Indian Leaders Helped Get President Lucio Gutierrez Elected—But Now Say the IMF and Big Oil Are Calling the Shots

by Bill Weinberg

On Aug. 21, Ecuador's President Lucio Gutierrez was pictured in the Quito daily Hoy, smiling and clad in a hard-hat as he turned the valves at an Andean pumping station, officially opening the new pipeline which is to bring 450,000 barrels of crude daily over the towering moutains from the Amazon Basin oilfields of Occidental Petroleum and other industry majors. The Heavy Crude Oilduct (OCP) was built by a consortium led by Canada's Encana, Spain's Repsol and California's Occidental--or Oxy. Gutierrez hailed the mega-project as "a new artery for Ecuador's development."

But the very indigenous leaders who helped bring Gutierrez to power on a populist platform in last year's elections say the OCP violates Ecuador's constitution, and is bringing war to the remote Shuar and Quichua Indian communities of the Amazon.

The break between Gutierrez and the Confederation of Indigenous Nationalities of Ecuador (CONAIE), the country's powerful new coalition representing all indigenous groups, came in August, and has been dramatic. The split was sparked when Gutierrez--a former army colonel who had helped lead a coup in support of Ecuador's January 2000 indigenous uprising--signed a Letter of Intent with the International Monetary Fund, agreeing in principle to a series of "structural adjustments" the IMF had demanded in exchange for a $205 million loan. The letter included a commitment to precisely the same policies which had sparked the 2000 uprising--including a pledge to boost oil production and re-channel the revenues from social spending to foreign debt payments.

Aug. 21 saw protests in Quito and across the country by Indians, campesinos, workers, students and retirees. One group of leaders from the Andean regional indigenous alliance ECUARUNARI and the activist group Accion Ecologica issued a demand that Bob Traa, head of the IMF mission in Ecuador, be expelled from the country "for improper use of his visitor's status and for inciting national authorities to adopt measures prejudicial to the public interest and national security."

The indigenous-led Pachakutic Plurinational Unity Movement--created by CONAIE, but conceived as an indpendent political organization--had four ministers in the Gutierrez government, for the exterior, agriculture, education and tourism. Two were mestizos, but--unprecedentedly--two were Indians. All have now stepped down. In a rapid reversal, Gutierrez is now seeking a new alliance with the conservative Social Christian party--which Pachakutic representative Antonio Posso described as a "barbarity" in an interview with the Quito daily La Hora Sept. 21.

The rift was evident immediately after Pachakutic and CONAIE threw their support behind Gutierrez for the December run-off election which brought him to power. On a lightning trip to New York and Washington right after his deal with indigenous leaders in Quito, Gutierrez portrayed himself as far more conciliatory to US interests than he had in his campaign. He backed off from his promises to reconsider the dollarization of Ecuador's economy that his predecessor Gustavo Noboa had imposed, and to expel US troops from the Pacific coast military base Manta. He praised balanced budgets and foreign investment, and pledged a prompt new agreement with the IMF. He also expressed support for boosting petrol production and granting new foreign concessions in the oil-rich Amazon.

Since the break with CONAIE and Pachakutic, Gutierrez has accelerated this trajectory. On Sept. 26, the Guayaquil daily El Universo ran twin front-page headlines--one on an announcement by the state oil firm Petroecuador that $13 million in new investment would be needed to fill the OCP; another on Gutierrez' recent appearance before the Council of the Americas in New York City (an arm of David Rockefeller's Americas Society), in which he pledged to guarantee a favorable climate for foreign investment. Gutierrez promised the assembled corporate dignitaries his new labor code would break up the "union mafias" and that oil workers who have led work stoppages in the past "are going to be fired."


The indigenous movement--which has twice led national uprisings that were instrumental in bringing down the government--are now back in opposition after their first taste of official power. At presstime, Pachakutic--named for the legendary Inca who first extended Quechua rule to what is now Ecuador--is meeting in the highland town of Riobamba to vote in new leadership for the organization and hash out a new stance. While there is contention over the future of the organization--as a political party or a grassroots movement--here is broad consensus on complete opposition to the Gutierrez government.

