On November 17, thousands of indigenous and environmental activists rallied across Ecuador in protest against the introduction of a new mining law by the government of President Rafael Correa.
The protests, organised largely by the Confederation of Indigenous
Nationalities of Ecuador (CONAIE — Ecuador's largest indigenous
federation), marked the beginning of a week of protests by social,
environmental and indigenous movements against the potentially
environmentally destructive consequences of a number of proposed new
laws — including laws relating to mining, water and the introduction of
large-scale shrimp farming.
Ecuador's weak economy is heavily dependent upon mineral extraction —
especially oil — and this has had a catastrophic effect on the
environment and communities in affected areas.
A large part of the Ecuadorian Amazon is now being described as an
"Amazonian chernobyl" after 18 billion gallons of polluted water were
released into the water system by oil-giant Chevron Texaco. This has
resulted in thousands of deaths, cancer, birth defects and massive
Affected communities are currently pursuing Chevron in court.
Mining companies are also known to frequently employ tactics of
intimidation and violence to silence local protest, including the hiring
of armed thugs and occasionally killing people.
While Correa has condemned the action of the mining companies, he has
also been critical of anti-mining groups that employ direct action
tactics, attempting to shut down mining operations.
Correa, elected in 2006 on a promise to spend more on social need,
has pledged to use money from mining on improving the well-being of the
50% of the country's population living in poverty.
Nonetheless there is, however, a strong sentiment in Ecuador to have the country declared "mining-free".
Alberto Acosta, who has been one of Correa's closest advisors, has
advocated a total ban on open-cut mining, and CONAIE have demanded that
indigenous and other affected communities have a power of total veto
over mining operations in their areas.
Correa, however, has opposed both a mining ban and the inclusion of a
veto in the country's recently adopted new constitution. He has
declared that Ecuador will pursue only "sustainable" mining.
The new mining law increases government control over the sector,
requiring companies to negotiate payment of royalties of at least 5% to
the government, as well as placing stricter environmental safeguards on
all mining operations, including regular site inspections.
However, CONAIE president Marlon Santi rejected the new law on the basis that social sectors did not participate in its design.
Jose Cueva, a community leader from Intag — a region heavily affected by mining — called for a delay in the mining law.
"The president needs to first pass a food sovereignty law, a water
law and a biodiversity law. Then we can have a national dialogue over
what to do about mining", said Cueva.
On November 19, CONAIE led a further 10,000 people in a march from
Ecuador's northern highlands in protest against the draft water law,
which they are worried could lead to privatisation and pollution by
Activists invoked the country's new constitution — approved by nearly
70% of the vote in September — in defence of water rights for
communities. The new constitution specifically grants legal rights to
the environment and protection from being spoiled.
The protests are already being seen as a resurgence of Ecuador's
social movements, which had fallen into disarray over the past few
While they have offered more or less critical support to Correa,
especially in getting the new constitution passed, many social movements
— especially CONAIE — are sceptical about getting too close to
However, the victory over the right-wing opposition in the
constitutional referendum has emboldened the social movements to
reorganise and demand more of the government.
Meanwhile, Ecuador, which relies on oil exports for almost half of
its foreign exchange income, is already suffering from the recent fall
in global oil prices as well as aging infrastructure in urgent need of
After a recent review into its foreign debt found that a significant
portion is "illegal", Correa delayed a US$30 million interest repayment
on the country's debt.
Ecuador's total foreign debt is $10.3 billion, equal to 21% of
Ecuador's gross domestic product. This was all accumulated under
previous administrations — when Ecuador was renowned for its systemic
Both Correa and finance minister Maria Elsa Viteri have refused to
rule out a complete default on all debts. Only one fifth of them were
taken out for development projects, with the rest used for debt
Correa has also announced that Ecuador is seeking a $1 billion loan
from the Inter-American Development Bank to finance key infrastructure
Ecuador's electoral council is expected to call the 2009 elections on
November 23, the first elections under the new constitution. All 5993
elected positions in Ecuador will be up for re-election, including the
While Correa has maintained strong support for his policies, he
cannot afford to further alienate the indigenous population in the
lead-up to the elections.
CONAIE and other social movements have been responsible for
overthrowing three presidents in the past decade. Their renewed strength
means they are likely to demand meaningful change — and a break from
the current economic system that is destroying their communities.
First published in Green Left Weekly, November 22, 2008.