Ecological Resistance, Indigenous Struggle, and Rafael Correa’s Neo-Extractivism in Ecuador: An Interview with Gloria Chicaiza

In a few words, can you describe your political formation?

I was part of the urban movement, Non-Violent Action, for 10 years beginning in the 1980s. This movement engaged in non-violent actions, together with Ecological Action, for sovereignty, and for a series of other issues. I’ve been a part of Ecological Action since 1996, beginning with the campaign around oil exploitation. Since 1997, I’ve been focusing on the area of mining.

My professional background is as a clinical psychologist.

I’ve been accompanying the communities in anti-mining struggles since 1997 in Ecuador.

Can you provide a brief history of Ecological Action?

Ecological Action was formed in 1986. It started as a communications team, devoted at the start to the struggles around oil. We’re an oil producing country, and the struggles around this theme are the struggles with the longest history within Ecological Action. After starting out as a centre of documentation, the organization began to branch out into other activities. From the start Ecological Action was opposed to large-scaled political projects that threatened the traditional ways of life of the different populations in Ecuador. So, the organization started out around oil, but then became involved in a number of other environmental conflicts in the country.

We’ve supported the important struggles of the banana workers against fumigation. Other areas of struggle have been oil, mining, and forestry. New areas of struggle arise, and others fade from focus.  So the fumigation issue in the banana sector is new, for example, while we’ve retreated from the struggles around mangrove conservation because there are very strong local organizations working on this. Ecological Action does not want to compete with local organizations, but to strengthen existing struggles.

This organization works with the principles of non-violence, food sovereignty, and energy sovereignty. We try to maintain a horizontal orientation in our collective. The highest decisions of the organization are made in the assembly. We have close ties with social movements. We’re a non-governmental organization (NGO), but we act as a link between different social movements.

We’ve been engaged in activism for many years, participating in actions to draw attention to these issues, and to resist certain policies, programs, projects. These actions have attempted to make visible the local people and communities engaged in resistance. So we’re recognized for our commitment to activism.

I think one of the strengths of Ecological Action is bringing to the surface issues that had no visibility earlier. For example, the theme of the terrible “environmental services” (market-based mechanisms for conservation). We were able to make this a national issue of debate.

What are the principal areas of the organization’s focus in the current moment?

We’re ecologists. And as ecologists, we watch what’s going on with frustration. At the outset of the Rafael Correa government we had hope. There was a new discourse.

But now everyone knows this government obeys a development model of extraction. The government has made different postures outside of the country, and there has been some recovery of sovereignty of the Ecuadorean state. However, the model of development hasn’t changed. It continues to be one based in extraction of natural resources – oil and mining. The frontiers of oil extraction have been opened up as never before in this country.

This is generating conflict. Because the oil, minerals, forests, and water are located in peasant or indigenous communities. So a direct confrontation with the peasants and indigenous peoples has erupted, communities which are being dispossessed or negatively affected by these developments.

In this context, of course, Ecological Action has assumed a highly critical stance. We are part of a series of different dissident sectors of this process of “citizens’ revolution” which have become discontented and which are questioning and criticizing the model of development being advanced by this government.

Ecological Action, together with the indigenous movement, has been threatened by the government as if we were its biggest enemy.

This “citizens’ revolution” that they are promoting, lamentably, is based in a development model of extraction that conflicts with the traditional ways of life of the populations of these communities. And these communities aren’t benefiting from the model, because it’s the peasant and indigenous communities that have always been forgotten by the public policies of the state. It’s a continuation of a model that expulses people from their communities. The people leave their communities only to enter the belts of poverty which surround the cities. It’s a vicious circle.

Ecological Action has maintained its struggles against oil exploitation, mining, and for the protection of forests.

For these positions we’re labelled infantile environmentalists, enemies of development. The president has even called us terrorists. With other governments we’d been treated in this manner. But in the first and second year of this government it was especially frustrating, because we had hope. However, we now see it’s been a continuation of extraction politics.

How do you explain the contrast between the rhetoric of the government, around twenty-first century socialism and a citizens’ revolution, and the reality of clashes with social movements on the ground? Outside of the country, Correa is held up as part of the new radical left in Latin America, but there are clearly contradictions at home.

I would say that Correa represents the continuation of a model, together with the other countries considered part of the progressive tide. There is a deep continuation of the model of extraction, based on the exploitation of nature.

