Civil Society, Headlines, Human Rights, Indigenous Rights, Latin America & the Caribbean | Analysis

ECUADOR: Native Standoff Over Water Bill on Hold

Analysis by Gonzalo Ortiz

QUITO, May 19 2010 (IPS) - The Ecuadorean legislature’s decision to hold a non-binding vote among the country’s indigenous communities on a controversial water bill that sparked weeks of protests by native groups has calmed things down — for now.

Fernando Cordero, the head of parliament, managed to ease tempers among the indigenous movement by proposing a “non-binding pre-legislative consultation” among Ecuador’s native peoples, who make up nearly 40 percent of the population of close to 14 million.

The initiative has postponed for several months the legislative vote on the government’s water reform bill, which indigenous associations say would give mining companies and agribusiness privileged access to water and would hurt their small farms, while left-leaning President Rafael Correa argues that it would better regulate the water system.

Consultations on the impact of bills or projects like mines, oil drilling or logging on native territory are provided for in the constitution in effect since 2008, in line with International Labour Organisation (ILO) Convention 169 Concerning Indigenous and Tribal Peoples, which requires prior, free and informed consent, and participation by indigenous peoples in the benefits generated by projects.

In response to Congress’s decision to hold a consultation process, the indigenous associations temporarily suspended the demonstrations and roadblocks that they have been staging for the last two weeks in seven of the country’s 24 provinces to protest the water bill.

On Tuesday, the national election council underscored that the non-binding consultation and vote on water reforms would be the first of its kind in the world. The Constitutional Court, meanwhile, confirmed that a prior consultation process is mandatory under the principle of participation by indigenous groups, but not the incorporation of the results, because that is up to the legislators to decide.

But this point is likely to give rise to a renewal of tensions in the crisis between the government and the three main indigenous associations opposed to the bill: the powerful Ecuadorean Confederation of Indigenous Nationalities (CONAIE), the National Federation of Peasant, Indigenous and Black Organisations (FENOCIN), and the Federation of Evangelical Indigenous Peoples and Organisations of Ecuador (FEINE).

In fact, the native leaders are already demanding that the results of the public participation process be binding, arguing that the constitution does not state otherwise.

The organisational capacity of the indigenous movement in Ecuador, which has been widely commented on for years by local and international observers, was once again seen this month in the protests that forced Congress to postpone the vote on the water bill and announce the public input process.

Ecuador forms part of the Andean subregion, which is considered to be rich in water resources. According to United Nations statistics, this country has 40,000 cubic metres of water a year per capita, compared to averages of 3,200, 2,000 and 900 cubic metres in Asia, Western Europe and North Africa, respectively.

The indigenous associations are calling for several modifications of the water reform bill.

The first is that the law strictly respect the order of priorities for water use established by the new constitution, which states that water resources must be destined first to human consumption, then to irrigation for domestic food production, next to maintaining adequate levels of flow in the rivers to keep ecosystems alive, and finally to non-food productive activities.

The most radical indigenous leaders make a literal interpretation of this point, opposing the use of water in export-oriented agriculture, aquaculture or mining.

But this interpretation is rejected by Congress, and has caused serious concern among key productive sectors in Ecuador, such as cut-flower, banana and shrimp producers.

The native leaders are also opposed to any activity by the mining industry, which requires enormous quantities of water and is highly polluting.

The government, however, has a keen interest in developing the mining industry, and has just renewed the entire legal framework in which it operates, as well as the mining permits. As a result, exploration for copper and gold has resumed in the south and southeast of the country.

In addition, since the very first draft of the bill was presented, CONAIE has accused the Correa administration of trying to privatise water administration.

But the constitution stipulates that water is a national good for public use, and that private companies can only administer supplies by means of concessions granted by the government.

However, the indigenous associations, along with community water systems and local authorities, are demanding that the concessions be replaced by permits, which would come up for renewal every two years.

Another issue in dispute is the creation of a sole water authority, as established by the constitution.

The government bill empowers the president to appoint a ministerial-rank national water secretary to head the new agency.

But CONAIE wants a “plurinational council”, comprised of a majority of representatives of indigenous organisations and community water systems, and a minority of government delegates.

The indigenous associations are also demanding that water use be free of charge up to a certain limit. But on this point they run up against resistance from the community water systems, made up of both indigenous people and mestizos (persons of mixed-race Spanish and Amerindian descent).

Some 10,000 self-managed community water systems operate in Ecuador. Of these, 7,000 provide water for human consumption — in some cases simply untreated piped water — and 3,000 distribute water for irrigation, according to the non-governmental Foro de Recursos Hídricos (Water Resources Forum).

These systems provide, on average, 15 cubic metres a month per family, at a cost of 1.00 to 1.50 dollars. If the new law requires that water be free of charge, as CONAIE is demanding, the community water systems would go broke.

And the final demand voiced by the leaders of the indigenous associations is that local communities in the highlands be paid to keep certain areas untouched, as water production reserves.

Through the consultation process, the government can appeal directly to the grassroots native communities, bypassing the leadership in CONAIE and other associations.

These organisations were formerly Correa’s allies and helped get him elected in 2007. But in 2009, relations began to deteriorate. And in the past few weeks, the president has repeatedly lashed out at the groups’ leaders.

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