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The Land Issue in the Ecuadorian Highlands

On 27 May 1990, 160 Ecuadorian Indians took over the Santo Domingo cathedral in the heart of old Quito, converting it into a communal living and eating space. The Indians, representatives of indigenous communities of the six sierra (highland) provinces of Ecuador, demanded that the government immediately resolve 72 individual land conflicts between sierra communities and large-scale landowners (hacendados). The issues of land ownership, tenancy, and distribution, the dominating themes of sierra Indian existence, were suddenly forced to the front pages of Quito's newspapers.

Santo Domingo Church Occupation

Within a week after taking over the church, thousands of Indians organized a massive, sierrawide uprising, isolating entire provinces and regions from the capital. The motivation underlying this mobilization of individuals, villages and towns, regional federations, and a national indigenous confederation was everywhere the same: take back the land that once belonged, and rightfully still belongs, to the indigenous communities of the sierra.

By Monday, 4 June, the mobilization had shut down the provinces of Bolivar, Chimborazo, Cotopaxi, and Tungarahua, all south of Quito, Pichincha, where Quito is situated, and Imbabura, to the north of Quito. The basic strategy involved placing large boulders, walls of rocks, and tree trunks across the Panamerican Highway (the north-south artery of Ecuador) and other major roads. The participants were especially eager to paralyze the flow of agricultural goods from the countryside to the major towns and cities.

Provincial capitals immediately experienced spot shortages of certain products. In the provinces with particularly severe land conflicts, such as Chimborazo, Indians took police hostage on several occasions, and directly confronted the hacendados. The governor of Chimborazo was reportedly in the hands of the provincial Indian federation at one point. Community leaders in Tungarahua announced that they would continue to blockade roads, no matter what the consequences, until their lands were returned. Occupation of haciendas by the indigenous people who worked them occurred all over the sierra, but this activity was less a protest than a direct action to redress the roots of injustice in the sierra.

The reaction of the national government, as reported by the conservative daily El Commercio, was two-faced and contradictory. On the one hand, the police and the army were used extensively and forcefully to control, inhibit, and roll back the mobilization. Troops in full combat gear, utilizing tanks and making free use of tear gas, nightsticks, and, in some cases, bullets, swept through the countryside. Police imprisoned many of those participating in the blockade of roads, and one leader, Oswaldo Cuvi, from Chimborazo's capital, Riobamba, lost his life in a confrontation with police.

At the same time, the government invited the leadership of the insurrection to negotiate. This offer, too, came with a mixed message. Government Minister Andres Vallejo insinuated that the uprising was being manipulated by opposition political parties, reminding El Commercio's readers that provincial and congressional elections were only a week away. Admitting that the indigenous population had been ignored for many years, he added that the solutions to the problems of the communities could not come about "overnight," and that, in any case, the Indians were receiving more attention from his government than from previous governments. By 8 June, Ecuador's president, Rodrigo Borja, had designated a commission composed of several upper-level ministers, including the head of the Ecuadorian Institute of Agrarian Reform (IERAC), to negotiate with the indigenous leadership. The archbishop of Quito received the task of mediating between the two groups.

The Indigenous Leadership

The leadership of the uprising is also the leadership of Ecuador's regional indigenous federations and the national confederation. Since the early 1970s, Ecuador's indigenous peoples, who compose perhaps 40 percent of the nation's population, have been organizing themselves on the community, provincial, regional, and national levels, mostly over the issues of land distribution and ownership. Organization of the highland people advanced furthest first (i.e., before the indigenous peoples of the coast and of Amazonia).