In Ecuador, this particular dynamic that you’ve described has developed, because the indigenous movement represents a powerful counterweight to the government. This is one of the strongest indigenous movements in the world.

We have one of the greenest constitutions in the world. Nature itself has rights in our Constitution. The Constitution guarantees Ecuador’s food sovereignty. The human right to water is in the Constitution. We have the principle of “living well,” or “sumak kawsay” in Quichua, in the Constitution, which was the vision the popular movements had when they engaged with the Constituent Assembly process.

All of this did not come from the lucidity of the President. All of this is a consequence of the indigenous movements. Sumak kawsay comes from the indigenous peoples. The idea of food sovereignty, likewise, grew up from the struggles of local communities.

The recent international proclamations of the government to initiate a campaign so that Ecuador can avoid exploiting the oil under its soil is one of the main standards of green credibility that this government has. This demand, too, came from the community struggles of the Amazon.

These are a series of demands and proposals, then, that have emerged from the indigenous movement and local struggles and which have been instituted in the new Constitution and into policies and rights. These were rights that were won; they weren’t given freely by the President of the republic. This was an agenda imposed from below.

Therefore, there is a strong contrast between the continuity that the President represents, and the different ways of life that are still surviving, and that are resisting against the President’s politics.

Correa wants to continue development based on extraction, with a bigger state presence in the process, but the indigenous movement is a major counter-weight against this process.

Can you elaborate on how and why social movements initially were supportive of the government but have since moved away in large numbers?

At the beginning of the Correa government, all of the social movements, including Ecological Action, were supporting this government, because of the entire agenda it was presenting. Moreover, many representatives of the social movements were a part of the government.

Alberto Acosta, for example, was the Minister of Energy and Mines, and had been connected to social movements his entire life.  And other social movement activists had positions in various ministries.

With the passage of time, however, discontent grew; the majority of activists were kicked out of the government, because they didn’t do as they were told, because they were “too radical,” or because they questioned the President. If you were a part of the government you could not make your dissent known, at least publicly.

There was a campaign of defamation against any social movements that opposed the government. They were supposedly right-wing and were trying to destabilize the government. The government would say that because we now have a government on the left, we all have to support the government so it doesn’t fall. This dynamic continued for the first year of the Correa government.

The first social movement to break with this blackmail and environment of fear and intimidation was the indigenous movement. Because it became clear during the first year that this government was continuing the policies of the neoliberal governments in the past, that it was not carrying out the platform that had attracted social movements to support it, and that it was engaging in repression against movements resisting policies of extractive development.

Popular movements began gradually to distance themselves from the government and began questioning Correa.

All of the laws that this government has recently put in place, or tried to put in place – in education, media, mining, water – have generated confrontations in the streets between the people and the government.

Communities of resistance, above all in the South of Ecuador, have rearticulated themselves. We’re talking about the Central South of the Country and into the Amazonian South, because these are the areas where mining districts are being configured for exploitation. These are the geographical areas which have become corridors of resistance against mining, because the mining would put the water and the people at risk.

Imposing this mining model over the existing agricultural productive models in these areas means destroying the latter, which in some cases have been successful.  So, of course, there is a confrontation between these two models.

For Canadian readers, in particular, can you describe the role of Canadian companies in the mining sector. Canadian companies have a huge presence in the country and this presence is generating major conflicts with social movements. Can you explain the dynamic that’s developing in this regard?

Just as in much of the rest of Latin America, Ecuador is a place of expansion for the activities of mining companies. In our case, above all, the presence is of “Junior” Canadian companies is the most obvious, companies that have imposed themselves on this scenario. There have been cases of attacks related to Ascendant Copper, a company which has a suit against it in Canada. There are other companies that are active in the Condor mountain range in the South, engaging in a range of nefarious activities, which have almost no visibility.

In the case of the Intag Valley, it was possible to trace responsibility to Ascendant Copper, but in much of the rest of the country it has been more difficult. Other companies’ activities are similar, but they haven’t been connected with dates and facts in the same way. But we have testimonies of the people that have been driven from their land, others who have been physically attacked. Their testimonies say that those responsible were working for these mining companies. There have been violent confrontations.

Canadian mining companies have the strategy of coming in, causing enormous conflicts, dividing communities, and creating illusions about the standards of their practices back in Canada that are not true. We’ve had indigenous Canadians visit us who have told us that indigenous people in Canada are worse off than indigenous people in this country. The Canadian state doesn’t even respect basic international conventions on indigenous rights; indigenous peoples have lost their own territories. But Canadian mining companies talk about the high standards that they live by back home, that they’re form the North, and that everything that happens in the North is better. The idea is to convince people that they obey rigid standards back home and that they will do so when they mine here.

