Ecuador: Where the cold whisper of the Andes is the guide for an encounter with your inner self,” claims the English-language ad hanging in the window of a travel agency. I am in Quito, the capital of Ecuador. We are almost at the equator line, but the weather is cool due to the high altitude (2,800 metres).

The “cold whisper of the Andes” ad is unnoticed by local people, who are too busy feeding their children, dealing with runaway inflation and paying back interest on the country’s foreign debt. Perhaps they have already found their inner selves by now. At any rate, they are not considered potential customers for the ad. Most can’t read it since they don’t understand English; illiteracy is high.

With 12.4 million inhabitants – 40 percent of them Native – Ecuador is one of the smaller nations of South America. The country extends from the Galapagos Islands, a remarkable natural sanctuary far out in the Pacific Ocean, across the high ranges of the Andes Mountains and eastward to the eastern tropical forests of the Amazon.

Volcano summits burst the clouds at 5,000 metres and over. Ecuador’s highest peak is Chimborazo (6,310 metres). Here in the highlands is the traditional territory of the Kichua Native people, who number almost four million and account for 85 percent of Ecuador’s Aboriginals. Poverty has forced many to move from their mountain communities to the capital or the Amazon lowlands.

Some volcanoes remain quite dangerous. Several are permanently monitored by geologists because of their closeness to densely populated areas. Just as Canadians read about snowstorm forecasts, Ecuadoreans can follow the details of seismic activities on the news every day, before taking the pulse of the country’s other convulsions – inflation, devaluation, political coups and Native uprisings, all of them a big part of the national landscape.

Elections in Otavalo

Otavalo is a peaceful community at almost any time of the year. It is only an hour and a half away from the capital. The small, picturesque town is also a tourist attraction thanks to its market, mountains, nearby villages and quiet surroundings.

The Kichua Indians from Otavalo are known as world travellers. Dispersed across Latin America, Europe, North America and the Caribbean, they practise many trades – commerce, music, handicraft, tourism. Many families in Otavalo are very poor, in particular the farmers. But some have been able to build their own entreprises.

This year – for the first time – a Kichua was elected mayor of Otavalo. It may seem odd that a municipality with a strong Native majority has never before had a Native mayor. But until now, there has been little Aboriginal representation in Parliament or city councils.

In fact, until recently, the Native movement asked members not to vote at all. Its view was that politics were just too prone to corruption and would never solve their problems. But in 1995, the same movement decided to found a party to try to win space within the political realm.

Pachakutik (or New Country), as it’s called, gathers both Native and non-Native candidates in defense of broad issues such as – a multinational state, grassroots democracy, better distribution of wealth, the fight against corruption.

Politics still hasn’t replaced other methods of protest. Ecuador’s first nations rely mostly on their ability to “close down” the whole country through massive protest actions, like blockading roads for days or weeks. “Levantamientos” (peaceful uprisings) are still the favourite strategy.

But most Aboriginals also support Pachakutik’s electoral option. In spite of very modest campaign funds, candidates have been winning more and more seats in Congress and municipalities.

Native people are now seeing first-hand that politics can be dirty business. Some think it’s like biting into a rotten apple. Otavalo had elections earlier this year that caused divisions in the community. There happened to be not only one but two Native candidates running for mayor. Both seemed committed to a just cause. Opinions are split among the local Kichua, however.

On the one hand there was Mario Conejo. To his critics, he was a candidate who catered to the white population, an opportunist. Then there was Carmen Yamberla -criticized as a radical extremist.

The electoral clash helps give a glimpse into the problems facing Ecuador’s first nations and how hard it is to challenge them together.

Many ways to resist

Mario Conejo was the winner of the mayoral election. He comes from a privileged Kichua family -his brother Roberto is director of a local environmental and cultural-studies centre; his sister works as a physician for a local health clinic; a younger brother is an architect. Several family members won grants to study in Cuba back in the days when the island could still afford to give academic training to other third world citizens.

When interviewed, Conejo sounded like any politician on the campaign trail. His pragmatism may have allowed him to win the votes of less progressive, non-Native voters. It was a safe ticket to heaven. “Native people can help construct a pluricultural society, find new opportunities by learning how the system works and use it to their own advantage,” he said. “The environment is our priority, as is quality of life, health and education for all. We also want to improve trade networks and the tourist industry, at the same time strengthening native culture.”