In June 1972, 200 delegates from Imbabura, Pichincha, Cotopaxi, Bolivar, Chimborazo, and Canar provinces created Ecuador Runacunapac Riccharimui (meaning "the Brotherhood of Indigenous Peoples" in Quichua, the common language of the sierra peoples and a local variant of the Inca's language, Quechua), usually known as Ecuarunari. Ecuarunari has fought for the Indians' rights to land, community development, minimum wage for agricultural labor, democratization of credit, education, and control of natural resources. Eight years later, the six distinct ethnic groups of the Ecuadorian Oriente organized the Confederation of Indigenous Nationalities of the Ecuadorian Amazon (Confeniae) with the allied, if somewhat different, goal of obtaining title to thousands of hectares of rain forest that, unlike the sierra, had never been annexed or conquered by the Spanish and had thus never experienced the reign of the hacendados.

The stage set by these two federations allowed for the entrance of a national coordination of indigenous ethnicities in 1980. The initial coordinating body was replaced in 1986 by a strong, activist-oriented grouping of the peoples of sierra, coast, and Amazonia called Conaie (Confederation of Indigenous Nationalities of Ecuador). Conaie set its goals high - not only the redress of historical injustices suffered by Indians, but "the defining of a political project that corresponds to the characteristics and realities of our peoples [that will] delineate a political alternative for the transformation of all of Ecuadorian society" (Conaie 1988:268).

Conaie and Ecuarunari led the Indian uprising of 1990, helped by Confeniae, and from the platform that the occupation of the Santo Domingo church provided, the leadership disseminated a succinct program. The context of their program was congealed into 16 demands:

1. Return of lands and territories taken from indigenous communities, without costly legal fees

2. Sufficient water for both human consumption and irrigation in the indigenous communities, and an environmental plan to prevent contamination of water supplies

3. No payment of the municipal taxes levied on the small properties owned by indigenous farmers

4. Creation of long-term financing for bilingual education programs in the communities

5. Creation of provincial and regional credit agencies under the control of Conaie

6. Debt pardon for all debts indigenous communities have incurred with government ministries and banks

7. Reform of the first article of the Ecuadorian Constitution such that it recognizes Ecuador as a multinational state

8. Immediate delivery of funds and credits currently assigned to the indigenous nationalities

9. A minimum two-year price freeze on all raw materials and manufactured goods used by the communities in agricultural production, and a reasonable price increase for all agricultural products sold by the communities, relying upon free-market mechanisms

10. Initiation and termination of all necessary and priority construction of basic infrastructure in the indigenous communities

1 1. Unrestricted import and export privileges for indigenous artisans and merchants of artisan-craft

12. National legislation and enforcement in favor of strict protection and controlled exploration of archaeological sites under the supervision of Conaie

13. Expulsion of the Summer Institute of Linguistics (SIL, a missionary group), in accordance with Executive Decree 1159 of 1981

14. Respect for the rights of children and the raising of consciousness in the government regarding the actual state of affairs extant among children

15. National support for the practice of indigenous medicine

16. Immediate dismantling of organizations created by the political parties that parallel governmental institutions at the municipal and provincial levels, and which manipulate political consciousness and elections in the indigenous communities (Hoy 6/29/90)

Eleven days after the occupation of the Santo Domingo church began, the Indians left the church in a disciplined manner, according to El Commercio, having cleaned the building thoroughly. As they departed, the leaders of Ecuarunari and Conaie delivered a list of 72 specific land conflicts, requiring immediate resolution, to the government. Since then the government has officially expressed great optimism that the dialogue with Indian leaders is "advancing" and that the problem of restitution of lands "would be resolved." IERAC's director promised that the government would address problems through infrastructure and social services in the communities. Meanwhile, the government took pains to demonstrate how much land it had redistributed already and how much money had been invested in infrastructure. Gonzalo Ortiz Crespo, the president's secretary, responded positively to many of Conaie's demands.

Rodrigo de la Cruz, one of Conaie's directors, observed official optimism with guarded skepticism, citing the worst disputes in the most contested province, Chimborazo, where the government had still done nothing concrete.

The Uprising in Agualongo

While the uprising in Chimborazo demonstrated in clearest relief the exhausted patience of the indigenous communities and their willingness to take direct action to resolve historic injustices, in many other parts of the sierra less violent - if no less serious - organizing activities aimed to transform the domination of the countryside by the hacendados. The small village of Agualongo, located in the province of Imbabura, some 8 km north of the thriving market town of Otavalo, provides a glimpse into the conditions bearing upon and the events surrounding the insurrection in a relatively well-off indigenous community.

