The plight of the forgotten in Ecuador

The plight of the forgotten in Ecuador

Heavy security ensured that the hundreds of Ecuadorean indigenous people never were able to bother the well-dressed delegates and organisers of the United Nations Habitat III conference in Quito. (Reuters photo)
Heavy security ensured that the hundreds of Ecuadorean indigenous people never were able to bother the well-dressed delegates and organisers of the United Nations Habitat III conference in Quito. (Reuters photo)

Upon the closing of the United Nations Habitat III conference last Thursday in Quito, Ecuador, journalists in attendance, including myself, were surprised that there weren't any protests staged by activists -- very unusual for such a UN meeting on housing and sustainable urban development which is only held every 20 years.

I only learned from an acquaintance, Faikham Harnnarong, a female activist from the Thai Climate Justice Working Group who happened to be in the South American city that week for another conference, that there was at least an attempt to protest the four-day UN conference.

After attending different sessions on topics including urban heritage, informal settlements and public transportation during the first two days, I found myself bombarded with too much information about urban living -- the kind of living that I have been growing up with.

With her invitation, I got the chance to leave the conference hall to attend a party by Accion Ecologica (AE), a local environmental organisation, which was celebrating its 30th anniversary by giving awards to a few dozen indigenous activists who have been fighting to safeguard nature -- in other words, their home.

Sirinya Wattanasukchai is an assistant news editor, the Bangkok Post.

Arriving at Che Guevara Hall at Universidad Central del Ecuador one evening after a long day of urban living talks, I entered another world. Unlike the UN meeting, there was no business attire, suits or ties, or even leather shoes; everyone showed up in their conventional clothing, many in ponchos and carrying babies in their traditional aguayo. At the awards presentation, one of the hosts even joked that the UN conference on housing and sustainable urban development ironically made Quito unsustainable and unliveable by closing many of the city's streets (for security reasons). They said it only worsened the lives of local people and visitors.

The 300-seat hall that evening was packed with indigenous people who made the long journey from their homes -- many of whom were from faraway forests in the Amazon -- with a strong determination to guard their homes from the effects of rapid urban development.

AE awarded them for their efforts to save their homes from being expropriated by the government. To pave the way for international investments such as oil exploration, gold mining, and mono agriculture, the government has to give land concessions to companies which can result in the expropriation of homes.

The awards ceremony that evening recognised both the indigenous people and AE itself for having fought together for three decades. The most remarkable moment was the award given to the late indigenous activist and environmentalist Berta Caceres, who won the prestigious Goldman environmental prize last year and who was shot dead in her home last March by a gang of intruders. Her mother received the award on behalf of her late daughter.

I was so embarrassed being ignorant of their plight and for assuming the UN conference was doing enough as it included urban heritage in its agenda. I wasn't aware that not every group was included. The housing and living conditions of indigenous peoples, whose "habitats" are deep in the Amazon forest (or even those living in Thailand), were not discussed even though they are affected by growing urbanisation.

Esperanza Martinez, from AE, said about 300 protesters, considered small by Latin American standards, were trying to stage their "Habitat Resistance 3" demonstration on the first day of the conference. They marched for a few kilometres from the university to a mural located near the conference venue.

Sadly, they never made it to the meeting, thanks to heavy security measures around the city to provide safety to high-profile conference delegates.

The purpose of the protest, Ms Martinez said, was to show that many national and international issues have been left out from the conference agenda.

"People have been here to discuss urban living. But for indigenous people, their habitats lie in territories such as stone and nature. They should also have the right to claim a home," said Ms Martinez, who has been working with indigenous people for the past three decades.

After a short talk with her, I learned that indigenous people in Ecuador and neighbouring countries experience similar problems (also shared by their peers in Thailand). But their plight was not heard at the conference. Their housing and lives will never be improved.

Even with planned and effective urban development, aggressive urbanisation usually translates into subsequent negative impacts on the lives of indigenous people, said Ms Esperanza.

Sirinya Wattanasukchai


Sirinya Wattanasukchai is a columnist for the Bangkok Post.

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