Revista Yachaikuna
Working Papers
Boletin ICCI Rimai
A monthly publication of the Institute for Indigenous Sciences and Cultures (IISC)
Year 1, No. 1, April 1999

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


También disponible en español.

The challenges facing the Indigenous movement in the crisis

Luis Macas

The development of Ecuador’s Indigenous movement could be divided into periods: before and after the June 1990 indigenous uprising. This uprising marked a point when this important sector of Ecuadorian society decided to pass from being a mere social actor to a political one, an event that caused profound tremors through our society. But the governments haven’t always respected this process and have instead tried to divide the movement as was the case with those of Durán Ballén (1992-1996), Bucaram (1996-1997) and Alarcón (1997-1998), of tolerating it as in the case of Rodrigo Borja (1988-1992) or of co-opting it in the present case of Mahuad and his Social-Christian supporters.

The political credibility of the Confederación de Nacionalidades Indígenas del Ecuador’s (CONAIE) has been based principally on the fact that it has led struggles and anti-establishment changes which have not focused on any particular regime. The general view is that each government in turn has defended a social and economic base that has little to do with indigenous people, campesinos and the other poor rural and urban sectors. In this process, CONAIE’s success has been to unite the country’s indigenous and rural peoples and even gain the support the urban poor. This can be seen with the founding of the Movimiento Pachakutik in 1995, as an alternative political and social expression of indigenous and other peoples, independent of the tutelage of any political party, which has served to unite indigenous and non-indigenous people around a new national political project.

Despite the way the electoral system is organized in favor of electoral ‘enterprises’, our Movimiento Pachakutik has won deputies to the National Congress, mayors, provincial and parish councilors, as well as representatives in the 1998 Constituent Assembly.

Many of the theses and proposals generated by the Indigenous movement have become facts of national life, such the constitutional reforms that resulted from the Constituent Assembly, which was carried out by the Government once it had been approved by plebiscite. Also, actions such as the 1990 and 1994 uprisings which had concrete results; the 1992 Amazon peoples’ march to Quito or the heroic actions of February 1997; as well as a number of other actions around the issue of the demand for a ‘pluri-nationalist’ State and collective rights or against the attempt to privatize the social security system, and the protests in favor of constitutional change were some of the major achievements of recent years. In the past few years Ecuadorians have come realize that perhaps the only sector of society capable of mobilizing its social base and carrying out actions based on concrete demands is the indigenous and campesino movements organized in or around CONAIE. It’s interesting to note that, according to a recent poll, CONAIE holds third place in the national credibility ratings, at 14%, just behind the military and the Catholic church. A result that is due to its track record of struggle and its proposals, which have been the basis of consensus and unity of our country’s peoples.

Crisis in the Indigenous movement

There are a number of tendencies within the organized Indigenous movement with differing ways of seeing and interpreting the world:


1.   There’s a majority who believes that morality and ethics in politics is imperative in these times. That the greatest wealth we have are the principles that guide our political policies and actions at national level and that the most important factor which binds us together is our peoples’ level of social organization; that our peoples are capable of demonstrating to the rest of society that, being just a little under half the country’s population, we can make our militant presence felt, even to question the system, were it necessary.

2.   A second position belongs to the political pragmatists who are disposed to adapt their policies as required in order to secure sinecures, compromises or personal or group favors that can lead to undermining our peoples’ fundamental principles, pillars of our philosophy and actions.

3.   Finally, there’s a third group of opportunists and compromisers who are willing to fill any high position unscrupulously, without any social support or community backing. These are people capable of doing anything to achieve personal power, money, positions, perks, etc.

These tendencies are increasingly evident as a result of the political actions and behavior of certain authorities within the Indigenous movement.

Another of our limitations is the lack of experience in the political electoral system; some of our actions, especially in the area of legislation, have the stamp of a novice due to our limited experience which also leads to the not infrequent situation in which we have been manipulated and used in this political jungle and are swindled of spaces that are legitimately ours.

But the biggest pitfalls are to be found in other areas. The majority of Ecuadorians believe that CONAIE has made a tacit agreement with the Government behind the backs of the its grassroots organizations and the indigenous peoples as a whole and that actions have been blocked by a leadership which it has lead the movement to lose its earlier capacity of political response. Publicly, old friends and allies in the social movements and trade unions have expressed the view that CONAIE’s leadership is disconnected from the social base it should be representing, while public opinion believes that one of the Government’s biggest successes is to have co-opted CONAIE’s leadership, which has enabled it to neutralize the Indigenous movement and to govern on the basis of passive attitudes by social actors who are willing to accept whatever the Government presents them under the guise of a “civilized” national dialogue. To this purpose the Government has even drafted a decree with the aim of “institutionalizing” the dialogue, which we believe the Indigenous movement’s grassroots organizations should analyze calmly and dispassionately.

