Interview with Marlon Santi, New President of Ecuador’s Indigenous Confederation

Translated by Marc Becker

Marlon Santi, the new president of the Confederation of Indigenous Nationalities of Ecuador (CONAIE), was elected by consensus on January 12 in Santo Domingo de los Tsachilas, and granted this first interview before the rest of the Governing Council was elected.  

PZT:What is your feeling upon being elected by consensus as the new president of CONAIE?

MS: It is a commitment and a very big challenge for the three years in this position, to work together with Indigenous nationalities and peoples.  I am making a strong commitment to visit all of our bases in the first year.

PZT: What does CONAIE need from now on?

MS: We have to begin on a strong footing. I come from a base where everything is regulated, controlled. Behaviors are established by standards. We have to have mutual respect.  The congress is the maximum authority for any conflict or internal difficulty, and that will be resolved by means of dialogue. We have to put in order those who want to block any process. It is necessary to be definitive and very opportune when things are not well.

PZT: Do you come from a base to build a new CONAIE?

MS: It is necessary to recover the image of CONAIE as it was in 1990, when it was considered the strongest organization in Latin America.  A new CONAIE is built on the pillars of those who created it and with the objectives of many leaders.  CONAIE has not advanced because of governmental intervention and the CIA. It is necessary for the new leaders to work hard; these objectives are in the collective interests of all of our bases.

PZT: What do you think were the weaknesses in CONAIE over the last several years?

MS: In entering into co-governments especially with Lucio Gutiérrez, important leaders made commitments with the government and followed their policies, leaving behind the leadership of Indigenous nationalities and peoples for other interests. This significantly hurt the Indigenous movement.  Then the State intervened directly to break CONAIE’s unity, because the Indigenous movement has a historical base and is a constant threat to the government when we propose territorial autonomies, the handling of our natural resources in their own territorial districts, when Indigenous nationalities manage their own biodiversity–all this is a danger to each government and transnational interests.

PZT: Do you have any lingering bitterness over losing the last election in Otavalo?

MS: No, there is no bitterness. I personally went to congratulate Luis Macas, and continued to support CONAIE’s process during these years. Rather, we have worked together in this process. I have participated in several workshops and meetings, and I share the same proposals that were given to the Constituent Assembly. We also asked CONAIE to intervene in several territorial problems in the Amazon.

PZT: What should be the characteristics of a new leader?

MS: Well, if I lost the previous election because I was not sufficiently well-known among the people, I remain in the same line of work, of fighting, of maintaining a very strong process.

PZT: As the new president of CONAIE, how would you evaluate the first year of this government?

MS: Proposals from the Indigenous movement and other social sectors from the coast, highlands, and Amazon are not present on the national government’s political agenda. Nor are they on the agenda of the Constituent Assembly. The government says a lot and they say that they are going to open petroleum explorations, that they are going to privatize water, rivers, páramos (high communal grasslands). Nothing has changed. The only change is when the Indigenous movement rises up, because even in light of this we have made some advances in Collective Rights and other demands. Rafael Correa has not recognized the demands of Indigenous nationalities and peoples, and he should do so.

PZT: How will the government of Indigenous Nationalities and Peoples act with the current government of Correa?

MS: The doors are open for the government, but we will strategize and we will not closely ally with the government. If there are meetings it will be to present the demands of the Indigenous movement.  I will not request public positions; with me you will see that. The proposals of Indigenous nationalities and peoples will be presented under a dialogue of diplomacy. If the government responds, good. Otherwise, the bases will respond with action.

PZT: What is your evaluation of the work the Constituent Assembly?

MS: There are many things that they are not taking into account. I am concerned that the Indigenous movement will not be included in the new Constitution, and this is a danger. If we want to make a new Ecuador, a new republic has to include Indigenous nationalities and peoples, after excluding us for 180 years of supposed republican life and more than 500 years since the conquest.

PZT: Who is Marlon Santi?

MS: I was born in Sarayaku. I remember that when it was 12 years old my mom was a leader. My dad was a kuraca (chief). I learned a lot from them. I participated in struggles in the 1980s against the large petroleum company ARCO. I studied for a while in Quito, but never left my principles and family formation, the mother earth, my respect for the Pachamama, and being an integral part of the community. But recently I have participated in more than 5 years of a strong and rather painful struggle against petroleum invasions, militarization, and the violation of human rights. During Lucio Gutiérrez’s government, I received 17 orders of detention, persecution, and assassination attempts. I always told  Lucio Gutiérrez that I would prefer that he killed me openly so that the people would know that he killed a person fighting for the rights of Indigenous peoples.

PZT: Will your experiences struggling in Sarayaku help in the running of CONAIE?

MS: I will join with the people who have the same problems, especially in the Amazon, in the highlands, and on the coast, since the problems are same and we have to walk together.  I am not a leader who sits at a desk. I am a leader who will be out in the field, fighting for the people.

PZT: What do you hope for in the formation of the rest of the Governing Council?

MS: I hope that it is a conglomerate, a governing council in which there is experience and new images–people who have come through organizations of the three regions, who come from the bases and through a real organizational process.

PZT: Do you have a call and message to the children and youth of the Indigenous Nationalities, Peoples, and the rest of the country?

MS :Look, someone once said that when the Indian is educated it will be revealed. So then, it is the moment for our youths and children to be educated. Only that way will we be able to confront the globalized system and know the two worlds.  In ours, it is necessary to value it as primordial, as a base for the demands of Indigenous nationalities.

Communication ECUARUNARI
ECUACHASKI. From Red Ecuachaski Norte

Also see: Marlon Santi: Commitment and Challenge to Reconstruct a New CONAIE in Ecuador