On Jan. 20, nation-wide protests over large-scale metal mining called by the Confederation of Indigenous Nationalities of Ecuador (CONAIE) brought out some 12,000 people from indigenous, campesino, environmentalist and human rights organizations across eleven provinces of the small Andean nation. Although large-scale metal exploration has been ongoing since the early ’90s, no project has yet reached production. Mining activities are currently suspended until a new law is passed.
Taking place only a few days after the popular President Rafael Correa celebrated two years in office, government and media reactions aimed to diminish the day’s significance. The press and government insisted that protests were poorly attended. However, particularly strong participation took place in the central highlands, where around 9,000 indigenous people shut down transportation along the Panamerican Highway in the provinces of Cotopaxi and Tungurahua.
CONAIE President Marlon Santi pointed out that the “majority of mining concessions are on indigenous and campesino lands.” He also challenged President Correa’s program of “change,” saying that “the people who grow potatoes, who grow maize, who live in the Amazon and the mangroves, we are where change is coming from.”
While government declarations and media coverage downplayed the day of action, they also portrayed activists as subversive and police as victims. Both the president and his Minister of Government Fernando Bustamante were quote saying that CONAIE is trying to destabilize Correa, whose popularity hovers around 70%. These unfounded allegations are based on the fact that the national indigenous movement has played an important role in the overthrow of two past governments, most recently in 2001.
The CONAIE emphatically denies that this was part of their objectives. Rather, the day of action was carried out in the spirit of building alliances between urban and rural organizations, as well as indigenous and non-indigenous communities. Demands focused on the need for greater democracy and respect for the collective rights of communities.
Media coverage also emphasized violence and arrests, especially injuries sustained by 11 police in confrontations with protesters. Skirmishes with police took place during efforts to reopen highway transportation north of the capital and in the province of Imbabura.
CONAIE reported ten arrests, as well as two activists hospitalized with injuries. They added that several buses of activists were held back from attending demonstrations taking place in Quito. A CONAIE statement denounced heavy police presence, saying that “repression and detentions aim to silence voices in defence of life.” (Upside Down World, Jan. 21)
On Jan 6, police violently repressed protests at the Court of Justice in the city of Cuenca, where six leaders were holding a hunger strike against the pending Mining Law. Police used tear gas to disperse protesters and arrested several leaders, before forcing the hunger strikers and their supporters from the court building, dragging them by their necks. The hunger strikers took refuge in Cuenca’s San Roque Church. (Upside Down World, Jan. 9)