“Our Territory is Not for Sale:” Indigenous Led Anti-Extraction Social Movements in the Ecuadorian Amazon

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An Excerpt of An Honors Thesis for the Department of International Relations at Tufts University

Alexa Reilly

Introduction: Indigenous Movements and Multinational Extraction Activity in the Ecuadorian Amazon


This year, several blocks of land in the Ecuadorian Amazon are planned for auction to oil companies in a process which will lock in contracts that give foreign companies permission to extract from the land for the next 20 years. Multiple rounds of extraction licensing sales began in 2018 and several more companies, which have already received licenses, plan to begin activities in the coming year. These are the latest of several rounds of sales which encourage corporations to explore and extract from Ecuadorian land, particularly in the Amazon region. Foreign oil companies have a significant history of extraction in the Ecuadorian Amazon, beginning with the entrance of the American company Texaco in 1967.

The extraction activities of a consortium of oil companies including Texaco and the Ecuadorian state oil company Petroecuador have had lasting effects on the region in which they worked, the northern Ecuadorian province of Sucumbíos. Due to poor clean-up techniques, oil production residues can still be found in the soil and waterways of the region, leading to an array of health and environmental problems. In addition, the entrance of oil workers from other regions of Ecuador caused shifts in social and cultural structures of the region’s indigenous communities.  Land transformations and the entrance of mestizo farmer-colonists have caused some indigenous communities to move from their historic territory into territories of other groups, leading to disputes, and at times, violence. On the other hand, foreign oil companies have also had a huge impact on the economy, with crude exports now representing Ecuador’s largest economic sector.

Research Goals and Rationale

The beginning of Ecuador’s oil age was preceded by a history of indigenous organizations that led protest movements on issues such as land rights, economic reform, and official recognition of ethnic identity. Current social movements in the Amazon region work towards a variety of demands, often including a call for a complete withdrawal of foreign extractive corporations in ancestral territories, or beyond that, a move to an Ecuadorian economy that is no longer dependent on extractive exports. In response, I ask: How have indigenous groups in the Ecuadorian Amazon staged resistance again oil extraction on their land and to what degree has each movement been met with success or failure? How is “success” defined by participants in these movements and what outcomes result from participating in these movements beyond clear-cut “success” or “failure”?  The first question has normative implications for how protesters of transnational oil corporations could increase the likelihood of their demands being met, while the other question offers insight into less-studied questions on other significant results of movement participation beyond simply success or failure. These insights may have broader implications for participants both within and outside of the movements examined.

Chapter I. Historical Background of Extraction in the Ecuadorian Amazon and Ecuadorian Indigenous Social Movements

Extraction in the Ecuadorian Amazon: The Beginning

On a small scale, exploration for various forms of mining[1] had occurred in Ecuador’s Amazon region throughout the 20th century. Targets for this exploration included oil, gold, and other minerals. Oil was discovered on the Ecuadorian coast in the 1920s (Ministry of Hydrocarbons). In the same decade, surveying for oil began in the Amazon rainforest[2] in nearby countries like Peru (Petroleum Technology Transfer Council), though the search for petroleum faced greater challenges in the Amazon than in many other regions, due to the terrain’s lower accessibility. Royal Dutch Shell and Standard Oil had first surveyed for oil in the Ecuadorian Amazon in the 1930s, though the process was largely unsuccessful, besides discoveries at a few well sites (Sawyer 68, “Firms Abandon Oil Search”). Shell, along with other corporations, re-entered Ecuador in the 1960s (Shell) and oil activity intensified in 1964 when Texaco began to surveil the land and build camps in the northern province of Sucumbíos[3]. The company established its first well in 1967, after commercial quantities of oil were found near the Cofán[4] settlement of Dureno and modern-day Lago Agrio[5] (Corte Interamericana 14). In 1972, the Trans-Ecuadorian Pipeline–which ran from Lago Agrio to the coastal city of Esmeraldas–was completed, and oil production surged.

Extractive Industries 1980s

While oil extraction was accelerating in the northern Ecuadorian Amazon, other provinces in the Amazon region were also experiencing an increase in the extraction of gold and other minerals which had first started in the early 20th century (Cleary 1990 1). Additionally, indigenous people in the Ecuadorian Amazon had been facing conflict with westerners for centuries before oil and mineral mining accelerated, whether through interactions with missionaries, loggers, or others (Finer et al 2009). Gold exports form a significant part of the Ecuadorian economy, though not nearly as large an amount as oil exports (Banco Central del Ecuador 2018), and there are several large-scale gold mines in the Amazon region. Unlike oil, gold is more evenly distributed throughout Ecuador’s three continental regions: the coast, sierra (or highlands), and Amazon, making its effects less regional in scope. Copper and other minerals are also mined in the area. While I will focus centrally on oil extraction in this paper, it is important to keep in mind that various overlaps exist between people and organizations protesting oil extraction in the Ecuadorian Amazon and those protesting similar industries in the same region.

In the 1980s, oil corporations began moving into the central-south region of the Ecuadorian Amazon (the provinces of Pastaza, Morona-Santiago and Zamora-Chinchipe) (Sarayaku vs. Ecuador 17), while mining of other minerals remains prevalent in these provinces.  (“Nuestra selva no se vende”). These mining operations are located in the territories of several ethnic groups, including the Shuar, Waorani, Kichwa and Achuar.

National Oil Policy 1970s-2017

The early years of the intensification of oil extraction which started with Texaco saw a wave of new laws and organizations created to regulate the industry. In the 1971 Hydrocarbons Law, the Ecuadorian government declared that oil was national patrimony to Ecuador, belonging to the Ecuadorian state. In 1972 the earliest version of Ecuador’s national oil company, then called CEPE (Corporación Estatal Petroloera Ecuador or Ecuadorian State Petroleum Corporation) was created (Salazar 50). This coincided with Texaco beginning production in established reserves in 1972 (Sawyer 11). In the early 1970s, the Ecuadorian government sold land in the Amazon to seven foreign oil companies, creating a consortium in which CEPE was the biggest stakeholder. Under Ecuador’s military dictatorship of the mid 1970s, this share was given to Texaco and the national oil company dissolved. In 1989, Petroecuador, a successor to CEPE, was created and soon came to hold the largest consortium share (Salazar 71). Meanwhile, administrations of the 1980s and 1990s implemented neoliberal policies such as decreased export taxes on extracted resources (Sawyer 13). These decreased taxes served to encourage foreign interest in the country’s crude oil sector. Furthermore, they scaled down internal processing and refinement, making Ecuador more dependent on foreign trade partners for refined petroleum goods like gasoline (Sawyer 12).

