Protesters take to the streets of Quito, Ecuador on 27 June 2022 – the fifteenth day of consecutive demonstrations.
Protesters take to the streets of Quito, Ecuador on 27 June 2022 – the fifteenth day of consecutive demonstrations.
Photo: Joaquin Montenegro Humanante/DPA/Alamy

Ecuador’s government appears to be set on a collision course with Indigenous communities. After months of instability, including an 18-day strike and weeks of protests and blockades, an agreement was finally reached between the government and the country’s largest Indigenous group the Confederation of Indigenous Nationalities of Ecuador (CONAIE). The deal includes a reduction in fuel prices and a limit on the expansion of oil exploration areas.

But the unrest looks likely to continue as, not for the first time in the divided country, a fierce argument rages over how Ecuador is run and for whose benefit. President Guillermo Lasso, a former banker, won Ecuador’s 2021 election with a promise of reviving the debt-ridden economy. Shortly after taking office, he announced plans to work with international private companies to exploit the country’s natural resources, passing two decrees which smoothed the way for more oil and mining extraction, including in the Amazon region.

‘Now that the global trend is to abandon fossil fuels, the time has come to extract every last drop of benefit from our oil, so that it can serve the poorest, while respecting the environment,’ Lasso declared in May 2022. But extracting oil, gas and minerals, at the expense of the environment and Indigenous peoples, isn’t the answer campaigners are looking for. ‘If extractive policies were the solution to Ecuador’s poverty levels, after 50 years of oil extraction and mining in the Amazon, there would no longer be impoverished communities,’ argues Leo Cerda, a climate activist and Indigenous rights defender from the Kichwa community of Serena in the Ecuadorian Amazon. ‘We know that an extractive economy is not the solution to alleviate poverty, it only creates more problems.’

Indigenous campaigners and environmental experts argue that Lasso’s policies don’t account for the environmental, cultural and health impacts of extraction activities on affected communities and believe fossil fuels need to remain in the ground to have any chance of lessening the effects of climate change. In February 2022, the Constitutional Court, Ecuador’s ‘Supreme Court’, ruled that Indigenous communities have to give their full, prior, informed consent before any mining projects can begin on their territory. But this is incompatible with Lasso’s grand plans.

‘We can’t afford to lose time with an extractivist system that permanently damages communities and ecosystems,’ argues Cerda. ‘Collectively, we need to transition out of fossil fuels, because the people most affected by these policies are the ones who often are forgotten: Indigenous communities.’

Cerda points out that the recent protests, although led by Indigenous groups, have been in the name of respecting the resources and rights of everyone. ‘President Lasso must look beyond his interests and consider the greater impact his decisions have on millions of Ecuadorians,’ Cerda says. ‘That’s why it’s key that he keeps his promises and establishes dialogue with Indigenous leaders. Conflict, or future protests, will be inevitable if the demands are not met and Indigenous interests aren’t considered.

‘Ecuador, and Ecuadorians, need to think ahead and consider how we can support an economy and infrastructure that places our interests and values at the forefront of our policies, not the other way around.’

Graeme Green