by Philip McManus

[Peace Media Service] In an historic, 225-kilometer march that ended on April 23, 1200 Indians from Ecuador's Amazon jungle pressed their demands for legal recognition of their territories (around 4.5 million acres) and for a constitutional reform recognizing Ecuador as a multi-cultural and multi-national state.

Quichua, Achuar and Shiwiar Indians, many in face paint and wearing brightly-colored feather headdresses, began the march from the province of Pastaza in the Amazonian basin in northeast Peru. Some walked a week from remote jungle communities just to get to the departure point. When they arrived in Quito thirteen days later, late-comers and highland Indians had brought their numbers to more than 3000.

They were received by President Rodrigo Borja who announced ``a formal and public commitment'' to hand over legal titles to their ancestral territories within two weeks. He referred the demand for constitutional reform to the Congress which has jurisdiction in such matters.

Long-standing demands for legal recognition of these traditional Indian lands have been thwarted by a combination of military, governmental and agricultural interests. In the face of growing development pressures, the Indians say that their culture and way of life will be ever more threatened unless they achieve legal protection. Recently several factors have combined to strengthen the Indians' position: increased unity and organizational strength among the Indians; the international focus on ecological destruction of the Amazon and, as a result of the 500th anniversary of the arrival of Europeans in the Americas, on indigenous issues in general; and the political climate created by the national elections that were held in Ecuador on May 17.

The march, which was organized by the Organization of Indigenous Peoples of Pastaza, represented 20,000 Indians living in 148 communities. Public support for the Indians' demands grew as the march progressed from the steamy jungle up to the Panamerican Highway that runs through the Ecuadorean highlands. For most of the Indians it was their first experience out of the jungle. In addition to the fatigue caused by the steady pace of the march, they faced a harsh adjustment to the cold, thin air and to the unfamiliar food of the mountains. But in each town where they stopped they were welcomed by Indians and mestizos alike who offered them food, shelter and other support.

After some initial harassment by military authorities, the march proceeded peacefully until its triumphal entrance into Quito where the Indians were met with enthusiastic applause by local residents.

In their meeting with President Borja and members of his cabinet, Indian leaders explained the urgency of their demands, not just for themselves but for the well-being of the entire country. ``We come on behalf of Life,'' said Luis Macas, President of the Confederation of Indigenous Nationalities of Ecuador. ``As long as those territories are not legalized, we will be visitors in our own lands.'' Referring to the ecological destruction of the Amazon caused by oil and lumber companies and unrestrained agricultural development, Valerio Grefa, President of the Confederation of Nationalities of the Ecuadorean Amazon, compared the country's situation to being on an airplane with a mechanical problem. ``If the airplane crashes, everyone dies,'' he said.

For his part, President Borja welcomed the Indian leaders and announced that he was directing the appropriate government agencies to consult with the groups that will be effected and to draw up the precise boundary lines. At the invitation of the Indian leaders, he then went outside to address the mass of marchers.

The Indians responded joyfully to the announcement that their lands would be legalized. But wary of the quick promises and slow delivery of politicians, they set up camp in a city park and announced that they ``will not return home with their hands empty.'' As of the end of May, they are still there.

The Indians have been careful to clarify that they are not claiming existing settlements and that they are willing to recognize the property rights of both small and large non-Indian farmers who currently hold legal titles, thus minimizing potential conflicts.

One dispute not likely to be resolved in the near future has to do with sub-surface mineral rights. The Indians demand the right to participate actively in the management of natural resources such as the oil which is currently being extracted in the Amazon. They also claim a share of the profits. On the other hand, the national government has shown no willingness to compromise its assertion of complete proprietary rights to such resources. As if to underscore the conflict, a new find of oil in Pastaza was announced the day before the march reached Quito.

Another obstacle is the government's refusal to recognize Indian territory which falls within a 25 by 120 mile swath of land along the Peruvian border. The government claims that this border area, where 35 percent of the Pastaza Indian communities live, is necessary for national security.

After their arrival in Quito the President of the Ecuadorean Congress, Manuel Salgado, met with Indian leaders and announced that he will call for a special session of the Congress, currently in recess, to take up the issue of constitutional reform. The Indians insist that they are only interested in protecting their legitimate rights and cultural identity and not in establishing a separate state or states. They are likely to meet considerable opposition.

They were well received along the route of the march. As one market vendor, surrounded by her family, commented: ``Too bad we don't have anything more to give them than our hearts! But I brought my husband and my children so that they could see that we are all the same. The Indians are struggling for their territory, we are struggling to survive from our sales, and we are all the Ecuadorean people. I hope that the politicians will see this and learn.''

Philip McManus is on the staff of the Resource Center for Nonviolence in Santa Cruz, California. He is currently on sabbatical in Ecuador. His book, _Relentless Persistence: Nonviolent Action in Latin America_, was recently published by New Society Publishers.

Written 9:52 pm Jun 8, 1992 by gn:peacemedia in cdp:gn.peacemedia