In 1992, Texaco ceased its operations in Ecuador, but left a country full of international oil companies. In the 1980s and 1990s, companies from the United States, Italy, Spain, and other countries had begun activity in the central-south Amazonian provinces of Orellana and Pastaza. During this time period, there were more examples of organized meetings between representatives of corporations and of indigenous organizations than before. For instance, Sawyer describes meetings between the oil corporation ARCO (Atlantic Richfield Company), the Organization of Indigenous People of Pastaza (OPIP), and smaller organizations. Many view such meetings as false consultations meant to seek confirmation for the oil companies’ plans.

By the early 2000s, Ecuador was beginning to recover from a financial crisis and many felt resentment towards previous neoliberal[6] policies, some of which were viewed as an iteration of western imperialism. In the early 2000s, post-neoliberal rhetoric became common in administrations. In 2007, Rafael Correa won the presidency, running on an anti-imperialist, anti-establishment platform. For instance, in his inaugural address, Correa spoke of changing global structures of power: “They are the superiors, the owners of our countries, the owners of our democracies, while we, as heads of state, are only their primary servers” (Discurso de Posesión del Presidente Rafael Correa). In addition, Correa promised to support underprivileged populations, including indigenous and Afro-Ecuadorian citizens. While he found support in several indigenous groups, Correa also denounced many indigenous protests, labeling them as too extreme (Cepek 2018).

In his first year of presidency, Correa announced the plan for the Yasuní-ITT initiative. The initiative asked for donations from the international community in return for a permanent suspension of oil activity in Yasuní National Park, one of the world’s most biodiverse regions and home to several indigenous nationalities, including uncontacted peoples[7]. The plan was presented to potential international donors largely in terms of its ecological impact, rather than in terms of other cultural or non-environmental concerns. In 2013, the plan ended due to insufficient pledged funds and Correa announced land auctions to Chinese oil companies, such as CNPC (Chinese National Petroleum Corporation). Correa was criticized by some for taking actions that may have encouraged Chinese oil exploration before announcing the initiative’s failure; for example, an “oil corridor” was created that allowed the Chinese company Sinopec to extend their operations nearly to the ITT region (Hill). Meanwhile, during Correa’s presidency, protesters, particularly in the central-south Amazonian provinces, experienced more repression than they had under previous administrations. Several movement participants were jailed or threatened. At the same time, Correa attempted to exercise more control over the Ecuadorian press (Punín Larrea).  

In 2008, a new constitution was signed into law. The constitution included a “rights of nature” clause which stated that nature is not property of the government, but rather an entity with rights. The constitution also included references to Ecuador as being “plurinational” and new mentions of Pachamama, a Quechua/Kichwa[8] conception of the natural universe or Mother Earth[9]. While previous constitutions had included words like “multicultural,” they did not recognize that Ecuador is made up of different nations of people. The 2008 changes represent success for many Ecuadorian indigenous movements, which often included calls for official, written recognition of their cultural differences. The constitution also contains potentially contradictory pieces relevant to resource extraction. For example, under the “Development” section, the constitution declared that the government reserved the right to expropriate natural resources whenever deemed justified, (Ecuador 2008). On the other hand, the constitution of 2008 states that “prior free and informed consultation about plans and schedules of research, exploitation, and commercialization of non-renewable resources found in their territories that can affect them environmentally or culturally” is necessary and that affected populations must “share in the benefits” of such activity (Constitution 2008 Art. 57-7). This largely mirrors the language in the 1998 Constitution (1995 Constitution Art. 84-5). The constitution also says that the territories of peoples living in voluntary isolation are untouchable and will be free from all extractive activity (Constitution 2008 Art. 57). The various articles requiring consultation of and respect for populations living on extractive land create tension with the article that states that the national government has total ownership of subsoil resources. This tension has led to conflict between the government, extractive companies, and citizens.

Effects of Oil Activity

The wave of extraction which began in 1967 left devastating effects on ecology, human health, and culture in the area. Throughout their time in Ecuador, members of the Texpet consortium failed to comply with basic safety regulations, often choosing to construct installations as quickly as possible, without following their own company health and safety policies. Upon their departure, Texaco simply covered oil wells and pools, without cleaning or draining them beforehand (Beristain 2005). 600 open oil pools were left behind (Corte Interamericana 15). Flares, common structures for burning off waste oil, had long been running, killing large numbers of insects and birds (Toxic Tour, Cepek 2018 106).  It is difficult to measure exactly how much oil has entered nearby ecosystems as a result of Texpet’s operations, though some estimate that up to 18 billion gallons of oil were leaked into the waterways, both during and after Texaco’s time in Ecuador (“Chevron Fined for Amazon Pollution” 2011). As early as the 1970s, Cofán and Siona people began to notice changes in the color of their water, different tastes in the fish and meat they ate, and the development of new stomach and skin illnesses. Initially, most Cofán people did not attribute these changes to oil directly, though some worried that the westerners had brought the illnesses and had caused bad spirits (cocoya) to harm their game animals (Cepek 2018). People of other ethnic groups, including Kichwa and mestizos, experienced similar problems. It has been shown that those living in the areas closest to Texpet extraction installations have significantly higher rates of cancer, miscarriage, and stomach and skin illnesses (Beristain et al. 2005). Further, road construction often involves deforestation and breaks up animal habitats. Species diversity has been found to decrease with proximity to roads constructed by and for Texaco (Vaca Almeida 2017). The urbanization which came as a result of extraction also threatened many species’ habitats (Corte Interamericana 17). Additionally, many cultural changes rapidly occurred as a response to foreign company entrance. For example, oil employees introduced a money-based economy which led to higher levels of individualism (Becker 2018). This, in turn, further accelerated environmental impacts by encouraging commercial hunting and fishing. Traditional gender relations changed to more closely reflect western structures, as men were offered oil jobs while women were not encouraged to work. Women also experienced sexual violence at the hands of western workers (Baristain et al 2005).   

