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Petroleum Is at the Heart of Ecuador’s Anti-Austerity Protests

Indigenous groups say Ecuador’s reliance on extractive industries violates their constitutional rights.

Demonstrators cheer on the Ecuadorian government's decision to withdraw the controversial increase in fuel prices on October 13, 2019 in Quito, Ecuador.

An hour before sunrise on October 6, 200 armed soldiers entered the Indigenous Shuar territory on the western edge of the Ecuadorian Amazon rainforest.

“They came in … shooting, with tear gas, without taking into account the presence of women, children, young people and seniors,” said Tom Sharupi, the director of the youth branch of the Confederation of Indigenous Nationalities of the Ecuadorian Amazon (CONFENIAE), that represents 11 Indigenous nationalities with territory throughout the Ecuadorian Amazon. According to Sharupi, soldiers tried to disperse the Shuar Tsurakú community from a roadblock that community members had set up on the north-south highway between the cities of Puyo and Macas.

The barrier was one of countless blockages by groups of Indigenous people, farmers and others set up on roads throughout the country after President Lenin Moreno announced the government would abandon a decades-long fuel subsidy that doubled gas prices overnight.

The decision increased transit expenses from a 15 percent share of a minimum wage earner’s salary of $394, to over 25 percent. Transport workers were the first to go on strike, and their protests swiftly impacted others who, without access to their usual buses or taxis, were unable to get to work. Frustration fomented as the broad impact of the fuel hike grew more visible, and the protest snowballed into an 11-day national strike. Over the course of the 11-day conflict, the Confederation of Indigenous Nationalities of Ecuador, CONAIE, reported a total of 11 casualties, 1,340 injured and 1,192 detained.

Protests in Ecuador — along with those in Chile, Colombia and elsewhere — reveal the deeply unequal aftermath of some of Latin America’s “Pink Tide” governments: a wave of progressive leadership, often expressly “anti-neoliberal,” that built popularity by investing in social programs but that were often funded by extractive industries.

In Ecuador, protesters’ frustration over the surge in gas prices triggered the strike, but the grievances Indigenous groups have brought to the negotiation table center around the country’s inequitable and unsustainable economic model. That model is increasingly based on mining and oil extraction, and at odds with Ecuador’s 2008 constitution, which prioritizes ecosystem integrity and Indigenous rights. “Our territory, where we have been living for hundreds of years, is being exploited, concessioned to new oil companies,” said Mirian Cisneros, president of the Kichwa community of Sarayaku.

The attempted fuel subsidy cut was part of a package of IMF austerity measures intended to aid Ecuador in digging out of its hefty fiscal and external debt, which constitutes almost half of the country’s GDP. The deficit is the same quandary behind a surge in attempts to drill for oil on Indigenous lands, and is counterintuitively tied up in Ecuador’s theoretically radical environmental law. In 2008, Ecuador became the first country to expressly recognize the “Rights of Nature” in its constitution. “But in the same document,” Providence College Political Science Professor Thea Riofrancos tells Truthout, “you also have expanded state authority over resource extraction.”

When the administration of former President Rafael Correa defaulted on $3 billion of debt in 2008, in spite of the country’s juridical commitment to sumak kawsay — an Indigenous principle and approach to living in harmony with the environment — Correa agreed to sell crude oil to China in exchange for a $1 billion loan. As the price of oil dropped post-2008, it took an increasing quantity of Ecuadorian crude to pay back the borrowed money.

Touting the 2008 constitution, then-President Correa announced a new innovative plan to keep the country’s fossil fuels in the ground while generating revenue. His administration would pledge not to drill the 846 million barrels of crude oil valued at $7.2 billion that had been confirmed under the Ishpingo Tambococha Tiputini oil fields on the east edge of Yasuní National Park, one of the most biodiverse ecosystems on the planet. But doing so, Correa said, would require a global effort in the form of international financial contributions to cover half of the revenue the country would generate if it were to open the oil fields for drilling. As the Ecuadorian newspaper El Universo reported in 2012, Correa explained the plan as a form of “compensation that would enable rich countries to pay an ecological debt.”

By 2013, Correa had only collected $13 million of the $3.6 billion he requested to stave off the “economic necessity” of drilling. So, after announcing that “the world ha[d] failed [Ecuador]” in the spring of 2016, his administration tapped into oil in Yasuní National Park. As with many other “Pink Tide” governments, Riofrancos says, this new revenue — and the kind of public investment it funded — fueled Correa’s popularity. “And so the government increasingly became more ideologically committed to extraction, and more dependent on it,” Riofrancos told Truthout.

By the end of his administration, Correa’s relationships with Indigenous groups had deteriorated. According to an interview published in World Politics Review, Correa criminalized public protest, repressed those resisting his extractivist projects, and referred to Indigenous leaders as “savages” and “cave men” in public addresses.

When Moreno succeeded Correa, it appeared the government’s relationship with Indigenous groups stood to improve. Moreno invited Indigenous leaders to meet with him, which had not happened during the last eight years of the Correa administration. But Riofrancos says these overtures turned out to be simply “initial hand waving.”

In May 2019, Moreno’s administration passed a decree allowing the construction of two oil platforms in the buffer area of the “Intangible Zone,” a part of the Amazon that is home to two previously uncontacted Indigenous nations. And just ahead of the October protests, Moreno announced plans to leave the Organization of the Petroleum Exporting Countries (OPEC).