So they have come and have tried to invent this image so as to conceal the real face of these companies.

What is more, these Canadian companies have overwhelming diplomatic support in this country. For example, the officials of the Canadian embassy went to Pangui to present, together with the company Ecuacorriente (a subsidiary of Corriente Resources), $10,000 of credit to the population, which does not have to be paid back. So they have a diplomatic shelter, which attempts to build support for the mining companies within the communities. The Canadian company, Kinross, for example, has contributed roughly $800,000 to organic agricultural producers.

However, these people who are receiving financing from these companies don’t realize that they’re basically engaging in a self-boycott. Once there is active mining in these areas, these organic products are not going to be accepted as green exports. Their green credibility is going to be revoked. So it’s a strategy of buying off the people in order to invest in mining, investment which will ultimately destroy these local agricultural producers.

So the companies distribute money in these localities in order to neutralize and to overcome local resistance. They have done tremendous damage.

What is important to note, however, is the direct action of local communities. In almost no community where there is a Canadian mining company have they been able to wipe out resistance altogether, in spite of their attempts to distribute money, in spite of their attempts to divide communities.

There are attempts to criminalize communities, to bring activists to trial, targeting the leaders of these movements, in an effort to decapitate the anti-mining movements. So charges are brought against indigenous and peasant activists who don’t have resources to defend themselves, and whose time is therefore tied up in these proceedings. This is all a sign from the companies that they won’t respect the demands that the communities have.

These activities have generated grave levels of convulsion in the country.  When a mining project is installed, the conflicts start.

But we still have hope, as the communities in resistance do, that we can stop this activity, that the resistance will triumph, that these local models of development will triumph. The people in the communities support this. There are people working to strengthen the resistance and these alternative models.

There are highs and lows in the struggle. Last year, for example, there were local elections, with invisible manoeuvring by the companies backing certain candidates, candidates that have a great deal of financial backing because they have close ties to the mining companies. The companies intervene in these political elections. There have been times when this backing has defeated and divided the people, but at other times, like last year, the people have overcome these manoeuvrings and elected anti-mining activists to local office.

There have also been bi-national ties developed in the South with anti-mining activists in Peru. These represent moves toward the consolidation of these corridors of resistance.

But it’s difficult. In the South, you have Ecuacorriente, or Corriente Resources, that has shifted some of its concessions to a Chinese mining company. Kinross is there, and a number of other companies with lower profiles.

However, you also have the indigenous group, the Shuar, with their traditional territory in the Corridor de Condor. The indigenous Saraguros and peasant migrants are also in this area. All of these sectors, in this moment, are articulating themselves. There are moments of dispersion and conflict, but there are also moments of articulation that makes the resistance of the people to the presence of these mining companies strong in this area.

In the long term, what do the various social movements you’ve been talking about want to change in the existing development model. What other type of development might replace it?

There are many different alternative development models in the indigenous communities. There’s not one alternative. Each one has its own sumak kawsay. The implantation of sumak kawsay in the new constitution had as its purpose the replacement of the current development model with a series of development models that have their shape in the existing indigenous communities. They are expressions of the pluricultural and plurinational reality of the country.

These existing indigenous nationalities have provided us with a certain type of vision, enabling us to think outside of extractivism, and not to submit to the idea that we need to eliminate the forests and jungle of the Amazon. The alternative development models are about surviving. They have nothing to do with the destruction of forests and the environment. We’ve seen this in the indigenous Amazonian resistance to oil exploitation.

There are the roots of economic alternatives in these communities. It’s not the case that economic activity starts when the mining companies arrive. There are existing economic alternatives on the ground. There are a series of economic activities in these communities that are already producing for those communities, but each with their own peculiarities. So we need to understand these differences and build alternatives that don’t pretend to have the same solution and same alternative for all at once, but rather solutions that respect the needs of the particular communities.

The utopias that we are demanding are already alive in the communities, in terms of food sovereignty, for example.

Can you elaborate on the struggle for food sovereignty?

This idea of food sovereignty hasn’t been taken into account in this country. We have the capacity and we should be producing our own food. When you’re talking about setting up mines, you’re talking about setting up mines on agricultural land. So mining is putting our food sovereignty at risk.

