Above photo: A demonstrator shouts at the police in the surroundings of Arbolito Park in Quito on June 23, 2022, in the framework of Indigenous-led protests against the government. Martin Bernetti / AFP via Getty Images.
Runaway gas prices helped spark the recent 17-day national strike in Ecuador.
But rampant neoliberalism, environmental devastation, and centuries of anti-Indigenous racism are at the heart of this struggle.
“He was my uncle. They killed him during the strike in the center of Puyo, here in Ecuador. He was my uncle, he was Oldemar Guatatoca Vargas.”
Yolanda Vargas, a Shuar woman in her mid-30s, sits in her parked car in the remote jungle outpost of Palora, located within the province of Morona Santiago. She drove out there so she could get a cell phone signal to talk to me. The ride from her community takes roughly an hour over the dirt roads winding a narrow path through the Amazon. With everyone else in the community, besides her elderly and sick mother, in the capital of Quito taking part in El Paro Nacional—the National Strike—she’s had to bring her school-aged children with her, smooshed shoulder-to-shoulder in the front and back seats.
Across the street from where she’s parked, the general store, which usually sells basic goods like cooking oil, salt, baby chicks, and toilet paper, is boarded up. The expected, passing procession of motorcycles carrying whole families through the main thoroughfare never shows up. There’s an eerie sense that everyone is elsewhere—and they are.
“He was a very good person. He was fighting in the strike as an Indigenous person. His people were in Puyo, so they killed him on the day of the strike,” she tells me, crying, as one of her daughters drapes herself over the headrest, glancing at her mother with concern. Vargas’ youngest child, less than a year old, wriggles in her lap while her three other children, all boys, fidget and pinch each other in the back seat.
Oldemar Guatatoca Vargas, also known as Byron Guatatoca, was killed in June on the ninth day of El Paro Nacional. An Indigenous activist, father, and husband representing the Kichwa people, Guatatoca Vargas was struck in the forehead by a tear gas canister fired at close range during an outbreak of violence between the National Police and Indigenous protestors and activists. Graphic video of the moments following impact capture a horrific scene: the tear gas canister lodged in his skull, still spewing gas that obscures Guatatoca Vargas’ body as he lays flat on the street, arms spread wide, as if on a crucifix, while protestors shout, “They killed him!”
Along with the video, more disturbing photographs of the haunting aftermath of Vargas’ violent death quickly circulate throughout the social media pages of Indigenous organizations, accompanied by the hashtag #ParoNacional2022Ec.
The National Police denied culpability in the death of Guatatoca Vargas. In response, protestors set the city’s police station ablaze.
The Confederación de Nacionalidades Indígenas del Ecuador (CONAIE), led by President Leonidas Iza Salazar, and the Confederación de Nacionalidades Indígenas de la Amazonía Ecuatoriana (CONFENIAE) called for the National Strike following a year of fruitless dialogue between the Indigenous populations of the country and the Ecuadorian government under conservative President, and former Executive President of Banco de Guayaquil, Guillermo Lasso. In tracing the roots of the National Strike, domestic and international media alike have pointed to the cost of living crisis that, while affecting every social strata, has been felt most disastrously within the country’s marginalized Indigenous and Afro-Ecuadorian communities who are being pushed deeper into the suffocating maw of poverty. But rising gas and food prices are only the most visible and acute sources of agitation spurring this moment of direct action. Environmental degradation carried out by rampaging extractive industries, racial tensions between urban and Indigenous populations further exacerbated by an ongoing state-run media blitz against Indigenous activists, a hollowed-out public sector and the continued privatization of national assets and industries, lack of employment and educational opportunities within Indigenous communities, an ongoing effort to curtail the constitutionally enshrined rights of Indigenous peoples within the country—all of these factors have acted as flashpoints along the way to this most recent mobilization.