Outside of Sucumbíos, the effects of oil corporations on health, biodiversity, and culture are not as well-documented, though similar negative impacts have been reported (Orta-Martínez and Finer). Additionally, violent conflicts have occurred both between indigenous peoples and non-indígenas and between different indigenous groups in the Central-South. This increased violence has been attributed in part to oil incursion. The introduction of new diseases, construction of intrusive roads, and dying wildlife have led some communities to move to new locations outside of their traditional homes, causing conflict. For instance, in 2003, Waorani[10] warriors killed at least 12 members of the related Taromenone[11] tribe, in response to tensions between the groups which had escalated as the Waorani moved away from their historic land and onto Taromenone land. After continuing conflict, Waoranis massacred or kidnapped nearly all the known remaining Taromenone people in 2013 (“Death in the Amazon”). In other cases, movement outside of traditional land fortified and caused the growth of existing communities located deeper in the forest, such as the pueblo of Sarayaku discussed in more detail in Chapter IV. An additional effect of extraction throughout the region is the increased risk of injuries or even death on the job for those who work for the companies (Interview 6). Further, due to the economic importance of oil extraction, petroleum corporations have often had significant political influence (Corte Interamericana 13).

Anti-Extraction Social Movements

In the 1970s and 1980s, new indigenous organizations were created and became a primary actor in movements representing indigenous peoples throughout Ecuador (Sawyer 42). Indigenous peoples in the central and southern parts of the Ecuadorian Amazon observed oil activity in the north of the region and created new organizations to defend their land in case the activity spread south. These organizations (i.e. OPIP) fought primarily to legally secure ownership of historic indigenous lands (Sawyer 45), while also involving themselves in other movements, such as those for recognition of plurinationality and the expulsion of extractive companies.  

In the 1980s and 1990s, demonstrations against oil company entrance surged and some indigenous demonstrations (i.e. Cofán and Waorani protests) were successful at keeping petroleum companies off parts of indigenous land. As will be discussed in Chapter IV, a Texaco well was closed in 1987 after an extended period of time in which Cofán protesters blocked roads leading to the well site. Earlier in the 20th century, Royal Dutch Shell ceased operations in Waorani territory after years of receiving violent threats from Waorani people near their camp (Lu et al. 17). Protests in other areas (i.e. Sarayaku, Pastaza) were frequent and elicited responses from the government and extractive companies. Anti-extraction social movements joined these disruptive protests with publicity campaigns and legal action.

Petroleum and Protest Today

Today, oil companies continue to enter and extract from the Ecuadorian Amazon. Chinese national oil companies buy the vast majority of currently available land, though other countries’ companies (i.e. Spain) are represented throughout the region as well. Oil is crucial to the Ecuadorian economy. In 2014, Ecuador produced approximately 500,000 barrels of oil per day, much of it coming from the northern and central Amazon provinces of Napo, Sucumbíos, and Orellana (Banco Central del Ecuador). The concessionary auction system, which started under Correa after the aforementioned failed Yasuní-ITT initiative, continues to this day. Three separate rounds of auctions began in 2018 (Secretaría de hidrocarburos 2018), and there are currently[12] 13 petroleum land blocks proposed for auction to the international market (“Nuestr selva no se vende”). For a map of how the oil blocks are delineated as of 2018, see Figure 1. 

There are currently a variety of anti-extraction movements in the Amazon region, involving both indigenous and non-indigenous people. These movements work alongside regional (i.e. UDAPT), national (i.e. CONAIE) and international (i.e. Amazon Watch) organizations. Many movements demand the removal of extractive companies from indigenous territories, alongside demands for increased recognition for indigenous propriety over the land. Additionally, organizations like Confeniae (Confederation of the Indigenous Amazonian Ecuadorians) include messaging about demands for rights to freer protest, without fear of persecution for staging non-violent movements. These demands are a direct response to Correa-era arrests of protesters in the region. Participants today are reaching a larger international audience than in previous decades. Many organizations have a large social media presence and several English-language documentaries about oil extraction in the region and the movements in response were released since the early 2000s and continue to be produced (i.e. Crude 2009, A Future Without Oil 2010, and The Last Guardians 2018). Additionally, several groups, including both the Cofán protesting Texaco and the Kichwa countering CGC, have turned to legal means to demand reparations from the companies that previously occupied their lands.

Note on the History of Ecuadorian Indigenous Movements

Indigenous movements throughout Ecuador have a long history, dating back to conquistador Pedro de Alvarado’s entry into Ecuador in the 16th century. As Becker notes, many current forms of protest in various Ecuadorian indigenous movements have their origins in the alliances between leftist groups and indigenous groups which began to take shape in Ecuador in the 1920s. Historically, the largest indigenous movements took place on huasipungos or haciendas[13] in the sierra region of the country. These movements largely focused on demanding land distribution reform, recognition of and education about indigenous history, language, and culture, and fairer working conditions for indigenous workers. Movement members often marched to big cities or government offices, organized strikes, and staged protests on their haciendas. Throughout the 20th century, several new indigenous organizations were formed, including the Ecuadorian Federation of Indians and the Ecuarunari (the Kichwa Confederation of Ecuador).

In short, the movements which exist against oil extraction and other mining in the Ecuadorian Amazon stem from the concurrence of two historical courses, the long history of Ecuadorian indigenous movements and the relatively newer impositions brought on by mining. Because of the economic and ecological implications of resource extraction in this region, the current indigenous-led movements against extraction attract attention from across Ecuador and the world, potentially creating a novel interplay between the long-entrenched indigenous movement dynamics and tactics of the past and the need to meet modern pressures and use contemporary tools.

