Fuel Price Protests Open Broad Rights Dialogue in Trilingual and Plurinational Ecuador

By Ampam Karakras and Ted Macdonald 

In mid-October 2019, Ecuador’s indigenous peoples suddenly left home and became the most numerous and visible marchers in a massive national protest, ostensibly against rising gasoline prices. In many ways and at the same time, their actions reflected the broad concerns and demands of demonstrations in Chile, Lebanon and Hong Kong. But government officials in plurinational trilingual Ecuador initially took a narrower view … or chose to do so.     

CONAIE marches on the seventh day of protests against President Lenin Moreno's economic reforms. Photo by CONAIE

As we exchanged notes and edits between Cambridge and Quito, we jokingly asked, “How will the world understand why Ecuador’s indigenous people are the most numerous, outspoken, and demanding at this time?  Since most of them work close to home and few have automobiles, they don’t rely on cheap fuel.”  We knew that, for the indigenous marchers, the price of gasoline was simply one issue among many, a lone tree of sorts standing out in a recently closed forest which the protests sought to open.  However, shocking negative comments soon arose. A Peruvian TV journalist in Miami, Jaime Bayly, said "I don't know how [high fuel prices] hurt them. If they are genuinely indigenous, and [thus] live in caves, forests, I don't think they drive an Audi or even use public transportation."  Far more disturbing and closer to home, presidential hopeful Jamie Nebot angrily shouted that the indigenous protestors should simply “go back to the paramo,” the high Andean grasslands where a few herded sheep. By contrast and by paying attention to spoken words and broader contexts, it was clear that the protesters wanted to open larger doors to neglected rights issues like bilingual education, natural resource development, and self-determination detailed in the 2008 Ecuadorian Constitution. And they also sought to end the broad government corruption linked to such neglect.   


Gasoline fuels concerns 

Protests started when transportation workers went on strike following a government decree, Bill 883, which eliminated long-standing subsidies on gasoline and diesel, and created several other economic austerities to repay a $4.2 billion International Monetary Fund (IMF) loan. It was a plan by the current president, Lenin Moreno, to deal with huge economic losses from the previous, notoriously corrupt, and strongly centralized administration of President Rafael Correa. The transportation workers quickly reached an agreement.  But over the next few days, thousands of Ecuadorian students, environmentalists, women’s groups and public workers continued to protest and close roads throughout the country. Indigenous presence increased most noticeably. Large numbers joined, traveled and often marched long distances into regional capital cities and Quito. As they flowed into the capital over the weekend of October 12-13, their numbers and actions increased and met with violence. Many were injured and several young people were killed by police and military just before a Saturday night curfew was set up. Things looked bad that night. But the following day President Moreno opened a dialogue with the Confederation of Indigenous Nationalities of Ecuador, CONAIE.  


Seeking Broader Dialogue

CONAIE President Jaime Vargas discusses the national economic growth plan at Ecuador's National Assembly.

Led by national and provincial indigenous organizations, particularly CONAIE (Confederation of Indigenous Nationalities of Ecuador) which includes every indigenous ethnic group in Ecuador, leaders broadly explained the protests. They supported the demands for fuel subsidies but placed them into a far larger civil and human rights frame, one that exists constitutionally but was often neglected by both the current and previous governments. So CONAIE was pleased with President Lenin Moreno’s offer to accept a public and neutrally mediated (United Nations and Ecuadorian Episcopal Conference) dialogue that began on the evening of October 13. It was, as they requested, open and publicly broadcast to demonstrate democracy at work, so that all Ecuadorians could be witnesses. Initially, CONAIE declared as unacceptable the police and military actions—from excessive tear gas thrown into simple congregated groups to shootings, deaths, and injures of women and children. For this they demanded the replacement of the Ministers of Defense and Government who directed the government responses. Equally important and more broadly focused, CBS News reported on the opening dialogue: 

CONAIE President Jaime Vargas said that the community rejects the government’s new reforms and subsidy cuts but that its complaint goes further. “Our fight is in defense of our territories,” he said. He said measures to appease the IMF have led to increased oil and mining in indigenous lands, actions that “don’t respect the collective rights of the indigenous people.” 

An even broader national perspective was peacefully illustrated during a large October 10 assembly in the Casa de la Cultura Ecuatoriana.  CONAIE leaders corralled patrolling police, placed them on the stage, and explained to all that police should be working with them because the marches stood for national communal democracy.  Then they voiced specific demands beyond fuel prices —land and territorial rights, freedom to protest, safe and equitable natural resource development, acceptance of bilingual education, and dual legal systems within Ecuador’s plurinational state. These apparently unrelated issues illustrated their largest national concern… compliance with existing laws. 

In terms of national legislation, international human rights agreements and its 2008 Constitution, Ecuador’s recognition and acceptance of human rights is outstanding.  But the country has fallen way behind in putting related norms into practice. Even the country’s long-standing support for bilingual education was being quietly but clearly eroded by realigning school districts and mixing schools. 