“Thousands of Indigenous peoples of the Amazon came out to the streets. They are not the ones who are worried about the farming policies and cost of living. They are basically worried about their lands, the struggles that they are taking on daily,” said Jerónimo Zuñiga, director of programs with Amazon Frontlines, which works to support Indigenous communities within the Northeastern section of the Ecuadorian Amazon and the cross-border lands nestled between it, Peru, and Colombia. “We have faced some sort of media coverage that basically tends to tell just one side of the story and then has over simplified the movement and their struggle and their demands.”
On June 13, Indigenous activists and protestors erected a series of road blockades—mounds of packed earth, tires, piles of wood, and bonfires—severing critical arteries of trade and travel between the country’s provinces. Territories where major oil-producing operations take place were cut off, and machinery on Indigenous lands was seized or occupied, resulting in the country’s oil production being cut in half after the first week of action. Ten thousand Indigenous protestors marched into the capital city brandishing spears, and they brought the neoliberal economic machine to its knees.
Iza, who orchestrated the blockage of the Pan-American Highway—the world’s longest highway, and a crucial trade route connecting the tip of Argentina to Alaska—was arrested on June 14 and charged with “disrupting public services.” He was released the next day due to intense public outrage. Following a brief trial in September, the Ecuadorian government dropped the charge against Iza.
“My whole family—brothers, nephews, friends, and the people in general—were in the National Strike,” Raúl Elías Antuca, a resident of Morona Santiago and longtime local activist for the Shuar people, told me. The Shuar are an Indigenous people whose communities stretch across the Amazon jungle in both Ecuador and Peru. There are deep and long-running racial tensions between the Shuar—as well as the many other Indigenous populations of Ecuador—and the largely urban populations who identify as having Spanish or European heritage. And racism towards Indigenous populations in Ecuador takes many interpersonal and institutional forms, including the sustained lack of state investment in Indigenous livelihoods simultaneously coupled with support for the same extractive industries that have propelled the social and cultural breakdown of Indigenous communities. The systematic attacks on entire populations can be quantified in the extreme levels of wealth disparity drawn along racial lines. And it can be felt viscerally in the sometimes overt, sometimes subtle racism impinging on the negotiated interactions of daily life. “Racism is common throughout Ecuador by the rich toward the Indigenous,” Antuca said. “We have been sleeping outside in Quito. No one has supported us.”
By the end of the strike on Thursday, June 30, after 18 days of action across every province of the country, La Alianza de Organizaciones por los Derechos Humanos (the Alliance of Organizations for Human Rights) reported that six people had been killed, 331 people were injured, and 152 arrests were made. Protestors on the ground have stressed that the actual numbers are likely higher.
With support from the country’s social and environmental organizations, student groups, and labor unions like Frente Unitario de Trabajadores (FUT), Indigenous leaders presented the Lasso administration with a list of 10 demands at the outset of the strike.
Beyond alleviating the stress of rising gas prices (which the Lasso administration has agreed to tackle through a 10-cent reduction in oil prices—far less than the 45-cent-per-gallon decrease outlined in the list of demands), the bulk of the demands centered on overhauling Ecuador’s economic and political status quo and repairing decades of damage caused by the blight of neoliberal policy. Those demands included: Discontinuing the privatization of public services; sanctioning workers’ rights and increasing enforceable protections for a burgeoning labor movement; fair prices for basic goods (privileging those produced locally); and honoring the 21 unique rights of Indigenous populations as guaranteed in the Constitution.
Contained within “las 10 demandas de la movilización nacional, popular y plurinacional” (the 10 demands of the national, popular, and plurinational movement): repealing the little-known Executive Decrees 95 and 151. The anodyne labels for these institutional policies belie their truly insidious machinations. Ultimately, it was the repeal of Decree 95 and the amendment of Decree 151—a grudgingly accepted compromise from the original demand for a full-scale repeal of the decree—that paved the way for an agreement between Indigenous leaders and Lasso’s administration to halt the strike for a 90-day arbitration period.
