Ecuador is home to 14 diverse indigenous nationalities spread across the territory, from the Amazon forest to the Andes mountain range and the Pacific coast. With the constitution of 2008 which recognized the collective rights of indigenous people and established Ecuador as a plurinational state, indigenous people seemed to have their rights guaranteed. Nevertheless, the former president Rafael Correa who initially pledged to support the indigenous demands soon changed his attitude. The highly progressive articles incorporated in the constitution remained theoretical and were rarely materialized in policies that would protect indigenous people, their territories and nature. Instead, his narrative presented indigenous movements as a threat to Ecuadorian democracy, and indigenous protestors were harassed, intimidated and increasingly criminalized. Correa was succeeded by Lenín Moreno in 2017 who opened some space for indigenous movements and civil society organizations. Yet, the human rights situation has remained critical, as the events of 2019 mass protests demonstrated. The ongoing human rights violations do not only affect numerous aspects of life in indigenous communities, but also their survival. After more than a decade since the enshrinement of the collective rights in the constitution, the dignity and integrity of indigenous peoples continues to be threatened by state authorities, as well as extractive industries.
People in Need in Ecuador: 2016-2022
We started to support Ecuadorian civil society actors in 2016, when Correa’s government expanded state control over the media and civil society. With restrictions on the freedom of expression, arrests of indigenous leaders, and the crackdown on NGOs defending the rights of indigenous people, the regime’s rule was becoming increasingly authoritarian. In 2016, a renown local NGOs was arbitrary taken away its legal status and had to cease its operation for allegedly perpetuating the violent protest. In reality, the organization was punished for denouncing human rights violations and oil exploitation in protected areas.
The situation of indigenous communities was deteriorating under Correa’s administration. Some indigenous organizations were co-opted by the government to divide the indigenous movement. The newly established “escuelas del milenio”, the so-called schools of the millennium, that were to provide better education for indigenous people from territories often affected by extractive industries turned out to be an instrument for accelerating the cultural assimilation, eliminating the good practices of previous intercultural bilingual educational system. Centralized educational policies did not allow indigenous people to contribute to the construction of culturally sensitive educational programmes, instead, the Spanish monolingual education was promoted.
Amid the rising tensions between the Ecuadorian state and civil society, we travelled to Ecuador to find out how we can help. We assessed the situation and clearly saw that indigenous people were under grave threat to be deprived of their rights, culture, and land. We spoke to around 20 civil society organizations and activists. We started our work with some of them, supporting human rights NGOs, independent journalists, indigenous movements and communities. We stand for indigenous rights till today.
1. CIVIL SOCIETY AND INDIGENOUS ORGANISATIONS
• Goal: To strengthen Ecuadorian indigenous communities, organizations and movements and help them achieve desired impact and to empower grassroots organizations and help them grow to function independently
• Who we support: Indigenous organizations, human rights NGOs, indigenous communities and community leaders
• How we support:
- Direct support
Each semester, we open a call for applications from civil society organizations, conduct a selection process and award selected organizations with microgrants. We aim to support grassroots organizations located in remote areas rather than focusing on already well-established ones in the capital city. Small organizations learn to implement projects, grow and eventually operate independently. Larger organizations can use microgrants to try their new project ideas. We are also able to support ad hoc emergency projects that seek to respond to a serious threat faced by an indigenous organization, human rights defender or indigenous leader.
- Capacity building
We provide technical guidance and capacity building to our beneficiary organizations and occasionally to a broader group of civil society actors from indigenous communities. We guide grassroots organizations in operational aspects, including basics of project and financial management. When need arises, we offer guidance on how to think of projects or how to prepare proposals and reports. We have facilitated event organization, advocacy and co-operation among like-minded organizations. We have also organized workshops for indigenous youth, women, leaders and communities on topics of interest.
2. INDIGENOUS JUSTICE
• Goal: To advocate for legal pluralism in Ecuador, enhance dialogue between ordinary and indigenous legal system and improve the implementation of indigenous justice within indigenous territories
• Who We Support: Indigenous communities, indigenous organizations, community leaders, authorities of indigenous as well as ordinary justice
• How We Support: We strive to fill the gap between two judicial systems existing in Ecuador: the ordinary and indigenous justice. In many of Ecuadorian indigenous communities, there is no culture of imprisonment. Crime is believed to be committed as a consequence of a set of influences coming from the environment, community and other factors surrounding the criminal. Indigenous authorities follow traditional way of dealing with the person who committed the crime, which involves sessions with families and communities affected in order to reach a resolution and treat the aspects that motivated immoral or violent action.