As Pachakutic convened in Riobamba, I spoke with CONAIE president Leonidas Iza at the group's offices in a post-industrial district of Quito. I showed Iza the clip of Gutierrez opening the new pipeline and asked for his reaction.

As Iza read the entire text of the article, a sad smile came to his face. "OCP was built to facilitate expanded exploitation in the Amazon," he said finally. "The government is not respecting the constitution. They are obliged to consult with the indigenous peoples of the region. Gutierrez pledged to respect usos y costumbres. It was a pure lie. During 30 years of oil exploitation indigenous peoples have not seen one benefit--it all goes to the foreign debt."

"Usos y costumbres" means the traditional system of indigenous self-government that has persisted in Ecuador for over 500 years. But Gutierrez, despite his pledge, never explicitly took a stance against the OCP. The real betrayal, Iza says, was the deal with the IMF.

"When Gutierrez signed his accord with the IMF, we were not consulted. Forty-two percent of the national budget goes to the foreign debt--this with illiteracy and poor health care throughout the countryside, and no real agrarian policy from this government."

Iza says CONAIE and Pachakutic support an agrarian policy of making credit available for campesino micro-enterprises--and a resumption of Ecuador's long-suspended land redistribution program. "A great percentage of Ecuador's territory remains in the hands of the hacendados, especially the best lands," he says. "Many of these lands should be bought by the government, with just compensation to the current owners, and turned over campesino collectives and enterprises."

Iza emphasizes that the Pachakutic political program being hashed out in Riobamba is not just for the Indians. "We don't want to indigenize the political process," he says. "We want an open struggle for transparency and against corruption--against the neoliberal policy of this government, against privatization, the cutting of services. The citizens voted for the proposals of Pachakutic, and they were betrayed."

Iza also protests what he calls Gutierrez‚ "involvement in Plan Colombia." On Aug. 21, the eve of a visit to Quito by Colombian president Alvaro Uribe Velez to enlist Gutierrez‚ support for his "anti-terrorist" crusade, CONAIE issued a communique declaring Uribe persona non grata in Ecuador. Some 3,000 police were mobilized to protect the Colombian president--over twice the number assigned for the previous day's protests on economic policy.

"It has nothing to do with us," Iza says of Uribe's counter-insurgency program. "It isn't our war. We want a peaceful Ecuador." He says that Gutierrez‚ militarization of the Colombian border zone, especially in the Amazon, is forcing native peoples from their territories--as are the anti-drug fumigations that drift into Ecuador from across the frontier. "The indigenous are abandoning their lands and heading for the cities in these zones," Iza says.

43 years old, Iza is a Quechua from Cotopaxi, the central Andean province dominated by the towering snow-peaked volcano of the same name. He still has land there, which is worked by his wife when he is in Quito, and by his seven kids on the weekends, when they are not in school. (An eighth is studying medicine in Havana.) The farm produces potatoes, onions, carrots and milk.

A reporter and cameraman from Ecuador's Gama Vision TV, who shared the first part of the interview with me in Iza's office, asked him the inevitable question: will there be a new national uprising of the kind that brought down President Jamil Mahuad in January 2000 and dealt a fatal blow to his now-disgraced successor Gustavo Noboa a year later? "It all depends," came Iza's reply. "It depends on the government. If they continue with their policies, the people will inevitably rise up. If they change to a policy of betterment of all the Ecuadorian people, there will be no reason. We will maintain our vigilance."


Preliminary tests have now been completed on the OCP, which passes through 11 nature reserves--including the expansive Cayambe-Coca cloud forest reserve that straddles the divide between the Amazon Basin and the Pacific. The pipeline is now ready to begin exports at the Pacific port of Esmeraldas. Points along the way where construction met physical resistance include the Mindo-Nambillo protected forest, a pocket of tropical selva in a valley east of Quito where locals who have staked their economic future to eco-tourism repeatedly blocked consortium workers who came to cut trees for the pipeline right-of-way. Construction also met resistance from Shuar and Quichua communities at Shushufindi in the Amazon province of Sucumbios.

