Newspaper article The Christian Science Monitor

Ecuador to Grant Indians Title to Rain Forest Lands

Newspaper article The Christian Science Monitor

Ecuador to Grant Indians Title to Rain Forest Lands

Article excerpt

THE government of President Rodrigo Borja Cevallos is putting the final touches on an unprecedented plan to protect Ecuador's last expanse of tropical rain forest by officially recognizing it as the traditional territory of three Indian communities.

The three groups, the Achuar, Shiwiar, and Quechua, won President Borja's approval for communal territories after a 12-day Indian march last month, the first in Ecuador's history, from their Amazonian homeland to the capital Quito. About 2,500 men, women, and children, many of them seeing Quito for the first time, say they will camp in one of the capital's parks until the government grants them titles to millions of acres in the eastern Pastaza region.

Though the amount of land is still being negotiated, government officials say privately that the territories could comprise the 2 million hectares (5 million acres) demanded by the region's 30,000 Indians, the majority of them grouped under the Organization of Indian Peoples of Pastaza (OPIP). Most analysts agree that no matter what the final land tally, the government is in the process of setting up one of the largest single stretches of Indian territory in the hemisphere.

Officials and Indian leaders say the granting of the territories to native peoples is almost sure to slow, if not stop, destructive colonization of the Amazon region by Ecuador's mestizo population. In other regions of once- virgin rain forest, the government has all but ignored the original Indian inhabitants while promoting colonization by wood cutters, farmers, and cattle ranchers. The policy has contributed to the highest deforestation rate in South America, about 142,500 hectares (351,975 acres), or 2.4 percent of the total, each year.

"There is a mutual interest in preventing more damage and preserving the rain forest for the next generations," says government negotiator Diego Bonifaz. "The handing over of these territories to Indians supports the argument that there is not much land left in Ecuador to occupy."

But the agreement leaves another important environmental question unanswered. OPIP leaders had been demanding full autonomy in the region, including final say over whether or not petroleum development could proceed there.

Indians dropped the demand, they say, after realizing that it would have given government officials an excuse for withholding the land titles. The Indians, who have refused to leave Quito without the titles, also feared that including the complicated petroleum issue in the debate would have kept them sleeping under tents in a strange city for months. Already more than a score of campers are being attended by the Red Cross and several volunteer doctors after falling ill.

"We simply decided that the {land} titles are the only feasible objective at this point," OPIP president Alfredo Vargas says, adding that the Indians at least succeeded in convincing the government to give them communal title to traditional territories, rather than pieces of land in the names of individuals. …

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