Figure 1. Map of petroleum blocks in Ecuador, 2018. The majority of blocks are in the Amazon region. Yellow-orange blocks were not yet assigned as of November 2018. Source: Mapa de bloques petroleros del Ecuador.

Chapter II. A Review of Scholarly Literature


Ecuadorian indigenous movements have been unusually successful in terms of causing change in government and social structures within the country (Jameson 2011). In comparison to movements in other Latin America countries—including those with similar sized indigenous populations—Ecuadorian indigenous movements have been more successful in inciting constitutional changes and electing leaders of their movements to national offices. In at least a handful of cases these movements have removed extractive companies from indigenous land (Cepek 2018). There is a large body of research examining factors behind the emergence and growth of indigenous movements in Ecuador, and in Latin America more broadly; most of these works have been produced from the 1990s to the present (Van Cott 2010). Additionally, works on social movements in Nigeria and other countries with extensive presence of extractive industries inform this review (Omeje 2017). A subset of the work reviewed here evaluates factors behind the effectiveness of the movements in achieving their demands and attempts to describe the ultimate results of the movements, beyond success and failure. Here, I pay particular attention to authors who specifically examine Ecuadorian indigenous movements that respond to the presence of extractive corporations, particularly those in the Amazon.

Arguments developed to explain factors influencing the efficacy of Ecuadorian indigenous movements draw from a variety of disciplines, including political science, sociology, history, and anthropology. Scholars typically operate within and between the following schools of thought: 1. political conditions (Yashar 1998, Van Cott 2009) 2. mobilization strategies (Bob 2005), 3. identity definition (Sawyer 2004, Canessa 2007), 4. coalition formation (Becker 2008, Cepek 2014, Cepek 2018), and 5. framing and continuity of messages (Jameson 2011, Yashar 1998). These categories denote the primary factor each author analyzed in explaining either emergence or outcome of movements, but it is important to note that overlap between the categories is common, and that authors tend to acknowledge that all the aforementioned areas of analysis contribute to the structure and outcomes of social movements.



Neoliberalism is a term broadly used throughout sociological, economic, and political science work, particularly in Latin America. Neoliberalism can refer to both an economic theory and a general ideology. Generally, proponents of neoliberalism believe in the rationality of a free market economy, though the concept can be extended to individual freedoms in other areas like politics and social life (Ritzer 116). Economist Joseph Stiglitz’s describes it as, “a grab-bag of ideas based on the fundamentalist notion that markets are self-correcting, allocate resources efficiently, and serve the public interest well.” Sawyer defines neoliberalism as “a cluster of government policies that aim to privatize, liberalize, and deregulate the national economy as to encourage foreign investment and intensify export production” (Sawyer 7). While neoliberalism is deeply linked to globalization, it is not solely about foreign investment and also involves allowing market forces to shape the domestic economy. Scholars on Latin American indigenous movements, like Yashar and Becker, identify the general idea of neoliberalism as a common target for protests. Anti-neoliberal protests are also common in other regions of the world (Ritzer 115).  For the purposes of this paper, I use Sawyer’s definition which focuses on exports and foreign investment, as neoliberalism’s relationship with foreign investment is key in the extraction of Ecuadorian oil and in the objections that protestors have to it. Ecuador experienced a wave of neoliberal policies in the rapidly changing governments of the 1980s-1990s which sought to encourage investment from other countries, while recent governments have, at least in rhetoric, vocally rejected neoliberalism.

Schools of Thought

Political Conditions

The political conditions category encompasses works which focus on the national political structures and circumstances under which resistance movements have emerged. Yashar (1998) argues that incomplete political liberalization is needed for national and larger-scale subnational indigenous movements to form. In other words, marginalized indigenous populations must experience a partial increase in freedoms which allows them to strengthen their political power slightly, without actually attaining all the freedoms and services they want or need. Rather than making indigenous citizens more content with their situation, partial liberalization empowers them to demand more. While noting the importance of established social networks and other factors, Yashar posits that these factors will not provoke the rise of a movement unless freedoms of expression and association have increased nationally, without extending completely to indigenous groups. This idea of the importance of partial liberalization is repeated in Van Cott (2009), which examines cases in Ecuador and Bolivia. Comparative case studies like Van Cott’s are common in this school. Johnston argues that protests in democracies are more likely to occur when conditions have improved for a marginalized group and the group feels relative deprivation to other groups, but not complete deprivation. Inclán (2018) observes that Latin American indigenous movements of recent years have mirrored protest movements in western democracies, in the sense that they are a part of a normal political process and do not result in regime overthrow. Thus, Johnston’s theories of social movement emergence in democratic states are relevant here.

Mobilization Strategies

Scholars who study mobilization strategies examine how people are effectively recruited into and retained in a movement. This includes financing, rhetoric in recruitment messages, and forms of press and social media used to reach potential participants. In recent years, these scholars have increasingly used surveys of movement participants to analyze why they chose to be involved in a movement (Inclán). Bob (2005) argues that success of a social movement is more dependent on financial resources than any other factor, and that movements can most effectively be analyzed by looking at the marketing strategies that the movement adopts when seeking funding. He also posits the importance of technology use and of the consolidation of political power within social movement organizations. Scholars of coalition formation (i.e. Becker 2008) include resource mobilization in their work but do not analyze it as the main determinant of success. Meanwhile, scholars of mobilization strategies (Bob, Tilly) include coalition formation within their analysis, but focus more on the aspects that lead to an organization being able to use their resources to form coalitions, rather than on the effects of the coalitions once they are formed.


