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Can a Small Indigenous Community Be a Threat to a Nation?

By Javier Ponce*

The dispute between the Kichwa peoples of Sarayacu and the Ecuadorian government goes beyond petroleum exploitation: it challenges the notion of a united and homogeneous state.

QUITO - In the middle of the Ecuadorian Amazon a battle has been brewing since 1996 between the small indigenous Kichwa population of Sarayacu and the Argentine Compañía General de Combustibles (CGC), which that year obtained the oil drilling rights for the area known as Block 23.

The Sarayacu community, whose legendary name means "river of maize", is home to around a thousand Indians, who defend their right to maintain 135,000 hectares of virgin forest in its pristine state.

The conflict has had its violent side. A minority of Indians were in favor of the oil company's drilling rights in exchange for 200,000 dollars in compensation through community projects, and have carried out several armed attacks against the Sarayacu leadership. Meanwhile, the government of Lucio Gutiérrez (himself a son of settlers in the Amazon) has offered to militarize the region to protect CGC.

But this is something more than a dispute over oil drilling. What is being called into question is the validity of a conception of Ecuador as a nation and a state, unitary and homogeneous that has historically ignored the existence of its indigenous communities.

Only the decision of Sarayacu to proclaim itself an Autonomous Territory of the Original Nation of Kichwa Peoples is already a way of vindicating the Indians' own history and rejecting the imposition of someone else's. It is already an act of "subversion".

Here enter into the game not only the economic goals of a government anxious to use petroleum to "honor" the country's foreign debt of around 15 billion dollars, but also the political-administrative structure of the country and a democracy that does not comprehend the degree of autonomy and self-determination sought by the indigenous organizations of the Amazon.

And if one sector has defended that conception of a unitary state it has been the military, which today leads the Ecuadorian government and its oil policy.

Despite the visibility and strong presence that the indigenous movement has achieved, the dominant society continues to underestimate the possibilities of a future that is based on the sustainable exploitation of resources, as practiced for centuries by Ecuador's ancestral peoples and allowing regions like Sarayacu to preserve 90 percent of its status as the country's largest native forest reserve.

The Sarayacu problem is seen as "ancestralist" nostalgia that stands in the way of extracting petroleum wealth. And the demand of the community that its territory (the legalization of which was wrangled from the Ecuadorian government in 1992) be excluded in perpetuity from the petroleum exploitation "blocks" and recognized as an area of biological interest, constitutes a threat to the government's unilateral vision.

Every so often, the CGC returns to try to renew its geological exploration activities. Twice the Gutiérrez administration has tried to pressure the Sarayacu peoples. In May 2003 it used threats. In December the government did it again. It has issued arrest orders for indigenous leaders, which have only been overturned because the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights stepped in.

The Sarayacu case is motive for reflection on to substantial issues: the rationality of intensifying petroleum exploitation that has devastated enormous swaths of jungle, without improving the living conditions of the Ecuadorian people; and the need to start imagining and building a country based on "plurinationality" and "interculturality", without prejudice or imposition.

The question that arises, however, is whether the battle of a small community in a region isolated by the state is going to change the way a republic has operated for nearly two centuries.

Ecuador has a Constitution that recognizes the ancestral rights of the indigenous nations over their territories. Will today's reality understand the precepts written in a Constitution?

The coming months will be crucial for the Sarayacu resistance. What happens there -- one of the historic centers of greatest power of the Kichwa universe, two days by riverboat from Puyo, capital of Pastaza province -- will establish the terms under which Ecuador continues its oil and mining policy in the Amazon.

* Javier Ponce is an Ecuadorian writer and columnist. Among his books on the indigenous issue is "Y la madrugada los sorprendió en el poder" (And in the morning they found themselves in power).

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