Demonstrators who marched for two weeks from the province of Zamora Chinchipe in southern Ecuador reached Quito, the country’s capital, on March 22, where they were joined by thousands of supporters.
The marchers, who arrived on World Water Day, were protesting a new mine in Zamora Chinchipe and calling for respect for water as a human right. The protest was led by the Confederation of Indigenous Nationalities of Ecuador (Confederación de Nacionalidades Indígenas de Ecuador, CONAIE) and joined by environmentalists, women’s organizations, grassroots groups, trade unions and political organizations that oppose the government of President Rafael Correa.
In Quito, four police officers were reported injured when protesters broke from the approved march route and approached government offices. In the evening, Fernando Cordero, president of the National Assembly met with protest leaders in the legislature building, where they presented their demands.
One key demand is approval of a law currently before the National Assembly that would provide for indigenous communities to be consulted about development projects planned for their territories, according to Pepe Acacho, vice president of CONAIE.
“The land belongs to us,” Acacho said in a telephone interview. “We have ancestral ownership.”
He said CONAIE wants the government to cancel mining and petroleum concessions dating back to 1998, when a law was passed requiring companies to negotiate projects with indigenous organizations, instead of directly with communities.
Coinciding with the marchers’ arrival in Quito, government sympathizers organized a counter-protest on March 22 that also drew thousands of people. Speaking to that crowd, Correa called the CONAIE-led protest a “resounding defeat.” Other government officials told the crowd that “responsible” mining was necessary to produce revenue to enable the government to provide basic services.
The protest march began in the province where the Chinese-owned Ecuacorriente company’s plans for a $1.7 billion open pit copper mine that would mark Ecuador’s first foray into large-scale mining. Community leaders and local government officials fear it will pollute waterways and that rapid population growth around the mine will spur a rise in crime and other social problems.