Conference of indigenous groups in Cuenca protests violation of water rights and ‘criminalization’ of protests

Jul 2, 2011

Hundreds of Latin American indigenous rights activists gathered in Cuenca, June 17 to June 23, to disucss and plan strategies to defend water rights.

According to organizers, the Continental Conference in Defense of Water and Mother Earth, was intended as an act of resistance against development projects that threaten water resources. In a letter of intention, the organizers say, "We hope this gathering will become a permanent process of fellowship to protect water and food sovereignty, to create a new social order in harmony with nature, with justice and equity.”

The conference included visits to Cochapata and San Bartolomé, in Azuay Province near Cuenca, where environmental conflicts with mining companies have taken place. The delegation was composed of the conference ombudsman, representatives of national indigenous organizations, the Inter-American Platform of Human Rights, Democracy and Development (PIDHDD), Real World Radio, and a team of FoodFirst Information and Action Network (FIAN) International. Activists claim that cases of abuse of power by developers, often in complicity with state agencies, have taken place in the area.

In Cochapata, a community of about 7,800 people, there has been resistance to the construction of a dam by the mining company Explorsur, SA. Seven community leaders were accused of sabotage and terrorism for engaging in public protest, and were recently sentenced to eight years in prison. Indigenous group claims the the convictions were in violation of amnesty granted by Ecuador´s Constituent Assembly in July 2008. Currently, there are more than 189 pending cases of “terrorism” and “sabotage” in Ecuador in environmental conflicts.

In 2007, at the beginning of his presidency, Rafael Correa made a public statement setting the stage for current conflicts. "Don't believe in romantic environmentalists. Anyone who is opposed to development in this country is a terrorist," he said about the community of Dayuma, Orellana province, who at the was time protesting the environmental damage resulting from oil drilling. The protest was met with police repression and 25 people were detained.

The main objectives of the conference, according to organizers was to expose these kind of cases and the criminalization of protest in Ecuador. A Court of Ethics that analyzed "the criminalization of defenders of human rights and nature." This people’s court was conducted on Wednesday, June 22, with the presence a jury of four international authorities: Elsie Monge (Ecumenical Commission of Human Rights, CEDHU, Ecuador), Raul Zibechi (writer and journalist, Uruguay), Leah Isabel Alvear (poet and academic, Colombia), and Mary Hamlin (International Movement for People’s Health). They listened to more than four hours of testimonies and 17 cases of people accused of terrorism.

“Democracy can only be guaranteed when citizens are guaranteed their rights to protest and resistance,” testified Ramiro Avila, a lawyer and professor at the Universidad Andina Simón Bolívar. “These laws are being used to suppress protest and should be immediately repealed.” Avila explained that the law under which the right to protest is criminalized in Ecuador dates back to the early republic, based on the Penal Code of 1920.

The Ecuadorian government is driving an aggressive development program that is fueling social conflicts all around the country, mostly around mining and oil industries and the control of water sources, activists say. They claim that large-scale mining will have dire consequences in Ecuador, due to the country´s fragile ecosystems.

According to the Ministry of Energy and Mines, there are 1990 registered mining concessions in the country, causing serious concerns among civil society, particularly campesinos and indigenous people. "The social leaders are speaking out to defend their human rights, but instead of welcoming them the State is criminalizing their right to protest," said Fernando Gutierrez, the National Ombudsman.

From a report by Sofía Jarrín for Upsidedown World,