Roberto Conejo knows his brother the mayor faces a big challenge. “Racist views within our society have made our people underestimate their ability to manage their own lives and society in general,” says Roberto.

“The fact that Mario won the seat as mayor is a sign that times are changing. However, if mistakes are committed, they will show much more than if the mayor was white,” he says.

Carmen Yamberla, Conejo’s challenger, was a big contrast. She was of humble origins and has been accused of selfishly splitting the Native vote. In conversation, she sounds like more of an idealist than her ex-rival.

She may have lost the elections, but remains a key figure in Otavalo. She is the leader of a community-based organization, the Indigenous Peoples and Farmers Federation of Imbabura (or FICI), which has 80,000 members.

Yamberla started working with youth groups on issues of women’s rights, cultural identity, education and equality. Over the years, Native women have been learning how much they actually contribute to the community and are growing confident within the movement. However, for Yamberla, her devotion to the movement has also meant a sacrifice; at age 35, she still has no children, a rare occurrence in her society.

One of FICI’s projects is Jambi Huasi, a private non-profit health centre that combines both traditional Native healing methods and western medical care. Working side by side with general practitioners and university-trained specialists are healers from the communities. Among them are “yachacs” who use herbal and natural medicine as well as spiritual healing, “fregadors” who are like chiropractors, and “mamahuas” or midwives.

The Jambi Huasi Health Clinic has had some of its projects financed by a United Nations development program and has applied for funds to a Canadian development organization.

Yamberla says the indigenous federation FICI “has always worked on both levels -social and political development. There’s a clash between the Native view of development, which may be slower and less lucrative

but is sustainable, and the western view of development – more technical, more competitive and less preoccupied with consequences.

“How can we guarantee for our people a dignified life, a healthy life, an unpolluted territory, in the long term?” Yamberla asks. “Dollars and technology are not the solution to everything. We have been losing our values, such as mutual respect and respect towards Elders. Our traditional knowledge must be part of any development plan.”

Yamberla adds that there are “many ways of resisting. We are a peaceful population -we use our intelligence, not weapons.” She tells of how, last year in January, the government tried to prevent her group from making a protest march to Quito, but the group got through anyway.

“We got through the blockades and we occupied Congress,” she says. “Most of us were women. There was strict traffic control to prohibit us from travelling, but we marched on with our musical instruments, with our dances. There’s also another way of reaching out – the international community. People in other countries understand our struggle, even if their governments disapprove. In January, we made the continent shake.”

Blockade on the Pan-American Highway

An unexpected example of the resistance was taking place the day I made my way back to Quito. Not far outside Otavalo, local school teachers had blocked the Pan-American Highway with tree stumps and sharp stones. Truck drivers were told to park diagonally, then their tires were flattened.

The teachers belonged to the Asociacion indigena evangelica de Imbabura, an association of Native evangelical teachers. It was the day before a national protest action planned by the main teachers’ union, by then in its fourth week of a strike. The evangelical groups are known to do things on their own terms…

There was no advance warning of a road closing, so people had decided to travel. Many passengers in our bus supported the protest. They said inflation had caused the teachers’ pay to shrink to nothing. An older women, non-Native, also an activist for justice, was even thrilled – “even if it means I can’t get through!” She said Ecuadoreans must join together to fight against the common causes of their economic distress.

But there was uncertainty in the air. What was going to happen? Should we go back? How could we, if blockades were also behind us? We were trapped! I was seated next to two young Otavalo Kichuas, José Manuel and Cesar, who were going into town to buy materials for their hand-made crafts.

They also thought the teachers deserved an increase, though they thought negotiation was the next logical step. One of them had participated in student demonstrations against racial discrimination. In those days, he said, people would be kidnapped and “disappeared” because of their activism. Things are not as violent anymore.

Nobody knew when the barricades would be lifted or how many miles they continued. Answers were intentionally vague. Several army jeeps and trucks came up. Soldiers jumped out and dismantled the obstacles -but avoided committing any physical violence against civilians. (The Ecuadorean army is not the most violent in Latin America.)

The protesters instantly raised another blockade as soon as one was undone. Our bus driver and another one decided to follow the army’s path. This was a very bad idea – or perhaps they didn’t act quickly enough. The protesters reacted quickly.

