amazon the most prevalent variation is the chicha de yuca (cassava chicha). The traditional production of chicha holds deep cultural significance for several Indigenous groups in the Amazon and Andean regions I visited. drink, and eventually marching toward the local government office to demand the removal of the construction equipment and a public apology from the company, Genefran SA. Later that night, and for the following days, Indigenous protests escalated into the blockage of important local highways, a classic strategy in the repertoire of Ecuadorian Indigenous mobilization, and one that put even more pressure on the local government to remove the machinery and protect the Piatúa River from similar extractive projects in the future.
The construction of a hydroelectric dam in the Piatúa River would fundamentally disrupt the livelihoods of local Indigenous peoples, both materially and culturally. Local Indigenous activists I spoke to emphasized that the river provided food, drinking water, medicine, and a spiritual meaning to their communities. The resistance to the project drew heavily on arguments in favor of the rights of nature and to prior consultation (consulta previa), both of which are enshrined in the Ecuadorian Constitution since 2008. Here, I explore what Indigenous collective action in Ecuador tells us about the role of social movements as “bulwarks of democracy,” particularly when democracy is understood beyond simply the electoral arena. Specifically, I argue that Indigenous organizing in Ecuador has served to strengthen both the processes and outcomes of democracy in the country.3Munck discusses this distinction between processes (access to political office, implementation of government decisions, etc.) and outcomes (representation, inclusion, trust in democracy, etc.) of democracy. See Gerardo Munck, “What is Democracy? A Reconceptualization of the Quality of Democracy,” Democratization 23, no 1 (2016): 1–26. While comparable collective mobilizations were taking place elsewhere in Ecuador at this time,4For example, right after leaving Puyo in September 2019, I traveled to the highland city of Cuenca, in the Azuay province of Ecuador, where several communities under the leadership of the local Indigenous organization (Federación de Organizaciones Indígenas y Campesinas del Azuay – FOA) and the governor at the time (Indigenous activist Yaku Pérez) organized a march in defense of water and life. At the core of these demonstrations was the opposition to mining projects in the region, reflected by banners stating that water was more valuable than gold. the Amazonian-based Piatúa Resiste (Piatúa Resists) movement aptly illustrates the gap between the formal inclusion of previously excluded popular sectors and the actual exercise of such inclusion. As Deborah Yashar argues, the rhetoric of political inclusion of marginalized populations does not always equal practice, and it requires “political buy-in and state capacity as well as organizational mobilization and ongoing vigilance.”5Deborah J. Yashar, “Reflections on Citizenship: Between Promise and Practice,” Citizenship Studies 26, no. 4–5 (2022): 718–725, 720.
Ecuadorian Indigenous peoples’ long history of political struggle
Indigenous peoples throughout Latin America have experienced a long history of state erasure and dispossession. In my research, I focus on these historical trajectories and their consequences to contemporary Indigenous mobilization in the Central Andes (Peru, Bolivia, and Ecuador). A significant proportion of Indigenous peoples in these countries (mainly from Quechua and Aymara ethnic backgrounds) are concentrated in the highland regions, but in all three cases, Amazonian territories are home to smaller but incredibly diverse Indigenous populations. Under Spanish colonialism, state penetration was generally much more concentrated in the mountainous regions, and Amazonian communities experienced a relatively higher degree of autonomy from the state until the twentieth century. In the 1960s, the Ecuadorian state started to push for the neocolonization of Amazonian territories in response to calls for land reform in the highlands. In the same decade, significant oil reserves were discovered in the Amazon, prompting a series of state-sponsored oil explorations throughout the region.6Deborah J. Yashar, Contesting Citizenship in Latin America: The Rise of Indigenous Movements and the Postliberal Challenge (New York, NY: Cambridge University Press, 2005), 113, 114. These developments fundamentally changed the nature of the relationship between Indigenous communities from the Amazon and the Ecuadorian state. While these communities were somewhat “invisible” to the state up to that point, this invisibilization was, in many ways, passive. The processes underlying the neocolonization and oil exploration of the Amazon, however, necessitated a legal, political, and more active form of Indigenous exclusion. Unsurprisingly, Amazonian Indigenous communities in Ecuador became strongly politicized as they started to lose their traditional territories and experience the severe effects of environmental degradation from oil production and other extractive industries.
