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ECUADOR: Native Groups in Showdown Over Water Bill

Gonzalo Ortiz

QUITO, Apr 29 2010 (IPS) - The second and final parliamentary debate of a new water bill to regulate water resource management in Ecuador is due to begin May 4, amid stark divisions among indigenous movements and between them and the government of left-leaning President Rafael Correa.

IPS learned that last-minute efforts are still being made by advisers and representatives of different social movements to find common ground for the parts of the text that are sparking the most controversy.

The draft law tabled for discussion in the single-chamber parliament has been rejected by the country’s largest indigenous association, the Confederation of Indigenous Nationalities of Ecuador (CONAIE), which has vowed to resort to civil disobedience if the alternative text they have proposed is not approved instead.

Following mass protests by native demonstrators Apr. 8 and several days since in front of the Congress building in Quito, Delfín Tenesaca, CONAIE’s leader in the highlands or “sierra” region, warned that they are preparing to occupy government buildings, block highways and launch even more radical demonstrations in the country’s streets and squares.

The water bill has also been rejected by the National Federation of Peasant, Indigenous and Black Organisations (FENOCIN), which is not aligned with CONAIE and has broken away from its alliance with the Correa administration over this issue.

After nine months of debate, both CONAIE and FENOCIN presented separate, and different, minority reports containing alternative draft texts for a water law to the legislature, through indigenous lawmakers on the congressional Food Sovereignty Commission, which is presenting the bill.

But Congress will only debate the majority text of the water law, which the government unexpectedly agreed with rightwing lawmakers, represented on the Commission by Susana González of the Madera de Guerrero movement, which supports Guayaquil Mayor Jaime Nebot of the centre-right Social Christian Party (PSC).

Anthropologist Fernando García, a professor at the Latin American Faculty of Social Sciences (FLACSO), told IPS that “a basic problem with this law, and others governing the use of natural resources, is that a consensus has not been built with social organisations.” But Jaime Abril of the governing Alianza País political movement and chairman of the Food Sovereignty Commission said that dozens of seminars, workshops and forums have been held with social organisations of all kinds. According to García, “although the formalities of seeking public input have been observed, the pressure of meeting deadlines (for passing the law), originally set for October 2009 as stipulated in the constitution, and then for March 2010 and finally for April, left no time for reaching real agreements.”

Added to that, the executive branch has intervened to impose certain policy directives, so the reaction of organisations of indigenous people, peasants and environmentalists “has been to reject a draft law they regard as alien to them,” said the FLACSO expert.

Pedro de la Cruz, an indigenous lawmaker and the head of FENOCIN, complained in his minority report that when Article 80 of the bill was being discussed, government delegates intervened and instructed the legislative Commission on what the bill should look like.

De la Cruz said such interference with the debate was the main reason five socialist legislators defected, reducing the number of government allies in Congress from 58 to 53 of the total of 120 in early April.

Following the example of Uruguay’s 2004 constitutional reform, Article 12 of the Ecuadorean constitution declares that water is a fundamental human right that must be guaranteed. “Water is a strategic national asset for public use” that is inalienable, permanent, cannot be embargoed and is essential for life, Ecuador’s 2008 constitution says.

Actually, water is not scarce in Ecuador: on average, each of the country’s 13.8 million people has available 40,000 cubic metres of water per year, over two-and-a-half times the world average, according to the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO).

But one of the points in dispute is the practical application of Article 282 of the constitution, which bans “latifundios” (estates covering vast tracts of land) and the concentration of land ownership, as well as the monopolisation or privatisation of water.

According to de la Cruz, the governing Alianza País bill departs from the priorities for water use set out in Article 318 of the constitution, which states that water resources shall be destined first to human consumption, then to irrigation to secure food sovereignty, then to environmentally adequate levels of flow in the country’s rivers, and finally to productive activities.

The government’s draft law will allow “large farmers and agroexport businesses to continue to monopolise the lion’s share of the water,” de la Cruz said.

CONAIE, for its part, says that municipal authorities should not grant concessions over the distribution of drinking water supplies, because this is tantamount to the privatisation of water, which is contrary to the constitution.

But the bill before parliament permits continuation of the sole existing concession in Ecuador, for supplying drinking water to Guayaquil, the most populous city in the country. The concessionnaire is Interagua, a company owned by a consortium made up of France’s Veolia, Spain’s Fomento de Construcciones y Contratas (FCC), Colombia’s FANALCA, Ecuador’s Hidalgo & Hidalgo and Ricardo Palau, head of Equidor S.A.

Many local press articles indicate that maintaining Interagua’s concession license is a key condition set by rightwing lawmaker González to secure her vote for the bill, to the indignation of the indigenous movements.

Another stumbling-block being debated is the National Water Authority, required by the constitution. The government bill empowers the president to appoint a ministerial-rank national water secretary to head this body.

CONAIE, in contrast, proposes that the body should be a “plurinational council”, with a majority of representatives of indigenous and peasant organisations and the local water boards that supervise irrigation, and with similar councils being formed in each territorial subdivision.

“What CONAIE wants is for farmers to have to pay the local indigenous chiefs to be able to irrigate our farms,” Francisco Correa complained to IPS. He owns a cattle ranch and grows flowers in the central province of Cotopaxi, and was taken hostage by indigenous people for three days in March.

The government bill includes a plurinational council that would propose policies and oversee enforcement of the water law, but would have no decision-making power. It would be composed of equal numbers of government delegates and representatives of civil society, and the national water secretary would have the casting vote.

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