Indigenous Sovereignty And The Possibility Of An Intercultural Paradigm In Ecuador

At the end of December, following a speech in which Ecuadorian President Guillermo Lasso threatened indigenous leader Leonidas Iza, the Alliance for Human Rights condemned Lasso for intimidation tactics and impinging freedom of speech. Iza, known for his involvement in the October 2019 national protests against the economic policies of then-President Lenín Moreno, became President of CONAIE (Confederation of Indigenous Nationalities of Ecuador) in June 2021. He tirelessly advocates for indigenous rights and the rights of nature and has called out Lasso’s administration for its failure to do the same. In response, La Prensa reported that Lasso said of Iza: “he hates democracy, hates Ecuador’s institutionality, is efficient in setting fire to public buildings, is efficient in promoting the kidnapping of journalists and police.” This incident is the most recent in a long history of indigenous disparagement and challenges to indigenous sovereignty in Ecuador, beginning with the arrival of the Spanish in 1532. To grant context, this report will attempt to demonstrate how the history of colonialism, the prevalence of discrimination on the basis of spoken language and race, and structural subjugation aided by educational and religious efforts, affect the viability of a true “intercultural” paradigm in Ecuador today.

As the Spanish colonizers imposed their sovereignty, a strong association between the act of speaking original languages such as Kichwa and a designation of “savagery” emerged. As a result, a system of subjugation and discrimination grew. To demonstrate this cultural loss, it is relevant to examine Jorge Gómez Rendón Lunes’s discussion that the way a particular group communicates ideas is an integral aspect of intangible heritage. In El patrimonio lingüístico de Ecuador: Desafío del siglo XXI, he writes, “Every human language carries meanings that reflect the views of its speakers about themselves and their environment, the way that environment is organized and their relationship with it. This vision is forged by thousands of years of coexistence in a habitat with specific physical and climatic characteristics and is reflected in a special way in the language.” During this period, Kichwa was a language with a strong oral tradition. There was no spelling. Comprehensive knowledge of the culture was passed on by word of mouth. Without the ability to speak the language, knowledge of the ancestors could not be preserved. With the gradual decrease in the number of speakers of the language and the increasing emphasis on the need for Spanish in everyday life, “the vision of its speakers about themselves and their environment” also began to disappear. Indeed, over the course of several hundred years, the attempted erasure of Kichwa (and other original languages) manifested itself at the social, political, and economic levels.

Over the centuries, structural subjugation was largely aided by educational reforms and religious goals. European-style education and religion were used as tools to ‘improve’ and ‘save’ indigenous people. In reality, this was a thinly-veiled impulse for total cultural control. With the decline of indigenous cultural identities, the chance of successful resistance also decreased. At the end of the 19th century, the Kichwa people were sentenced to forced labor and compulsory tribute during the wars of independence and the creation of new republics. Yet, this would not result in a more extensive realization of equality. In fact, as Fabian Espinosa writes in Reclaiming Sovereignty: An Attempt to Decolonize the Ecuadorian State, the wars of independence were a “… consolidation of an ethnic paradigm imposed by the Spanish colonizers, based on the exploitation and exclusion of both the indigenous population and the descendants of enslaved Africans.” The failure of the Ecuadorian state to represent, include, and speak for a large portion of its population resulted in several uprisings in the 20th century, from the 1940s agrarian struggle supported by the communist and socialist parties to the more organized struggle of the 1990s.

Additionally, the Spanish colonial presence achieved its dominance by promoting the theory (later referred to as social Darwinism) of a racial hierarchy of human superiority. The Spanish colonizers saw themselves at the top of the societal pyramid, followed by creoles, mestizos, indigenous people, and enslaved African people. The mestizos occupied one of the most precarious positions in society, but soon grew to represent a significant portion of the population. They had Spanish and indigenous blood but did not fully belong to any group or linguistic tradition. In fact, as Marisol de la Cadena records in Son los mestizos hibrídos? Las políticas conceptuales de las identidades andinas, “mestizos connoted ‘mixing’ and ‘impurity’.” This phenomenon of ‘mestizaje’ was exclusive to the Spanish and Portuguese colonial process, but its relevance has continued to this day, since most people in Ecuador have both indigenous and Spanish ancestry. Marisol de la Cadena continues, “That is to say, they are not only the result of the biological or cultural mixture of two previously separated entities; they evoke a conceptual hybridity epistemologically inscribed in the very notion of mestizo. This is not as difficult as it sounds. The mestizo voice has a long genealogy that begins approximately in the 16th century and emerges in the present.” But, until fairly recently, that voice has predominantly relied on Spanish for visibility and acknowledgement and not Kichwa (or other original languages ​​for that matter). Following in the tradition of their forebears, Leonidas Iza and other modern indigenous leaders have called that dynamic, among others, into question.

This report has discussed some of the historical conditions of the modern indigenous experience in Ecuador, but to discuss the feasibility of an intercultural paradigm aimed at decolonization today, it is first important to establish the political, economic, and social conditions that influence and, to a large extent, determine the difference in experience of various groups in Ecuador. First, in terms of politics, Ecuador has a long history of structural corruption and clientelism. As a result, many decisions in this sphere are determined by the wishes and motivations of the elite. Second, Ecuador has undergone several, severe economic crises. From the wars of independence financed by England and fought by European mercenaries to the present reality of extensive foreign debt and widespread, foreign-funded extractive industries; Ecuador’s economy has long been manipulated by external forces. Third, in terms of the social environment, national identity congregates around the glorification of indigenous roots. Yet, significant discrimination against indigenous groups and original language speakers persists, both implicitly and explicitly.

Given these conditions and the history that has been discussed, it seems almost impossible to establish a true intercultural paradigm, which would incorporate the practice of inclusion with an understanding of power asymmetries. Nonetheless, steps have been taken towards this ideal, even in light of the challenges. The creation of CONAIE not only demonstrated the need for the indigenous population to establish its historical belonging, but also that of its modern existence, given the discrimination faced from the exclusively Spanish-speaking sector. Espinosa comments on the creation of CONAIE and the emergence of “… the need to develop well-defined, contemporary and realistic concepts to understand and explain the situation of indigenous peoples, while reaffirming their hopes and claims.” Ecuador’s most recent Constitution (2008) also took steps in the right direction with its incorporation of the concepts of a plurinational state, interculturality, sovereignty, and participatory democracy. But, as demonstrated by President Lasso’s recent speech, there is still a long way to go and future action must be based on respect, informed consent, and common goals. According to Diana Atamaint, President of the Ecuadorian National Electoral Council and a member of the Shuar people, there are three necessary actions by the government to recover the rights of indigenous peoples: (1) public apologies, (2) financial compensation, and (3) recognition of the democratic legitimacy for the consultation. Additionally, Lunes suggests there are three methods of expanding the teaching-learning process of native languages: (1) the use of language as a means of transmitting knowledge, (2) the expansion of its space of expression, and (3) increasing the socialization of the language in public spheres with a focus on the visibility of its speakers. Perhaps with the implementation of these suggestions, a greater change will be achieved. After all, according to Diana Atamaint, “[in Ecuador] diversity is the greatest wealth.”


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