WATER ON THE BRAIN: no winners in the conflict between Ecuadorian indigenous groups and President Correa

WATER ON THE BRAIN: no winners in the conflict between Ecuadorian indigenous groups and President Correa

Gerard Coffey

Quito 27th May 2010

The recent confrontation between the Ecuadorian President Rafael Correa and the country’s indigenous organizations was the second within a year. The first took place in September 2009, and while there was no clear winner, the fact that Correa did not, was telling. It was the first time he had met major resistance. Winning had been easy, but all of a sudden it was hard. This time it has not been easy either and the President has suffered his second bloody nose in a row. Worse still, there appears to be more to come. It is difficult to avoid the conclusion that the Citizen’s Revolution is in a little bit of trouble.  Although Rafael Correa will doubtless survive this and other confrontations with indigenous groups, unless he can clearly win or, most unlikely, decides to negotiate, key aspects of his programme now appear to be at the mercy of future indigenous mobilisations.

Equitable Water

The context for the clashes is water and the challenge of putting the country’s chaotic and often illegal water usage into some sort of logical order. Attempting to initiate a more equitable redistribution never promised to be easy, despite the fact that few would disagree about the need to do it, or that the status quo is unfair and unsustainable. Many campesino and indigenous communities working small parcels of land dependent on irrigation have very limited access to water, while agro industrial producers use virtual rivers and pay almost nothing for the privilege, if they pay at all; some plantations simply use water not assigned to them, as if by divine right.

The new Constitution took the first step in 2008. The country’s Magna Carta now speaks of water as an inalienable right, prohibits any form of privatisation, sets priorities for use, and requires the revision of and equitable redistribution of water concessions. The complementary legislation now in the National Assembly generally keeps to the spirit of the constitution, but there are a number of fundamental and operative issues that have not been resolved during more than a year of consultations and the drafting of numerous versions of the bill. The review of water permits required by the constitution has not been carried out and, as indigenous leaders rightly point out, 64 percent of the country’s irrigation water[i] is still in the hands of one percent of the population.

The country’s major indigenous organization, CONAIE, (Confederation of Ecuadorian Indigenous Nationalities) also points out that while Constitution prohibits privatization the legislation permits hydro electric and mining projects considered priorities under the national development plan, to take precedence over other uses. But the principal dispute concerns who will have the final say over water use and planning: the state, or a pluri-national council that would represent all users. The President is clear that he will never allow the indigenous people to control water that belongs to all Ecuadorians. For its part CONAIE claims that it will not allow this government to gain control over water resources.  There are holes in both arguments. No one is clear about who would end up controlling a pluri-national council. It would presumably operate by consensus, but as in all consensus decision making, some participants would be more equal than others; some group or groups would inevitably end up with control.

The government’s position also has limitations. The state as presently constituted might do a reasonable job of planning and control, and in doing so take into account the more marginalized economic groups, including indigenous communities. But some future government, some future right wing government, might very well use the same powers now being proposed in order to change distribution in favour of agro- exporters and mining companies. Of course, these hypothetical future governments would have to contend with the indigenous movement.

In normal circumstances most of these differences would have be resolved with only minor delays. But relations between the President and CONAIE have never been so grim; in an environment poisoned by accusations and insults, positions have become increasingly rigid. There is no dialogue, nor hope of one at any time soon. Marlon Santi, President of the organisation, has even called for Correa to be deposed. Delfin Tenesaca, President of CONAIE’s major regional affiliate ECUARUNARI, contradicted him, but would evidently not be troubled if the Correa government should fall.

Debate over the new legislation has now been suspended while a constitutionally required consultation is carried out with the native people. The latest dispute centers on whether the result of the consultation should be binding. CONAIE has stated that it must. It is not hard to see the their point of view; a non binding consultation is little more than an exercise in legitimacy and, worse still, could be used by the government as an opportunity to undermine leaders and divide communities. Legislation to regulate this type of consultation is lacking, but the Constitution does not allow for binding consultations and there is little likelihood that the proposal will be accepted by the government.

Binding consultations put power in the hands of the consulted at the expense of the state, and the state is the raison d’être of this government. It is not hard to imagine that binding consultations over natural resources such as oil or minerals also leading to a breakdown in the political structure of the country. A redesigned, decentralized state where regions exercised control over resources would not necessarily be a bad thing, but if that is the issue it would be better debated in another form and in another context. To suggest that a binding consultation would do nothing more than provide for better bargaining is rather ingenuous.  In any case, other groups have the right to be consulted, and if consultations were binding it is not hard to visualize one group’s suggestions or requirements being contradicted by another’s.


