Ring of Fire
Indigenous communities & the
impact of new trade deals in Ecuador and Bolivia
by Kathryn Ledebur
New Internationalist magazine,
[International trade rules have little
input from ordinary citizens. Corporations undermine the economic
and political sovereignty of nations. If democracy is to have
meaning, citizens must help formulate trade rules. These agreements
must promote civil and political rights as well as the social,
cultural, economic and environmental rights of peoples and communities.]
The old conference hall on the second
floor of the cheap hotel in downtown Quito is packed with representatives
from Ecuador's indigenous groups. There is a hum of muffled conversation
and the smell of wood smoke fills the room and clings to their
worn ponchos as they await the arrival of the country's Trade
Minister, Yvonne Baki. She's come to explain the advantages of
a new proposed free trade deal between the Andean nations and
the United States.
A member of Ecuador's euro-elite, Minister
Baki has been the country's ambassador to the US for years and
is a big supporter of trade talks with Washington. When she finally
saunters into the hall the contrast with her Indian audience couldn't
be starker. She wears a silk blouse and tailored dress pants;
her hair is coloured gold. The compact Indian women scattered
around the room are garbed in traditional embroidered dress and
sport felt hats. Ms Baki's most recent accomplishments include
organizing the Miss Universe pageant in Quito last year. Now she's
known as Miss FTA for her free trade boosterism.
Minister Baki tells her listeners that
globalization cannot be stopped. You either 'get on the train,'
she says, 'or you get left behind.' The Andean Free Trade Agreement
can benefit both big business and small farmers in Ecuador, she
stresses. But the small-scale farmer must get into the negotiation
process because 'it's the rural sector that's most vulnerable'.
'Who will we trade with if not the US?'
she asks. 'Brazil, Chile, Peru? We have a trade deficit with each
of those. The US is the largest market in the region and must
import food to feed its population.
We must get in there and get the best
agreements possible.' If not, she adds, other countries will cut
better deals and Ecuador will be left behind.
She hardly finishes her presentation before
she is bombarded with questions from the floor. The people in
the room are all members of FENOCIN - the Federation of Indigenous,
Afro-Ecuadorian and Small-scale Farmer Organizations. Of Ecuador's
13 million people, 43 per cent are indigenous.
'How can a negotiating team made up of
bureaucrats and business people possibly represent the small-scale
farmers and the rural sector?' says one Afro-Ecuadorian leader.
'What will the Government do to provide
technical and economic assistance to the rural sector to create
an even playing field in order to trade with the US?' asks an
Then from a far corner of the room a mestizo
woman loudly interrupts: 'Why are we allowing the US to set the
terms? How is Ecuador's unique reality involved in these talks?'
After two days of talks FENOCIN decided
not to board Baki's ETA train - at least for the moment. Instead
the indigenous group requested that negotiations be stopped 'until
the rural sector can truly participate'. They also demanded a
new negotiating team to include representatives from groups most
affected by free trade - small-scale farmers, small family-based
businesses and artisans.
Some 1,500 kilometres to the south, Bolivia
shares the same Andean mountain chain with Ecuador. Indigenous
people here are also wary of the proposed ETA. Along with other
members of the country's poor majority, they have taken to the
streets to protest privatization of Bolivian industry and to gain
a voice in the economic processes that affect them. Nearly 5 million
of the country's 8.3 million people live in poverty, most of them
Indians. This despite the fact that Bolivia possesses the second
largest gas deposits in South America.
The indigenous community in Bolivia has
been demanding self-government for years and much of the arid,
windswept plain called the altiplano is under the sway of native
leaders. Felipe Quispe, the Aymara leader of the country's main
peasant organization, emphasizes that self-determination 'is the
only way we can have our own laws and our own territory'.' The
Aymara make up nearly a quarter of the country's population.
Government repression intensified in 1998
with the US-funded coca eradication programme, Plan Dignidad.
The plan forced the Bolivian military into direct conflict with
coca growers who were defending their primary source of income.
Human rights violations soared as US-trained and equipped soldiers
fired against cocalero protesters.
