Revista Yachaikuna
Working Papers
Boletin ICCI Rimai
A monthly publication of the Institute for Indigenous Sciences and Cultures (IISC)
Year III, No 26, May 2001

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


También disponible en español.

The Coordinating Body of Social Movements and the Indigenous movement


In the middle of last February the Ecuadorian 'Coordinadora de Movimientos Sociales' (Coordinating Body of Social Movements) held its Constituent Congress, an event that forms part of the emerging process of new actors and new discourses within the country's political scene. This Constituent Congress of an important political actor was held during a specially important juncture for the indigenous peoples: the February 2001 indigenous uprising for which, for the first time in its history, the Indigenous movement had formed a unified political front on an ethnically-driven basis that subordinated its erstwhile policy of broad alliances to exclusively ethnic criteria.

This lead the Indigenous movement to appear to be the most important social actor during this period, while at the same time it circumscribed its social representation within exclusively ethnic boundaries and so seriously limited its future possibilities and prospects. During the February uprising the indigenous peoples and their different organizations (CONAIE, FENOCIN, FEINE, FENACLE and CONFEUNASSC) were united for the first time in a common front of demands, coordination, strategy and negotiation. These organizations, with the exception of CONFEUNASSC (the non-indigenous peasant organization) had always had disputes with CONAIE. Now united, they entered into direct negotiations with the Government on the basis of a series of "Mesas de Diálogo" (dialogues) between the two sides.

However, there was an important missing element in this process: the social actors who are not organized along ethnic lines and who in one way or another represent the diversity and complexity of Ecuadorian society. This leads to both a paradox and a contradiction. A paradox because indigenous peoples assumed the role of representing the whole of society alone, presenting their political platform of struggle while stating that the negotiations were not only for themselves. Their "nothing only for indigenous people" slogan during the uprising gave them a significant social legitimacy and great credibility that served as the basis to corner the Government and turn the February 2001 uprising into an important political victory.

But it was also a contradiction because at the same time as they assumed ad hoc representation for the rest of society they excluded other non-indigenous social actors who were not organized along ethnic lines from the negotiations, leadership and planning strategies. Thus, the victory they achieved in February over time turned into defeat due to a crisis of legitimacy and representation.

In this way, the Indigenous movement resorted to a particularly sui generis concept of democracy in whose logic only ethnic factors can provide a sufficient degree of legitimacy for the Movement to enable it to assume social representation. This demonstrates both the strength and weakness of the Ecuadorian indigenous movement at this present time. The fact that it negotiated from a singularly ethnic position with the Government and had decided to establish these dialogues alone meant that it excluded another fundamental actor: society as a whole and its representatives, a number of whom form part of the now legally constituted Coordinadora de Movimientos Sociales.

So, the Indigenous movement entered into the dialogues without having established bridges with other sectors of society and forgetting to generate their traditional community-based practices of dialogue, participation and consensus with others. Indigenous people entered silently into a dialogue that restricted the Movement's real political capacity and tied it into the system's logic and practice in such a way as to annul its political ability to mobilize and act.

This process is in contrast to the dynamic with which the Indigenous movement emerged as a political actor in the 1990s. During the June 1990 uprising the Indigenous movement put forward a unitary platform and brought other social sectors together. In those days the trade unions were the most significant political actors. However, they were hostage to a concept in which they considered themselves to be 'the vanguard' of social change and subordinated all other social actors or movements to this logic.

The fall of the Berlin wall and the end of the so-called "socialist" states contributed to the strategic defeat of the Ecuadorian trade unions and the working class in general. It was during this historical juncture that the Indigenous movement emerged bringing with it a new political epistemology, with culture and ethnic identity playing a strategic organizational and mobilizing role for social change.

The trade unions could not understand this new epistemological project and did not contribute towards a coherent unity between them and the indigenous peoples. In fact, the trade unions organized within the Frente Unitario de Trabajadores (FUT) remained silent during the events of June 1990, their attention having been focused more on that year's elections than on establishing a dialogue beween equals with the newly emerging Indigenous movement.

From that point on the Indigenous movement developed a policy of alliances that gave its project greater legitimacy, seeking other actors outside the trade union movement, which it found among those who were also seeking a common platform of political representation such as the youth and women's movements, ecologists, urban neighborhood organizations, non-indigenous peasants, and so on. From this meeting a number of peoples and movements came together to form a common horizon of hope for social change.

It was from this historical process that in 1995 these new social actors (including the Confederación de Nacionalidades Indígenas del Ecuador (CONAIE) that had led the June 1990 uprising nationally) came together to form the Ecuadorian Coordinadora de Movimientos Sociales (CMS). And it was precisely from this confluence of hard-to-classify movements and organizations that the Movimiento de Unidad Plurinacional Pachakutik-Nuevo País was formed to contest the 1996 national elections.

Established as a means of acting and working within the country's established political institutions based on 'plurinational', intercultural and democratically participatory principals, this political front includes non-indigenous social movements that form one of its principal foundations and is one of its main political strengths.

From the founding of this political movement CONAIE and the CMS coordinated and acted together during all the major political moments to September 2000. However, during the February 2001 uprising, the Indigenous movement decided to sideline the CMS and began a political process centered on the dialogues with the Government.

This raises the question as to the reasons for this action, which left the Indigenous movement without a broader representative base. One answer could be that the exclusion of the CMS was the price CONAIE had to pay in order to maintain unity among the different national indigenous organizations. In this context, the CMS's Constituent Congress is a political act of fundamental importance as it allows the CMS to stand on its own two feet and seek alliances with the Indigenous movement from a position of political autonomy, with its own organizational strength and strategies based on its own capacity of action and perspective.

This suggests a juncture in which the organizational unity of the Indigenous movement led to a political step backwards as regards its ability to act in representation of the wider social movement, while the emergence of the other, non-indigenous social movements with their own autonomous framework implies a break with the dynamics begun in the mid 1990s.

What implications does this political break have in the mid term? How will the Indigenous movement harmonize its strategies with the CMS in the future? What consequences will this have on the Pachakutik political front's electoral process in the coming national elections? How have the indigenous peoples understood the newly established and organic structuring of the Coordinadora de Movimientos Sociales as a body that has developed its own legitimacy and discourse?

The are questions that will be resolved over time. As the situation appears at the moment, the Ecuadorian Indigenous movement is stronger than ever but at the same time has become more vulnerable and weaker. The dialogues with the Government, which above all merit some form of critique from the within the movement itself, are weakening indigenous peoples' capacity to act politically within its long-term strategic project. These are the strategic gambles that the political process will resolve over time for Ecuador's Indigenous movement and society as a whole.

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

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