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Indigenous Sovereignty: an Ecuadorian Perspective

The Present Reality

As a result of the so-called discovery of America and the consequent colonial and republican eras of Latin America, we, the "Indian" peoples, lost control of the material means of production (land and territories). Another culture (language, customs, and values) imposed on us legal rules (constitution, laws, and regulations), an economic system, and its political power by means of the conquerors and colonizers (Spaniards, Portuguese, English, and others). Little by little, the feudal model of the Spaniards, the commercial and industrial models of the English, and, later, the present market economy and globalization of the world economy were imposed.

The new model of the dominant society and the market economy requires persons, families, enterprises, and the population at large to have specialized knowledge in order to be efficient and competitive components within the national and international contexts. In order for us to be participants and actors in the new dynamics of the national society, the following requirements, among others, need to be met:

Education. Teachers to educate children and adults in the model of the dominant society are needed. Those who are able to speak, read, and write in the official language (Spanish) are the bridge between the mother tongue of their people and the dominant culture. Whoever knows how to speak, write, and read in Spanish has been considered cultured and civilized, and the rest, uncultured and savage. Nowadays, aside from acquiring a profession, a person has to be able to use a computer, speak yet another language -- preferably English -- and have friends in the national and international arena in order to be an efficient leader or a recognized technician. The knowledge and experience of the elders is gradually being abandoned; elders now serve only as depositories of the millenary knowledge of their people; as such they are valued by foreign experts. Other activities of our people are similarly affected.

Animal Husbandry and Agriculture. In order to work efficiently and be technically current, we have to hire specialists in agronomy, animal husbandry, forestry, aquaculture, etc.

Housing and Road Infrastructure. For new housing, highways, and reinforced concrete bridges, it is at the very least necessary that we have experts in carpentry and masonry, civil engineers, and architects. These experts are also vital to more complex works of infrastructure, such as dams and hydroelectric plants, and to management of the exploitation of natural resources (oil, gas, gold, etc.) by national and multinational companies.

Administration of Human and Financial Resources. In order to be efficient at administration, and at the planning, execution, and evaluation of programs and projects for social organization and development, we require professionals in accounting, administration, economics, auditing, and planning.

Health. We require a range of specialists in: surgery, dermatology, gynecology, ophthalmology, pediatrics, psychiatry, etc..

Politicians. For conducting and organizing society, political parties and political movements are structured, and popular leaders from different organizations at the district level draft proposals, laws, and regulations, and make decisions in the name of the community, the people, the nation, and state. "Indigenous" peoples have applied this knowledge and are lacking only a monetary system. Today, however, all professional and political activity is carried out in the dominant language of Spanish, and under laws, norms, and values that are foreign and imposed.


National sovereignty, according to some theories of political law, belongs to the people, from whom, supposedly, all powers of the state emanate, even if those powers are exercised through representatives. Sovereignty resides exclusively in the people, whose will -- exercised through the organs of public power and the democratic means stated in the Constitution -- is the basis of authority. Sovereignty resides exclusively in the people, from whom public power emanates. The people exercise it directly or through their representatives, as established by the Constitution. The power of decision-making and the political will of nationalities will be exercised through the multinational state and its respective agencies and institutions.

At this point we should ask ourselves the following: Do the "indigenous" people have a voice and a vote in the dominant society and culture? Do they speak Spanish? Have they delegated representatives to speak for them or defend their rights? The answer to all of these questions, in general, is no. For this reason, we affirm that we, the "indigenous" peoples, have lost a great deal of our sovereignty.

The dominant culture also has experienced an incomplete sovereignty: it has been unable to exercise its sovereignty over the entire national territory because its economic and technological resources, body of knowledge, and national laws are not applicable to all inhabitants and because not all of them speak the same language. Passive and active resistance among many peoples has also been a factor. For this reason, the dominant culture has applied its central objective of nationally integrating all inhabitants by means of laws, education, the Church, and the military service while neither recognizing nor respecting cultural differences or national identities. Thanks to the struggle of the "indigenous" people, however, the majority of Latin American states now recognize in their constitutions the multiculturalism and multi-ethnicity of their inhabitants.

Regardless of such constitutional recognition, the Latin American states will have to concede part of their national sovereignty to the "indigenous" people. States should:

- Award the national parks, forestry preserves, and other protected areas to their legitimate owners, the "indigenous" peoples; such preserves were created without consulting the people and without their approval.

- Amend the Latin legal principle that the subsoil belongs to the state; the exploitation of the riches of the subsoil should be shared with the "indigenous" peoples.

- Modernize, decentralize, "deconcentrate," and privatize state enterprises as demanded by the proposal of autonomy submitted by the "indigenous" peoples and nationalities.

- Share political and economic power and sovereignty with the "indigenous" people that have organized themselves at national and international levels to demand the rights that have been denied for centuries. The "indigenous" peoples and nationalities of Ecuador have decided to participate actively in the political, economic, and social life of the country so that others will not entirely decide the present and the future course of their lives.

In Ecuador, although the "indigenous" nationalities issued a number of complaints, the government of Doctor Jamil Mahuad continued to support the corrupt banking system that financed his presidential campaign. Bank deposits of Ecuadorian people were frozen to favor the bankers. Anarchy and corruption were rampant. For these reasons, The Confederation of Indigenous Nationalities of Ecuador (CONAIE) exercised its sovereignty and spearheaded, together with other social sectors, a movement that culminated in the resignation of President Mahuad on January 21, 2000.

In the same way that the national states were unable to impose a uniform culture on their inhabitants, none of today's great world powers will be able to fully impose their policies on other countries. There will always be passive or active resistance in different fields of human power and knowledge. At national and international levels, sovereignty is relative: it is a matter of human coexistence; it must therefore be shared by the citizens and peoples -- including "indigenous" peoples -- of a country, by multinational corporations, and by the different "sovereign" states of the world.

