Ecuador Indians March for Rights Demands Include Self-Governance and Territorial Rights to Pristine Rain Forest

Article excerpt

WHEN 2,000 Amazonian Indians reached a communal field in this Andean town, many immediately fell to the ground and began rubbing their tired, sunburnt legs. Only hours later, the same Indians were dancing on the same ground, celebrating another night of a historic 300-mile march.

Ecuadorian Indians from three tribes are demanding that President Rodrigo Borja Cevallos grant them not only territorial rights to the country's last great stretch of pristine rain forest, but also permission to govern themselves within its boundaries.

Some 30,000 Achuar, Siwiar, and Quechua Indians are seeking control of 2 million hectares (810,000 acres) - about 80 percent of the eastern Pastaza province, a region of virgin jungle stretching eastward to the Peruvian border. The march is led by the Organization of Indian Peoples of Pastaza (OPIP) and is supported by several international environmental groups that see Indian management as the best way to save the territory from destructive development.

"This would be the first Indian territory with a management plan not imposed by the state," says Gustavo Gonzalez, an environmental advisor to OPIP. "If the government accepts even part of it, it will have repercussions not only in Ecuador, but throughout the Amazon."

Until now, the most striking result of the proposal has been the Borja administration's decision to at least discuss it despite fears that Indians are trying to set up a "parallel state." President Borja said this week that he will meet with the Indians when they arrive in the capital, Quito.

For their part the Indians resting for the night in Salcedo showed no signs of weakened determination even after days of walking up steep grades from the jungle plains into the Andean highlands. They were confident that the stiffness of their legs was nothing compared to the heat and pressure Borja would feel once they reached the city and camped out in front of his palace.

"We will stay there until the president gives us what we want," said Margarita Lopez, an Ashuar Indian from Puyo, Ecuador's largest city in the Amazon.

Though Indians are a minority in Ecuador, accounting for about 30 percent of a population of about 10 million, Borja and other officials have learned to heed their warnings. The memory of a violent nationwide Indian uprising, or levantamiento, in June 1990 is still fresh in the minds of officials. Many admit that a repeat would hurt the chances of the ruling Democratic Left party in this year's presidential and legislative elections.

The last uprising ended when the government agreed to negotiations with Indian organizations. But since then the talks have made little progress in areas such as land reform and environmental protection, Indian leaders say.

Sensing the ruling Democratic Left party's fear of political damage, Indian leaders repeatedly have said the march is drawing overwhelming support from the public. Such support was indeed evident in Salcedo, about 60 miles south of Quito, where at least 1,000 people ignored a Good Friday church service to wait along a narrow street separating the gleaming white cathedral from the main plaza.

The crowd applauded sporadically as the marchers, many of them wearing facial paint, headdresses, and other traditional clothing, passed through town. …