Revista Yachaikuna
Working Papers
Boletin ICCI Rimai
A monthly publication of the Institute for Indigenous Sciences and Cultures (IISC)
Year 3, No. 21, December 2000

General Edition: Pablo Davalos
Editorial Direction: Luis Macas
Design: Rocamadour
Electronic Edition: Marc Becker


También disponible en español.

The Ecuadorian Indigenous movement: A necessary evaluation

Luis Macas

1. The 1980s and the emergence of the Indigenous movement

In order to understand the social, political and economic context in which the Ecuadorian indigenous organizations emerged as a key social and political actor in the 1990s, one must start by analyzing the process that the Indigenous movement had lived through in the previous ten years. Although the 1980s have been referred to as the “lost decade”, from a more historical perspective it should really be seen as a “decade won” because it was during this period that the Indigenous movement achieved its organizational and political unity. The fact that different organizations, peoples and nationalities managed to agree a common organizational ‘space’ and established the Confederación de Nacionalidades Indígenas del Ecuador (CONAIE) was an important step in the Indigenous movement’s history - and that of the country’s.

In 1986 the First Congress of All the Indigenous Peoples founded CONAIE, which enabled the movement to go forward and take another fundamental steps in 1990s. If the 1980s were characterized by an organic structuring process, the 1990s were when the Indigenous movement started to generate proposals with a national dimension. One of these is to build a ‘Plurinational’ State as one of the movement’s principal aims that has become part of society’s current debate and which has undoubtedly strengthened the Indigenous movement and allowed it to broaden its struggle in other areas.

Throughout the 1990s, the Indigenous movement’s struggle has been based around the proposal to build a Plurinational State. One of the most significant points of the struggle was the June 1990 ‘Inti Raimi’ uprising that made the country become aware of us and proved to the nation-State that we exist, that we have rights, that we have a voice, which is part of the struggle to recover indigenous peoples’ dignity. Another vitally important political event of the decade was the Constituent Assembly held in 1998.

Another factor was the creation of bilingual intercultural education process in the late 1980s, which became part of all the indigenous nationalities and strengthened our organizations. Although bilingual education has not achieved all its goals, it’s important to stress that it has made important contributions towards indigenous peoples’ identity and culture.

Politically, the struggles that have formed the Indigenous movement have taken place at difficult moments in the country, such as the 1986 repression unleashed by the right-wing government of Febres Cordero, which for a while seriously threatened the creation of the Confederación de Nacionalidades Indígenas del Ecuador (CONAIE). We believe that when social conditions are at their hardest they make us realize that something must be done. Although indigenous people didn’t suffer the level of repression that the urban social sectors were subjected to, the government’s policies affected everyone. We emerged as a democratic movement within what was known as democracy, within formal and established politics, which we questioned and debated within our movement.

2. Global homogenization and cultural survival

Following the 1990s, the Indigenous movement is going through a crisis of transition due to the difficult, changing conditions taking place in the world as globalization destroys differences and identities, not only of indigenous peoples. If we can’t overcome this crisis –reflected in the crisis of identity – we face losing our peoples’ historical and future points of reference, which are essential conditions that enable peoples and nations to maintain and develop themselves. This applies to all the peoples living in Ecuador’s as we have not as yet even constituted a nation in the established sense. If a nation were to come into being it would be only in an embryonic state and for this to happen many constituent elements are required, which cannot be created superficially or with bad copies.

The problem is that we do not have the status of an established nation, let alone can we talk of an “original” nation. One way of clarifying this issue is to ask ourselves what we now mean by “nation”. For many people it’s North America, Europe, globalization or development. The problem is that we do not know what these concepts mean to us, we don’t know what they signify for the country’s 12 indigenous nationalities and peoples and the white-‘mestizo’ nation.

If we don’t start to think and reflect as our elders used to do, and who used to say “lift your foot up and look at the earth you’re standing on”, we won’t get very far. We need to do this. This is an outcome of a crisis in values. Despite all the talk of “Shuk shungulla, shuk maquilla, shuk yuyailla” (“one heart, one hand, one thought”, in Kichwa), they are values that don’t exist, that aren’t taught in school, college or university. Values are an integral part of our identity.

This crisis in values is the cause of the global crisis as it stops us acting on the basis of who we are and what we think and instead on what others have made us think we are, which in this era makes us easy prey. We don’t know whether it’s an era of change or a change of eras, but it’s a time of conflict – we are clear about that and so we act accordingly. If, say, in ten years’ time indigenous people haven’t stopped to think and reflect about ourselves we’re going to disappear in a the stream of homogeneity. That’s what we call the crisis of transition. Either we identify ourselves as who we are and decide to really be what our elders have bequeathed us (the dream of being an original nation in our own right, and so on, while gathering and benefiting from the wealth of universal knowledge available to all) or we disappear as individuals and as nations.

