Creating a Dialogue

Ecuador Reaches Out to the Shuar People

by Charlotte Biren

Illustration by Polina Godz

published November 20, 2015

On October 30, Rosa Mireya Cardenas, Ecuador’s Deputy Minister of Justice, represented the Ecuadorian government in a visit to the Shuar people, an indigenous community that has received increasing media attention for the rich oil deposits in their territory of Cuchaena in the Ecuadorian Amazon. The visit addressed tensions resulting from the recent government and military efforts to suppress indigenous mobilization on land rights. After the meeting, the Ecuadorian government and the Shuar people established a schedule of bi-monthly dialogues with intent to reduce violence and conflict, as well as formally discuss methods to alleviate poverty. 

Over the past five years, the Shuar have mobilized through means of protests and resistance to protect land rights and expose violations committed by the Ecuadorian government. These acts have been met with military force and threat unparalleled to much before. In November 2014, a leader of the Shuar people, José Isidro Tendetza Antún, was tortured and assassinated days before he was due to appear at the Lima Climate Talks in December to protest a mine’s construction. Luis Corral, an advisor to Ecuador’s Assembly of the People of the South, a coalition for indigenous federations in southern Ecuador, said that if Tendetza had been able to participate in the Lima Climate talks, he would have cast into “grave doubt the honorability and the image of the Ecuadorean government as a guarantor of the rights of nature” that Correa has worked to construct.

In June 2010, Ecuador held a summit on minority rights in Latin America, inviting some of Correa’s left-wing allies, Hugo Chavez of Venezuela and Evo Morales of Bolivia, to attend. Even though Ecuador held the summit in the indigenous town of Otavalo, Ecuador’s main indigenous organizations and leaders were not invited to take part in discussion. In reaction to this exclusion, the Confederation of Indigenous Nationalities of Ecuador (CONAIE) organized an alternative summit. The so-called summit took the form of hundreds of indigenous peoples from the Amazon lowlands protesting the exclusion and marching at the summit in Otavalo with traditional spears. After a confrontation with the police, about 30 leaders were charged with sabotage and terrorism, and indigenous protest was criminalized on these grounds.

Correa’s attempt to criminalize political dissidents has targeted protests by indigenous peoples in particular. In September 2010, Pepe Acacho, a Shuar indigenous leader, was accused of using a community radio station he directed to incite protesters to take to the streets with “poisoned spears” to protest the government agenda to privatize water. Acacho was charged with sabotage and terrorism for his organizing. But the Ecuadorian government has continually denied the repression of Indigenous Communities, in spite of criticism from international watchdogs. The Human Rights Watch expressed concern in its 2011 World Report at the “exaggerated charge of terrorism” against various indigenous protestors in Ecuador.



Since the 1970s, oil has become a key source of revenue for the Ecuadorian government. While activity was generally confined to the north of the Ecuadorian Amazon, in 1998, the Ecuadorian government chose to expand the oil frontier to the Center-Southern Amazonian provinces that the Shuar inhabit. Since 1998, the Shuar have mobilized against the oil exploration, resisted the entrance of multinational subsidiaries, and refused to engage in a dialogue with the oil companies. Furthermore, the Shuar have centered their indigenous movement around exposing the government’s illegitimate consultation processes, which “confirmed” consent of drilling in the Shuar territories. In 1989, the International Labor Organization established “a legally binding international instrument open to ratification” known as Convention 169. In ratifying this convention, Ecuador agreed to the protection of indigenous communities by facilitating “Free, Prior, and Informed Consultation,” which translates to consulting indigenous peoples on issues that directly affect their communities. In violating the process of prior consultation, the Ecuadorian government ignored the ramifications of the ILO 169 and legitimized the consultation process in various ways, including the use of a biased sample population coerced into support through monetary benefits.