No one has, or should have been, taken unawares by all of this. The conflict has been easy to predict.  Three years of government invective, small and not so small confrontations, failed dialogue, dialogues that were never intended to succeed, differences of style and distinct vision of what Ecuador should be, and who should benefit from natural resources provide the context. As for the specifics, this protest is characterised by CONAIE’s need to recover political ground and dignity in the face of the President’s assault on its authority. In recent years the organisation has been floundering. No longer the force it was, when in the nineteen nineties and early years of this new century it also spoke for large part of the non indigenous population, the movement has been feeling its lack of influence and is fighting to be heard by a government that, ironically, has been doing more for indigenous populations than any other in the country’s history.

Unfortunately for all concerned the government’s strategy has involved disqualifying any social sector organizations that could provide opposition to its political agenda. It was no surprise therefore that Rafael Correa was so keen to disrespect and divide the indigenous leadership, given its evident, if until now latent, political power.  It was most likely a political strategy rather than personal choice, and as such has not been limited to indigenous groups. In some cases the strategy has worked in discrediting political enemies, but it has evidently not worked with CONAIE. The President’s exhorting of the non indigenous population to support him, and rise up against the indigenous people, has hardly helped. What it has done is to provide a measure of legitimacy for racism which, although significantly reduced in historical terms, is still present, especially amongst older and economically more comfortable sectors of the population.

One of the President’s themes is that the general level of the present indigenous leadership is poor, and that Marlon Santi himself would be better off in an a more subordinate position.  Whatever the truth of the statements may be, and while there is a feeling that Santi will not go down as CONAIE’s greatest leader, he is its elected President, and as such due the respect his position merits.  Insulting the leader is tantamount to insulting the group as a whole, and as a result the confrontation has become extremely personal; many indigenous people now hate Rafael Correa.

The intense feeling of personal antagonism is widely shared, but beyond it the indigenous position is hardly homogenous. There are personal goals: Santi anxious to disprove what the President says about him, the recently elected Tenesaca eager to prove his mettle and leadership capacity, and Lourdes Tiban, the indigenous Asambleista , for whom personal goals appear to have the upper hand.  The movement is also changing. Newer more right wing figures are emerging, class is becoming a factor and young indigenous people are far more connected to the outside world than was the case twenty years ago. There are also larger agendas. Leaders and communities from the different regions have different visions of the state and their participation in it. Those from the mountain communities generally live shoulder to shoulder with the mestizo population and this influences their agenda and possibilities for action. On the other hand, leaders from the central/southern Amazon region, (Santi is from the Amazon community of Sarayaku, which has long resisted oil exploration), work with an agenda based on the autonomous control of large ancestral territories.

As part of this independent world view, some Amazonian leaders appear willing to work with whoever seems prepared to help them achieve their aims. The recent meetings with the Junta Civica, a right wing business organisation from the City of Guayaquil, is a case in point. The meeting, which apparently involved  gaining support from the Junta for joint actions against the President, was roundly condemned by most left of centre observers, and the leadership of CONAIE (Marlon Santi was strangely absent at the time) was heavily criticized by its own membership. While there has been some suggestion that the meeting was a well concealed government sting, the attitude of the Amazonian leaders seems to confirm that that the Junta Civica’s advances were not entirely unwelcome.

The end game

Whatever course the confrontation may take in the near future, it is evident that President Correa has been put in check. His statement to the effect that he is willing to shelve the water legislation, a proposal now seconded by the head of the Water Authority, can be seen as a bluff.  This is not a real answer.  If the legislation is shelved, everyone loses, including Correa. The Citizens Revolution will lose momentum, and will almost certainly find itself in the same position over other pieces of legislation, and the implementation of major mining projects in indigenous territory. For Correa, winning or going home appear to be the only options.

It is obvious that the strategy based on electoral success is falling short. Winning the Presidency is not enough. There are groups in society that are too important to ignore, whatever the results of an election may be. In many democratic countries the mainstream press and the bankers cannot be ignored by any class of government. In this particular case, with the help of the water legislation the indigenous movement, particularly that of the central mountain provinces, has been able to place itself in the same position.

How far CONAIE is willing to push its agenda is uncertain; future action will depend in part on who has the upper hand within the organisation itself. Marlon Santi´s position, and his political stance vis a vis President Correa, can only have been strengthened by this latest round of resistance. The major question though is whether the organization and its leadership can resist the government´s media firepower. A taste of what is to come has been provided the latest accusation that the CONAIE leadership has misused funds, something strenuously denied by the organization.

While cooler heads might once have been able to resolve this impasse, positions have become so polarised, and the bitterness so ingrained, that at present it is hard to see any kind of constructive dialogue taking place.  One erudite left wing commentator recently wrote that the battle over the water legislation had resulted in a historic victory. But while indigenous groups appear to have won something, on closer examination it is hard to see exactly what that something is. The suspicion remains that there are no winners at all in this conflict.

[i] According to concessions handed out up to 2005. This does not account for massive amounts of illegal water usage.