Although the constitution recognizes legal pluralism in Ecuador, indigenous justice has not been well respected by Ecuadorian authorities. We have supported the efforts of indigenous communities striving for recognition of their own law and ancestral justice system in their territories. Thanks to our aid, the indigenous organizations were able to organize workshops for indigenous authorities, where they learned to apply indigenous justice in accordance with the terms set out in the constitution of 2008. We have also supported them in creating spaces where authorities of indigenous and ordinary justice engaged in a dialogue, achieved better understanding of each other and learned to prevent conflicts.
3. HUMAN RIGHTS AND COLLECTIVE RIGHTS OF INDIGENOUS PEOPLE
• Goal: To promote and defend the fundamental human rights as well as 21 collective rights of indigenous nations stipulated in the 2008 constitution, including the rights to the ancestral land, rights of nature, or the right to free, prior and informed consultation
• Who We Support: Indigenous movements and organizations, victims of criminalization and state violence, human rights defenders and defenders of nature, journalists and independent media.
• How We Support: In the October protests of 2019, indigenous people from across the country gathered to call for the respect of the collective rights. As a consequence a number of indigenous protestors were arrested, imprisoned and criminalized based on accusations, such as threatening the social order and facilitating violence. Our deep respect for the right to protest that represents one of the foundations of People in Need leads us to promote and defend the rights to freedom of association, peaceful assembly and expression. We also are able to support local organizations that organize legal support for criminalized indigenous leaders. This aid extends to family members of the wounded or imprisoned indigenous protestors. Our funds have helped to secure psychological support for women whose family members fell victim to the violence, arbitrary detention or imprisonment during the protest. (highlighted project 3)
We have also supported projects of indigenous organizations that seek to educate communities about collective rights, inform the public about ongoing human rights violations, campaign for greater respect of indigenous people or engage in local as well as national advocacy efforts.
4. COMMUNICATION AND AUDIO-VISUAL CONTENTS
• Goal: To improve communicational skills of indigenous journalists, youth and women and promote the work of independent media focusing on stories of indigenous peoples.
• Who We Support: indigenous journalists, independent media, indigenous community members
• How We Support: To empower indigenous activists and journalists, we have provided training that allows them to gain new communicational skills and reach a broader audiences. A series of workshops on photo and video journalism and digital campaigns have been held in various indigenous villages. In this way, the participants are able to experiment and create audio-visual pieces. This was also the case of indigenous women and community leaders that learned to create audio-visual contents that document their work.
In order to counteract false news, racist contents and negative image of the indigenous people, we seek to help independent media and journalists to tell the stories behind indigenous struggles.
1. Bringing Indigenous Communities Together
This project foresaw to organize forums on three topics: Pachamama (motherland, nature) and its conservation, food sovereignty (organic food production and traditional alimentation), and natural medicine. These fora were designed so that various communities and organizations gather, present their knowledge and learn from each other. The project aimed to raise awareness on the importance of nature and ancestral cultures of indigenous peoples with the emphasis on the concepts of “Pachamama” and “sumak kawsay” (good life). Due to the covid-19 pandemic, the project needed to be adjusted to avoid large reunions and rather focused on disease prevention. An effort was made to raise awareness about the use of natural medicine and the traditional healthy diet that contributes to a stronger immunity.
2. Women Empowerment as Community Leaders & Making Information on COVID-19 Accessible for Indigenous People
Indigenous women rarely appear in media in spite of the important role they play in communities. This project aimed to provide a leadership training for women to equip them to take a lead in their communities and teach them how to generate audio-visual contents to improve visibility of their work where desirable. However, the beneficiary organization needed to flexibly alter the project during the pandemic. While continuing the capacity building online, the women participants also started to represent an important source of information related to covid-19 among indigenous communities. Since the guidelines prepared by the government and major media were in Spanish, the indigenous organizations translated important information from Spanish to indigenous languages in order to keep indigenous people informed about the pandemic.
3. Psychological Support for Women
During the October 2019 protest, a number of indigenous men fell victim to unjustified imprisonment and violence by police. This did not only affect the victims but also their families, especially women whose men or children got killed, wounded or imprisoned. In addition to the overwhelming sorrow, they have had to work extra hours to compensate for the lost wages of their partners who cannot work anymore, while taking care of wounded family members. These circumstanced affected these women’s mental health. In order to react to this situation, we supported a local organization in provision of psychological support. Psychologist were first visiting each women and continued to conduct the psychological consultation via telephone to avoid rising health risks stemming from encounters during the pandemic. The project contributed to maintain the emotional stability of women and to improve the well-being of their families and communities.
Who We Support: Indigenous communities, indigenous organisations, community leaders, authorities of indigenous as well as ordinary justice