Wednesday, January 7, 2015

Seeing An Effective Political Group in Action

I arrived in Quito in mid November, and in early December I decided to seek out volunteer opportunities in Quito with any indigenous groups with offices here. There're tons of crap volunteer-tourist gigs ("Come save the indigenous for a week! And then go home and tell your friends how green you are!"), but I wanted to make meaningful relationships with any indigenous volunteer organizations, and if I could help support a good cause, so much the better. It turns out the indigenous tribes in Ecuador are pretty well self-organized and, although they've been shafted for centuries like indigenous everywhere, they've also had a lot of recent successes.

The group I started volunteering with is called CONAIE - Confederation of Indigenous Nations of Ecuador. And this year, they and others have had remarkable success blocking or discouraging the auction of oil leases on indigenous land. And what a coincidence: after 20+ years occupying their offices in Quito, the government has chosen now of all times to evict them, supposedly to make room for a gov't program to treat drug addicted youth.

The eviction notice literally hit the day before I started researching CONAIE, and instantly I knew I wanted to work with them - it was evidence they are effective, though it made volunteering a little more dangerous as a foreigner. Anyway, I rolled into their offices asking to volunteer. They didn't know what to do with me, since I'm guessing they don't get many volunteers. They asked, "What exactly do you think you could do?" I stumbled through a spiel in Spanish about helping with their mostly-empty website and fixing their broken email, and they said sure, come on in! I even got my own desk next in a room with several others whose first language is the dominant indigenous language here, Quichua.

Now, I've been hauling ass learning Spanish, but it's still only been 6-8 weeks total and the teachers at my school all speak reeeaaaallllyyy slooowwwlllyyyy. Well, not as slow as they used to, but they take care to enunciate. These folks at CONAIE, I ask them to slow down, and they only slow down long enough to say, "ok, I'll slow down" - and then they're off to the races again speaking at like warp 9 with a way different accent! Dammit!

It turns out CONAIE was planning a big reunion right before Christmas, inviting people from all over the country and other indigenous groups as well. CONAIE is actually a group-of-groups, formed out of 3-4 regional or indigenous nation-specific political organizations and all of them showed up at the reunion. As far as I can tell, it's 100% indigenous-lead, so there's no capitalist-funding leading them astray.

And I got invited to the reunion! The Friday afternoon before Christmas there was a big speechifying session as folks talked about the government suppression (eviction) attempt. It was neat to watch but I didn't understand much. Their spread was amazing though - this was the second meeting I'd been to in South America where the organizers plus many contributors put a huge spread of food in the middle as a reminder of the common values of the group - healthy abundant sustenance for all. I'd actually bought some strawberries and apples to share with my coworkers, so I was happy to be able to contribute too. After maybe 1.5 hours no one else had anything to say, so we broke into a social/eating period. There was tons of food! All the bread, cheese, and fruit you could want, plus onion-tomato-something else mixes, boiled potatoes, and cups of milk. It's like they planned it specially for me ;)

The Friday before the main event, there was a gathering with many short speeches and this beautiful spread. This gathering had far fewer people than the one the following week.
The Main Event
But the real meeting was the following Monday or Tuesday. The auditorium was packed with 200-300 people, and I learned how communities going back thousands of years work together to confront and solve problems.

Literally, for 3-4 hours starting around noon, there were continuous speeches. There was a much smaller food spread in the middle of the room, and part way through 2 women went to the middle, chopped up for the fruit and bread, and served it to the masses to keep our energy up. It was fascinating - one specially dressed up man kept some wood smoking in the middle, scenting the place. All sorts of people gave speeches. I probably understood 10% of what they said. I felt really bad about this at first, and then I realized many people were starting their speeches in Quichua, which is as non-European a language as it gets. Realizing that didn't help me understand any better, but at least I wasn't hating on my Spanish skillz as much.

And the speeches were fiery! I love fiery speeches, especially from strong women. These people were chin-up, chest-out, table-pounding righteous in their defense of CONAIE and their past successes defending clean, widely available water, preventing ruinous 'free-trade' agreements, and so on. Some speakers were quieter, but it was really inspiring to see their strength and their understanding of their situation - there were no euphemisms (that I could tell), no pulling punches.

And then it got even more interesting. The leadership got to work on a manifesto/declaration to become the reunion's public statement. A woman from the crowd got up and lead the group in a song (I think in Quichua). When they were done writing, she wound up and sat down. Then a woman from the leader's table started reading, and almost immediately a chunk of the crowd started booing! And I mean vociferously.

My first thought was, whoa, that's harsh. Then some guy stood up, seemingly without being called to speak, and launched into this really high-energy, impassioned speech. Now, I'll admit I understood exactly 0% of it, even though I think it was in Spanish. But just observing it was amazing: no one got mad. The leadership looked slightly shell-shocked, but said thanks and went to edit the declaration. Then they read some more, and got a little farther before the booing started again! And then ANOTHER dude got up, seemingly without being called on, and gave an even MORE impassioned speech; this time the crowd started clapping and whooping support for him.  Again, the leadership waited 'til he was done, said thanks, and made more edits. This cycle happened  maybe 4-5 times, and then people started filing out of the room for a big dinner being served outside the auditorium.

Let me be clear about what didn't happen: no one gave or took offense during this. People gave very strong feedback and expressed strong emotions, but there was never in-fighting, bickering, nit-picking, distracting, etc. Speakers didn't hog the spotlight or get carried away, and they sat down when they'd spoken their piece. No one complained that someone was talking too much, or that they hadn't gotten a turn to speak. The degree to which they were united, and to which they trusted each other and worked together, was astounding to me, and I had such respect for them. What an experience to see it in person.

While people filed out, several reporters brought large cameras to the area just in front of the leadership's table, and maybe 30-40 people went to stand behind the leadership table in solidarity. The head of CONAIE gave a speech and then swapped seats with 3-5 other people so they could give speeches. I'm guessing they were presidents or representatives of the regional indigenous groups, but who knows.

A picture of the press conference which came immediately after the group of 200-300 collectively drafted a public statement. I've seen groups 1/10th the size take far longer to draft a public statement like that. The rainbow pattern represents the plurinational, all-inclusive nature of the society CONAIE is pushing for Ecuador.
And then I realized: after 3-4 hours of speechifying, this group of 200-300 had written, edited, and agreed on a public declaration in less than an hour! Holy smokes. That's an efficient group if I ever heard of one.

Eviction Date
The eviction noticed was delivered in early December, and the eviction date was January 6. On January 4th indigenous from all over Ecuador traveled to Quito to protest and prevent the eviction. On January 5th, the government delayed the eviction by 2 months. On January 6th, I went to the building and listened to speeches in the hot mid-day Ecuadorian sun for a few hours. Some pictures:

CONAIE's building in Quito, Ecuador.

A picture of the crowd at the gathering on January 6, 2015.

After the speechifying, a violinist played music from the balcony and there was dancing in the streets. This particular dance wasn't improvisational - you can see the woman crouching in a row on the left as the men walk through towards the right.
The eviction issue has dominated CONAIE's time so much that I really haven't been able to integrate or help very much. Whether I end up being able to contribute materially or not, it's been special seeing the group in action and I'm grateful they've let me play a (small) part.