Marchers say they are not out to oust the president but to get him to back laws protecting water resources [Reuters]

Hundreds of native Ecuadorans have begun a cross-country march to protest policies by President Rafael Correa they say will result in more mining in the Amazon region and threaten the environment and their way of life.

Thursday’s protests were prompted partly by a recent agreement between Ecuador and China for industrial copper mining in the Amazon's Ecuacorriente Zamora-Chinchipe region.

The march, organised by the Confederation of Indigenous Nationalities of Ecuador (CONAIE), a powerful umbrella group that represents natives from around the country, began in the Zamora-Chinchipe town of El Pangui, 700km south of Quito, the capital.

"People are very motivated, there will always be more people in each village," Zamora-Chinchipe, Salvador Quishpe's governor, told the AFP news agency.

The natives plan to march over the next weeks through several provinces on their way to Quito, gathering protesters along the way.

They plan to reach Quito on March 22. Previous protests by CONAIE, which claims to represent a third of Ecuador's population of more than 14 million, have already toppled two presidents, Abdala Bucaram in 1997 and Jamil Mahuad in 2000.

Counter rally

The group supported the leftist Correa when he was elected in 2007, but later accused him of abandoning their interests in favour of free-market policies.

Separately, thousands of Correa supporters held a counter-rally in front of the presidential palace in Quito. Correa has accused CONAIE of trying to destabilise his government and described the march as a "resounding failure".

The president still enjoys popular support for social programmess he developed and for renegotiating contracts with multinational oil companies.

Humberto Cholango, head of CONAIE, told the AFP that the goal was not to topple Correa, but rather to get him to support laws protecting water resources and to consult native communities over major mining projects.

Source: Agencies