The Settler Colonial City Project founded by Ana María León and Andrew Herscher has been instrumental in confronting the architecture discipline with its role in the consolidation of settler colonialism in Turtle Island. For this issue however, we asked Ana María if she could write a text about her home country, Ecuador. In this short text, she describes the contradiction between the Indigenous ontology claimed by the State in recent years and the invasive and destructive oil extractivism on Indigenous lands.
Ecuador is a small country with a big heartbreak. For such a country that has depended on the revenues of oil for decades, a future without oil seems impossible. And yet, as I sit here writing from Ecuador and thinking of Ecuador, I understand that a future free from oil is the only future we can aspire to and the only future we can work towards.
It is a common misconception to envision South American populations as homogenous, ignoring the erasures and violence enacted by mestizo groups over Indigenous and Black populations. I understand this as an Ecuadorian mestizo of Chinese, Spanish, and unknown ancestry. I am the product of transnational migrations and also now a migrant myself, an academic that teaches in the United States and is currently in Ecuador because of the uncertainties of this pandemic. I am part of so many populations and yet I’m not sure I belong anywhere, and perhaps because of this transient status it has been difficult for me to fathom Indigenous claims and rights. I am still learning.
The Amazon jungle is one of a set of regions in South America whose location, far from ports and urban centers, difficult geography, and lack of desired colonial resources, made them less attractive to colonization. These areas became a refuge for Indigenous groups fleeing colonial violence, adding to already existing populations. In the Andes, independence processes were led by criollos—Spanish descendants born in the Americas—with Indigenous populations often caught in the battles between these groups, their mestizo allies, and those still loyal to the Spanish crown. The legacies of these conflicts have prompted greater concentration of Indigenous populations in formerly remote and formerly unprofitable areas. Here, while their lives are inevitably enmeshed within contemporary processes, Indigenous groups have retained some capacity to maintain relations with human and non-human lifeways. In and around urban centers, Indigenous groups have a strong presence in political representation and governance. They are also interconnected with the mestizo majority, made up of multiple groups including many who are ethnically close to Indigenous ancestry, but whose traditions and memories have been erased by the ongoing cultural dominance of economic empires.
In 1967, vast oil reserves were discovered in the Ecuadorian Amazon, jumpstarting the transformation of the country into an oil economy. Oil was not new to Ecuador: reserves had been extracted from the coast in the early 20th century. However, the demand for oil that resulted from the postwar suburbanization of the United States completely transformed the economies of oil-rich countries worldwide. The intrusion of oil extraction was particularly disruptive and violent in the Amazon, where lands are still populated by the Huaorani, the Kichwa, the Shuar, the Achuar, and the Taromenane. In 1993, responding to the heavy contamination inflicted by oil extraction in the region of Lago Agrio, many of these groups sued Texaco (now Chevron), demanding the company to clean up the area and provide care for residents afflicted by multiple health issues, the result of years of living in contaminated land. This high-profile case is only one of innumerable struggles in which oil extraction has led to the destruction of Indigenous landscapes and lives.
When I started my doctoral studies in the United States, I met my friend Yavuz Sezer, a quiet and studious colleague from Turkey, who has left us too soon, too young. “Turkey is so similar to Latin America,” he said. “Do you have oil?” he asked. “Yes,” I answered. And he replied: “I’m so sorry.” That was when I understood that oil countries share oil heartbreak.
At the same time, oil has provided the capital for developmentalist models that have allowed governments on both the right and the left to do large infrastructural works as they attempt to maintain political stability and popular support. In Red Pedagogy: Native American Social and Political Thought (2004), Quechua scholar Sandy Grande explains how “both Marxists and capitalists view land and natural resources as commodities to be exploited, in the first instance, by capitalists for personal gain, and in the second by Marxists for the good of all.” This has been the case in Ecuador, where attempts have been made to incorporate Indigenous ontologies and populations into the frameworks of a developmentalist state, particularly through the concept of Sumak kawsay.
Sumak kawsay is a Quechua word that brings together Andean Indigenous thought with the 1990s socialist tide. It seeks to mobilize Quechua ontology as part of a model for state and social organization. The term, which in Quechua means something akin to “life in plenitude” but is usually translated as “good living,” is meant to oppose the developmentalist model that guided neoliberal policies in South America through most of the late 20th century. In 2008, a new Ecuadorian constitution put Sumak kawsay into action by recognizing the rights of nature. Article 71 of the constitution states that “Nature or Pacha Mama, where life is reproduced and realized, has the right to the integral respect of its existence and the maintenance and regeneration of its vital cycles, structure, functions, and evolutive processes.” In support of these actions, then-president Rafael Correa mobilized an ambitious project that invited international funding to allow the country to keep the oil in the ground. I remember my enthusiasm for this ambitious and courageous proposal. The project was unable to gather funding, leading Correa to a embark on a program of oil extraction that would fund his ambitious infrastructure program. Thea Riofrancos’s work in Resource Radicals: From Petro-Nationalism to Post-Extractivism in Ecuador (2020) traces some of this story and its consequences.