3. The role of the leadership in the current crisis of the Indigenous movement

At this moment it seems that we’re sailing on clouds but we should not forget that we have a reference point: our people. Even though globalization advances like a flash, we go on foot and with a burden on our backs. An example of this is the fact that we’ve waited months to say “no” to dollarization. The way we’ve all acted, not only the Indigenous leadership, and the interpretation of reality has led to political action – the September 2000 uprising – that was seen by many people as a failure.

What is being debated within the Indigenous movement at the moment is a real way to deal with the crisis. The challenge facing the movement is to find a worthwhile way of overcoming the crisis at such a difficult moment. In this sense, responsibility for the oversights and errors don’t just lie with the leadership. The people in their wisdom will know what to do.

In order to get out of this impasse we need to recognize what was done and not done during the past ten years and make a serious evaluation of the specific junctures. But neither have we made a general assessment of the Indigenous movement as a whole, which has stopped us from seeing the results, where there have been evident, and with what perspectives we can expect to continue working for the future.

If the Indigenous movement doesn’t undertake a serious evaluation of, for example, the events of January 21 2000 , we simply won’t be able to go forward and take advantage of our potential in the future. Perhaps one of the problems within the movement is that there are individual interests within it. There’s now an urgent need for a sincere meeting between the grassroots and the leadership, with much more caution and realism – something greatly lacking in our movement at he present time.

In order to understand the process following the January 21 events, we suggest analyzing a number of practices that are also structural aspects within the movement that determined the way events developed.

There’s a position within the Indigenous movement – not the only one, but one of the most important ones – that’s linked to a concept of ‘pure’ indigenism, which privileges ethnic aspects within the organization and leaves the issue of the nation state and the other people that make it up. Mestizos and indigenous peoples have lived with our backs to each other for 500 years. Had we turned around and faced each other this country would have been different. We have to be clear that with a national organization such as CONAIE it’s impossible to deal separately with the two issues: the global-national question and the indigenous one. The latter must be given the space and consideration it deserves but at the same time being we must be clear that we’re not going to achieve anything by trying to go it alone.

Another problem is that recent events have not been prepared with clear and viable aims and objectives: on January 21 people didn’t even know how to reach the capital (Quito) nor what they were going to do there. believe that during last September’s events these aspects were overlooked. Together with these factors comes the problem of spontaneity, they’re linked. Things work when there’s a proposal, and to walk blindly will lead us nowhere. That’s why we still don’t know what we wanted or what were trying to do on January 21 and the consequences of this are clear.

Finally, we’re forgetting the vital element; the political component is being overlooked. It’s now time to provide the movement with a genuine political leadership. The problem of everyone doing things separately is reflected nationally and it’s time to think of a national policy. We need to sit down around a table and look at ourselves, our diversity and define common interests and objectives with the aim of establishing a global proposal that includes everybody. That’s the missing factor that will stop us from being dispersed, everyone holding up their own banners with their own aims. Otherwise we’ll continue to lose out in major events such as the (President) Bucaram’s overthrow and (President) Mahuad’s downfall. By allowing ourselves be diverted into mere protests we have done a favor to the Right, helping it to strengthen its proposals and consequently we’ve found ourselves in a much harder situations than before these events took place.

Organizations – and not only indigenous ones – react and move to the discourse set down by the Right, acting and positioning ourselves according to how the Right sets the agenda for the country: when they imposed dollarization we reacted to this, or when they started the privatization program we rejected it. Clearly, we presented our own proposals but our actions were determined by what others did. Even, in some cases, we accepted that they provide the solutions to conflicts, thus obliging us to act separately with our own particular interests, such as in the cases of the teachers, the public health sector, transportation, etc. This makes it imperative that we sit down and think of a new political model that seeks to invert this relation of forces as a means of improving the situation. The conditions, resources and capacities exist for doing this.

In analyzing the September 21 events we can also say that, in relation to the movement’s grassroots, the leadership’s discourse has stagnated as a consequence of having removed itself from our own social and cultural reality. For example, everyone knows that during the harvesting and sowing periods (around September) there are a series of rituals. However, the leadership called for an uprising precisely during this agricultural cycle when collective events such as festivals are being held. This is what we mean by stagnation.