Decree 95 sought to increase oil production from 493,000 barrels of oil per day, at the time of passage of the decree in July 2021, to 1 million by 2025. This seemingly unfeasible increase in production was supposed to come from reckless deregulatory measures that would accelerate the process of environmental licensure for transnational companies looking to operate within oil blocks and continuing the transfer of operations from the state. Perhaps more troubling, Decree 95 would expand oil blocks further into Indigenous territories and the intangible zones, the areas of the rainforest in which the few remaining uncontacted tribes still reside. The net result: Further sequestration of profits into the bottomless pockets of the private sector while burdening Indigenous communities—and potentially those uncontacted tribes with no culpability whatsoever for this tragic state of affairs—with the attendant environmental degradation, socioeconomic violence, and cultural loss that irrevocably comes with it. All this at a time when scientists have been warning that oil production needs to peak immediately, if we are to halt warming below 1.5°C and avert the most catastrophic climate scenarios—an already aborted endeavor that polluting nations and the oil industry have shown they never took seriously.
Decree 151, focused on the mining industry, is similarly aimed at weakening regulatory measures in order to draw in more private investment. Here, again, the Ecuadorian government demonstrated its disregard for its most vulnerable populations by expanding the boundaries of existing mining operations into Indigenous communities and intangible zones. Under the amendment, this proposed expansion into Indigenous territories, intangible zones, protected nature reserves and water sources, as well as archaeological sites, will be rolled back.
“We are striking because there should not be that oil exploitation or gold mining in our territory. That is why the government is now granting permits to exploit mining. That is what the government is granting the permit for. We are not going to allow the government to take over our territory,” said Vargas. “The river where the children bathe, the water which we drink, is contaminating us. They contaminate us with fuel, everything is combustible.”
While the repeal of Decree 95 and amendment of Decree 151 have been hailed as wins for the Indigenous movement, it remains to be seen whether the Lasso administration has acted in good faith. Oct. 14 marked the end of the 90-day arbitration period. In addition to the repeal of Executive Decrees 95 and 151, the extended dialogue yielded agreements on three facets of the 10 demands: a one-year moratorium on new oil and mining concessions, the prioritization of Indigenous Ecuadorians in the distribution of government loans, and an expanded budget for multicultural, bilingual education. CONAIE will be convening on Nov. 18 to finalize their terms for the implementation of these agreements. “We have to be vigilant that this is actually done,” said Zuñiga. “The struggle to change their lives, and the struggle to protect territories and therefore climate, is an ongoing struggle. One strike won’t solve everything.”
These environmental protections, and the environmental ruin that necessitated them, are crucial to understanding this most recent mass mobilization. They serve as the connective tissue that runs through the seemingly disparate demands that galvanized El Paro Nacional—demands made within the greater struggle for Indigenous rights.
Yolanda Vargas and Raúl Elías Antuca live within Oil Block 10. Matted-down clearings within Vargas’ community reveal large puddles covered by a multi-hued film of gasoline glistening underneath the equatorial sun. Barefoot and bare-bottomed children stomp through them as they navigate the dirt paths linking all of the lean-to style huts in the community.
Home to an extended family with a handful of adults and their children of varying ages, the community sits alongside the Llushin River, a tributary flowing in from the Amazon. The river is their main source of water for drinking, cleaning, transportation to and from hard-to-reach pockets of the region, and food. Blast fishing is sometimes used in this part of the Amazon, which entails setting off tiny explosives in stretches of shallow water—stunned fish float up to the top, where they can be easily scooped off.
“When I get up,” Vargas says, “I make a little fire to cook for my children before they go to school. So very happy, I wake them up and say, “Get up, son. How are you?” I make my children wash and change. I serve them and I’m happy, but sometimes I’m sad because of what we are going through here in Ecuador. Sometimes I tell them, ‘Mijo, this is happening to us.’ He says, ‘Mommy, it’s not happening.’ They are also suffering.”