As CONAIE emphasized, local people were having no fruitful dialogues with Moreno government officials or ministries. It is a pattern which followed the previous highly centralized regime, with its greatly expanded bureaucracy deeply tied to corrupt infrastructure development (roads and dams) and exclusive of local participation. For CONAIE the closed centralization was most noticeable it light of the 2008 Constitution. Though it was set up and ratified under President Correa’s administration, expressed rights were not negotiated or defined so they languished. As time passed government centralization increased. The 2008 Constitution was frequently violated or simply neglected regarding land rights, non-renewable natural resource development, bi-lingual education, and self-determination.  

Ecuador’s often misunderstood “plurinational” state is an idea debated for years and formally recognized in the 2008 Constitution. Earlier governments, notably that of President Rodrigo Borja, declared Ecuador to be a “multicultural” country, but many indigenous organizations argued that such a term was simply folkloric.  So they self-identified as nations. Plurinationalism recognizes and respects the rights of distinct indigenous groups, particularly Amazonian groups localized in territories close to natural resources. They have no desire to separate or isolate themselves from national governance or economic development. On the contrary, they seek to eliminate old ethnic barriers and participate as distinct but equal Ecuadorian  pueblos, or peoples. However, realizing such group rights “on the ground” requires democratic dialogue and consultation.

As noted earlier. there is a legal right to bilingual education, and the 2008 Constitution recognizes Shuar and Kichwa as official national languages. Ecuador is thus a trilingual nation. However, without local dialogue, recent educational policies, zonation, and new schools threaten such rights simply by dividing communities or centralizing schools.  Similarly, to confront local crimes and disputes, not major crimes, the 2008 constitution recognizes “dual legal systems. ” This permits discussions to, for example, determine what violations can and cannot be judged locally, and what sorts of punishments can be applied.  But the jurisprudential boundaries have not been defined. 

There is also a national right to publicly protest government policies and actions, such as Bill 883, which sparked the protests.  The recent and violent police and army reactions were a clear violation of that right.  Ecuador’s ombudsman’s office stated  that, by October 13, seven people had died in the protests, 1,340 had been hurt and 1,152 arrested. While a few violent protestors were said to include nonindigenous political actors seeking to promote a return of ex-President Correa by attacking the Moreno government, the indigenous majority—including many young people, women and children— congregated in simple protest presence over constitutional noncompliance and a lack of rights dialogue.

CONAIE members meet to discuss proposals to the reformulation of the country's national economic plan.

In addition, the 2008 constitution greatly expanded collective land rights by adding a new category, Circumscribed Indigenous Territories (CTI),which provides local self-determination and control over economic development.  But no local CTI request has yet been recognized. In the meantime, resource development disputes in the Amazon region have become even more persistent, heated, and divisible. In 2018, several Shuar community efforts to prevent invasive, government-supported, international mining in their territories met with regular and sometimes violent militarization in the Province of Morona-Santiago, rather than appropriate consultation, dialogue, and agreements.

In spring 2019, news articles painted a different picture. Cheery Huaorani people were seen celebrating a court decision that halted oil development on their forested lands. The news articles, however, failed to explain that the court’s decision was not final. Judges simply determined that there had not yet been obligatory “prior informed consultation” with the communities, as required by the 2008 constitution. Consequently, the Huaorani did not know exactly what might take place, how it would affect the environment, or if and how they might benefit economically. As with the earlier Shuar cases, since there was no participatory dialogue, or town meetings of sorts, as required by national and international law, oil development on Huaorani land is simply pending.  It’s not a unique situation. Obligatory and egalitarian dialogue—prior informed consultation—for such development is one of the most debated and unresolved indigenous rights issues in Latin America. 

In sum, it’s no surprise that wide democratic aspirations, demands, and related discussions with indigenous communities and their organizations in trilingual Ecuador were paralleled, indeed welcomed, by CONAIE president Jaime Vargas’s acceptance of President Lenin Moreno’s dialogues on gas prices. The following day they calmly reached an agreement to end Decree 883 and openly advance dialogues on a broad set of economic alternatives to simple austerity.  CONAIE was pleased. Despite the unfortunate violence, the protests opened the previously closed, or at least ajar doors to democratic governance in a plurinational state.  As global images, aspirations, and treatment of minorities and immigrants become increasingly blurred, Ecuador’s opening could set an impressive and clear international example.  



Ampam Karakras is a Shuar who has worked directly with CONAIE. He was also one of the early representatives of Ecuador’s Shuar Federation, the Confederation of Indigenous Nationalities of the Ecuadorian Amazon (CONFENIAE), and the regional Coordinating Body of Indigenous Organizations of the Amazon Basin (COICA). He recently published the life history of the Shuar Federation’s highly respected founder, Miguel Tankamash.  

Ted Macdonald is a Lecturer in Social Studies at Harvard University, specializing in anthropology and human rights and currently preparing a Kichwa territorial history of Ecuador’s Upper Amazon. He has met and worked with Ampam and Ecuadorian indigenous federations since the early 1980’s, when he was Projects Director at the Peabody Museum’s Cultural Survival.


Ampam Karakas' short presentation on his work during the ReVista billingualism colloquium.


Ted MacDonald's short presentation on his and his colleague's work during the ReVista billingualism colloquium.