The OCP starts at Lago Agrio, the capital and central town of Sucumbios. From there, feeder pipelines reach down to the oil exploitation blocks of Oxy, Encana, Italy's Agip and the trans-European firm Perenco, another minor OCP consortium member which recently bought exploration rights to several blocks from the US energy giant Kerr-McGee. These exploitation blocks also frequently overlap with both indigenous territories and official protected areas. Oxy operates wells within the Limoncocha biological reserve of the Ecuadorian Amazon, a region collectively known as Oriente.

Lago Agrio's mayor opposed the pipeline, which nearly cuts through the urban center. So did the prefect of Sucumbios, the province's elected leader. But under Ecuador‚s centralist political system, real power lies with the provincial governors, who are appointed by the president.

Alexandra Almeida of the group Accion Ecologica, which coordinated the campaign against the OCP, says the project has grave implications for both the environment and human rights. "There were four spills while the OCP was still under construction, and more than 70 illegal detentions," she says.

The most recent spill, in May, was caused by a landslide, and sent an undetermined amount of oil into the Rio Reventador, an Ecuadorian Amazon tributary. In March, a rupture at a pumping station near Lago Agrio sent 60 barrels into the surrounding rainforest. The May rupture affected both the OCP and a pre-existing pipeline that it parallels for much of its route, the Trans-Ecuadorian Oilduct System (SOTE). The SOTE was built in the 1970s for Texaco, and is now run by the Ecuadorian state.

Almeida charges that the OCP was built under the false pretext that separate pipelines were needed for light and heavy crude. "The Mineral Industry of Ecuador" by Pablo Velasco, in the US Geological Survey Minerals Yearbook 2001, states the basic case: "In 2001, heavy and lightcrude from the Oriente were mixed and transported together through SOTE, thereby degrading the value of the lighter crude. However, when the OCP is completed, it will transport theheavy crude, and SOTE will transport the light."

But now, Almeida says, a tunnel near Lago Agrio mixes light oil from the SOTE with heavy oil from the OCP to dilute it and make it possible to pump over the mountains cheaply. This light oil is sold below cost and constitutes a state subsidy of the OCP, according to Almeida. "The entire argument for the project was trickery," Almeida charges.


Nowhere have the human rights impacts of the OCP been felt as harshly as at Sarayacu, the extremely remote territory of a Quichua people in Pastaza province. This is the most inaccessible part of Oriente, hundreds of miles south of where the pipelines currently reach. But, in anticipation of a new phase of development spurred by the OCP, the government has already divided the region into blocks leased out to foreign oil companies. This has sparked a crisis at Sarayacu which Almeida says is in danger of escalating into a small regional war--in an isolated territory invisible to the outside world.

The oil blocks at Sarayacu were leased to a consortium consisting of ChevronTexaco (as the conglomerate is called since a recent merger) and the Argentine firm CGC. Last Nov. 22, a seismic crew contracted by the consortium entered Sarayacu territory without authorization from local indigenous authorities--and were forcibly detained by the Sarayacu. The workers were released following negotiations by both the consortium and provincial police authorities. But the tensions in the region only escalated after the incident--as the consortium brought in an armed security force, backed up Ecuadorian army troops.

On Jan. 13, CGC/ChevronTexaco armed guards reportedly opened fire on Sarayacu who were travelling by the Rio Bobonaza on a mission to demarcate the traditional limits of their territory. According to a report on, a website maintained by the community and their supporters in Puyo, the provincial capital: "The people had to lay down in the bottom of the canoe while gunfire passed above their heads. Meanwhile, other petrol workers, apparently intoxicated, approached in canoes, armed with machetes." A Sarayacu man in a second canoe returned fire with his shotgun, wounding a man who later proved to be a CGC cook. Arrest warrants have now been issued for four Sarayacu men in the incident--but none of the CGC-contracted gunmen.