The proximity of certain of our national leaders to the Government’s policies has led public opinion to link us with the Government, which – though it’s hard to admit – is causing damage that will be difficult to undo It is not only a blow to our public image but also to the movement itself. In effect, in the public’s eyes we appear to be collaborating with this lazy and abusive regime that not only contributed to the economic crisis but also resorts to state repression and terrorism , as in the case of the assassination of Saul Cañar (an urban grassroots leader) and the state murder of the deputy Jaime Hurtado González, a representative of the people.

The aim of the coalition between the Democracia Popular and the Social Christian parties is to undercut and destroy our political credibility, which has been achieved on the basis of struggle and will be difficult to recover. Their strategy is to:


4.   Appropriate our proposals and initiatives as they did with the Constituent Assembly, decentralization, etc., with the help of the mass media, which they own.

5.   A second strategy is to co-opt CONAIE’s leadership, trying to keep it close to the Government at all costs.

6.   A third strategy is to place a sector of indigenous intellectuals in the Government in such a way as to broaden the base of those of our people who have compromised themselves with it.


CONAIE’s greatest asset is its credibility. It cannot lose its prestige by gambling and taking actions with this inhuman Government or committing the error of omitting our grassroots’ demands and proposals while at the same distancing itself from other social actors who maybe different and heterogeneous but whose goals and road is allied to ours. Maintaining CONAIE’s credibility should be a priority, especially with its own social base, while concrete actions should be taken that restore the confidence of our allies.

Although the reasons may appear respectable or even if raisons d’Etat are cited, CONAIE cannot assume a passive attitude towards this or any other government which is tied to the oligarchy and monopolies. Its strength is based on principles and proposals it has maintained from its inception.

It’s CONAIE’s duty to raise the flag of struggle of those it represents first of all: the indigenous peoples. However, it can’t be restricted in its scope. On the contrary, given its role as a referent not only for indigenous people but also for campesinos and other social sectors, it should include national issues on its agenda.

Even though CONAIE chose to support Jamil Mahuad in the second round of the presidential elections, we believe that the leadership should have the sensibility to accept that this position didn’t have much support among its grassroots.

The 14% of social acceptance with which CONAIE counts – an honorable third place in the national credibility ratings – should be used to draft demands from the organized movements’ point of view and not squander it at the hands of an inhuman and lazy government.

The Consejo de Desarrollo de las Nacionalidades y Pueblos del Ecuador (CODENPE) should not play the role of gracious sop to the Government. CODENPE is a mandate within the February 5 1997 Government Program, created as a space for indigenous and black peoples, which was won through struggle and pressure, as was the Dirección Nacional de Educación Intercultural Bilingüe (DINEIB) and, more recently, the Proyecto de Desarrollo de Pueblos Indígenas y Negros del Ecuador (PRODEPINE). In no way should CODENPE become an instrument of manipulation to be used by the Government or for infighting and division among indigenous people. Instead, actions should be taken to defend and strengthen these institutions at the service of the peoples, without wavering or appeasement.

In the face of the measures and circumstances that affect Ecuadorians, CONAIE should assume a firm stance and distance the public (television viewers, radio listeners and newspaper readers) from the idea that its leadership has surrendered to the Government. There’s a strong feeling that CONAIE is a counterweight to this and any other government’s excesses and this view should be recovered and maintained.

There’s a tendency within CONAIE to defer and seek a position of “civilized”, “institutionalized dialogue” with the Government, even if the reality is otherwise. From its side, the Government will do all it can to ensure this situation remains as it is. However, we believe that following CONAIE’s next national assembly the tendency will be to recover its image of struggle that has earned our organization so much respect.


It’s necessary to establish a multidisciplinary team of delegates from different organizations to analyze and draft a political program together with the other social actors.

Privileging the social and organizational processes of our peoples should become a mandate in the present period; it’s the factor that generated cohesion and objective advances in achieving our peoples’ goals and proposals.

It’s also necessary to begin a political and organizational evaluation in order to find a clear political position vis-à-vis the Government. And if there were to be a space for dialogue it would be necessary to establish the strategies for this. If talks have been taking place since 1998 it is necessary to know what they have achieved, who knows about them, who has been talking and on what basis? That is, we should not be transfixed in reflection but rather start the urgent task of seeking appropriate strategies and redirect actions that are coherent with the reality of current events.

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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