Among other forms of politicization, Amazonian communities used legal mechanisms to form rural organizations and gain legal title to their lands. As Yashar explains, “To gain access to the state, voice collective demands, and gain collective access, the state required that territorially bounded groups register as associations, comunas, cooperatives, or centers.”7Yashar, Contesting Citizenship in Latin America, 116. In 1980, following a few decades of intense organizational building, different Indigenous federations in the region formed CONFENIAE,8CONFENIAE stands for Confederación de Nacionalidades Indígenas de la Amazonía Ecuatoriana (Confederation of Indigenous Nationalities of the Ecuadorian Amazon). The organization has played an important role in the creation of the national umbrella organization (CONAIE), and in the overall Indigenous movement in the country. an Amazonian umbrella Indigenous organization that would become a central player in the trajectory of Indigenous politics in the country, including the foundation of CONAIE,9CONAIE stands for Confederación de Nacionalidades Indígenas del Ecuador (Confederation of Indigenous Nationalities of Ecuador). This organization is a major political player in the country, effectively coordinating several regional and local subsidiaries. The leadership of the organization rotates between Indigenous activists from highland (majority) and Amazonian Indigenous ethnicities. Ecuador’s national Indigenous organization. CONFENIAE’s central goal centers around the defense of traditional Amazonian territories, which often serve as the foundation of local Indigenous autonomy and are under constant threat from extractive industries and the state.
As a result of decades of organizing by Indigenous movements from different parts of the country, the 2008 Ecuadorian Constitution emphasized the plurinational character of the state and included rights to free prior consultation to Indigenous communities regarding any economic projects based on their lands and affecting their material or cultural livelihoods. Ecuador also became the first nation in the world to include the protection of the rights of nature in their constitution, formally acknowledging that Nature was not property but had inalienable rights to exist and thrive.10Specifically, Article 71 of the Ecuadorian Constitution states that “Nature, or Pacha Mama, where life is reproduced and occurs, has the right to integral respect for its existence and for the maintenance and regeneration of its life cycles, structure, functions and evolutionary processes.” See “Republic of Ecuador Constitution of 2008,” Political Database of the Americas, October 20, 2008. The 2008 Constitution, therefore, stood out as a significant advancement in the protection of Indigenous rights in Ecuador. Yet, despite these undeniable gains, many Indigenous communities continue to resist extractive projects that fail to meet prior consultation standards11For more research on Indigenous resistance to extractivism see Thea N. Riofrancos, “Scaling Democracy: Participation and Resource Extraction in Latin America,” Perspectives on Politics 15, no. 3 (2017): 678–96; Thea N. Riofrancos, Resource Radicals: From Petro-Nationalism to Post-Extractivism in Ecuador (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2020); Todd A. Eisenstadt and Karleen Jones West, Who Speaks for Nature? Indigenous Movements, Public Opinion, and the Petro-State in Ecuador (New York: Oxford University Press, 2019); Carmen Martínez Novo, “The Backlash against Indigenous Rights in Ecuador’s Citizen’s Revolution” in Latin America’s Multicultural Movements: The Struggle Between Communitarianism, Autonomy, and Human Rights, eds. Todd A. Eisenstadt, Michael S. Danielson, Moises Jaime Bailon Corres, and Carlos Sorroza Polo (New York, NY: Oxford University Press, 2013), 111–32; Suzana Sawyer, Crude Chronicles: Indigenous Politics, Multinational Oil, and Neoliberalism in Ecuador (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2004); Roberta Rice, “The Politics of Free, Prior and Informed Consent: Indigenous Rights and Resource Governance in Ecuador and Yukon, Canada,” International Journal on Minority and Group Rights 27, no. 2 (2020): 336–56; and Karla Peña, “Social Movements, the State, and the Making of Food Sovereignty in Ecuador,” Latin American Perspectives 43, no. 1 (2016): 221–37. For a look at extractivism in Peru, see Moisés Arce, Resource Extraction and Protest in Peru (Pittsburgh, PA: University of Pittsburgh Press, 2014). and violate the rights of nature enshrined in the constitution. The seeming contradiction between the formal rights included in the constitution and the actual protection of these rights “on the ground” reflects what Thea Riofrancos calls “a logic of substitution,” in which social movements’ demands and constitutional protections are circumvented through technocratic regulations from the top-down.12In her book, Riofrancos shows that in 2008, President Rafael Correa signed an executive decree that included several definitions related to prior consultation while the Constituent Assembly was still debating the nature of these protections. Decree 1040 blurred the applicability of prior consultation rights, and its consequences are clearly reflected in the mobilizations for the protection of the Piatúa River but also in other protests against extractive projects throughout Ecuador. Riofrancos, Resource Radicals, 97.
