Ecuador Cedes Amazon Land To Indians; President Issues Titles Following Heated Conflict

By Douglas Farah
Special to The Washington Post

QUITO, Ecuador, May 14 - President Rodrigo Borja and Ecuador's Amazon basin Indians, ending months of hostility, have negotiated the granting of legal title to more than 3 million acres of homelands to the indigenous communities.

Some 60 leaders, many wearing headdresses of bright feathers and carrying wooden spears that symbolize their tribal leadership positions, received land titles for 148 communities in a ceremony at the presidential palace Wednesday night.

The land grants cover lands claimed by the Quichua, Achuar and Shiwiar tribes in the eastern province of Pastaza. Titles were given to the communities, not individuals, and the land cannot be sold. Development in the area is virtually banned without the advice and consent of the communities, which consist of about 20,000 people.

Ecuador, one of South America's smaller countries, shares the Amazon basin with its far larger neighbors, Colombia and Peru, as well as with Brazil and Venezuela. Still, this is one of the largest single land grants ever made to the vast area's Indians. About 30 percent of Ecuador's 10.5 million people are classified as Indian, 60 percent considered mestizo, or mixed race, and the remaining 10 percent of European or African origin.

"We recognize that this is a historic act of transcendental importance for Ecuador and the indigenous communities, not just here, but across the Amazon," said Indian leader Luis Macas after the titles were distributed.

"We did not come here to divide the Ecuadoran state, even though for centuries we have been ignored, denied and excluded from making decisions that affect our lives. Our history has placed many obstacles in our way, but they are not impossible to overcome."

Macas promised the ecology of the jungle would be protected, as he noted it has been for centuries, and thanked Borja for giving protection to areas that "would otherwise not exist in five years."

The issues of Indian rights and the ecological protection of the Amazon basin will be brought into sharp international focus at the United Nations Conference on Environment and Development in Rio de Janeiro beginning June 3. President Bush and nearly 100 other national leaders are to attend. Indigenous leaders here said they hoped their agreement could serve as a model for resolving similar conflicts elsewhere.

"We in the indigenous communities are people, too, and we have some rights," said Macas, a highland Quichua, dressed in the traditional poncho, hat and with a long ponytail. "One of those rights is to our own territory. A people without land is a people without history."

As Borja, Macas and other leaders finished their speeches, the ceremonial hall resounded with the deep sound of traditional horns, blown to show approval.

Borja said the "historic act" would allow the communities to "live with the security of having the boundaries of their land known and marked." He put the total amount of land given to Indian communities during his four years of government at about 7 million acres.

Borja's 4-year term is about to end, and presidential elections are set for Sunday. Political analysts said he was able make the grants - a policy unpopular in many sectors of Ecuador's society - because he does not face reelection. Indian organizations threatened to boycott the elections unless their demands for land were met.

"The groups of pure aborigines are very small, and `mestizos' predominate in a country where the races mixed centuries ago,' said an editorial this week in El Comercio, one of the nation's major newspapers. "Inciting one group against another is destructive and against the national interests."

The granting of land rights was bitterly opposed by non-Indian land owners in the affected area, who feared they could be driven off and their properties confiscated.

The fears were heightened in June 1990, when Indians across the country carried out what is known here as the "uprising." They paralyzed the country by blocking the main highways, cutting off food supplies to the capital, and taking over private land.

Landowners in the affected areas said the actions gave them the right to arm themselves for self-defense, sparking fears that future confrontations would be bloody.

But the uprising opened the way for the first formal dialogue between indigenous groups from the Amazon and the government, and the main points of conflict have now been resolved.

Some in the armed forces said the demands endangered national security because the land is on the Peruvian border. Peru and Ecuador have fought occasionally over their disputed border.

Under the agreement, non-Indians already living in the areas are allowed to stay, and the military will continue to have unrestricted access. The Indians also ceded on another key point, allowing the government to continue oil exploration on land given to them, and recognizing the rights of the state to the proceeds of any oil discovered, in consultation with the communities, to avoid ecological damage.