In April, with exploration in the region stalled by the tension, ChevronTexaco announced that it was withdrawing from the consortium and selling its share in Block 23˜which includes nearly all the Sarayacu communities˜to the firms Burlington and Perenco. The Sarayacu counted this as a victory˜but CGC continues to hold a 50% stake in the block, and vowed to pursue exploration.

On May 5, following a petition by the Sarayacu and their supporters, the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights (IACHR) ordered the Ecuadorian government to take cautionary measures to protect the Sarayacu, and open an investigation into the violence. But on May 29, Pastaza‚s Governor Fernando Ordoñez was quoted in the Guayaquil daily El Universo that "the decision of the regime is to initiate the petrol activity in the blocks number 23 and 24even it has to use the public force."

In September, CGC announced that it intends to resume seismic tests within Sarayacu territory by year‚s end, and President Gutierrez told a radio interview: "We will guarantee complete security for the petrol companies. We have already talked with Sarayacu and we are about to reach an agreement, only four leaders are in opposition of this, but the rest of them agree." Sarayacu responded by issuing a statement that the community "excludes for perpetuity the possibility that the state promotes projects of extraction of non-renewable resources within their territories." Marlon Santi, president of the Sarayacu community, stated that "the Ecuadorian Government has not maintained any conversation with us since February 2003, neither has it implemented the cautionary measures ordered by the Inter-American Court of Human Rights. Instead, it has initiated a campaign of intimidation and pressure".

Pastaza‚s own ombudsman‚s office˜in contrast to the presidentially-appointed provincial governor˜ruled in April that CGC and the former minister of energy and mines who granted the concession, Pablo Teran, violated articles 84 and 88 of Ecuador‚s constitution that mandate indigenous communities be consulted about development projects on their territories. But these provisions took effect in the constitutional reform of 1998, while the Block 23 concession was granted in 1996˜and the government maintains the constitutional guarantee should not be considered retroactive.

Accion Ecologica‚s Almeida warns that the militarization of Oriente is spreading south from the Colombian border˜and that the real targets are not guerrillas or narco-trafficantes but indigenous peoples who stand in the way of oil industry designs. "They are killing the people of the Amazon for this petroleum," she says. "And it is all the fault of the OCP."

In his final words in my interview, CONAIE‚s Leonidas Iza also invoked the threat of Colombia‚s war spreading south into the Ecuadorian Amazon˜and the global implications of the rainforest‚s disappearance. "We want to live in peace, we don't want to bloody our hands with terrorism," Iza says. "Our work is to protect the Mother Earth. What is happening here in Ecuador is a danger for the whole world."

(Sept. 27, 2003) .


On Sept. 26, as Ecuador's Congress approved a measure revising the country's labor code, hundreds of public-sector employees held an angry protest outside the Congress building, breaking through police barricades that surrounded the building. Thousands of riot police responded with clubs and tear gas, and some protesters repotedly retaliated with Molotov cocktails. One police officer and several protesters were injured. The new law freezes wages for many public-sector workers, bans strikes and includes supposed anti-nepotism measures which union leaders say are actually designed to weaken organized labor. The indigenous-led political movement Pachakutic expelled legislator Jose Columbo from the organaztion for voting in favor of the measure. (Expreso de Guayaquil; Hoy, Guayaquil; El Universo, Guayaquil, Sept. 26)

The Quito daily El Comercio received items for their condolences column announcing the death of four living journalists and academics who are critical of the government. Fortunately, the scam was caught before the condolences were printed. The Ecumenical Commission on Human Rights (CEDHU) claimed that the sinister joke was the work of the Legion Blanca, a clandestine ultra-right organization that has repeatedly threatened journalists, social leaders, intellectuals and human rights observers in recent years. (Ultimas Noticias, Quito, Sept. 24)

NOTE: One of the threatened journalists is Kintto Lucas, who reported for Inter Press Service May 29, 2002 on the IMF making new loans conditional on channeling OCP oil export profits from public healthcare to servicing the foreign debt. The IMF demands repeal of an Ecuadorian law under which ten percent of state oil revenues must go to public healthcare.

