Indigenous Sovereignty and the Possibility of an Intercultural Paradigm in Ecuador – World Peace Organization
In late 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 undermining the freedom of expression. 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 defends without releases native rights and the rights of nature and called out the Lasso administration for its failure to do the same. In response, La Prensa reported that Lasso said of Iza: “he hates democracy, hates the institutionality of Ecuador, is effective in burning down public buildings, is effective in promoting the kidnapping of journalists and policemen.” This incident is the most recent in a long history of indigenous denigration and contestation of indigenous sovereignty in Ecuador, which began with the arrival of the Spaniards in 1532. To provide context, this report will attempt to demonstrate how the history of colonialism, the prevalence of discrimination based on spoken language and race, and structural subjugation aided by educational and religious endeavors, affect the viability of a true “intercultural” paradigm in Ecuador today.
As the Spanish colonizers imposed their sovereignty, a strong association between speaking original languages such as Kichwa and a designation of “savagery” emerged. As a result, a system of subjugation and discrimination developed. To demonstrate this cultural loss, it is relevant to examine Jorge Gómez Rendón Lunes’ discussion that the way a particular group communicates ideas is an integral part of intangible heritage. In El patrimonio lingüístico de Ecuador: Desafío del siglo XXI he writes: “Every human language carries meanings that reflect the opinions of its speakers about themselves and their environment, the way in which this 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 particular way in the language. At that time, Kichwa was a language with a strong oral tradition. There was no spelling. In-depth 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 decline in the number of speakers of the language and the growing emphasis on the need for Spanish in everyday life, “its speakers’ view of themselves and their surroundings” also began to fade. Indeed, over several hundred years, the attempted erasure of Kichwa (and other original languages) has manifested itself at social, political and economic levels.
Over the centuries, structural subjugation has been largely facilitated by educational reforms and religious goals. European-style education and religion were used as tools to “improve” and “save” indigenous peoples. In reality, it was a thinly veiled push for total cultural control. With the decline of indigenous cultural identities, the chances of success in resistance have also diminished. At the end of the 19th century, the Kichwa people were condemned to forced labor and compulsory tribute during the wars of independence and the creation of new republics. Yet this would not lead to a more widespread realization of equality. In fact, as Fabian Espinosa writes in Reclaiming Sovereignty: An Attempt to Decolonize the Ecuadorian State, the wars of independence were “…the consolidation of an ethnic paradigm imposed by the Spanish colonizers, based on the exploitation and the exclusion of both the indigenous population and the descendants of enslaved Africans.The failure of the Ecuadorian state to represent, include and speak on behalf of a large part of its population has led to several uprisings in 20th century, from the agrarian struggle of the 1940s supported by the communist and socialist parties to the more organized struggle of the 1990s.
Moreover, the Spanish colonial presence achieved its dominance by promoting the theory (later called Social Darwinism) of a racial hierarchy of human superiority. The Spanish colonizers saw themselves at the top of the societal pyramid, followed by the Creoles, mestizos, natives and enslaved Africans. The mestizos occupied one of the most precarious positions in society, but quickly grew to represent a significant part of the population. They had Spanish and indigenous blood but did not fully belong to any linguistic group or tradition. In fact, as reported by Marisol de la Cadena in Son los mestizos hibrídos? Las políticas conceptuales de las identidades andinas, “the mestizos connoted ‘mixture’ and ‘impurity’.” This phenomenon of “miscegenation” was exclusive to the Spanish and Portuguese colonial process, but its relevance has continued to this day, as most people in Ecuador have both indigenous and Spanish ancestry. Marisol de la Cadena continues: “That is to say that 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. It’s not as difficult as it seems. The Métis voice has a long genealogy beginning approximately in the 16th century and emerging into the present. But, until fairly recently, that voice relied primarily on Spanish for visibility and recognition and not on Kichwa (or other original languages for that matter). Following the tradition of their ancestors, Leonidas Iza and other modern indigenous leaders have, among other things, challenged this dynamic.
This report has examined some of the historical conditions of the modern indigenous experience in Ecuador, but to discuss the feasibility of a cross-cultural paradigm aimed at decolonization today, it is first important to establish the political, economic and social that influence and, to a large extent, determine the difference in experience of various groups in Ecuador. First, politically, Ecuador has a long history of structural corruption and clientelism. As a result, many decisions in this area are determined by the wishes and motives of the elite. Second, Ecuador has gone through several serious economic crises. From the wars of independence financed by England and carried out by European mercenaries to the current reality of a huge foreign debt and extractive industries largely financed from abroad; Ecuador’s economy has long been manipulated by outside forces. Third, in terms of the social environment, national identity coalesces around the glorification of indigenous roots. Yet significant discrimination against indigenous groups and native 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 cross-cultural paradigm, which would integrate the practice of inclusion with an understanding of power asymmetries. Nevertheless, 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 membership, but also that of its modern existence, given the discrimination suffered by 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) has also taken a step in the right direction by incorporating the concepts of Plurinational State, interculturality, sovereignty and participatory democracy. But, as President Lasso’s recent speech demonstrated, 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 member of the Shuar people, the government must take three steps to recover the rights of indigenous peoples: (1) a public apology, (2) financial compensation and (3) recognition of the democratic legitimacy of the consultation. In addition, Lunes suggests that there are three methods to extend the teaching-learning process of mother tongues: (1) the use of language as a means of transmitting knowledge, (2) the expansion of its teaching space. expression and (3) increasing the socialization of the language in public spheres with an emphasis on the visibility of its speakers. Perhaps with the implementation of these suggestions, a greater change will be realized. After all, according to Diana Atamaint, “[in Ecuador] diversity is the greatest wealth.