Carlos Manzabanda, the Ecuador field coordinator for the U.S.-based group Amazon Watch, says this was a sure sign of more drilling to come. Freeing itself from OPEC-imposed quotas, Manzabanda says, would enable the country to boost production. “We can also read [the decision] in terms of a potential plan to look for additional oil sources to fund debt acquired by the previous government … and new commitments it had with the IMF,” he told Truthout.

This double-negative formula has become a powder keg of discontent, says Riofrancos, and marks a clear shift away from the well-funded social programs of Correa era. “[Moreno] has both not changed the economic model, and he has attempted to impose austerity.”

On October 23, CONAIE, which successfully urged the Moreno administration to reverse the fuel hike following negotiations on October 13, suspended the peace talks, which will remain on hold until the government drops protest-related charges against CONAIE President Jaime Vargas.

In the meantime, the organization has met with the Inter-American Council on Human Rights, in hopes of gaining the release of minors arrested for “terrorism” while participating in the October protests. It has also called out the IMF for effectively greenwashing the fuel subsidy cuts by framing them as an environmental measure, while continuing to support destructive extractive projects.

At a press conference on October 18, IMF Deputy Director of the Western Hemisphere Department Krishna Srinivasan said the agency had indeed met with “civil society” ahead of issuing the decree that cut subsidies. “We don’t target an Indigenous group to meet with, but we do meet a broad spectrum of people as part of our engaging with stakeholders,” Srinivasan stated.

That’s just the problem, Cisneros pointed out during the October 13 peace talks: There is consistently a lack of meaningful consultation of Indigenous groups ahead of the sale of Amazonian oil blocks and other extractive projects, in spite of the fact that “prior informed consultation” for any venture on Indigenous land is written explicitly into the constitution.

This inconsistency dates back to Correa, Riofrancos points out. Correa’s environment ministry notoriously held short community meetings to ensure the government was technically in compliance with the law before signing off on a project. But the information the administration presented to communities was “hard for your average person to digest,” Riofrancos says, and it wasn’t always translated into Indigenous languages.

While peace talks with the government remained on hold, CONAIE convened a series of popular parliamentary meetings, calling on representatives from more than 180 social groups to collaborate on drafting an alternative to the decree that called for a fuel subsidy cut. On October 31, the groups presented the proposal to the United Nations and Episcopal Conference of Ecuador — the two groups that mediated the initial peace talks that led Moreno to cancel the subsidy cut.

CONFENIAE Communications Director Andrés Tapia told Truthout that the process has helped to further unite Indigenous and other marginalized groups following the strike. “It’s an economic model that responds to the interests of the poorest,” he said. To cover expenses in the short term, the proposal calls on the government to raise taxes on the country’s 270 wealthiest groups, and in the long-term, to pull away from the extractivist model altogether. In general, it envisions an economic model that reflects the 2008 constitution in practice, not just theory.

What remains to be seen is the degree to which the Moreno government will adopt parts of the proposal, which won’t likely happen without ongoing pressure, Riofrancos says. “That depends on how much the Indigenous movement can actually mobilize a broad section of society,” she says. A successful coalition would need to include labor, working-class, farmer and Afro-Ecuadorian groups that haven’t worked together in over a decade.

Meanwhile, it’s evident that the protests have incited a wave of state repression but have also re-galvanized an urban-agrarian alliance. In October, conflict escalated quickly as Indigenous groups set up roadblocks and made their way to the capital amid nationwide unrest. President Moreno declared a military “state of exception” that allowed for media censorship and the deployment of armed forces on October 3, and military tanks rolled through the streets of Quito. On October 9, Inocencio Tucumbi, a leader of CONAIE, was shot in the head and killed by police while en route to a safe zone at the Salesian Polytechnic University.

Belén Gomez is a 22-year-old student at the Catholic University of Ecuador in Quito, whose mother is from the mountainous Kichwa community Latacunga, next to where Tucumbi lived. Gomez also heads the Ecuadorian chapter of the international student climate movement, Fridays for Future. She said she wanted to join the demonstration in the park where protesters set up headquarters, a few blocks away from her school. “But there was no way to enter … it was a war zone,” Gomez told Truthout.

Ecuador’s two other largest cities were also tense and gridlocked. Activist Carla Estefania Franco of Guayaquil had to skip two days of work because she couldn’t get there. Meanwhile, to keep up with her job at a guest house in Cuenca, Angelita Arevalo walked five hours daily, roundtrip.

Gomez recalls what grew glaringly clear as roadblocks ensued over the 11 days of protest. “There was no lettuce, no tomatoes, there was nothing,” she says. “So those of us that live in the city realized that basically without [Indigenous workers and farmers], we would not eat.” Indigenous workers and farmers “are one of the major economic engines of the country,” Franco continues.

Moving forward, Gomez says, her group of student environmental activists plans to work more closely with Indigenous and other rural groups. Gomez has set up meetings with Indigenous representatives throughout the Amazon and the Andes to find out how young people in the city can help push for what rural communities need. “Maybe reforestation projects, or collecting rainwater and turning it into potable water,” Gomez says. “With their concerns, we don’t want them to feel alone.”

Note: This article has been amended to clarify that the protests in Bolivia were categorically different from the wave of protests tied to economic grievances in Ecuador, Chile and Colombia.

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