The protests are the first big test for Ecuador's left-wing President Rafael Correa, first elected in 2006 on the platform of a "citizen's revolution" promising to build a "21st century socialism" in the small Andean country.
The protests were called by the Confederation of Indigenous Nationalities of Ecuador (CONAIE) — the umbrella confederation representing Ecuador's indigenous population. About 35% of Ecuador's population is indigenous.
On the same day, Ecuador's main teachers union, the UNE, and students also protested against proposed educational reforms.
CONAIE and many environmental organisations are opposed to a new mining law they believe will cause environmental destruction and may result in water privatisation.
They also believe the law violates Ecuador's new constitution, which, among many other progressive additions, guarantees access to water and grants specific rights to the environment.
The new law allows for the expansion of copper, silver and gold mining in Ecuador's Amazonian and highland regions. It also restricts the involvement of indigenous and affected communities to a right to consultation, rather than the right of veto they have called for.
Oil and mining companies in Ecuador have a history of violently intimidating communities opposed to the rampant environmental destruction that often accompanies the opening of new mines.
Despite Ecuador's heavy reliance on the industry, mining was temporarily stopped by the Congress in April 2008. However, the new mining law was passed in January despite protests from indigenous and environmental groups.
The initial protests, which took place in seven of Ecuador's 24 provinces on September 28 — were called off by CONAIE on the same day after Correa agreed to renegotiate parts of the contentious mining law.
However, the CONFENIAE — the Amazonian arm of CONAIE — continued its protests and blockades in the south-east of the country.
On September 30, one protester was killed in clashes between the indigenous Shuar and Achuar communities and police in Ecuador's south-east jungle.
Protesters and police dispute who was responsible for shooting the protester, an indigenous teacher, each side blaming the other.
Correa has called for calm and assured protesters there are no plans to privatise water, saying the law and the new constitution expressly forbid it.
"We wait for them with open arms", Correa said in a call for dialogue. "But please, we never want to see this again, killing among Ecuadorians."
The constitution and mining law forbid the privatisation of water and natural resources, but members of Correa's governing alliance are known to support it in limited circumstances and protestors are concerned about what they say are loopholes for mining companies.
Ecuador's weak economy is heavily reliant on mining revenue. Correa said the revenue is needed to promote other branches of Ecuador's industry to break with dependence on mining and to fund his government's ambitious social programs.
Such programs provide free education and health care, and the Correa government has raised the minimum wage and introduced other social benefits.
Ecuador also has a formidable foreign debt. Correa defaulted on US$3.2 billion of illegitimate and illegal debt in 2008, and has pushed to renegotiate oil contracts on more favourable terms.
However, the debt is still enormous — equivalent to about 25% of GDP.
Indigenous and environmental activists have been campaigning against the mining law since it was drafted, and have sought to have it amended.
Correa has reacted negatively to the campaign, calling environmental protesters "childish" for their opposition to mining.
Correa insisted on the need for "environmentally responsible" mining, the revenue from which can be used to end dependence on mining.
Correa has also accused the popular movements of "lying" and being manipulated by the right-wing opposition to destabilise his government.
This has simply prompted more protests and has begun to alienate Correa from important potential allies in the country's strong social movements.
The recent protests pale in comparison with previous demonstrations, but protests organised by CONAIE played a central role in the overthrow of former presidents Abdala Bucaram (in 1997) and Jamil Mahuad (in 2000).
In 2005, the CONAIE also helped overthrow president Lucio Gutierrez. However, it split over the issue and has been weak since.
However, the CONAIE still represents a powerful section of Ecuadorian society. It has begun to grow in influence again, taking a strong stand in defence of Ecuadoran environmental and cultural rights.
Rural Water Systems president Carlos Perez warned that if Correa kept insulting the social movements, "we know that he who sows wind, reaps tempests".
However, the government and indigenous groups have begun to move towards a conciliation.
On October 5, 150 representatives from the three regional organisations of CONAIE began tense negotiations with Correa in the presidential palace in Quito.
The government agreed to review changes to the indigenous bilingual education system and to find a consensus with CONAIE over the new water law.
CONAIE is also planning to negotiate reforms to the mining law, which it has also appealed before the constitutional court.
Among other proposals being discussed is one from the Shuar and Achuar peoples that the Amazonian province of Morona Santiago be declared "ecological" and made off-limits to mining. This is similar to a recent declaration made for the province of Zamora Chinchipe.
However, the government has indicated that it may not agree to this.
CONAIE representatives have made clear that any changes will be dependent on their members' support, with whom they will consult before agreeing to the amendments.
However, CONAIE is hopeful of reaching an agreement. Correa has adopted some of their demands in the past, including the closing of a US air force base on Ecuadoran territory, convening a constituent assembly to rewrite the constitution and declaring much of the foreign debt illegal.
A joint commission — including members of the government and CONAIE — will be appointed to investigate the events around the violent confrontation.
The Achuar and Shuar nations, however, are maintaining roadblocks near the city of Macas while they wait to hear the outcome of the discussions.
First published in Green Left Weekly, October 10, 2009.