With a government unwilling to discuss demands around the entrance of the oil industry, the Shuar mobilized around the non-consensual entrance of companies into their territories. There have been protests, blockades, and strikes to prevent physical access and activity of multinational oil companies since Arco Oriente Inc.’s initial involvement in 1998 to the present day development of oil concessions. These resistance efforts have usually been met with repressive force from the Ecuadorian military and covert operations. 




President Rafael Correa’s inauguration in 2007 was an emblematic spectacle. Sporting a traditional embroidered shirt from the highland villages, Correa was sworn in in the Andean town of Zumbahua where sacred herbs were shaken over his head to protect his “Citizens’ Revolution,” and indigenous leaders handed him a sceptre indicating their support and acceptance of his presidency. His visible interest and respect for indigenous tradition made him the first president to officially prioritize the political representation of indigenous people, who make up a quarter of Ecuador’s population. In his campaign, he promised to create an assembly to rewrite the country’s constitution, redistribute oil wealth to communities affected by extraction, and focus on the alleviation of poverty in indigenous communities.

However, Correa’s commitments following his election were not long lived. Correa’s leftist political platform was a response to the neoliberal policies of previous governments. The new constitution that was ratified explicitly condemned the Washington Consensus. He failed, or didn’t attempt, to dismantle a neoliberal apparatus that was in place prior to his election. Correa criminalized protests against his administration and excluded indigenous movements’ input in the development of extractive industries and the revision of the constitution.

Similar to other countries across Latin America, Ecuador has relied heavily on the revenue from privatizing extractive industries and natural resources, such as water. The wave of privatization has been, ironically, a key component in the plan to achieve a democratic socialist model. Correa has endlessly discussed the resurgence of the left and has used revenue captured from oil to fund public services and infrastructure, while implementing heavy taxation on Ecuador’s economic elite. 

Privatizing major industries and natural resources leads to a loss of community autonomy, especially in indigenous communities. The fundamental values of self-determination and sovereignty become contested as natural resource extraction industries dictate land usage and assume access to territories. Indigenous communities that have experienced direct interaction with oil companies entering into their territory, such as the Cófan peoples of the Amazonian region of northeastern Ecuador, were forced to work around oil companies and experienced tremendous environmental degradation, which impacted the state of public health in the region. Before the wave of privatization, indigenous communities were under the jurisdiction of the Ecuadorian government, but were generally ignored and underserved in addressing issues of poverty alleviation and community development. However, indigenous communities were strong in their political alliances across Ecuador and used the powerful numbers of indigenous communities to create an alliance in 1986, the Confederation of Indigenous Nationalities of Ecuador, to address an ongoing history of inequality and political marginalization from the state. Furthermore, these indigenous communities have recently been actively excluded from discussions not only pertaining to self-determination, but also from those aimed at identifying and reducing marginalization, which has prevented the political acknowledgement of indigenous rights. 




The conversation held on October 30, however, represents the development of new strategy. The meeting between a government delegation, led by Cardenas, and Rafael Washita, president of the Shuar nation, affirms the beginning of a relationship with tangible goals in mind. Hoping to transition from a reactive to a proactive mobilization strategy, Washita described the need for productive dialogue instead of aggressive defense tactics, such as large-scale rebellions and blockades. During the meeting, the community detailed a list of its needs, which included the construction of a health center, improved road access, and a new school that will provide bilingual education to help preserve the Shuar language. 

After reviewing the list of demands, Cardenas expressed optimism, claiming that the “work can be done but [they] must work together.” Her optimism stems from Correa’s commitment to continue social investments despite the drop in oil prices. Social projects, such as hospitals and schools, have been heavily funded through oil revenue and are expected to continue. Correa has focused on developmental goals, which have always been part of his agenda for a democratic socialist model. However, the connection between oil and public funding of services is not as clear as it could be. Often, the creation of public services and developmental changes rely on exploitation of indigenous communities and their land. In order to extract revenue, the Ecuadorian government has repressed certain indigenous rights to achieve the promise of development, infrastructure improvement, and public projects. 

