“This Conference arises from the need to articulate the isolated struggles from different parts of the continent, that we are suffering the same consequences”, said Carlos Pérez Guartambel, Quechua lawyer, water systems leader, and coordinator of the Continental Conference of the People of Abya Yala for Water and Pachamama [Encuentro Continental de los Pueblos del Abya Yala por el Agua y la Pachamama], celebrated June 21st to 23rd, 2011.

“The same language used by multinationals about a responsible and sustainable mining industry is repeated by Rafael Correa in Ecuador, Juan Manuel Santos in Colombia, [and] Alan Garcia in Peru.  Not even Chávez is immune.  Up against that, we see the weakness of isolated struggles”, adds Pérez.  The Conference was called by the country’s principal social movements: the Azuay Union of Community Water Systems, Ecuarunari, Conaie, the Ecumenical Commission on Human Rights (CEDHU), and Acción Ecológica, among others[1].

Some two thousand people from 15 countries in the Americas participated in the conference, debating around three topics: Living Well or Sumak Kawsay; extractivism; and the commoditization of nature, the mass media and culture. Activities were held at a youth camp and combined workshops and debates with videos and music.

Water was at the center of the assembly; the communities have an intimate relationship with it, “especially indigenous women, who are the key to this resistance”, declares Pérez.  In southern Ecuador, transnational mining interests have bought politicians, journalists and local governments, but they have not yet been able to drive a wedge into the community of campesinos, who do not live on the land but “with the land”, as the Quechua say.

The mining industry equals impunity

During the opening of the Conference, Alberto Acosta, former president of the Constituent Assembly and current opponent to the Correa government, referred to the experiences of progressive governments throughout the continent as “21st century socialism appearing to be 21st century extractivism”.  Although he recognizes advances in relation to neoliberalism in some senses, he pointed out that despite having an advanced Constitution in Ecuador, economic circumstances and thought processes have not changed.

“The Constitution should be understood as a toolbox”, says Acosta, in the sense that the letter of the law is worth nothing if it does not manage to manifest itself in action. “Large-scale mining in our country will be the continuation of colonization and over 500 years of conquest “.

Luis Macas, founder and former head of Conaie, insisted that “we are experiencing a crisis of civilization, in which no one issue can be isolated because, for us, holism is what is important”.  He declared that we are living through a rupture “because up to now it was believed that this model was irreplaceable, but we are now witnessing the revival of community proposals such as Sumak Kawsay“. In his opinion, social movements must not be limited to protest without also raising alternatives to Western ways of living.

One of the best-attended roundtables was about mining, where Jennifer Moore of Mine Watch Canada and William Sacher, coauthor of the book “Noire Canada” participated. They explained in detail the reasons why their country has become a paradise for mining investment.

Seventy-five percent of the mining companies in the world are Canadian, which has turned the country into the principal mining power on the planet.  The reasons are numerous:  Canada is a judicial paradise with very permissive laws that favor mining title speculation, fiscal advantages and state subsidies; a powerful and extensive diplomatic network that supports those businesses and pressures local governments; and extensive experience in criminalizing critics around the world.

This is summarized, for the authors, in the phrase: “impunity of fact”, because Canadian courts do not prosecute the mining industry, making the country a true “judicial paradise”.  Canada owes its economic potential to the mining industry; it is the world’s largest producer of uranium, yet there are ten thousand abandoned mine sites and more than 600 Aboriginal communities have suffered dispossession. There are 500 large Canadian mining companies operating in Latin America.

Canadian businesses hold 40% of the mining concessions in Ecuador and handle three of the five strategic projects; the other two are Chinese. But it is important to understand that when a country admits the mining industry, it brings a complex of not only economic, but also military-police and political  aspects to its land, as the extraction of natural resources displaces the civil population, installs authoritarian control, and in fact, militarizes whole regions.