According to Conaie statistics, some 75 percent of the people living in Imbabura are Indians. The indigenous people of Agualongo, known as Otavalenos in common with more than a dozen villages surrounding Otavalo, earn most of their cash income from the home-based production of artisanal goods, mainly weavings. These weavings portray the Otavaleno culture to the outside world - other Ecuadorians and foreigners - and the market in Otavalo is the arena in which the Indians of Agualongo and the other communities interact with a wide world of peoples.

But Agualongo's weavers have always been and remain farmers - mostly for subsistence, but with an abiding propensity for vending surplus produce or produce in heavy demand. The market in Otavalo proffers weavings to tourists, but also a wide variety of foods for the large, and growing, Indian population. Several distinctive features characterize Otavaleno agricultural practices. Otavaleno farmers maintain composting techniques and crop rotation, and practice intricate and highly productive crop associations among corn, beans, squash, quinoa (a grain), potatoes, peas, and other legumes. Interestingly, Otavalenos prefer to cultivate highly diverse mixtures of bean varieties rather than plant one single variety of uniform shape, size, and color. Otavalenos praise mixtures with "the most color," yet somehow maintain the varieties as distinct. This feature sharply diverges from bean cultivation elsewhere in Ecuador and Latin America, and more closely resembles practices of farmers in the great Lakes region of Central Africa.

Notwithstanding the Otavaleno farming practices that preserve both soil fertility and crop productivity and avoid soil erosion and plant diseases, farming has been problematic in Otavaleno communities such as Agualongo due to the relative scarcity of land. There is no actual scarcity of fertile land; rather, large haciendas swallowed up the bulk of the richest and most level land during the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, leaving tiny plots for the Indians, who were also forced to work on the haciendas in a state of debt-peonage known as huasipungo. Artisanal labor was also appropriated during the colonial and post-independence periods.

The Otavalenos have been weavers for at least 1,000 years since they arrived in Ecuador from the north, and their craft supplied the Inca empire with textiles after the Incas prevailed in the region in the early 1500s. The Spanish expanded textile production through the construction of large, primitive factories, overworking Indians in a mercilessly exploitative fashion. After independence, the Indians' labor continued to be controlled both in agricultural and craft production by the hacendados, who also owned the textile factories. Because the Otavalenos, after the conquest, still had access to the necessary tools to produce textiles at home, while their lack of access to land inhibited their practice of farming, they earned cash income from weaving rather than farming.

The Agrarian Reform of 1964, instituted by the military regime of that period, changed the situation for both farming and weaving in Otavalo. Debt-peonage was abolished, and hacendados were instructed to split their properties into 5-hectare allotments to distribute to each former huasipungero (indentured laborer on a hacienda). The first of these reforms affected weaving mostly, because it allowed the Otavalenos to reallocate their time to much more intensive home-based textile production. This led to a transformation of the craft into its present export-and tourist-oriented form.

The division of the haciendas, which would have similarly liberated Otavaleno agricultural production, was not carried out in anything like a systematic or thorough fashion. During the 1960s, while Agualongo's indigenous people were vastly augmenting their incomes through their weaving, only two haciendas were broken up. IERAC's mandate to distribute 5-hectare plots was circumvented and the huasipungeros only received one hectare. The hacendados stayed on, with diminished but still considerable holdings. Increased income and some improvements in public health and hygiene initiated unprecedented population growth in Agualongo and other Otavaleno communities, which further diminished landholdings as small lots were divided and subdivided among the children of each family.

Even as the Otavalo market boomed, land for farming became an increasingly scarce commodity in the 1970s and 1980s. Agualongo's farmers organized an association in the 1980s called Atasla (Association of Agricultural Workers of San Luis de Agualongo) to buy back hacienda lands at just prices, with the intention of cultivating such lands as community property instead of subdividing them, and working them utilizing the traditional labor collective of indigenous Andeans, known as the minga.