Cardenas and Washita’s discussion focused on the improvement of public services in which indigenous communities have often received less governmental support, in spite of redistribution policies. Interestingly enough, Washita’s call for more access to the money coming from oil extraction is being paradoxically addressed through the greater entities the indigenous communities of Ecuador have been fighting against. While the call for more public services funded through oil wealth redistribution does not address issues of indigenous autonomy, it is part of a more immediate strategy for the Shuar people. The improvement in public services and education can be seen as a part of the process to solve issues of poverty, which is a necessary step in the greater fight for recognition of indigenous self-determination and autonomy.




According to Washita, another goal of the conversation was to ameliorate the antagonistic image of the Shuar people that has been shaped by their use of resistance tactics, such as protests with poisonous spears, to attract attention from authorities. National and international media over the past couple of years have depicted the Shuar people through their defensive land battle. This August, for example, Shuar protesters were reported “wielding spears in southeastern Ecuador sent police and soldiers fleeing.” In efforts to protest the inadequate consultation processes, the Shuar were portrayed as aggressively showing their commitment to land protection. 

Often compared to the conflict in James Cameron’s 2009 film Avatar, where humans colonize a distant planet to mine for natural minerals, the Shuar land preservation efforts have been described through essentializing images and war rhetoric. The Shuar people are painted within the scope of a reactive trope, one that insinuates defense and battle as traditional solutions to protect their lands, which have constantly been encroached upon. 

Traditionally, most indigenous communities, the Shuar included, value the importance of physical territory in order to preserve their traditions and culture. Featured in the news publication Cultural Survival, a coalition of indigenous groups from the Amazon affirm the Shuar belief that “Land is of course the indispensable condition for life, for the existence of a people, and for our development.” But land is not only serving as the grounds for spiritual preservation; it serves as a place for education and community development, which can be overlooked through exotifying perceptions of the Shuar people. Much of the media coverage of the conflict between the Shuar and the Ecuadorian government produces a static image. The binary of tradition and modernity is invoked and the Shuar quickly become the “other,” unable to engage with Western business and political praxis. Shuar leader Maria Clara Sharupi tells the Centre for Research on Globalization how “bankers, the right, the opposition, and the others who seek to destabilize the country” have treated the Shuar men and women like property, instead of people with agency.  

Violent defense becomes an expected cultural response in certain media representations from Ecuadorian national sources and foreign sources alike. In only describing the Shuar’s defensive responses to the repression of the Ecuadorian government, the image of resistance is narrowed and the elements and history of community organizing are obscured. The recent Shuar uprising in August 2015, covered by the Daily Mail, details a violent protest where “rockets were fired at police [and] roads were blocked with tree trunks, rocks and burning tyres.” In this depiction, two things are missing. The strategy and historical value in the Shuar use of protest is not explored, making the incident seem volatile and hyper reactionary.  While the reasons for the protest are detailed, there is little discussion on the great risks taken by the Shuar since protests became severely criminalized. Second, there is no conversation on the repression of the protest where police attacked protestors with tear gas. The beginning of the piece mentions that 100 “security force members were injured” and portrays the security force members as the victims of violence, even though 105 Shuar were arrested and 35 were injured.   




In Ecuador, multinational companies get full state protection from the police and the army, often leaving the Shuar people without any form of safety when they protest against corporate action. Furthermore, forms of activism and organizing have been targeted by the Ecuadorian government and often characterized as “terrorist activity.” Directly contradicting the pro-indigenous leftist platform that got him elected, Correa has increased police and military wages and furthermore constructed an image of an indigenous protestor as a national terrorist. 

While the dialogue has been closed in the past, the initiation of a bi-monthly conversation will hopefully not only serve to address the tangible infrastructural and social needs of the Shuar, but also reimagine the representation of the Shuar people. As Washita expressed, the ongoing dialogues serve to challenge the often isolated images of violent mobilization and redevelop the image of the Shuar as competent, proactive, political actors. 


CHARLOTTE BIREN B’16 is an emblematic spectacle