They ran towards our buses with stones and started aiming. Passengers were inside. The Otavalo kids shouted: “Close the curtains!”

This would prevent stones from hitting too hard. Both drivers went into reverse gear and started speeding backwards towards a safe spot, in an amazing chase scene happening in the wrong direction. There was considerable panic among passengers.

Everybody sheltered their heads in case a rock crashed in. Both busses almost collided. It was now harder to cheer for the protesters, from inside. A lady was shouting at them: “Why attack us? We are simple citizens – we’re not responsible for your troubles.”

In Latin America, evangelical churches are known for their conservative tendencies. Their followers recently started joining social movements. I couldn’t help thinking that if evangelical teachers are desperate enough to throw large stones, then the situation in Ecuador has truly reached a point of rupture.

The stone rain stopped when both buses were trapped in an exit detour. This is what the protesters had wanted – to completely paralyze vehicle movement. The passengers were let out, relieved. The second bus had all its windows smashed. José Manuel, Cesar and I walked away without any problem, to the end of the village, where we jumped into another bus all the way to Quito. I invited them for a late lunch. The soup was tastier than ever, after the chaotic morning.

Corruption and poverty linked

In the 1970s, large oil deposits were discovered in the Ecuador’s eastern Amazon region. The government bought shares in some oil companies’ national operations. Wealth was just around the comer. Then, it vanished. The poor remained poor, and before they knew it, citizens were now expected to make huge interest payments on the foreign debt.

The International Monetary Fund has recommended structural readjustments in Ecuador, like in all countries, even Canada. “Suggested” measures include privatization of national resources, as well as reducing government services. This has usually meant lower budgets for health, education and welfare.

Meanwhile, corruption runs rampant. Ecuador was listed as one of the world’s most corrupt countries – 82nd out of 99 (with 99th being the worst) – in a 1999 report from the European anticorruption group Transparency International.

Why did international institutions ever give loans to a government with this kind of reputation and known for its lack of democracy? Were the loans of any benefit to the people? Many solidarity organizations and church groups, in Canada and elsewhere, have pleaded with the first world to cancel the debts of the poorest countries.

The government’s corruption, in turn, prevents it from efficiently fighting poverty and discrimination, according to most Ecuadoreans. Natives remain excluded from wealth and power except for a few isolated cases. Estimates of the number of poor range from 5.1 million to 7.5 million. Four out of five of the poor are Native.

Almost 80 percent of the children in the country live in poverty; the vast majority of poor children live in the countryside. In 1999, the number of children in poverty rose by 22 percent. The number of school drop-outs also increased dramatically.

Indians sold on haciendas

The dire social conditions have led to major unrest. Five major uprisings have occurred in Ecuador since 1990, while smaller ones occur more frequently. Uprisings consist of anything from a blockade or a squat to mass demonstrations and even coups d’etat. Often, Native women, children and elderly will simply sit quietly on the road. Roads are shut down and markets eventually run out of supplies.

The protests are usually well-organized and disciplined, spearheaded and coordinated by the Confederation of Indigenous Nationalities of Ecuador (known as CONAIE). They work closely with social movements and political dissidents, all forming a broad alliance.

Like the Assembly of First Nations, CONAIE is formed by a network of many Native associations, themselves connected to three major confederations organized by region – the coast, the highlands and the Amazon.

The Kichua belong to 13 distinct groups, but share a common language. Less numerous Native peoples live in the Amazon region and along the Pacific coast, with very diverse cultural characteristics. The largest are the Shuar, who number 100,000 in southeastern Ecuador.

The smallest are nations such as the Secoya and the Zaparo, reduced to 200 or less. Like other Amazonian Indians, these small groups have faced the drastic consequences of oil prospecting and extraction, as well as mining operations.

Many years ago, the first priorities of Native organizations were land reform and land rights. Until the early 70s, land belonged to large private estates. Native people were mere labourers on their own territory. An “hacienda” – as a ranch was called – would be sold “with its Indians.”

Land reform allowed Aboriginals to recuperate their land in many cases. Land rights remain an important issue especially in the Amazon region, where resources are vanishing into the hands of multinational companies.