Though most researchers on indigenous social movements acknowledge the importance of identity definition to some degree, identity definition scholars argue that the essential factor influencing the emergence and success of indigenous social movements is the way in which identity is defined by members of the movement. Much of the scholarly work specifically focusing on anti-neoliberal Ecuadorian indigenous movements fall under this category, at least in part. Sawyer focuses on the social movements led by the Shuar and other Ecuadorian indigenous groups against the actions of foreign oil corporations in the late 1990s to early 2000s. She compares these movements to indigenous social movements in Ecuador’s past, focusing on the early 1990s, and states that Amazonian indigenous movements against extractivism have more to do with demanding racial equality and recognition of indigenous rights than they do with opposition to the health, environmental, and other types of direct effects of extraction. Sawyer identifies the drive for official national legal recognition of Ecuador as a “plurinational state”—one comprised of multiple nations, rather than one homogenous population—as a driving force behind the emergence of movements in roughly the decade leading up to her work. In Crude Chronicles, Sawyer notes that it was necessary for indigenous Ecuadorians to rethink their own identity in order to come together under the identifier of “indigenous” rather than “Cofán,” “Shuar,” “Kichwa,” or any other identifier. Sawyer also addresses how identity can be manipulated and weaponized by opponents of a social movement in order to delegitimize the movement, using the example of an oil company paying a family to separate from their community and form their own indigenous organization comprised of only themselves. Eisenstadt (2011), like Sawyer, discusses how indigenous identity is malleable and can be used as a tool in social movements. Eisenstadt’s work also looks at how communitarianism, a quality typically associated with Latin American indigenous groups, can be expressed in greater or lesser degrees depending on responses received by indigenous social movements.

Coalition Formation

Becker, too, addresses the role of identity redefinition and alignment on the formation and efficacy of indigenous movements. However, he, and other scholars of coalition formation, look primarily at how groups of separate identities form alliances to pursue common or related goals. Becker writes about the ways in which identity was maintained and altered in the relationships that indigenous Ecuadorians have formed with urban leftist organizations since the 1930s. He argues that the relationship was necessary for the incorporation of indigenous people into public activism and instrumental in defining the national collective indigenous identity. Becker argues that the relationship started out with leftists patronizing indigenous participants in their movement and essentially forcing members to identify themselves only along class lines, but that over time, indigenous people became more willing to identify themselves along multiple parameters, adding indigenous ethnicity to their public identity. Becker demonstrates that over time, indigenous people started controlling movements and urban blanco-mestizo people played more supportive roles in national movements. Becker argues that social movements have most likely been able to achieve their demands when people define themselves primarily by indigenous identity, while drawing on support from non-indigenous people who share their class identity. Kimerling (2007), like Becker, addresses patronizing coalitions, noting how alignment with foreign organizations can create unjust conditions in modern indigenous resistance operating through legal networks. Kimerling and Becker both demonstrate that coalitions with non-indigenous people can make movements more effective, but that this efficacy comes when indigenous people, rather than external groups, are in charge of the movement.

Cepek (2014) also emphasizes the importance of coalition formation. He argues that the Cofán have had unusual success in their movements against oil extraction, because they have an effective intermediary between their culture and the West, Randy Borman—a white man, born and raised in a Cofán town, fluent in English, Spanish, and A’ingay (the Cofán language). Cepek identifies cooperation with western NGOs as an important factor in movement development. This echoes Johnston’s idea that subnational movements are more successful when they situate themselves into transnational movements, such as the anti-neoliberal “global justice” movement. However, like Becker, Cepek recognizes the ruptures that emerge between Cofán collaborators and Western environmental organizations as well as the related divisions that emerge within Cofán communities in response to coalition formation. The dual nature of coalition building is seen globally (i.e. in Colombia, see Escobar and Restrepo 2010).

Abers and Von Bülow (2011) analyze specific variations in the role actors take on in coalitions. They give the name “brokers” to those actors who mediate between different stakeholders in a given situation. They find that certain broker roles, like translators, are easy to fill, while those filling representative roles of a group are more likely to be unsuccessful. Several authors also note the importance of coalitions between indigenous Amazonian groups and subalterns in other countries or of different ethnic backgrounds (Van Cott 2010, Bob 2005).

Continuity of Messages

Some view the various Ecuadorian indigenous-led social movements as different branches of a single indigenous movement, owing to consistent messages across several movements and organizations. While previously discussed scholars focused largely on why movements emerge, with some space dedicated to measuring their effectiveness, Jameson (2011) centrally seeks to understand why Ecuadorian movements, like Pachacutik, are more successful than indigenous movements in other Latin American countries. Jameson argues that the peculiar success of the Ecuadorian indigenous movement is due to the maintenance of a single, continuous message across time and across organizations. Like Sawyer, Jameson identifies the consistent message as the call for a plurinational state. This message, Jameson writes, provides a consistent direction for movements even in changing political conditions, and he predicts that if the message continues to take a central position in indigenous social movements, the movements are less likely to disappear or be co-opted in the future. Few other works focus specifically on the continuity of demand messaging. Some (Yashar 1998, Johnston 2011), however, note the importance of continuity in structures, arguing that movements created from pre-existing social structures are more effective than those which incorporate several disparate actors. Johnston (2011) argues for the importance of already existing social organizations in providing a common space for movements to begin and evolve, showing how social movements grow more quickly when they stem from well-established community structures, like churches. Yashar writes that pre-established trans-community actors are essential in Latin American indigenous movements.


Together, these approaches offer insight into how indigenous movements emerge and expand, as well as potential outcomes of the movements. Political condition theories provide important information about how social movements emerge and their potential effects and can be generalized to look at various global situations. However, they do not directly address the unique agency of those creating and sustaining social movements. Further, because they generally rely on examination of a range of movements across countries, these theories are best suited for somewhat general questions of why a movement emerges and whether it will be mostly effective or ineffective, not for looking at the specific individual outcomes of a movement, or for looking at a specific geographic region within a country. Here, I use ideas of political liberalization to inform my research but do not focus on it exclusively.

In contrast with political conditions theorists, mobilization strategies scholars narrow the focus to look at specific qualities of the movements themselves but still tend not to focus on the agency of actors within the movements. Furthermore, social mobilization arguments do not adequately explain why some scholars argue that current Ecuadorian indigenous movements have not been met with as much success as they experienced in the 1990s (Van Cott). Having an understanding of mobilization strategies, in terms of financing and marketing to potential participants, is an important component of understanding Ecuadorian indigenous movements, but it cannot be viewed as the primary element. I do not focus on resource mobilization in this paper.

