Writers Rebel interviews Nayra Chalán, an indigenous leader from Ecuador who played a key role in the October 2019 indigenous uprising.
A year ago this week, as Extinction Rebellion brought central London to a standstill, as Writers Rebel was being born in Trafalgar Square, the announcement of IMF-dictated austerity measures in Ecuador had triggered the largest indigenous-led uprising in over a decade.
While XR succeeded in occupying parts of central London, Ecuador’s indigenous movement had effectively paralysed the whole country. Native groups from the Amazon, Andes and coast had collaborated to block roads nationwide, cutting off food supplies. Thousands of people had converged on the capital city of Quito (some walking hundreds of miles from the Amazon region), where they were met with brutal police and military repression. Seven demonstrators were killed, among them indigenous leader Segundo Inocencio Tucumbi Vega, who was beaten to death by police. In a poetic example of indigenous justice, four law enforcement officials were captured by demonstrators and forced to carry the casket at Inocencio Tucumbi’s wake, before being released.
The uprising wasn’t the first to be organised by the Confederation of Indigenous Nationalities of Ecuador (CONAIE), which represents Ecuador’s 14 indigenous nationalities. In the decades following the first major rebellion in 1990, Ecuador’s indigenous movement became one of the strongest on the continent, due to its ability to mobilize and inclusion of a diverse range of ethnic groups. Previous rebellions have resulted in the overthrow of two Presidents.
The majority of Ecuador’s indigenous people live in the Andean region, or Sierra, and are of Kichwa nationality. They are represented by ECUARUNARI (the Confederation of Kichwa Peoples of Ecuador), one of three regional organisations that make up CONAIE. Many highland Kichwas are small-scale farmers (campesinos), growing crops such as corn, potatoes, and beans or keeping cattle for milk. Others make a living with traditional handicrafts such as weaving, embroidery, and jewellery-making. At the heart of the Andean indigenous cosmovision is the concept of sumak kawsay, or good living in harmony with nature and community. One of the biggest threats to this way of life is transnational mega-mining for gold and copper.
In this interview, we speak with Nayra Chalán, the Vice President of ECUARUNARI. Nayra belongs to a group of Kichwas called the Saraguros, whose name means “land of corn.” The Saraguros are a unique indigenous culture in Ecuador, as it is thought their ancestors were Incas relocated from Lake Titicaca on the border of Peru and Bolivia in the 16th century. The Saraguros describe themselves as descendants of Inca leader Huayna Capac’s closest circle, who he sent to Ecuador to start a new colony that would adhere faithfully to his beliefs.
We spoke to Nayra about how it felt to be on the streets of Quito, the strategies and impacts of the rebellion, and the role women played.
WR: What were the events that led to the uprising?
NC: When the current Ecuadorian President, Lenín Moreno, came to power in 2017, we raised a number of issues that had not been resolved by his predecessor, Rafael Correa. These included intercultural bilingual education, indigenous justice, community transport, the declaration of mining-free territories, and amnesty for more than 400 social activists persecuted by the previous regime.
In the absence of responses to these proposals, the decision was taken at the CONAIE Annual Assembly in August 2019 to terminate the unsuccessful dialogue with the Moreno Government. At the same assembly, the date was agreed for a national rebellion. On October 1, Moreno announced Decree 883, which removed fuel subsidies. This economic measure forced us to bring forward the date of the uprising.
After paralyzing several provinces, we decided to move to Quito, where students, transport and other workers were already mobilized. The arrival of the indigenous movement in Quito was decisive.
WR: What were the strategies to organize such an impactful uprising, which effectively paralysed the whole country?
NC: Although the levels of confrontation with the security forces were more visible in the Ecuadorian capital, we do not minimize the importance of the local actions that were carried out, such as the countless roads that were blockaded all over the country.
In several territories, the pressure levels went even further. In nine provinces, our comrades took over government offices. In some places, water supplies and telecommunications were cut off. In the Ecuadorian Amazon, indigenous defenders took over oil wells. Were these tactics legitimate? Of course. The Amazon has been an oil territory for more than 50 years, ever since the oil boom of the 70s. This has been at the detriment of the indigenous inhabitants, whose living conditions have been worsened by irresponsible pollution. Oil royalties never benefit the local population. Similarly, the concentration of water in private hands disadvantages small-scale farmers.