With land prices climbing precipitously in the late 1980s, hacendados in the region began offering parts of their properties for sale to other wealthy mestizo Ecuadorians; persistent rumors hinted that Mafia families from Colombia were laundering their enormous cash assets by investing in land in the Otavalo-Cayambe area. The Imbaquineo family, with more than 50 hectares in Agualongo, offered 16 hectares at 1.5 million sucres per cuadra (.8 hectares), or approximately US $2,000 per hectare, in late 1989. The indigenous community and Atasla reacted with anger and outrage, sending a delegation to the Imbaquineos to argue against this "commercial price," far beyond the reach of Agualongo's farmers who had first claim to nay land the hacendados of Agualongo wanted to sell. The Indians offered a "social price" of 500,000 sucres (about $550) per hectare. The hacendado rejected this price completely, and threatened to call in the army to protect his land from Atasla.

The Imbaquineo property was not the only hacienda with land for sale in late 1989. Coronel Martinez, head of Ecuadorian customs, owns 100 hectares in Agualongo and wanted to sell 10 of them. He told Atasla leaders that he preferred to sell to the community, but he quoted a very high price. With these two conflicts unfolding in Agualongo at the beginning of 1990, Atasla was extremely willing to collaborate with Conaie in extending the uprising to Agualongo, working with the provincial federation Ficampi (Federation of Indigenas and Campesinos of Imbabura), a Conaie affiliate.

The uprising in Agualongo began on Monday, 4 June, when community members came down from their village and blockaded the Panamerican Highway with large boulders and logs. Atasla did not try to occupy any haciendas or confront the hacendados, but the Imbaquineos immediately called for army and police protection. On 5 June, the police teargassed the Indians who were on the highway with the barricades, and on one occasion police officers rushed the barricades wielding clubs. According to Atasla's president, Marcelo de la Torre, Agualongo's people "eventually came to an understanding with the police, because we actually know many of those mestizos as friends." Friends or not, tear gas was again thrown at the barricades the next day. By Thursday the Indians had removed the barricades, and Atasla had presented Agualongo's case against the haciendas to the governor of the province.

Within a week, the Imbaquineos were acting less openly hostile and apparently more conciliatory. Settlement of Agualongo's land disputes figured among the list of 72 specific issues Conaie had demanded that the government resolve. By July, Atasla and Agualongo's farmers were expressing cautious optimism that their struggles might be peacefully settled in the near future.

"500 Years of Resistance"

Conaie's demand that the government resolve longstanding land disputes in favor of the indigenous communities of the sierra is coupled with the necessity that the state provide funds, through IERAC, for the purchase of these lands at a "social" rather than a "commercial" price. Although the power and influence of the hacendados is less than it was 50 years ago, their collective voice is clearly heard at many levels of government, and many Ecuadorians loudly wonder just how far the state will move against the hacendados' interests.

New rumors that the hacendados planned to sell large estates to Colombian narcotics organizations swept the country in July. Conaie refused to back down from its 16-point program. A conference of indigenous peoples from North, South, and Central America and the Caribbean convened in Quito in mid-July with the stated theme of advancing the struggle for land as the hemisphere draws near to the 500th anniversary of Columbus' arrival in the Americas. "Five Hundred Years of Resistance," reads the graffiti on the walls of Otavalo: "Neither the Sword Nor the Bible Have Vanquished Us."


Conaie (Confederation of Indigenous Nationalists of Ecuador)

1988 Las nacionalidades Indigenas en el Ecuador: Nuestro proceso organizativo. Quito, Ecuador: Ediciones Abya-Yala.

Meisch, L.

1987 Otavalo: Weaving, Costume and the Market. Quito, Ecuador: Ediciones Libri Mundi.

San Felix, A.

1988 Monografia de Otavalo: Vol. I & II. Otavalo, Ecuador: Instituto Otavaleno de Antropologia.

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