The different "indigenous" peoples, from within their cultural beliefs and experience, consider as part of their sovereignty the three areas that modern states consider part of their own sovereignty: the subsoil with all its riches, the soil or the national territory, and the airspace. To the "indigenous" people, in the subsoil are the living or mythological beings that should be respected, and valued, and asked for permission to extract a part of the soil's riches. In the territory live the human beings; we share the soil with other living creatures -- the fauna and the flora -- because we are part of nature and not the kings of nature. In the firmament, or the airspace, mythological beings form an indivisible part of the life of human beings and the universe. This "indigenous" concept of sovereignty -- that we are an indivisible part of a whole -- is entirely different from Western values and concepts of sovereignty. They may be complementary, but they are different in concept and form; for the Western world, everything is money, power, and private property.

We are Nationalities

Our sovereignty is based on our spiritual relation with Mother Earth, whom we recognize as a point of meeting with the supreme creator and the source of life.


- In the 1940s the Ecuadorian Federation of Indians (FEI) was created in Ecuador; it was part of the Confederation of Ecuadorian Workers (CTE), an organization with a Communist slant.

- In 1964, the Federation of Shuar Centers was constituted, representing the Amazonian Shuar People.

- In 1972, the Ecuador Runacunapac Riccharimui was constituted, ECUARUNARI, the Awakening of the Ecuadorian Indian.

- In 1980, the Coordination of the National Council of Indigenous Nationalities of Ecuador (CONACNIE) was formed to gather together the demands and aspirations of the "indigenous" peoples of Ecuador.

- In 1981, the Confederation of Indigenous Nationalities of the Ecuadorian Amazonía (CONFENIAE) was created, a confederation of all the nationalities of the Ecuadorian Amazonía.

- In November, 1986, the Confederation of Indigenous Nationalities of Ecuador (CONAIE) was founded; it represents the different "indigenous" nationalities of Ecuador.

- In 1988, the National Bureau of Intercultural and Bilingual Education (DINEIB) was created.

- In 1990, Ecuador was surprised to witness the First Indigenous Uprising, after which many talked about "the Ecuador of before and after 1990."

- In 1992, the Great March of Life took place, organized by the "indigenous" peoples of the Province of Pastaza (OPIP). This march, from the Amazonía to Quito, resulted in the legalization of 1,115,000 hectares.

- In 1994, a national mobilization to oppose the law for dividing communal "indigenous" land for the land market occurred.

- That same year, CONAIE submitted its Political Project to constitute a Multinational State.

- In 1996, the Movement Multinational Unit, Pachakutik, Citizens New Country was created, an organization that unites Indians and other social sectors.

- From June 1996 to December 1998, with support from the World Bank, an Action Committee was created consisting of representatives of the "indigenous" peoples, black peoples, and the Ecuadorian government to prepare and implement the Project for the Development of the Indigenous Peoples of Ecuador.

- In 1998, after a lengthy process of interaction between the "indigenous" peoples and the government, the National Council for the Development of the Nationalities and Peoples of Ecuador (CODENPE) was created.

- In 1997-98, "indigenous" peoples participated in the National Constitutional Assembly, and the collective rights of the "Indian" Peoples became part of the Ecuadorian Constitution in force.

- In March and July, 1999, local demonstrations led to agreements between the Ecuadorian government of Dr. Jamil Mahuad and the Confederation of Indigenous Nationalities of Ecuador.

- In January 2000, CONAIE, with the participation of the Ecuadorian people and the military, led a chain reaction to revoke the presidential mandate, which resulted in the resignation of the Constitutional President, Dr. Jamil Mahuad.

We, the "indigenous" peoples, adopt different names for ourselves. These names are not necessarily the ones that academics use, and there is no reason why they should be. Each "indigenous" people has the right to adopt the name that is in accordance with its political struggles and that is best for developing its political projects. In Latin America since the alleged discovery of America, the different peoples have been called by the generic terms, "indians," or "indigenous" peoples, but each "indigenous" people has a well-defined and specific -- not generic -- identity, including: Shuar, Quichua, Mapuche, Inuit, Huao.

It is also true that in different countries we seek another form of self-identification; we may identify ourselves as Native Peoples, Natives, Peasants, Nationalities, First Nations, Peoples, etc. Now that 500 years have passed, the generic terms which have been applied to us since the European "discovery" and conquest should be eliminated. We should have more specific denominations. In Ecuador, we identify ourselves as nationalities.

We are nationalities:

- Because we are aware of our individual identities and because we belong to a people that lived, lives, and will live in what today is the Republic of Ecuador.

- Because we are peoples with diverse cultures.

- Because we possess a historic continuity of past, present, and future, even though for many historians and power wielders we have not "advanced" beyond prehistoric times.

- Because different peoples have different languages; not mere dialects.

- Because we have preserved elements of our own beliefs and spiritual practices, in spite of the imposition of the Catholic or Evangelical religion.

- Because we have preserved essential elements of a community economy and of the sustainable use of our natural resources, in spite of the pillage and aggressive exploitation on the part of national and multinational -- mining, oil, cattle, and agribusiness -- companies.

- Because we have a vision of the world wherein human beings are equal, but different because of our different languages, customs, beliefs, and because of our different forms of political, economic, and military power.

- Because we are part of nature and therefore do not consider ourselves superior to her.

These and other elements differentiate us from other peoples who have different ways of seeing this world, as well as of developing and living in it. It is imperative and important that we, the indigenous nationalities and peoples, have direct participation, with voice and vote, in national and international organizations dealing with indigenous issues.

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