The crisis of representation and the politics of the State contributed greatly to the fact that public outrage was at its peak just at that moment. In the end, the call for the October rebellion exceeded our expectations. This meant that the food and lodging we had planned for our comrades who were travelling to the capital city of Quito from the various provinces were insufficient. However, the people of Quito provided us with enough food to stay in the streets. When the indigenous movement mobilizes to Quito, we stay there until we are answered.
As we say, “the struggle is the mother of all rights”, so one puts on the shirt from any trench, contributing in any way possible, from donating a plate of food, to going out into the streets and manning the barricades.
WR: How did it feel to be on the streets of Quito in October 2019? Do you have any particular memories of the uprising that you would like to share?
NC: It was a complicated time, with moments full of euphoria. However, the first two deaths, of Inocencio Tucumbi and Daniel Chaluisa, were like pouring gasoline into the cauldron. When these two comrades lost their lives at the hands of the security forces, it unleashed the spirits of the protesters. Indignation at the security forces grew and people started demanding accountability for the deaths.
Then came the dialogue with President Lenin Moreno. One of our conditions was that the dialogue be broadcast live on national television. After that event, all of us who had been victims of state violence knew that we had won a battle, and that from that moment on, Ecuador was going to be different. And so it was. Since then, the Government has invested a significant percentage of the general state budget to strengthen the security forces. It has also increased the aggressivity of its campaign to discredit social protest, as well as persecuting social leaders with accusations of terrorism.
WR: What was the role of indigenous women in the uprising?
NC: With women representing half of the population, their role cannot be neglected, although big politics tends to nullify the relevance of their action. The October rebellion was sustained thanks to the women who devoted all their strength to caring for, feeding and healing their comrades in resistance. In addition to these caring roles, women were also in decision-making and management positions during the rebellion, although in lower numbers than men.
When an indigenous woman goes out to fight, she never leaves her children at home, but carries them into the streets with her. However, there were such disproportionate levels of repression in October, that we had to create care facilities for minors and pregnant women. These were primarily run by urban feminist women.
WR: Was the Association of Victims of the National Uprising, named after Inocencio Tucumbi, successful in highlighting the serious human rights violations perpetrated by the state?
NC: After October we had a visit from the Inter-American Court of Human Rights (IACHR). After gathering testimonies from both civil society and the government, the Court determined that there had been serious human rights violations and a disproportionate use of public force during the uprising. Despite these conclusions, there has been no will to seek responsibility for these serious violations. In fact, once some of the victims had been identified, the Government set about bribing as many of them as possible to prevent them from taking legal action against the State. We cannot call it success when justice is used as a weapon of repression and political persecution in our country. We will seek real justice and reparation with the necessary bodies, as we are finding no answers here.
WR: One year later, what have been the long-term impacts of the uprising?
NC: Following the events of October, the Government has more forcefully set its sights on the indigenous movement as the internal enemy to be defeated. Indigenous leaders are repeatedly persecuted and intimidated. The repressive apparatus has been strengthened, with millions of dollars allocated for the provision of equipment for the police and military. The creation of a new legal framework, Ministerial Agreement 179, enables the deployment of the armed forces to control internal order. This provides military protection to strategic sectors such as mining, against which indigenous communities have been struggling for years.
Despite the increasingly militaristic state, the uprising gave a boost to the social sectors, especially the indigenous movement, and we’re not willing to lose it. In both urban and rural areas, hope for social organization grew, as did politicization and the questioning of political and economic power, hegemony and capitalism. We continue fighting, day by day, for our dignity.
ECUARUNARI can be found on Facebook and Twitter. For a six-minute video with English subtitles on ECUARUNARI’s struggle against mega-mining, click here. Follow this Facebook page (in Spanish) to support Ecuadorian resistance against mega-mining.
Nayra Chalán was interviewed by Beth Pitts, who has been working with indigenous communities in Ecuador since 2013, especially those defending their territories from extractivism. From these defenders, Beth learned that community-led eco-tourism enables them to protect threatened ecosystems and unique ways of life. This inspired her to write the Moon Guide to Ecuador & The Galapagos Islands (2019), the first international guidebook on Ecuador with a focus on ethical travel.
Beth is part of the Writers Rebel team and is excited by the alchemic possibilities of uniting the two forces that give her the most hope for the future: indigenous nature defenders and Extinction Rebellion.