Conflict over water rights in Ecuador

Indigenous people protest over water rights, as Ecuador’s government continues to ignore their demands.

Ecuador's indigenous movement organised a 12-day march for water rights [Getty Images]

If you are going to pass unpopular legislation, you may as well do it while everyone is watching the World Cup. When Ecuadorians were focused on soccer, the government fast-tracked a new water law, endorsing the privatisation of water and permitting extractive activities in sources of freshwater. The controversial law was approved without a fuss in four days by a governing party that controls about two-thirds of legislative seats.

Social sectors reacted with a cross-country walk of protest. Strong resistance came from the indigenous movement, which has demanded equal access to water for nearly two decades. Many other sectors joined in disapproval of a government increasingly perceived as anti-democratic. About 20 organisations allied in a Front of Resistance and set off to walk from the Amazon to Quito. It was the second large mobilisation to defend water rights against extractive industries. This time, however, it was a broader coalition calling for civil disobedience against a state that regularly ignores constitutional rights.

Walking for water

The Walk for Water, Life and People’s Freedom started on June 21 in the Amazon province of Zamora Chinchipe, where Ecuador’s first mega-mining project is planned to open in the hills of Condor Mirador. About 100 participants walked, and at times, drove some 960km in a 12-day journey to the capital in the highlands. They were teenagers and elderly women, lawyers and peasants, over a third of them Amazonian. Many more people joined irregularly for shorter distances. The walk counted over 1,000 people when it reached Cuenca’s cathedral, where the bishop held a mass for water. In the rural province of Canar, thousands of indigenous people took to the roads to support demands for water rights.

Activists carried a 25-metre long blue flag with the words “we are water”. They chanted that water should be defended, not sold out to corporations, with slogans such as “go away Chinese mining” and “down with the socialism of the 21st century”. The political protest counted with the tunes of singer Rosa Lanchimba, who revamped traditional songs into water demands, and the Amazon rap composer Jota Al Cuadrado, who used his mic to reveal an artificial socialism that encourages extractivism.

The last-minute mobilisation was a collective effort that thrived on solidarity. Bystanders offered food supplies such as potatoes, oranges, and even a live cock, which became a mascot. Villagers welcomed participants with pampamesas, the Andean form of sharing food on a long stretch of fabric in open fields, opened their communal houses and provided shelter. Twice, pastoral organisations hosted the march. Zamora Council members secured a portable kitchen, men rolled up their sleeves to cook with women, and learned to peel potatoes and sang love songs at the same time. 

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The most difficult part of the journey was not the lack of running water or the cold nights on concrete floors. It was the constant police surveillance.

Police harassment set the tone from the start. Since the start, police blockades tried to stop or slow down the walk. Police forces permanently followed and photographed participants as means of intimidation.

Traffic officers demanded special authorisation or commercial permits from participants. Tensions rose and ebbed. Special police forces threatened to disperse the crowd with tear gas one day, then squeezed in with protesters in a small store to watch their soccer team play its last World Cup game the following day. At times, cordial police officers blocked intersections to facilitate the passing of the caravan, making it feel like a presidential escort. Other times, police officers who had previously arrested water activists would stop the caravan for an hour without justification.

Demands raised

The mobilisation was not overwhelming in numbers, but the breadth of its coalition merits political attention. It included powerful indigenous organisations such as the Confederation of Peoples of Kichwa Nationality (ECUARUNARI), the Confederation of Indigenous Nationalities of Ecuador (CONAIE), and their political branch Pachakutik. Salvador Quishpe, Zamora’s governor, was one of the walk’s most illustrious participants.

The protest demanded not only water rights but pushed further. Communal organisations asked for the payment of the agrarian debt, peasant welfare and the re-establishment of bilingual education. The National Federation of Secondary Students denounced entry requirements that impeded hundreds of thousands of students from attending university.

There were labour unions and teachers’ organisations concerned with laws forbidding workers to unionise – one of the five criteria for decent work according to the International Labour Organization. Medical doctors demanded the decriminalisation of malpractice; the families of political prisoners like Clever Jimenez called for the respect of decisions issued by the Inter-American Court of Human Rights.

All sections denounced the criminalisation of social protests. All unanimously rejected the proposed law on “indefinite re-election” that would keep the president in office for a long, indefinite period.

Water inequalities

Today’s water law is an offspring of the 2008 constitution. It has been heavily contested by indigenous sectors seeking to protect traditional systems of water management against further privatisation for the agribusiness and mining industries. Part of the problem is the large inequality in access to water. Indigenous leader Perez Guartambel has claimed that Ecuador’s wealthiest one percent controls 64 percent of freshwater.

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Indigenous mobilisation hoped to influence the law in two ways. First, water defenders wanted to ban extractive activities like mega mining at water sources. Second, they wanted a Plurinational Council on Water to secure indigenous participation in decision-making processes.

Both demands fell upon deaf ears. The law permits mining in freshwater sources and the Plurinational Council is rather decorative, having a voice but no vote. The beautiful Article 6 forbids all forms of privatisation. Yet Article 7 “exceptionally” authorises private initiatives in the cases of a) state of exception, b) state of emergency, and c) when local authorities have insufficient technical or financial means. The state has full control over the privatisation of water resources. Indigenous and peasant communities, in turn, will easily be labelled as technically or financial inept to control their water systems.

Resource conflicts are spreading. In 2000, Bolivia went into a water war. Today, Mexican residents clash with the police to defend their access to fresh water.

The irony in the Ecuadorian case is that its 2008 constitution was internationally acclaimed for declaring water as a human right and establishing the rights of nature. Such laws are losing their meaning as the government grants deals to Chinese extraction industries in important ecosystems. Now, the state is considered the exclusive competent authority to control hydric resources (Article 1 of the law) and guarantees the rights of nature (Article 3).

Yet civil society seems to disagree that the state is nature’s best care-taker. Upon arriving in Quito, the walk created a Peoples’ Parliament to defend constitutional rights against a congress increasingly willing to bypass them. Theirs was a call to civil disobedience.

As the elderly indigenous leader Nina Pacari read parliament’s declaration, she reminded us that this march would not end there. Around the world, the struggle for water is an affirmation of individual and collective rights in the face of abusive states.

Manuela Picq is a Member of the Institute for Advanced Study, Princeton and Professor at Universidad San Francisco de Quito, Ecuador.