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Ecuadorian Water Law Sparks Outrage from Indigenous Communities

Last month, around a thousand peasants marched and blockaded the streets of Cuenca, Ecuador, and many more came out in protests throughout the Ecuadorian Amazon, calling for the cancellation of a new water law.  If passed, the law would privatize water services, limit community and neighborhood water management, relax current measures on water contamination, and (to the great frustration of the activists) prioritize water access to private companies.  The demonstrations also came in reaction to a new mining measure, which would allow two Canadian companies—Corriente Resources Inc. and Kinross Gold Corp.—to resume gold explorations in contested areas of the Amazon where indigenous communities live.

The situation has only worsened since the beginning of October, leading to violent raids by police.  In the community of Macas, in the Southern Upano Valley, the attack left at least one confirmed dead and almost 50 injured.  President Rafael Correa has accused the leading indigenous organization, the Confederation of Indigenous Nationalities of Ecuador (CONAIE), of trying to destabilize his government with “lies.” He claims that the protesters were acting on behalf of the country's conservatives who would like to see Correa fail.

Showdowns between the people and the government over indigenous rights and natural resources are nothing new in the Andes.  But in the case of Ecuador, the current conflict over the privatization of water is bringing to mind the so-called "Water War" that erupted in Bolivia in 2000. That dispute ended in a victory for the protesters.

It all started in 1999, when a partnership between the American multinational, Bechtel, and the Bolivian government—at the suggestion of the World Bank—signed a deal to improve water supplies to the city of Cochabamba.  The move increased the cost of the service by 35 percent, to about $20 a month. (The average salary in Cochabamba remained at $100 a month.)  Then hundreds of protesters took to the streets when one of the new water executives said, "If people fail to pay their accounts, we'll cut their service." Protests continued for three weeks until the government backed down.

Many analysts credit the victory of Evo Morales in 2005 to the wave of mobilizations that was ignited by the Water War. (For more on this, and on social movements in Bolivia, please read the blog by Jim Shultz of The Democracy Center.)

As the country's first indigenous president, and as a former labor leader and activist, Evo Morales has tried to address some of the issues affecting Bolivia's indigenous majority.  Among them have been Morales' controversial plans for land rights and land distribution, a "nationalization" of Bolivia's natural gas and a series of provisions which extend the human, cultural and political rights of Bolivia's 36 indigenous groups.

Evo Morales' new constitution was adopted in January of this year—a move that seems to have silenced his opposition and pleased many of his indigenous supporters for the time being.  But in Ecuador, the passing of a new, more inclusive magna carta seems to be having the opposite effect. 

Last month marked the one-year anniversary of Ecuador's constitutional referendum. Much as in Bolivia, this new document was meant to advance the rights of the indigenous communities and the rights of all Ecuadorians to water and natural resources.

But indigenous and peasant organizations say the Correa government has not lived up to its constitutional promise.  They represent a powerful social movement—one that should not be discounted in their effort to change policy by first taking to the streets.

* Ruxandra Guidi is a contributing blogger to americasquarterly.org. She is an independent journalist based in Austin, Texas, and her work can be found at Fonografia Collective (http://fonografiacollective.com).

Any opinions expressed in this piece do not necessarily reflect those of Americas Quarterly or its publishers.
Tags: Bolivia, indigenous, Ecador, Water Law

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