Likewise, a number of representatives from organizations were had nor been legitimately delegated to the national assembly that decided on the uprising. We believe that had they genuinely represented their grassroots they would have postponed the protests. Above all, it must be stressed that because the grassroots weren’t really involved in the decision the call was not legitimate and that the Indigenous movement cannot let itself be influenced by certain leaders from the social movements outside our won movement. The results of these actions demonstrate the fact that our movement does not act like a trade union that can force its members to join a strike call by threatening to fine them.

Neither should it be overlooked that the political leadership is failing in other ways. Our traditional practice is that of consensus (which has been the basis of our movement’s success), which includes taking decisions about initiating uprisings. Nothing happens without consensus. Consensus should in no way be confused with what happens in the National Congress where everything is done by majority vote (susceptible to being bought and negotiated) and the leadership should not enter into this supposedly ‘democratic’ game, which is not a valid practice within indigenous people’s culture.

The leadership should know how to manage national issues and processes without forgetting our peoples’ cultural logic. If we can’t learn to match the two it could possibly lead to crazy actions such as calling an uprising at Christmas or other holidays. Cultural factors play an important role in what happens in this country and the leadership should bear this in mind.

4. A necessary political evaluation

Our weakness as organized indigenous and social movements in Ecuador has been that we haven’t sat down to talk among ourselves. We lack what our elders had more than enough of: a practice of working together, collectively. We’ve become stingy due to so much bad influences over 500 years (external values and models) that we’ve lost the ability to look at ourselves and recognize ourselves as beings that live together under the same sky.

We were so far apart and divided during the colonial period that we have developed a closed schema that doesn’t allow a rapprochement between the indigenous person and the other. There’s still too much mistrust on either side. Nor is it certain that all the obstacles have been overcome to be able to come together and meet each other. The way in which we can agree is something that should be thought about but without falling into demagogy. We’re always talking about unity and a single, unified proposal but this, in practice, should be more a tool for discussing and developing a real alternative project.

There’s a historical disjunction between our separate visions that impedes genuine unity because this process of self-recognition was not initiated earlier. In some ways this happens between the Coordinadora de Movimientos Sociales (CMS, the Coordinating Body of Social Movements) and the Indigenous movement, despite the fact that we have drafted joint proposals, precisely to ensure that our discourse doesn’t remain just empty words. This ‘unsetting’ that public opinion sees as a recent phenomenon requires to be understood historically. The fact that a genuine meeting, understanding and agreement hasn’t been achieved so far is because there are still old political prejudices.

For example, in the 1960s and 1970s, the Left fought to turn indigenous people into campesinos (small farmers) while indigenous people fought to remain as we are – a schema is still prevalent among the Ecuadorian Left. We say this despite recognizing the need for indigenous people to widen their political horizons as an important step towards understanding the magnitude of the social problem. In this respect those social organizations whose roots lie in the Left should embark on a similar process of self-criticism to as a way of understanding each other.

The problem of the disjuncture with the social movements also lies within our movement. While we close ourselves within ethnic and cultural boundaries (a dimension that is very real and important to us) for others it’s simply myth and is a dimension that’s hard for them to decode and understand. It’s from there that the Left’s intellectuals have sought to use categories based on western logic (such as ‘campesino’) as a way to understand our ways of thinking and acting. But their analysis gets stuck on the ethnic issue, which is such a vital factor for explaining many of the Indigenous movement’s particularities. It’s important to clarify that the two categories (ethnicity and class) are different from each other and thus neither can be used exclusively to understand the other. So, building bridges and creating genuine spaces for dialogue between different peoples and social sectors should also be based on a theoretical conceptual discussion that will enable us to define the limits of interpretation that are also a result of having lived with our backs to each other for so long.

From this it is necessary to be very clear about these two distinct ‘ways of seeing’ that are still bound by differences that neither side can as yet really cross. For example, for us Kichwa peoples “development” is kawsai – “welfare” which doesn’t fit into capitalism and the market’s logic, but the social movement and its organizations can understand and interpret the Western concept of “development”. This problem has yet to be overcome and requires a lot of joint reflection. We still have much to learn from each other – that’s what we call ‘interculturalism’ and why we aren’t able forge a global proposal for the country. These questions lead us to talk and understand each other but in this, above all else, political identity must prevail, an aspect that doesn’t interest the Right. As we discuss multi- and inter-culturalism we become aware that spaces for dialogue haven’t been created yet and so the theoretical debate around interculturalism should now begin to go beyond theory until it becomes an attitude.

Institute for Indigenous Sciences and Cultures (IISC)

Address: Buenos Aires 1028 y Estados Unidos
Quito, Ecuador

P.O. Box: 17-15-50B
Tel/Fax 593-2-2229-093
E-mail: icci@waccom.net.ec

© Articles published in the ICCI Rimay bulletin may be reproduced on condition that the source is quoted.