Still, it is clear that Ecuador has a long and comparatively successful history of Indigenous political mobilization in Latin America. The nationwide levantamientos (uprisings) of the 1990s serve as one of the most paradigmatic examples of the power of Indigenous collective action in the country.13See Leon Zamosc, “Agrarian Protest and the Indian Movement in the Ecuadorian Highlands,” Latin American Research Review 29, no. 3 (1994): 37–68. Today, Indigenous people throughout Ecuador are relatively well-organized under strong national, regional, and local organizations, as well as an umbrella Indigenous party.14On the national level, CONAIE helps coordinate and fight for the protection of communities represented by several regional and local organizations. Moreover, the Indigenous party, Pachakutik, has a successful record in the country, with support largely from Indigenous peoples and mestizos. When I traveled to Ecuador in August 2019 to conduct field research for my dissertation,15With the support of SSRC’s Democratic Anxieties in the Americas grant, I was able to use my fieldwork interviews and participant observation of Indigenous-led events in a broader research project that looks at historical trajectories influencing Indigenous mobilization at the national level comparatively in Peru, Bolivia, and Ecuador. The analysis in this essay relies on part of this fieldwork experience, on a particular protest campaign, while at times drawing connections to the broader national Indigenous movement in Ecuador. I immediately witnessed how this vast history of Indigenous mobilization informed the strategies of contemporary Indigenous-led political events. In only a few days after my departure from Ecuador, a highly organized paro nacional (national strike), similar to the iconic levantamientos that took place about 30 years earlier, once again shook the entire country and brought Indigenous demands to the forefront of national politics. And shortly after that, in 2021, a prominent anticapitalist Indigenous activist, Yaku Pérez, performed surprisingly well in Ecuador’s presidential elections.
This contentious history and the clear achievements of Indigenous movements in Ecuador reinforce the argument that inclusionary reforms are “less likely without mobilization.”16See Diana Kapiszewski, Steven Levitsky, and Deborah J. Yashar, “Inequality, Democracy, and the Inclusionary Turn in Latin America” in The Inclusionary Turn in Latin American Democracies, eds. Diana Kapiszewski, Steven Levitsky, and Deborah J. Yashar (New York: Cambridge University Press, 2021), 28. But, in addition to that, it illustrates the fact that bringing political inclusion from the rhetorical dimension to the real lived experiences of marginalized peoples is often dependent on the ongoing threat of collective action. Indigenous social movements in Ecuador have often served as bulwarks of democracy in the country. By affirming their existence through legal, political, and contentious actions, Indigenous peoples throughout Ecuador have often challenged a long history of state erasure and dispossession, advancing both the processes and outcomes of democracy. The Piatúa Libre movement serves as a clear illustration of these dynamics.17In my broader research, I explore other examples that showcase Indigenous peoples challenging their political exclusion in Ecuador, Bolivia, and Peru.
“We do exist!” Indigenous challenges to political erasure in the Piatúa River case
The protests and political events surrounding the Piatúa Libre movement in the Ecuadorian Amazon reflect a broader pattern of Indigenous rights violations in Ecuador, and the central role of collective action in transforming formal rights protections into actual realities. One of the ways these dynamics evolved in the Piatúa case was through the blurry definition of who constituted “affected communities” in questions about rights to prior consultation. While originally the construction of the hydroelectric dam moved forward due to a judge’s decision that there were no “culturally and spiritually significant” nearby Indigenous groups affected by the project, this idea was fundamentally challenged by local communities thereafter. The protests also pushed for the actual protection of the rights of nature as well as collective rights for Indigenous peoples, both of which are formally guaranteed by the Ecuadorian Constitution. During the Piatúa events, a local Indigenous activist conveyed their frustration with the blatant disregard for these rights:
“For this reason, today, we have united more than ever, with all [Indigenous] nationalities to show that our communities and nationalities… that we do exist. And we are very outraged by the judge… when he flatly denied us, flatly rejected our claim. … We even have schools here, we have settled here for more than 60, 70 years. The ancestral Kichwa territory belongs precisely to where [the dam] would be constructed too… We have territory of PONAKICSC, of the different communities along the Piatúa River… They have made us invisible because we were not standing there with our arms crossed…”18Interview with Indigenous leader during the Piatúa Libre protests near Puyo, Pastaza (Ecuador), September 2019. Translated by me from the original in Spanish, some conversational portions of the excerpt were cut out for the purpose of clarity.
