QUITO – President Rafael Correa said on Saturday that Ecuador’s largest indigenous organization has requested to meet with him about a water bill that has sparked violent protests in the Amazon region, adding that he will receive their representatives “with open arms.”
On his weekly radio show, Correa said that the Confederation of Indigenous Nations of Ecuador, or Conaie, which launched protests last Sunday against the proposed legislation, arrived at a consensus and asked him in a letter to receive them on Monday.
“Welcome brothers. You will be received with open arms, as always,” at the Carondelet presidential palace, the leftist president said, urging the Indians to pay no heed “to those who only want conflict among brothers.”
“Let’s not fall into the trap. The right wants to pit the government against the indigenous movement, teachers, etc. to take advantage,” Correa said. As he spoke, a government delegation headed by Security Minister Miguel Carvajal was in the Amazon region in a bid to ease tensions with indigenous protesters.
The government had announced Friday that it would receive Conaie leaders that afternoon at Carondelet, but the meeting was postponed for logistical reasons.
Six days ago, Conaie launched a nationwide mobilization against the water bill currently before Congress, saying the measure could lead to privatization of that valuable resource.
Correa reiterated Saturday that his government has no intention of privatizing water and stressed that the nation’s constitution expressly prohibits such a move.
On Wednesday, an attempt to break up an Indian road blockade in the southeastern Amazon province of Morona-Santiago left one Indian dead – a teacher and a member of the Shuar nation – and 40 police wounded, according to the official tally.
Correa said Saturday that police arrived “unarmed” in Morona-Santiago to break up the protests and that therefore they bore no responsibility for the Indian’s death.
But U.S.-based Amazon Watch, a group that works to protect the rainforest and the rights of indigenous people in the Amazon Basin, contradicted Correa’s version of the events in a press release Thursday, saying law-enforcement officers “backed by a helicopter, opened fire on demonstrators armed only with ceremonial spears.”
The group said that “privatization of water sources, prioritization of water access for industry, loose regulations for water contamination, and lack of community participation in water management were the foremost concerns” the protesters have about the water bill.
Amazon Watch said the Confederation of Indigenous Nationalities of the Ecuadorian Amazon, Conaie’s Amazon arm, also is “calling for the repeal of the country’s mining law and for an end to oil and mining activities in the region.”
Ecuador’s teachers’ union also joined the strike to protest an education overhaul being proposed by the government, the group said.
Amazon Watch said the violence in Morona Santiago was reminiscent of incidents in June in Peru, where protests were launched over pro-investment decrees to “give away (Indians’) resources and their territories to extractive industries and multinational corporations.”
A June 5 crackdown on a road blockade in an Amazon region of that neighboring country left 24 police officers and nine civilians dead, according to official figures.
The protests were called off after the most controversial decrees were repealed.