A delegate at the Conference stated that 20% of the surface of Colombia is conceded to mega-mining companies.  In Ecuador, according to members of rural organizations, 60% of the province of Bolívar is in the hands of business.  In expansive areas far away from the large cities, international laws, not national laws, are the rules and are enforced by private guards. These are small states within the State.

As a result, a number of indigenous leaders spoke of colonialism. In their opinion, the new oil, mining and monoculture undertakings (including soy, palm, and sugar cane), represent a new form of colonialism as they impose a vertical and external logic on nature and populations in order to appropriate the commons.

Protest as crime

One of the central themes of the Conference was the criminalization of protest. In Ecuador there are 189 people under indictment for protesting against the mining industry and similar undertakings.  For indigenous people, it is a matter of defending their territories against invasion by large businesses and defending resources, such as water, that are vital for the reproduction of their communities. Without water they cannot grow food, feed themselves or raise their animals.

Many of those charged have been accused of sabotage and terrorism for having blocked roads, something the indigenous movement in Ecuador has been doing for more than two decades.  These accusations have had so little credibility that in various judgements the charges have had to be simplified to “hindering public highways”. That is what happened to the coordinator of the Conference, Carlos Pérez.

On May 4, 2010 hundreds of neighbors from the town of Victoria del Portete blocked the highway in protest of Water Legislation [la Ley de Aguas]. The demonstration was peaceful, but the District XI Attorney’s Office decided to indict three leaders for sabotage: the president of the local parish, the leader of the water systems and a campesino.  The District Attorney’s Office decided to hold them in custody but the Azuay Provincial Court said that it was not sabotage and let them go free.  But the conviction stands.

The president of the Shuar Federation, Pepe Acacho, was prosecuted along with other Amazon leaders for a strike carried out in 2009 in which a Shuar demonstrator was killed and the government blamed the indigenous protestors.  Last February he was arrested, along with other Shuar leaders, and transferred without court order through an operation that included helicopters and a large military deployment, despite being in the midst of negotiations with the government over demands against the petroleum industry in the Amazon region.

After seven days in prison, accused of sabotage and terrorism, the group was set free but they cannot leave the country and they must present themselves on a weekly basis at police stations in their province, Morona Santiago. “Convictions and jails do not matter to us, but rather, the liberty of the population and the defense of nature”, said Acacho.

The Conference Ethics Tribunal reviewed thirteen cases, and listened to defendants and the Ombudsman, Fernando Gutiérrez Vera, who said that “to criminalize is to attribute a criminal character to protest”.  He denounced the government for “using the rotten justice system to criminalize social movements” and asked if there is a systematic state policy designed to prosecute social protest.

In that sense, the Ethics Tribunal considered whether a pattern exists that consists of the using “police and legal tools to disable resistance, in spite of the fact that it is protected in the Constitution”. In fact, article 98 of the Constitution approved in 2008 states: “Individuals and collectives may exercise the right to resistance against actions or omissions of public authority or persons, natural or legal non-state entities, which violate or may violate their rights”.

This is not the only verified case wherein the decisions of the State have violated rights.  Several of those charged [with sabotage and treason] maintained that the amnesty offered by the Constituent Assembly in 2008 was not applied to them. In response, the Court said that “the upholding of charges or convictions against people is a way to discourage and intimidate organization and collective action and to demoralize communities”.

A second characteristic of the criminalization of protest, in a similar vein, consists of focusing convictions against leaders so they appear to be repeat offenders.  Punishing leaders is a way of dissuading activists and their affiliated base from continuing with the organization and tends to isolate those who stand firmly in resistance to the extractive model.

The third question relates to the fact that the authorities are used to attributing protests to the intervention of “external agents”, those who would induce the communities to mobilize and protest. The result of a view of the world that is purely prejudicial, it assumes that urban, rural, and indigenous communities are incapable of mobilizing themselves without the intervention of agitators.  In this sense the authorities reproduce patterns associated with the “national security doctrine” of the 1960s that attributed all problems to foreign agitators.