On the sun-baked earth her community claims as the lands of their ancestors, Vargas spends the majority of her days hacking through a detritus of leaf litter, in the same way generations before her worked over the land, to pull out yuca—a large tuber with tough, brown skin and stark white flesh. Yuca is a staple of their diet. She uses the yuca to make chicha, a fermented alcoholic drink common to this region of Ecuador. The chicha is made by chewing up the tuber’s flesh and spitting it out into a large bowl, where it ferments, and is later served from a shared bowl.
Pitaya (or dragon fruit), plantains, bananas, and small potatoes are also grown in this territory. “We Shuar depend on our crops. Sometimes our wives take the products to the local market to sell at an unfair price, but we have no choice but to offer them at these prices because the mestizos (largely urban-dwelling Ecuadorians whom identify as having both European and Indigenous heritage) buy our products but do not value the sacrifice of our work,” said Antuca, the 52-year-old father of four.
Antuca spends his days laboring over his crops for sale and sustenance, collecting orchids for their ornamental value, and taking care of the traditional, medicinal plants he grows. He plants fruit trees and other native plants in the area surrounding his territory, which was stripped bare by logging companies decades ago. He breaks only for the rain and the arrival of nightfall, when he retires to his family’s company.
For Vargas and Antuca, everything lives and dies within the jungle. It is in that great chasm between life and death where new lovers meet, babies are born, and the echo of centuries whistles through the trees that they are trying to hold onto.
A growing body of research has supported what Indigenous communities already know: Land under the stewardship of Indigenous populations is able to maintain its biodiversity, sustain its health, and store carbon within its vegetation and soil, thereby reducing the amount in the atmosphere. So far, no human-made carbon capture technologies have surpassed the ability of the rainforest to sequester carbon.
Continued deforestation, drought, and fires are threatening the ability of the rainforest to hold onto this carbon; 17% of the Amazon has already been lost over the last 50 years. As the planet warms, the Amazon is rapidly evolving from a carbon sink to a source of carbon, creating an irreversible feedback loop and accelerating the rate of warming. If this trend continues, 30% to 60% of the Amazon could become an arid, Savannah-like environment where yuca and orchids can no longer be grown, where no life can flourish.
“The only way to take care of the forest is to inhabit it and not allow the entry of oil miners or loggers, especially by raising awareness among the Shuar population to defend the forest with their lives, soul, and heart,” said Antuca.
In the 1970s, rapacious, petrol-guzzling multinationals and cannibalistic domestic corporations accelerated their encroachment into Indigenous territories. With the oil rush came the promise of jobs and opportunity for the people who lived there—a share in the material wealth created by the hellacious destruction of their lands, social cohesion, cultural heritage, and bodily health. But, 50 years on, it’s hard to find the evidence that this doomed compromise delivered on its promises. According to Amazon Watch, 29% of the general population in Ecuador suffers from poverty, and among the Indigenous populations this number jumps to 59%. “In this part of the country, you have the traditional exploitation of oil. And also, they have the most poverty in the country. So, it’s a lie that the extractive industries make prosperity [for] the society,” said Sofía Jarrín Hidalgo, Ecuador advocacy advisor for Amazon Watch.
Vargas and Antuca have not been spared from the crushing effects of poverty found all across these lands approved by the government for corporate plunder and environmental destruction, here in the oil-slicked afterbirth the extractive industries that operate with impunity have left in their country. Vargas lost one brother to an illegal logging accident, another to a land dispute; her 16-year-old nephew to suicide; and her father after he fell into the river, drunk, and drowned.