Ecuador's Ecumenical Commission on Human Rights (CEDHU) released a report detailing violations since 1994 (five years after the military dictatorship ended), including 25 "disappearances," 115 extrajudicial executions, 1,183 cases of torture and over 6,800 arbitrary arrests. CEDHU and the Committee of the Families of the Disappeared called on Ecuador's Congress to reopen investigations into some cases, including the disappearance of the writer Gustavo Garzon and the death of Arturo Jarrin, leader of the now-disbanded guerilla group Alfaro Vive Carajo (AVC). (El Comercio, Quito, Sept. 21)

Ecuador's Constitutional Tribunal, the nation's highest court, struck down a contract between the Environment Ministry and the French firm Societe Generale de Surveillance (SGS) for construction of a satellite system to monitor the Amazon region. The contract, signed last year under then-President Gustavo Noboa, was to build a system mirroring the Amazon Surveillance System (SIVAM) which the US firm Raytheon recently completed for Brazil, to monitor drug trafficking and other activities in the rainforest. But the Constitutional Tribunal found that the government acted unconstitutionally in approving the contract without consulting the indigenous peoples of the Amazon region, invoking "the right of said peoples to participate in the use, usufruct, administration and conservation of resources that are found in their territories." (La Hora, Quito, Sept. 21)

Following charges against several Ecuadorian armed forces officials of allegedly pilfering arms to sell to Colombia's FARC guerillas, a Junta of Transparency has been declared to oversee the public investigation into the case. The five-member Junta is made up of prominent civilian officials and ex-officials. Meanwhile, the US Embassy denied that it had intercepted a supposed November 2002 radio-transmitted conversation between Ecuadorian army captain Carlos Taipe and a Colombian guerilla commander. A tape of the conversation is the main piece of evidence in the case against Taipe, but the source of the tape is still uncertain, and Taipe denies that it is his voice on the tape. (El Universo, Guayaquil, Sept. 24)

See also WW3 REPORT 92: 32&tid=6

Ecuadorian army commander Gen. Luis Aguas has ordered 7,000 troops to the border with Colombia, citing the presence of 5,000 Colombian irregulars--guerillas and paramilitaries--in the zone. "Definitely, we have a subversive threat in the country, with the presence of the FARC and ELN," said Gen. Aguas. Noting that with the exception of the main Panamerican Highway border crossing at Ipiales the Colombian government maintains no military bases along the Ecuadorian border, the Bogota daily El Tiempo recently theorized that Colombia's President Alvaro Uribe has a secret strategy to draw Ecuador into the war. Reporting on El Tiempo's speculation, the Quito daily El Comercio noted that three months after Uribe's June announcement that he intended to crush the guerilla insurgency within 18 months, the border with Ecuador still remains permeable to illegal armed groups. The Ecuadorian armed forces maintain that 97% of the frontier is under guerilla control on the Colombian side. Gen. Aguas admitted the possibility that "the Colombian government has an interest in regionalizing the conflict." (El Comercio, Quito, Sept. 21)

The bodies of three local campesinos in the village of Mataje, along the Colombian border in the Pacific coastal province of Esmeraldas, were fuond by an Ecuadorian army patrol Sept. 26--two days after an apparent incursion by Colombian gunmen. A fourth--a seven-year-old girl who had been left tied to a tree with a gaping wound in her throat--died upon arrival at the local hospital. Residents say that at least 20 more villagers are missing since the attack. Authorities are investigating survivors' claims that the attack was retaliation for refusing orders from a Colombian armed gang to plant coca and opium on Ecuadorian territory. Army sources also claimed that at least 45 families have been assassinated by FARC guerillas on the Colombian side of the border in recent days in that zone, as the guerillas search for a stolen cache of arms and munitions. The Esmeraldas border region is the scene of escalating gunplay. On Sept. 4, in the nearby village of San Lorenzo, a street gunbattle left two Colombian nationals dead--each with over 20 bullets. (El Universo, Guayaquil, Sept. 27)