Over the years, the Native movement adopted other issues – cultural identity, collective rights, “plurinationality” (Ecuador’s version of multiculturalism), autonomy and the fight against poverty and discrimination.

Violent methods were rejected and a longterm strategy of peaceful protests started winning a lot of support among the non-Native population. Very large mobilizations helped pressure the government to enter direct talks on political reform. The mobilizations were increasingly coordinated by CONAIE, which was founded in 1986.

The “Poncho Revolution”

In January 2000, a major uprising rocked Ecuador and ended with the downfall of President Jamil Mahuad, on the 21st. This time, the protest action made world news.

The rebellion started with the first-ever session of the National Parliament of the Peoples of Ecuador (or PNPE) on January 11, with delegates sent from all provincial parliaments. Next, the Native population answered the organizations’ call to march on the capital and paralyze the country. They converged on the capital from the poorest regions, in spite of army and police roadblocks. Many were stopped, but even larger numbers were able to reach Quito.

Ultimately, even the army helped this time, having dissidents among its own ranks. Troops finally let crowds storm into the government buildings, take over Congress and the presidential palace, and install their own Parliament. Over 200 army officers participated in the uprising.

Native activist Antonio Vargas, president of CONAIE, emerged as a national leader for the movement. Other community figures such as Carmen Yamberla (the mayoral candidate in Otavalo) and Salvador Quishpe, leader of the Kichua, also played key roles.

But with success came problems. Some of the Native leaders entered into a controversial alliance with the military. A provisional junta was formed with three leaders – CONAIE president Antonio Vargas, a former judge and an army colonel, Lucio Gutierrez, who had led military support for the uprising.

Gutierrez was quickly replaced by General Carlos Mendoza, who had an idea in his head. The next morning, Mendoza pulled out of the provisional government, a surprise move that meant the country’s vice-president, Gustavo Noboa, inherited the presidency.

CONAIE and the Native movement lost its grasp on power just as quickly as they had won it. Gustavo Mendoza proclaimed that he had “saved the country from chaos.” Most Ecuadoreans believe otherwise. The common feeling is that Ecuador’s military high command wrote the last twist of the plot after consulting with the U.S. Embassy.

Fistful of dollars

President Noboa immediately declared he’d maintain the former president’s detested programs, which had sparked the revolt in the first place. So the old government was overthrown but the same policies would remain.

Most disliked was the “dollarization” process, a major concern behind the uprising. By law, since last February, all transactions must happen in U.S. dollars instead of “sucres,” Ecuador’s national currency. Banks now deal only in U.S. dollars.

The measure – people are told – is meant to stabilize the economy and prevent inflation. But it’s hard to find an Ecuadorean who believes this. The yearly inflation rate has shot up from 60 to almost 100 percent. The price of gasoline and electricity keeps climbing. The basic grocery list is 260 U.S.$ for a family of five, while average income for the same family is only 116 U.S.$. That’s just enough to buy 44 percent of the necessary goods.

Most Ecuadoreans feel dollarization has hurt their country’s sovereignty. After all, the United States have always hovered over Latin America’s political independence, when not concocting plans to crush local movements struggling for equality and social justice. The same concerns about U.S. influence sparked off spectacular demonstrations in July 1999 against the increasing number of U.S. Army bases in Ecuador.

The dollarization strategy is tied in people’s minds to the proposed Free Trade Area of the Americas (FTAA). This is a new economic pact similar to the North American Free Trade Agreement, except it will integrate all the Americas, not only the U.S., Canada and Mexico.

The deal will be discussed in Quebec City at the Summit of the Americas in April 2001. If the FTAA is ever approved, some fear it might mean that “for our own good” people in Canada will also have to adopt the U.S. dollar as our currency… But perhaps not, if we follow the path of Ecuador’s Native movement in its fight against neo-liberalism.

Who are the outlaws?

In the days following the uprising, arrest warrants were issued for leaders and participants, including 180 army officers. Antonio Vargas went underground for a while, but not without releasing a strong statement: “If you’re searching for those responsible for the

coup, you will find them inside the powerful families, inside Parliament, inside courts and among corrupt bankers, whose policies and banditism have only deepened misery, hunger, unemployment, migrations from country to city.