Tensions have fomented between Antuca and Vargas over accusations that the Vargas community has been working with the mining companies that hold concessions in the region—Solaris Resources, Inc., a Canadian-owned company, and Ecuacorrientes SA, a Chinese-owned company. Antuca alleges that the stretch of the Llushin river that the Vargas community sits adjacent to has been contaminated not solely by these mining operations, but by the Vargas family themselves. He attributes their newfound wealth, in the form of a couple of cars, to this arrangement—a pact made with the closest approximation we have to the devil to stave off total extinction for another day. Theirs is an expression of the ugly reality of poverty, damned no matter which direction you look to for salvation. An unfortunate truth for people whose livelihoods and dignities have been stripped away bit by bit—sometimes selling off lands for a gallon of candy, for instance, as the Vargas’ grandparents are said to have done after the arrival of Spanish missionaries.
In this way, the struggle for economic opportunity is the struggle for land rights is the struggle for self-determination is the struggle for climate justice, and so on. People, even in the deepest jungle communities, are fighting over and fighting back against the effects of these world-destroying forces with common roots and global reach.
And while social movements in the US—whether by design or accident—have a tendency to be siloed, the various strands of the Indigenous movement in Ecuador are irrevocably linked, chains holding itself together. The fight for environmental protections is inseparable from the right of Indigenous communities to occupy and have title to their ancestral lands, and from the right of self-determination within those Indigenous communities.
El Paro Nacional is not novel. Modern Ecuador has a long history of mass mobilizations, dating back to 1964, following top-down agrarian reforms undertaken by the Ecuadorian government—reforms designed to drag Indigenous communities into the open, tooth-filled maw of so-called modernity, while hand-delivering their newly divested lands to oil companies. The ’70s and ’80s brought the formation of CONAIE and CONFENIAE, as well as a slow-developing awareness on the part of the wider society of the united block that the Indigenous movement was becoming. In 1990, the largest mobilization in the country’s history took place, during which contemporary methods of resistance used by the Indigenous populations—like road blockades, oil equipment seizure, and the ensuing economic paralysis—were first popularized. This mobilization serves as the instruction book for all those that have followed. And there have been many.
What is especially un-novel about these mobilizations is the sad fact that they have emerged to address the same societal woes over and over again, each time stealing an inch of progress before cycling back onto itself in the form of an incendiary combustion point: rising gas prices and revoked subsidies, destructive neoliberal policies (e.g., IMF-ordered restructuring deals leading to the revocation of oil subsidies, which was the final flashpoint in 2019), the struggle to attain title to ancestral lands, the ability to decide what happens within those ancestral lands and to have self-determination, scant opportunities for adequate employment, rising food prices, lack of education in native tongues, et cetera, et cetera. In short, all of the necessary conditions for a life lived with dignity. Is that not the same fight that you and I and everyone else are engaged in in our respective corners of the world? Are we, too, not compelled to resist the many insidious concessions we’re forced to make in our daily lives within a system designed to take everything from us? All of our little siloes—the labor movement, the fight for reproductive rights and racial equity, the environmental movement—exist within this total struggle, striated, distinct movements contained like layers of colored sand in a glass.
Within that social inferno, mass mobilizations march social inequities into the urban centers where they clash with the state and neoliberal interests. The government shifts blame onto the Indigenous populations (In recent days, Lasso’s government has accused indigenous protestors of being terrorists funded by drug trafficking networks) and violence escalates until an inevitable release comes—a cork rocketing out of its bottle—when the cost of the violence (economic on one side and bodily on the other) becomes too grave for either side to endure. Here, there is a moment of catharsis, of reflection. Promises are made and concessions are granted. Over time, these promises either fail to materialize or are quietly walked back until another combustion point sparks, perhaps in the form of rising gas prices or further environmental degradation, but always with the cicada’s hum of the interwoven struggle permeating the hot air.
“That is what I want people to know: that they shouldn’t treat us like that, finish us off, make us lose a family—especially another family that has little children. Those children need to eat, they need their father next to their mother,” said Yolanda Vargas. “This moment, here—with my family, with my people, among Indigenous people, the people of Ecuador—we’re very affected, we’re very sore. We’re going through a very big situation, do you see it?” she asked.