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