I spent the first season of the pandemic in Ecuador, taking advantage of remote connections to be able to care for my father. While I was here, I voted in two election rounds, as the country tried to figure out the choice between several candidates on the left and one conservative moderate, right-leaning bank owner Guillermo Lasso. Voting in Ecuador is mandatory, but the country has no reliable postal system and elections by mail would be impossible. By the second round of elections, the pandemic was rising, but I went to vote nonetheless. I had to choose between two extractivist options: Correa’s successor on the left and Lasso on the right. The third choice, left out of the second round by the smallest of margins, had been an Indigenous candidate, Yaku Pérez—the only who ran on a non-extractivist platform. I went to vote in the middle of the pandemic and wrote the word “NULO” (null) in capital letters over my ballot. Ultimately, Lasso profited from the fragmentation of the left and gained the presidency.
The Indigenous candidate that made it to the third place in the electoral race had been in confrontation with Indigenous groups who supported Correa’s elected successor. These confrontations between Indigenous groups point to the challenges of absorbing Indigenous governance and self-determination into the machinery of the state. Such challenges are highlighted by the contrast between Pachakutik Movimiento de Unidad Plurinacional (Pachakutik Plurinational Unity Movement), the left wing Indigenous party, and the Confederación de Nacionalidades Indígenas de Ecuador (Confederation of Indigenous Nationalities of Ecuador, better known for its acronym, CONAIE), Ecuador’s largest Indigenous organization. In order to operate within Ecuadorian politics, Packakutik has become enmeshed in complicated networks and alliances. In contrast, CONAIE retains the independence to push for Indigenous rights outside the frameworks of the state.
In order to secure his rule, Lasso allied himself with the Indigenous political party Pachakutik for the control of the National Assembly. On January 19, 2022, Lasso announced that a new oil reserve had been discovered in the Ecuadorian Amazon, as well as his intention of duplicating oil extraction to one million barrels a day in the next seven years. While Lasso is happy to extoll the advantages of privatization, he is eager to reserve oil profits for the Ecuadorian State, which legally owns and administers oil reserves. However, the nationalization of oil entails the extraction of oil-rich territories from its Indigenous inhabitants. Lasso’s announcement was followed by silence from the president of the National Assembly, Guadalupe Llori, a member of Pachakutik who rose to fame for her role in protests against Correa’s oil policies.
These contradictory alliances highlight how in Ecuador, the recruitment of Indigenous concepts like Sumak kawsay and Indigenous groups into the administration of the State has often mobilized and betrayed communities, positioning Indigenous leaders against the very principles they stand for. Moreover, while the Ecuadorian constitution recognizes the “pluri-nationality” of peoples who choose to claim their affiliation with Indigenous groups, when they operate within the State they are incorporated into an extractive model—one that continues colonial frameworks that understand the land, the air, and the water as resources to be profited from. Between Sumak kawsay and the recognition of pluri-nationality, the constitution provides a legal framework for communities to claim their rights, but the actions of the State undermine the authority and validity of their claims. Ultimately, the Ecuadorian State has been unable to reconcile its extractive model with Sumak kawsay frameworks. In other words, it operates against its own constitution.
On the afternoon of January 28, 2022, just as I was presenting some of these thoughts to an academic discussion on Indigenous futurity, a new fracture in the Ecuadorian oil pipeline caused an oil spill which has again created havoc in the Amazon, specially affecting Kichwa communities. It is easy to feel discouraged in the face of what appears as insurmountable obstacles.
What is to be done?
Rivera Cusicanqui explains that ch’ixi is a color that is the juxtaposition, in small points or spots, of opposed or contrasting colors: black and white, red and green, and so on. Ch’ixi, she explains, reflects the Aymara idea of something that is and is not at the same time: it is the logic of the included third. It combines the Indigenous world and its opposite without mixing them. In opposition to Nestor García Canclini’s notion of hybridity, which to Rivera ultimately connotes infertility, ch’ixi expresses “the parallel coexistence of multiple differences that do not extinguish but instead antagonize and complement each other.” Rivera’s description of ch’ixi suggests that the possibility of governance for our societies should not be based in forcing Indigenous thought into settler or mestizo notions of a developmentalist state, but rather reformulating and transforming local networks to understand the ch’ixi reality in which we live, and providing the extra-state formulations to support a ch’ixi futurity in we can think of, formulate, and work towards renewed relations with the land. ■