Food sovereignty has to be one of the principles around which we organize the way forward; it’s an axis around which we should determine which path we take. We should protect our capability to reproduce ourselves, and to reproduce ourselves culturally speaking as well.

It’s frustrating, for example, for those communities who think that oil extraction has been a failure to encounter the oil promoters who say it’s been a success. These oil interests continue to say suggest that the destruction of the Condor mountain range, the glaciers, and the environment more generally, is somehow progress. These are losses to our patrimony that last forever. How can we count this as development?

What is the connection between the water struggles and the anti-mining struggles?

Among the natural resources we have that can serve us well into the future is water. Water is becoming scarce in the world. And we happen to have this patrimony in abundance, which is so important. It’s our responsibility to take care of it, not only for us, but for the entire world. The direct defenders of this patrimony are the indigenous communities. It’s the indigenous movement which is resisting on the front lines, and it is the indigenous movement that is being criminalized for this resistance. This has to stop. But, in fact, criminalization is getting worse.

The water law and mining laws are connected. One example of resistance was the resistance to the mining law, because it redirects our water to the mines and to hydroelectrical developments. The water law leaves the water in the hands of private sectors, which have the capacity to legally redirect water away from agricultural producers, which are the indigenous peoples and the peasantry.

And the indigenous and peasant communities have risen up to protest in response. They would never be taken into account through the traditional institutional channels, and so they resist. The state has what they call mesas de diálogo, negotiating tables, around mining and water, but these are designed not as mediums of dialogue but as mechanisms of neutralizing dissent. The people got tired of this, and are taking to the streets. In Ecuador, this is the method that has worked in the past.

How has the criminalization of protest played out in this context?

Since they have taken to the streets, the state has taken to calling them “terrorists and saboteurs.” In the courts of this country, these charges imply 8 to 12 years in prison. Hundreds of comrades are being processed at this very moment.

Last week, for example, three arrest warrants were issued for three prominent leaders in the struggle against the water law in Azuay. Twenty-one activist leaders in the south of the country are facing new charges after having been amnestied for baseless charges in the recent past. In the process of the Constituent Assembly, in 2008, social movements won the amnesty for those activists facing baseless charges in the past.

These activist leaders had been criminalized, charged with terrorism, assault, and a series of everyday crimes, like robbery, and so on.  These types of charges are what people faced for opposing oil extraction, mining, destruction of forests, hydroelectrical projects, and pollution of their rivers, and so on. There were roughly 600 activists facing these types of charges, until their amnesty was won in the Constituent Assembly. Now, these activists are facing a new wave of charges. And many of those who were supposedly amnestied find that they have been blacklisted. When they try to leave the country they can’t. If they apply for credit, they’re denied. They’ve been stamped as criminals.

These are peasants whose only crime is the defence of the only thing they have, the defence of their land and water.  This criminalization is deepening, and collectively we are searching for ways of neutralizing this assault. We are trying to find ways to prevent our comrades from being sent to prison.  As defenders of nature, we’re trying to strategize a response to this generalized criminalization of resistance.

You’ve spoken about local instances of resistance, and the variety of alternative development models already alive in various indigenous communities. But is there any articulation of this resistance at the national level?

There have been moments of articulation. In the moment of the Constituent Assembly, the people in resistance articulated anti-mining fronts, for example. And an indigenous movement exists in this country. These local instances of resistance are part of the indigenous movement. The indigenous movement articulates these local resistances against mining.

There are alternatives, as I mentioned, which are already taking shape. For example, there are alternative forms of hydroelectrical power which are decentralized and have low-impact on the environment; there are local production schemes, in the coffee sector, for example. What the struggle is about in certain communities is strengthening what the communities are already doing. Part of this resistance is revaluing the practices of these communities.

People assume that the people in the rural areas are all poor, and that those who come from the city are richer, more developed, better educated. But these communities have land, pure air, water. The only thing they lack is what they can’t grow on their own. But they have everything else they need to live.

There are obviously problems. But these people aren’t dead, and mining isn’t the solution for the problems they face. Many indigenous peoples and peasants want agriculture to continue being their future.

Jeffery R. Webber teaches politics at the University of Regina. He is the author of Red October: Left-Indigenous Struggles in Modern Bolivia (Brill, 2010), and Rebellion to Reform in Bolivia: Class Struggle, Indigenous Liberation and the Politics of Evo Morales (Haymarket, 2011).