Each of the remaining schools of thought have a more situation-specific focus and are closely related, providing clear ties between the success of indigenous social movements and the unique culture and history of the region. As demonstrated above, coalition formation and identity definition scholars often overlap extensively because of the ways in which alliances change perception of identities and vice versa. Though they are both useful, the extent to which coalition formation and identity definition ideas have been applied specifically to Ecuadorian movements means another study within those schools may only be used if it also considers other factors that interplay with identity and coalition-forming. In fact, Van Cott remarks that most of the cases examined by identity and coalitions scholars are actually over-studied. She believes that by focusing so intensively on unusually successful movements like the Ecuadorian Pachacutik movement, our perception of the level of success of strategies used by indigenous social movements in Latin America becomes skewed.

Both of the aforementioned schools of thought can be used to illuminate the less often-emphasized area of framing continuity. This year (2018), several communities of indigenous people were confronted with the beginning of oil extraction on their land for the first time. It will be interesting to see whether or not extant organizations and previously declared messages will be incorporated into movements that arise in response to these new situations. Further, it is a critical time to examine if Jameson’s assertion that continuity of plurinationality demands is a determining factor in efficacy of Ecuadorian indigenous movements. Plurinationality was codified in the Ecuadorian constitution 10 years ago. With the success, on paper, of the ultimate goal of many indigenous movements, how will the message continue to be incorporated into movements, if at all? Is it accurate to label the movements for recognition of plurinationality as successful, and, if so, how will people connect their movements to movements which have already achieved their goal? Have pre-existing organizations that emerged in the movement towards this goal strengthened or weakened as a result? Answers to these questions will likely impact how indigenous Ecuadorians define themselves within their movements and the ways in which they connect with outside allies.

Summary, Conclusions, and Contributions

My research will apply findings from the reviewed schools to a specific geographic region and situation – subsurface resource extraction (especially oil extraction) in the Ecuadorian Amazon. Though there is a wealth of information on indigenous social movements in Ecuador, most of it focuses primarily on indigenous groups of the highlands, rather than on the Amazon. My focus on movements which respond to petroleum extraction further narrows my research area. However, there are various groups within the movements of eastern Ecuador, and I am still able to compare different groups throughout the region, just as seminal scholars like Sawyer and Becker did while using the entire country of Ecuador as the area of analysis. This scope of focus and deductive methodology allows me to examine a variety of examples while arriving at reasonably historically and culturally grounded conclusions.

I also directly examine efficacy and outcome of movements, much like Jameson. Published research which examines the effectiveness of indigenous movements in the Ecuadorian Amazon takes into account the most recent developments, such as the latest round of Amazon oil field auctions beginning in 2018. Many indigenous movements today respond directly to those sales. Nor do many scholarly works examine the effect of the 2008 constitution, which both recognizes Ecuador as a plurinational state and redefines “nature” as an entity with rights rather than a commodity of the government. These are just a few examples of changing contexts which underscore the importance of conducting new research in the field.

Additionally, many studies reviewed here focus mainly on the relationship between government bodies and the indigenous movements. As new communities face the incursion of foreign corporations, it will become even more important to understand what effect, if any, Ecuadorian social movements have on the corporations on their land and on other non-government actors, rather than focusing solely on change through government channels. In my work, I hope to acknowledge the role that direct movement-to-company communication can play in addition to movement-to-government communication.

Chapter III. Methods to Explore the Impact of Message Continuity on Indigenous Movement Success in the Ecuadorian Amazon

Hypotheses and Case Selection

How have indigenous groups in the Ecuadorian Amazon staged resistance against oil extraction on their land and to what degree has each movement been met with success or failure? What factors affect the degree of success attained? How is success defined? More broadly, what outcomes come from movement participation? In response to the second question, I hypothesize that if demands of the movements examined are clearly connected to the central messages of past indigenous movements, effectiveness will increase. This is because connected, continuous messages encourage stronger coalitions between organizations, attract more participants to the movement, and help prevent the movement’s demands from being forgotten with the passage of time. Additionally, I hypothesize that movements which have more and stronger connections with international organizations will experience more success, due to resulting external pressure on government and companies and potential resource augmentation that can come with international publicity. In addition, I believe that many movements, whether partially or fully successful or not successful at all, will experience other outcomes including increased interactions between geographically or culturally separate populations and increased movement activity in other, non-extraction related social movements.

I use qualitative, comparative analysis of different historical cases to test my hypothesis and then evaluate current cases using the same factors to provide an overview of how my findings may apply to current events. Case #1 is the movement against oil extraction in Sucumbíos, largely focusing on Cofán led protests and actions in 1982-1994. Case #2 is the movement against oil extraction in Pastaza, focusing on the Sarayaku Kichwa movement against various oil companies in 1989-2007. Current cases I evaluate in Chapter V include current multi-nationality movements against national company Petroamazonas[14] and various foreign companies and the multi-nationality legal movement against Chevron.

Operationalization and Methods

The degree to which each movement can be labeled as “successful” will be addressed more thoroughly within chapter IV. I define success on the basis of each demand, rather than labeling entire movements successful or unsuccessful. High success would mean the demand was clearly met and resulted in tangible changes. Moderate or mixed success refers to mixed outcomes (i.e. an official document demanded reforms but was not enforced in reality, or one part of the demand was met and another was not.) Low success or failure means the demand was not met.

To analyze past movements in terms of framing, allies and identity, external factors, and movement outcomes, I used primary (Foreign Broadcast Information Service) and secondary sources (Sawyer 2004, the Global Nonviolent Action Database for the Kichwa movement, and Cepek 2018 for the Cofán movement.) To look at current cases, I use a 2018 documentary called The Last Guardians, analysis of conferences between different communities affected by oil extraction and indigenous organizations in March 2018 and January 2019, and an analysis of messages posted on Facebook by groups representing the current anti-extraction indigenous movements. These groups include “Comunicación Confenaie” and “Conaie Comunicación.”

