Civil Society, Development & Aid, Headlines, Human Rights, Indigenous Rights, Latin America & the Caribbean, Population

ECUADOR: Native People Stand Up to Be Counted in Census

Gonzalo Ortiz

QUITO, Nov 23 2010 (IPS) - The office is chaotic. Huge piles of T-shirts and boxes of ballpoint pens are piled high on desks where indigenous men and women are busy packing these articles, together with placards, leaflets and fliers, at the headquarters of their National Commission on Statistics.

Census-takers at a CONEPIA training session.  Credit: Courtesy of INEC

Census-takers at a CONEPIA training session. Credit: Courtesy of INEC

Some of the T-shirt legends read “I Have an Identity, I Am Indigenous!” while others say, “I Have an Identity, I Am Afro-Ecuadorian!” and yet others, “I Am Montubio” (an officially recognised ethnic identity of coastal people of mixed-race and indigenous descent).

“Identify Your Family Proudly as Afro-Ecuadorian”, one of the fliers says, while a leaflet in comic strip style explains the issue of self-reporting one’s descent in Shuar, an Amazonian indigenous language.

The office belongs to the National Commission on Statistics for Indigenous, Afro-Ecuadorian and Montubio Peoples (CONEPIA), and the goal of the feverish activity is to despatch all the promotional material to Ecuador’s 24 provinces in time for the Seventh Population Census and Sixth Housing Census, to be carried out Sunday Nov. 28.

The coming census is especially important for indigenous people.

While native people’s organisations, like the Confederation of Indigenous Nationalities of Ecuador (CONAIE), claim that 40 percent of the country’s population is indigenous, in the previous census in 2001, only 6.8 percent of people identified themselves as such.

Since then, native people have campaigned for the next census to include a further battery of questions. Two key questions are about the languages spoken by the respondent, and the languages spoken by both parents, which appear as items 14 and 15 on the census form.

Questions 16 and 17 are also crucial. Item 16 asks interviewees how they would identify themselves according to their culture and customs: as indigenous, Afro-Ecuadorian or Afro-descendant, black, mulatto, Montubio, mestizo (of mixed ancestry), white or other.

If they identify themselves as indigenous, question 17 asks which indigenous people or nationality they belong to. The census contains a list of specific nationalities, including Achuar, Awa, Cofan, Chachi, Epera, Huaorani,Secoya, Shuar, Siona, Tsátchila, Shiwiar, Zápara and Andoa, most of which are based in the Amazon jungle region; Quechua, the main ethnic group in the highlands; and three coastal peoples.

After the questionable results of the 2001 census, Silverio Chisaguano was appointed by the National Institute of Statistics and Census (INEC) and the native people’s organisations to work out ways for the census to identify minorities more accurately in this “intercultural and plurinational” country, as it is defined in the 2008 constitution.

The issue is vital for the associations that represent ethnic minority groups and the public institutions that work with them, because higher statistical representation in the population will entitle them to more state support.

“This was in fact the goal when CONEPIA was created in 2007. We consulted with INEC and the indigenous organisations, at the regional, provincial and local level, and came to a consensus about what questions should be included in the census,” said Chisaguano, the head of CONEPIA, after finding a relatively quiet corner in the office, away from the bustle.

“We have field tested the questions in pilot trials, they have been incorporated in the census form and they have been made known to the public,” said Chisaguano, a teacher of Quechua descent who has worked with INEC since 1993.

CONEPIA was founded at a national meeting of 50 organisations, including CONAIE, the Council of Evangelical Indigenous Peoples and Organisations of Ecuador (FEINE), the National Confederation of Peasant, Indigenous and Black Organisations, and the most active Afro-Ecuadorian and Montubio associations.

Indigenous lawmaker Gerónimo Yantalema said census-takers should speak the native languages. “That is the only possible way to include and identify thousands of indigenous people who were not recorded in previous censuses,” he told IPS.

In contrast, Lourdes Tibán, another indigenous legislator, said the widespread use of Spanish and the high percentage of bilingual native people, a “consequence of the continuation of the colonial state,” would overcome the problem of the census being conducted in Spanish.

“Consultations, workshops and regional meetings were held to discuss the issue of self-reporting ethnicity, and how the issue of identity should be tackled in the census,” Byron Villacís, the head of INEC, told IPS. “It was a profound and extensive process that allowed us to reach a consensus on how to measure ethnicity.”

Villacís said the methodology was chosen to match that of the United Nations, which is recognised for its concern for indigenous peoples and minorities.

In his view, part of the under-registration of indigenous people in the 2001 census was due to people “closing their doors” against the census-takers in many communities. “Not enough information reached these groups,” he said.

But that will not happen this year. He confirmed that “between three and four million dollars” has been spent on publicity, using a “different concept” compared to the previous census. Television is being used for generic messages directed at the entire population, which INEC estimates at 14.2 million people.

In addition, specific spots are aimed at indigenous, black and Montubio populations, using testimonials by well-known members of the different ethnic groups. In rural areas, community radios have been enlisted to broadcast the messages in different native languages.

“We have also held concerts, artistic parades, theatrical performances, and ads on public transport, both urban and long-distance, and since Nov. 21 we have sent out text messages to cell-phones,” Villacís said.

However, the campaign in the countryside has been criticised as not effective enough. Some people are afraid census information will be used “to take away the Human Development payment,” a conditional cash transfer of 35 dollars a month that the government provides to more than 1.4 million people with low incomes.

There have always been problems in the rural areas, ever since the first census of modern times in 1950. In 1970, three census-takers were killed in a remote location.

“Rejection of the census goes back to colonial roots,” historian Guadalupe Soasti, a professor at the Simón Bolívar Andean University, told IPS. “Indigenous people believed that any kind of head count during the colonial administration was for tax purposes.”

This time the process is “very different, because native people’s organisations have participated, and much more information has been given to the public,” anthropologist Fernando García of the Latin American Faculty of Social Sciences (FLACSO) told IPS. “I don’t think there will be resistance this time around.”

“In the rural areas, the census will take from Nov. 28 to Dec. 5. We want to know how many of us there are, but also what our living conditions are, so that we can fight poverty, because indigenous and Afro-Ecuadorian people have the highest poverty rates in the country,” Chisaguano concluded.

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