Efforts to replace coca with exotic exports
like pineapple, passion fruit and hearts of palm met with generally
disastrous results. After years of trying to grow alternatives,
camp esinos are more doubtful than ever. Says farmer Garlos Huanca
from the Ghapare region: 'The experts told us we would make money
as soon as Argentineans learn to like plantains. But two years
have gone by and we are still hungry. We tried to export the crop
ourselves and now our community has a debt we can't pay. We don't
know how we are going to feed our children.'
The plunder of Bolivia's resource wealth
began in the mid-1500s when the Spanish, using forced Indian labour,
extracted a fortune in silver from the mountain known as cerro
rico, just outside the colonial city of Potosi. The pattern continues
to this day - with growing resistance.
In April 2000, citizens in Cochabamba,
the country's third largest city, took to the streets to protest
the sale of the city's water company to Bechtel Corporation with
strong pressure from the World Bank. The takeover doubled and
even tripled the average water hill, leaving many families unable
to buy groceries. A week of sustained protests forced the company
to withdraw from the deal. Four years later Bechtel is pursuing
legal action against the nation: the corporation claims it lost
$25 million in Bolivia. A closed World Bank trade court is hearing
the case - a clear conflict of interest given the Bank's enthusiastic
endorsement of the original deal.
Then in October 2003, when President Gonzalo
Sanchez de Lozada pushed ahead to export Bolivian natural gas
to California through a Chilean port, the country exploded. Campesinos,
trade unionists and Aymara Indians in the altiplano city of El
Alto led the uprising. At first the protest was peaceful. Then
Sanchez de Lozada called in the army: 59 mostly unarmed protesters
were killed and hundreds more injured. A wave of public anger
eventually drove him into exile in the US.
His Vice-President, Carlos Mesa, inherited
a country that was tired of being left out of the decisionmaking
process and actively opposed to a resource-dependent economy in
which ordinary citizens have no voice. This included an already
active opposition to the Free Trade Area of the Americas (FTAA)
and regional agreements like the Andean ETA.
The new President also inherited an empty
treasury and an overwhelming dependence on American aid - around
$150 million in 2004 - making him an easy target for sharp-eyed
US trade negotiators. Tom Kruse, a Bolivia-based analyst with
the Center for Labor, Agrarian and Development Issues, says the
free trade agreement is not designed to benefit either Bolivia
or Ecuador. 'People who think this is about development are sorely
mistaken. These deals are all about giving US corporations everything
they've asked for.'
Kruse also points out that, like NAFTA,
the Andean agreement would severely restrict national sovereignty
- opening the way to complete control of the country's resource
wealth by foreign corporations.
Analysts like Kruse are not alone. Indian
and campesino federations in both Bolivia and Ecuador have been
meeting since 2002 to discuss how to change government policy
to create markets for their goods. Graciela Choque, an indigenous
leader from Bolivia's Jacha'Qarangas province, explains: 'With
the ETA we would go back to being what we were before, pongos
[indentured servants] to the new oligarchy of North America. We
know we can't compete; all we have are raw materials and no money
to process them. They've already taken our silver, our tin and
now they want our gas. It won't bring anything good to the rural
areas; that's why we protest against the FTA.'
Negotiators have suggested that by joining
forces Andean farmers could grow crops which the US does not produce
on a large scale. However; looking at the impact of NAFTA in Mexico,
farmers and activists have grave doubts. Says Choque: 'Before,
Mexicans grew their own corn; now they have to get it from the
US at the US price.' The worry is that food security could be
threatened if single export crops displace traditional food crops,
especially with the introduction of genetically modified seeds
which must be bought each year.
The key question for countries like Bolivia
and Ecuador is their ability to compete in a cut-throat global
economy. Instead of throwing the doors open to foreign capital,
critics says the priority should be to strengthen national development
policies first. Many Bolivians and Ecuadorians would prefer not
to catch the free trade train at all, but instead lay down a new
track going in a different direction - one which is forged from
a true democratic consensus.
Kathryn Ledebur is director of the Andean
Information Network (AIN) is Cochabamba, Bolivia. With research
assistance from Sandra Edwards in Ecuador.