In a recent publication by CONFENIAE, Christian Aguinda, president of the Kichwa Peoples of Santa Clara, reiterated this sentiment, arguing that the hydroelectric company and the local state “did not recognize that there was an Indigenous community [near the river], they didn’t respect the organizational structure, and with the support of the Ecuadorian state, violated our collective rights and the rights of nature.”19Christian Aguinda, “Decisiones con Acciones, Amenazas con Resistencia: La Forma de Resistir del Pueblo Originario Frente al Estado por el Río Piatúa,” Voz de La CONFENIAE no. 21 (August 2020), 5–6, my translation. These excerpts illustrate the active role played by different Indigenous movements in Ecuador in guaranteeing the actual applicability of nominally guaranteed rights. In other words, Indigenous communities involved in the Piatúa River protests challenged their political erasure, which was central to the state’s denial of their constitutional rights to prior consultation, to the rights of nature, and to Indigenous collective rights to autonomy over their territories.
In the conclusion of his essay, Aguinda stated that “the Piatúa was, is, and will always be a free river… transformed into a symbol of resistance for the present and future generations.”20Aguinda, “Decisiones con Acciones,” 6, my translation. During my fieldwork, when I first visited the Piatúa River, I asked a local Kichwa girl who was playing by the riverbank what her favorite thing about the river was. She proudly responded: “Que ganó,” that “it won,” that her parents had been actively demonstrating against the construction of the dam and she was proud of the outcome in favor of the local communities (despite the remaining challenges). This brief exchange perfectly encapsulates Aguinda’s point about the symbolic and unifying power of the river. In certain ways, it also brings us back to the question about the relationship between social movements, democratic procedures, representation, and political inclusion. While this relationship is not always clear-cut in Ecuador (and elsewhere), the case of the Piatúa River illustrates the potential role of social movements in deepening democracy.
Social mobilization as precursor and guarantor of democratic inclusion
Social mobilization is almost always a precursor of inclusionary reforms, but the formal political incorporation of marginalized groups does not always translate into their actual inclusion. In this context, social movements have the potential of being bastions of democracy, challenging rights violations through collective action with the effect of bridging the gap between political rhetoric and actual policy. In the words of Robert Andolina, social movements “influence democratization not only by expanding understandings of democracy, but also by weaving new meanings into existing or alternative political institutions, so as to bridge the gaps ‘between substance and procedures of democracy’.”21Robert Andolina, “The Sovereign and Its Shadow: Constituent Assembly and Indigenous Movement in Ecuador,” Journal of Latin American Studies 34, no. 4 (2003): 721–50. Many instances of Indigenous mobilization in Latin America speak to this argument, and the Piatúa Libre movement in the Ecuadorian Amazon is a case in point. By challenging the local court’s decision in favor of the hydroelectric project, local Indigenous communities demonstrated strong awareness of their constitutional rights and fought hard to protect them. As such, this relatively small, and highly localized example of Indigenous political resistance nonetheless served to deepen democratic representation in Ecuador.
Yet, while the outcome in this case is ultimately optimistic, this continuous state of vigilance in regard to political inclusion may place an unfair burden on marginalized peoples themselves. This example, thus, highlights that it is often not enough for social movements to achieve formal rights gains, as the actual applicability of these rights is so frequently in need of protection through mobilizational pressure. This problematic reality makes clear that protecting democracy goes way beyond the electoral arena, and social movements play an important and active role in safeguarding valuable democratic rights.
Banner photo courtesy of Karla Mundim.