“If you want to bring us to trial and throw us in prison, you will have to build enormous prisons, because millions of us participated, in villages and cities, But remember that no wall, no jail bars, will stop our ideas or our struggle: With anger and wisdom, like our sacred volcanoes, we shall build a country that is plurinational, just, equal and profoundly participative,” he said.

When I visited Ecuador last year in May, I was allowed into the press gallery of the Congress during an extraordinary session held to discuss amnesty for citizens who had participated in the uprising, including security forces still under arrest in military jails.

I listened to the final moments of a heated and historical debate as local journalists gave me some clues about who the speakers were. Those who defended the amnesty motion argued that the rebels had fought to defend the Constitution against a president who broke it. Therefore, the real outlaws were corrupt government figures. Opponents qualified the protesters as a wild bunch of adventurists who had put the country into jeopardy.

While listening, I contemplated the great mural behind the Congress tribune, with huge paintings by Guayasamin, Ecuador’s best known artist – vivid shapes of human pain, fear and love, and the head of an army man with the initials “CIA” written on his helmet.

The amnesty motion won – an important victory for Native and social organizations.

Ihe next step

Protesters had originally expected that last year’s uprising would result in negotiations with the president. His departure came almost as a surprise. As an afterthought, some participants conclude that the transi- tional government was doomed to failure since the alliance with the military was unwise from the beginning.

These observers say the only reliable force is a well-organized civilian response, including Natives and non-Natives. There was a sense of pride and joy during the uprising, but afterwards there was also general agreement that it had not yet been time to take over. The people are not ready to assume power; they still have to strengthen their own movement and networks.

Amnesty was the first issue submitted to a “consulta popular,” or popular vote, by the Peoples’ Parliament and CONAIE as a strategy to put pressure on politicians.

Over a million voters expressed their support for several radical measures – dissolving Congress and the Supreme Court, calling for new elections and new nomination procedures for candidates, prohibiting dollarization, prohibiting privatization of any national resource or social program, cancelling unjust foreign debt, and finally, banning foreign military bases.

“The aim isn’t to oust presidents – it’s to change the way of imagining power and leadership in this country,” Kichua leader Salvador Quishpe said in a statement after the uprising. “If in the process, people must be substituted, then let them go.”

Quishpe is now involved in the Peoples’ Parliament movement and is president of the Parliament of Peoples of Pichincha, the province surrounding the capital city of Quito. He believes the movement is the best guarantee of direct democracy and grassroots participation.

I followed him to a local meeting in his own neighbourhood, San Roque. It is a poor district that climbs into the hills and has an awful reputation for thieves. People at the meeting assure me there are many more honest, hard-working citizens in San Roque than in wealthy districts.

Many here are Kichuas from the Chimborazo, the area that surrounds Ecuador’s tallest mountain. They were forced away from their homes because of extreme poverty. Here, life is also difficult. Residents say the district is completely neglected by authorities, who never come to visit.

Salvador Quishpe is speaking to a group of 15 neighbours, many of them street sellers, owners of tiny shops or market stalls. “The

country’s wealth has vanished into the hands of corrupt authorities. We don’t know where the foreign loans have gone. We don’t know where the fortune from oil extraction has gone. And now the government is selling our national resources at a devalued rate,” he says.

“Our Peoples’ Parliaments will find other forms of organizing society. We must think of alternative development plans. We need to change the way government works. We must establish our own trade systems and learn how to participate creatively in a new form of power.”

This kind of work is ant-like. Results take time. Quishpe, interested in the foundations of a movement, follows a strategy meant to empower citizens of all sorts. With a background in sociology, he has a long-term view of the struggle.

He goes on: “People have been rising up spontaneously, being under incredible economic pressure. Our Parliaments will help orient this force, so it is not in vain, so we may harvest some results in our effort to change the country. Parliaments are a national project, based on units such as the neighbourhood committee you are about to form, gathering Natives and other citizens.

“Long-term changes don’t happen overnight. We are against rapid and violent change and against the use of weapons. Our aim is that people reach a level of awareness and this will take many years. The Native movement has gained internal strength over the last 20 years, and since January we have joined efforts with non-Natives. We now know our strength.”

This is the seventh of our seven-part series on First Nations peoples in Latin America. Montreal filmmaker Maty Ellen Davis is the project coordinator of this special series of stories.

Produced with the support of the Government of Canada through the Canadian International Development Agency (CIDA).