Finally, the Ethics Tribunal, in consultation with specialists, was able to establish that reforms to the Penal Code in 2006 are against the Constitution, particularly those relating to the right to resistance.  All in all: “With the military instructed to intimidate and protect by force, it intends to silence or impede protest, to intimidate leaders of social movements, and to tear the social fabric that permits protest and through which social movements are built”[2].

The ethics of resistance

It is striking that a country with one of the most advanced constitutions in the world on environmental matters protects and promotes the petroleum and mining sectors.  Article 71 of the Constitution establishes that the natural world “has the right to respect for its existence and the maintenance and regeneration of its life cycles, structure, functions and evolutionary processes”.  And it adds that every person or community is able to require the authorities to comply with those rights.

Therefore, the Ombudsman said that “the next battle will be for laws inspired by the spirit of the Constitution”. That battle is possible today because in recent months indigenous communities and social movements have been fortifying themselves.  Part of that process is the new Government Counsel of Conaie, directed by Humberto Cholango, who assumed leadership on May 18th.  The unity of the movement and its intergenerational character offer promise that it will be an actor of increasing importance.

The growing strength of the social movement parallels the deterioration of the Correa government, which was unable to gain more than 50% of the referendum votes [on the Constitution] on May 7. Although the questions formulated by the Executive succeeded by a slim margin, in the provinces where Conaie has greater influence, the government was defeated.

Esperanza Martínez, an Acción Ecológica activist, emphasized the need to stop seeing the violations linked to the mining, petroleum, and monoculture industries as isolated cases and to view them as a complex whole involving military, judicial, political, and economic processes. In order to face this, we need “to align ourselves to the principles of non-violence” to support an ethics of resistance.

The Conference permitted a deeper understanding of the extractive model and to question it from a holistic analysis that goes beyond the environmental question. The final Declaration states that extractivism “seizes the rights of the peoples, communities and nationalities in their own territories and ancestral life ways, violating Human Rights and Nature” and that it “deepens the patriarchal capitalist model (…) to subjugate women and devalue their daily work in the caring for life, ignoring their participation in decision-making on projects and policies, generating violence, femicide and rape”[3].

Blanca Chancoso, veteran Quechua leader of Conaie, presented to the Ethics Tribunal after making an offering to the Water or Yakumama.  She spoke about Sumak Kawsay, saying that the term can be corrupted or folklorized, and faced with that, the indigenous movement must deepen its meaning.  “Sumak Kawsay is our utopia, which happens by entering into communal life, in what is left of our history, in retaking our dreams”.

In keeping with the culture of her people, she indicated that “one must feel” Sumak Kawsay; that it should not be frozen in a program to be offered to the market of electoral or partisan politics. She ended with a call to resist the mining industry in a phrase that resonated among all participants: “We do not fear this government”.

Raúl Zibechi is an international analyst for Brecha of Montevideo, Uruguay, lecturer and researcher on social movements at the Multiversidad Franciscana de América Latina, and adviser to several social groups. He writes a monthly column for the Americas Program (www.americas.org).

Translated by Erin Jonasson


CONAIE (Confederation of Indigenous Nations of Ecuador): www.conaie.org

The Continental Conference of the People of Abya Yala for Water and Pachamama: www.aguaypachamama.org

Interview with Carlos Pérez Guartambel, Cuenca, June 21, 2011.

Testimony of Alberto Acosta, Humberto Cholango, Pepe Achacho and Delfín Tenesaca before the Ethics Tribunal, June 21, 2011.

Verdict of the Ethics Tribunal on the Criminalization of Defenders of Human Rights and Nature, Cuenca, June 22, 2011.






[1] Indigenous and ecological organizations; for more information on the Azuay community water systems, consult Raúl Zibechi, “Ecuador: The Battle for Natural Resources Deepens”,  http://www.americas.org/archives/1904

[2] Verdict of the Ethics Tribunal before the Criminalization of the Defenders of Human Rights and Nature, Cuenca, June 22, 2011.

[3] “Declaration of the Continental Conference of the People of Abya Yala for Water and Pachamama” available at www.conaie.org.