Indigenous resistance is the new 'terrorism'

Date of publication: 
10 July 2011

If you thought there was anything romantic about environmental activism or indigenous rights, think twice. Socialist ideas about nature – such as keeping water a public good – can get you facing charges of sabotage by a leftist government. In the land of the Incas, if you protect the pachamama [“Mother World”], you might just be a “terrorist”.

It’s becoming tricky to identify “terrorists”, at least in Ecuador. They are not members of criminal organisations, they don’t spread fear or target civilians, nor have a politically motivated agenda. According to President Correa, “terrorists” are those opposing Ecuador’s development. So today’s “terrorism” might just look like indigenous peoples peacefully taking over the streets, with their ancestral knowledge and values, to demand environmental and social rights.

In Ecuador, “terrorists” are indigenous peoples from the Amazon and the Andean highlands fighting to preserve access to water in their communities. Old penal codes written in times of dictatorship are being revived by leftist presidents to repress indigenous activists. As “terrorists”, they are labelled as enemies of the state, and arrested – by the very president that claimed leftist credentials and staged his inauguration in overtly ethnic style.

When the Continental Summit of Indigenous Peoples and Nationalities of Abya Yala gathered delegations from the entire hemisphere in Ecuador last month, the focus was on the criminalisation of environmental protest.

Abya Yala, which means “continent of life” in the language of the Panamanian Kuna peoples, refers to the Americas. The summit has consolidated ethnic organising capacity across borders since it first organised in 1990, maintaining a diversity of indigenous voices from Canada and the US all the way to Honduras, Guatemala, Argentina and Chile.

This fifth meeting was symbolically held in Cuenca, where the last Inca died of smallpox – brought from Europe – years before the Spaniards themselves made it to the Andes. This year’s topic was water – yakumama in Quechua, and the earth – pachamama, echoing the growing environmental pressures on rural communities.

But the week’s true highlight was the establishment of an independent, transnational Ethics Tribunal.

Modelled on a “truth commission”, the Ethics Tribunal was designed as a public court to bring visibility to injustices and foster government accountability towards international human and indigenous rights. It was specifically established to address cases of criminalisation of indigenous protest for environmental justice.

On June 22, a four-judge tribunal heard multiple expert reports – as well as 17 personal testimonies – taking more than four hours on the issue.

According to Ecuador’s Confederation of Indigenous Nationalities, there are currently 189 cases of people accused of sabotage and terrorism by the Ecuadorian government, for protesting the privatisation of natural resources. The situation is so critical that Amnesty International issued a statement denouncing it as an attempt to silence opposition to government policies.

Cases vary in context, but not in substance. In Cochapata, community members were condemned to eight years in jail on charges of terrorism for opposing mining – the government has so far ignored the amnesty granted by the constitutional assembly. A radio station in the Amazon province of Morona Santiago, Radio Canela, was shut down in April for fueling opposition.

Silencing the opposition

The most prominent cases relate to the accusation and illegal arrest of some of the most visible indigenous leaders in Ecuador – Pepe Acacho, Marlon Santi, Delfin Tenesaca and Marco Guatemal. The four heads of national indigenous organisations were accused of sabotage for participating in marches against laws to privatise water during a 2010 summit of the Bolivarian Alliance for the Americas in the indigenous town of Otavalo, where leftist presidents discussed continental multiculturalism without inviting indigenous organisations.

All cases reveal a state-led effort to silence indigenous protest to protect access to clean water.

Using so-called “anti-terror” laws to silence indigenous struggles over natural resources is not a new strategy. Chile, for instance, has extensively used anti-terror laws created under the Pinochet regime to criminalise Mapuche protests over lumber. Canada has also responded to opposition against resource extraction on native land in Ontario by incarcerating the protesters.

What is news is that a leftist president – who has repeatedly fallen back on ethno-politics to increase his legitimacy – is using forms of martial law inherited from past military regimes to destroy indigenous calls for environmental justice.

The irony is that President Correa, a political ally of Evo Morales and Hugo Chavez against North American hegemony, maintains a strong discourse of environmental justice for the Global South. Not only has his administration pioneered international norms by granting new rights to nature in the 2008 Constitution, but it strongly supported the World’s People’s Conference on Climate Change and the Rights of Mother Earth held in Bolivia in 2010.

Yet President Correa started using laws codified in the 1920s and 1970s, including the Doctrine of National Security designed by the military dictatorship, to persecute indigenous opposition. He created a state of emergency, calling upon the armed forces to intervene when internal security might be threatened, and he has already shown a willingness to use them.

Proposed legislation to increase jail time for stopping traffic is a direct attempt to disrupt traditional forms of indigenous protest, which often rely on marches and road-blocks.

Correa’s government, which was elected under a mantle of social justice, has also silenced his opposition through legal and military violence and manipulating judicial mechanisms to repress dissidents. The most recent referendum expanded the executive grasp on the judicial apparatus, making it even more dangerous to oppose his neoliberal stance on natural resources.

Ecuador’s indigenous movement, often described as the strongest in Latin America, has been strongly targeted as the main opposition to Correa’s neoliberal agenda with regards to water.

Last year’s proposed Water and Mining Laws to further privatise access to water and expand mining concessions was stopped only by indigenous mobilisation. Extractive policies are at a peak, with close to two thousand mining concessions, according to the Ministry of Energy and Mines.

Despite Correa’s best efforts to silence indigenous claims, one cannot but recall Bolivia’s water wars a decade ago. Multinational participation in the privatisation of water led to widespread street protests, and the more the government repressed protest the more tensions escalated until Cochabamba exploded in conflict.

Indigenous peoples have been struggling for survival on their lands for centuries – they are not about to let water go. Instead, the confrontation seems to be worsening.

As things intensify, the indigenous peoples of Ecuador will continue to take their protest to the streets. They will also focus on organising international pressure on their government. The Ethics Tribunal will not run out of work anytime soon.

Manuela Picq has just completed her time as a visiting professor and research fellow at Amherst College. She is returning to the Amazon this autumn to continue her research on indigenous peoples’ rights.

The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily represent Al Jazeera’s editorial policy.