In addition, I conducted interviews to analyze both current and historical cases. These included in-person and Skype interviews with people currently involved in protests—all of whom have been involved for several years—along with representatives of organizations which are involved in social movements against oil extraction. I interviewed a variety of contacts, not focusing solely on those involved in the two cases described above. Questions focused primarily on relationships within and between different groups within the movement and outside stakeholders like the government and oil officials, along with questions on media representation and movement outcomes. All interviews were conducted in Spanish and were transcribed and analyzed for common themes, particularly regarding statements made by the interviewee about successes and failures experienced during their involvement in anti-extraction movements and their initial goals for the movement.

In summary, I have selected cases which give me high levels of control and variation. My qualitative approach allows me to gain a deep understanding of the dynamics of the selected movements and to draw on this knowledge to evaluate current movements. By having a variety of information sources, I can corroborate results or reveal and analyze discrepancies between the results from different sources. I believe my interview component has helped me generate new information in response to the latest government actions and developments within the social movement.

Chapter IV. Findings: Movements of Today

Today, the frontier of oil extraction has moved south to the provinces of Pastaza, Morona-Santiago, and Zamora-Chinchipe. Gold and other mineral extraction continues in this region as well. As previously described[15], the people of Sarayaku and neighboring communities (such as the nearby Zápara communities) continue to fight against the entry of oil companies. In the North, extraction has greatly decreased, and today the people of Sucumbíos demand reparations and collaborate with activists from other provinces to support their anti-extraction calls.

External Environment: National Government

Today, the pressures and opportunities presented by the national government, international community, and media all differ as compared to the 1980s to early 2000s. The presidency of Rafael Correa from 2007 to 2017 was a critical period for indigenous activists and other participants in anti-extraction movements. During his presidency, activists reported an increase in arrests linked to protest participation (Interview 1, Interview 4, Interview 6, Interview 7). This extends beyond the Amazon’s anti-extraction movement. For example, 35 participants in protests in the sierra in August 2015 were arrested. These arrests were immediately denounced by indigenous leader and CONAIE co-founder Luis Macas, among others. Aggressive anti-protest tactics were used not only in indigenous anti-extraction movements, but in various protests throughout the country (“Correa pierde el control en Ecuador: represión y arrestas”).

Threats were also common under the Correa administration. Interviewee 5 said he had been threatened and said, “The Correa government started to follow me.” Similarly, attorneys legally representing people affected by oil extraction reported threats from both extractive companies and Ecuadorian police (Interview 2, Interview 8) under the Correa administration. These threats from police and military personnel had not, to my knowledge, been reported on a large scale before Correa came to power and, according to interviewees, subsided soon after he left office. Interviewee 7 said that one of his colleagues[16] had been killed by the Ecuadorian military after participating in protests against the extraction of minerals near his home[17]. The interviewee described the protestor as “the man who fought the most against mining.” One interviewee described police killing protestors from his town and arresting others. Organizations like Confeniae publicly addressed this Correa-era suppression, for example writing on their website that the organization is “against the military suppression of their movements.” (Confeniae website). In addition to use of physical force, Correa kept a tight grip on the Ecuadorian press, leading to Ecuador receiving a “not free” rating from Freedom House’s annual report every year from 2013-2017. Correa often referred to journalists as “assassins with ink” (“Freedom in the World: Ecuador”).

It is worth noting that indigenous protestors are not the only ones affected by increased suppression tactics. A police officer had also died in December 2016 after being shot in the head while controlling protests in the central-south region under the Correa administration (La Voz de Galicia). Other officers had been injured at the same event (“Correa informa de un policía muerto”). Officers were also injured in a 2009 protest in Morona-Santiago (Mena Erazo).

Further, the protest suppression at the hands of police and military personnel, combined with the control over press, may have made the companies themselves and their allies more comfortable using threat tactics of their own. Interviewee 4 said that the Correa administration “normalized” violence. Interviewee 8 reported a break-in which appeared to come from someone connected to Chevron’s legal team. He said that early in his job working with the legal team representing the affected peoples, someone broke into his office, moved around all the documents, but left everything there, including his computer and objects of monetary value. This indicates that whoever did it was more interested in getting information for the court case and possibly scaring the new lawyer, rather than robbing the office.

Beyond outright suppression, the rhetoric of Correa and his administration regarding protest impacted anti-extraction movements. A 2015 article writes that Correa has described the indigenous protests as looking to “destabilize” the Ecuadorian government (Prensa Libre). This is just one example of several instances where he used wording which described indigenous protestors as a threat. According to a 2015 article, Correa responded to a CONAIE-led mobilization by saying that the indigenous protestors had no motive for their protest (Constante), showing an attempt to delegitimize indigenous protest. Interviewee 6 talked about the rumors started about him around this time: everything from generally calling him “subversive” to accusing him of terrorism and of being part of a guerilla group. Throughout his time as president, Correa also issued several “calls for dialogue” (“Mena Erazo”) between the protestors and government officials. When indigenous activists did not meet these calls, it likely became easier for him to call them subversive and violent. On the other hand, Correa frequently stated he was supportive of indigenous organizations throughout the country. For example, he said that he felt deeply for his “dear companions” in CONAIE after one of its members died in a protest (Mena Erazo). In regard to Sucumbíos, Correa’s rhetoric was often strongly against Chevron and in favor of those legally fighting against the company. A 2015 article in The Nation states “Correa accused the oil giant…of ‘deliberately polluting’ the Amazon rain forest in eastern Ecuador, of ‘shamelessly lying’ to evade its legal responsibility to clean up.” Correa also stated that the affected people of Sucumbíos “have all our sympathy” (North).

