democraciaAbierta: Opinion

Ecuador has no winners – both sides will pay for peace

After an 18-day national strike, the government and Indigenous leaders have come to an uneasy truce. Will it last?

Manuela Lavinas Picq
15 July 2022, 12.01am
Ecuadorian National Police advance through the streets of Quito as they disperse demonstrators during the national strike protest, June 2022

Alamy Stock Photo

An 18-day national strike in Ecuador concluded on 30 June with the signing of a “peace accord” between the Confederation of Indigenous Nationalities of Ecuador (CONAIE) and the government of President Guillermo Lasso.

The peace agreement has been met with relief after bringing an end to weeks of violence. After CONAIE called a strike, a social explosion devastated the country, with hundreds of roadblocks, a state of emergency declared in various provinces, and heavy government repression. Thousands of demonstrators were on vigil day and night, and thousands of people were left without the daily work they need to feed their families.

There are no winners here. The people lost – with at least 6 dead, more than 500 injured and over a hundred detained. But the government also lost. President Lasso was nearly impeached by Congress, a motion initiated in midst of the protests by the opposing party UNES, led by former president Rafael Correa. Lasso lost the little legitimacy he had left and now appears more vulnerable than ever. Peace put an end to the armed violence but social unrest remains.

Peace – but at what price?

According to the agreement, signed under the auspices of the Ecuadorian Episcopal Conference, the government lowered fuel prices by 15¢ a gallon, repealed Decree 95 (which expands oil exploitation in the Amazon) and suspended the state of emergency in several provinces.

The repeal of Decree 95 is perhaps the only important achievement. The rest of the agreement is mostly a list of good intentions: to “modify” Decree 151, which grants environmental licences for extractive mining, within two months instead of 15; to “work” on subsidy policies; to “guarantee” free, prior and informed consultation to indigenous communities on projects located on their territories, and to “issue” a declaration of emergency in the health system. Many of these rights are already enshrined in the Constitution.

CONAIE began the strike with ten demands, including respect for the collective rights of Indigenous peoples; a moratorium on mining in water sources; economic aid to peasants plus a moratorium on minor debts; improved employment and labour rights; and greater investment in health and education.

These are important and legitimate demands that touch many Ecuadorians, not only Indigenous people, and they united many sectors of society, including young people, students, feminists and workers. All the demands are feasible, but most remain unresolved.

Related story

The Constitutional Court has ruled that Indigenous peoples have the right to decide over oil and mining projects in the Ecuadorian Amazon

The strike has taken a heavy human and social toll. Including the legacy of so much military and racist violence (including by journalists), social polarisation and people-to-people attacks – such as of certain protesters against journalists, of women protesters against market women, of protesters against those who refused to protest.

Ecuador suffers from the authoritarianism, extractivism and corruption that plague the rest of Latin America. But the national strike had its local context. After a decade of ‘progressive authoritarianism’, we now find ourselves facing the neoliberalism of President Lasso – a former banker and Opus Dei devotee implicated in the Pandora Papers who lives in a bubble of social insensitivity.

Upon assuming the presidency in 2021, Lasso increased fuel prices, vetoed the law allowing abortion for rape (as approved by the Constitutional Court) and committed himself to rentier extractivism.

He promised to double oil exploitation in the Amazon, including in the Yasuní biodiversity reserve. This could provoke an ecocide as well as threatening the existence of the Tagaeri and Taromenani peoples who live in voluntary isolation. He committed to expand mining extractivism, affecting fragile ecosystems in the Andes. This will increase environmental pollution, accelerate climate change and dispossess Indigenous and peasant communities.

Indigenous leaders have indicated that if the government does not comply with the peace agreement, they will return to the streets

In 2022, nearly 30% of Ecuador's working population has full employment, a third of children suffer from malnutrition and the level of teenage pregnancy is among the highest in the region. Illiteracy is on the rise, and more than a million are excluded from universities. Such exclusion has led to an unprecedented increase in violence, including in the prison system.

Thousands of families have migrated, forced to risk their lives in search of work in North America. Meanwhile, the president is accused of offshoring millions of dollars in tax havens in the US. The sense of dispossession, theft and abuse is profound.

Repression, racism and violence

All this exploded during the national strike. The government added fuel to the fire by illegally detaining CONAIE leader Leonidas Iza in the first hours of the strike. The president ordered a state of emergency for Indigenous protesters while at the same time calling for anti-strike “marches for peace” in upper-class neighbourhoods; he invited dialogue on television while sending the military to repress protesters, including children.

It was an explosive mix of repression, racism and non-dialogue that only generated more resistance, increased social violence and deepened the strike.

The peace accord was highly contested by Indigenous leaders, who have vowed to be vigilant over the 90 days since the agreement was signed, indicating that if the government does not comply with the agreement, they will return to the streets.

Now to enjoy this bitter peace. We are left with a society wounded in body and soul. We must find ways to stitch together the social wounds amid a legacy of racism, hatred and violence, in a country that is still deeply poor and unequal, and more polarised than before. There will be no social peace as long as there is no ecosocial justice.

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