One reason for the apparent discrepancy between Correa’s rhetoric about Chevron and lack of denouncements for other oil companies currently in Ecuador is the different experiences of extraction in the North and Central-South, described in chapters I and IV. People in Sucumbíos have already publicly experienced death and destruction on a large scale as a result of oil extraction and are now fighting predominantly a legal battle for reparations. Their struggle generally hasn’t presented a threat to future extraction, nor has it been polemical in the eyes of the Ecuadorian public. The incentives for Correa’s administration to stifle their actions and support mining in their area seem low. Also, the attention which the general Ecuadorian public paid to the north was higher throughout Correa’s terms than that paid to central-south provinces. Meanwhile, incentives to shut down protests of people in Pastaza or other central-southern provinces which had the potential to disrupt the future of an industry worth billions of dollars to the national economy were high. This may explain why Correa’s treatment of social movements differed between the two regions. Further, Chevron embodies the archetype of a rich, powerful, imperialist business from the West that benefits from the neoliberalism which Correa vocally rejects. Neoliberal tenets of deregulation and privatization generally benefit large multinational corporations like the oil supermajors[18] (Smith-Nonini) while the smaller, non-American companies entering Ecuador in the recent past are not as good a target for Correa’s anti-neoliberalism. Lastly, Correa’s vocal support for peoples of Sucumbíos generally focused, and continues to focus, on their legal battle. For example, in November 2018, Correa retweeted a link to an article titled, “The Chevron Case is fundamental for the world.” (@MashiRafael). Correa may consider law a more “acceptable” movement tool than public protest. However, this does not mean that the Correa administration was always supportive of the actions of protestors from this province. Though Correa didn’t explicitly speak against activists in Sucumbíos, his administration’s protest suppression tactics did affect the larger, Ecuadorian Amazon-wide movement in which the activists of Sucumbíos took part.

Movement participants’ views on Correa vary. There is a significant number of indigenous people in Sucumbíos who have been affected by crude extraction who supported Correa and continue to believe in Correísmo, or his general political philosophy. Sucumbíos was the only Amazonian province in which Lenín Moreno, who was at the time viewed as an extension of Correa, won the 2017 presidential election (“El mapa bicolor del Ecuador”). Guillermo Lasso, his opposition, won in all other Amazon provinces. This fact alone doesn’t mean that the people of Sucumbíos are inherently bigger supporters of Correa than other people from the Amazon region. However, it does stand out as an interesting occurrence when taken alongside the vocal, continued support for Correísmo from some indigenous people of Sucumbíos that can be seen across social media. A 2017 El Comercio article describes the general support for Lasso throughout the rest of the Amazon region as, “the indigenous movement’s very clear disaffection towards the government due to the implemented mining policy and the persecution of indigenous leaders” (“Lenín Moreno ganó en 15 capitales de provincia”). This disaffection appears not to have extended completely to Sucumbíos.

Meanwhile, some who work in fields related to anti-extraction movements feel Correa was not special in terms of his attitude towards protest and level of support for extraction. Though suppression had intensified under Correa, one interviewee was clear that he feels all presidents are inherently pro-extraction and may just use slightly different tactics to attain their goals. He said, “The governments can be right, left, anarchists, whatever. They have different political ideologies but all, all of them are extractivist.” (Interviewee 2). This sentiment was also reflected by people working on the case against Chevron in the documentary Crude, soon after Correa’s election. A conversation was shown in which an Ecuadorian member of the team stood clearly against an American colleague’s expectations that Correa would somehow be different from past presidents in his support for indigenous peoples and his opposition to extraction. Other people don’t necessarily see Correa as strictly against the indigenous Amazonian peoples’ expressions of opposition to extraction but do note that they feel he says a lot without doing anything. For example, some call him “El Habla-Yo-Yo;” in other words, someone who constantly says “I will do x, I will do y” but never does it (Toxic Tour). Others did not speak so much of the Correa administration’s protest suppression but did say he betrayed the Amazon by ending the Yasuní-ITT fund[19] . Interviewee 5 also believed that Correa and other government officials appropriated aspects of indigenous cultures—i.e. the use of the Kichwa Sumak Kawsay in the constitution—for political gain without actually doing anything for indigenous communities. He also said, “It’s like, let’s say we have a car and we tell Correa to drive the car. And more people come on to travel in the car and we’re left outside, and they drive on whatever roads they want to in our car” (Interview 5). Though several interviewees stated that they had thought that Correa would be different from past presidents–more supportive of indigenous communities and less in favor of expanded extraction than past presidents (i.e. Interview 5, Interview 7) –all who said this also expressed disappointment or frustration with his policies and actions.

The current president of Ecuador, Lenín Moreno, was Correa’s former vice president and was expected to continue many of Correa’s policies throughout his presidency when he took power in 2017. However, in many ways, Moreno has not met this expectation. This is true in terms of anti-extraction protest control or suppression. When asked how indigenous demonstrations changed after Moreno took office, one interviewee simply said that Moreno has been “less bad, less problematic” (Interview 5). Another said that Moreno hadn’t really had any effect on anti-extraction movements yet, and that maybe over time they would start to see a clearer position towards the anti-extraction protests (Interview 1). Several interviewees felt that things are generally calmer under Moreno, though threats against movement participants do continue. For example, in January 2018 a leader in the Sarayaku community was attacked by an anonymous person who threw stones at her house and verbally threatened her. In April, the Zápara president received death threats (Amnesty). As stated above, one interviewee felt that all presidents are essentially the same: all are pro-extractive and Moreno, like Correa, is no exception (Interview 2). Overall, Moreno does appear to be just as extraction-friendly as past presidents and his administration continues to promote Ecuador’s oil resources (Secretaría de hidrocarburos). In response to lowered oil prices, his administration has advocated expansion of extraction. Further, Interviewee 8 described relationships between Moreno, the US government, and American companies like Chevron. He said, “We know Moreno met with Mike Pence and negotiated an exit from the Chevron case, an exit favorable to the company.” The Ecuadorian organization Center for Economic and Social Rights made the same claims, saying, “Vice President Mike Pence’s visit to Ecuador ‘seeks to align the country to U.S. influence [and] eliminate ‘irritating’ subjects like the Chevron case” (“Ecuador Rights Group Warns”). In this way, we see Moreno working against the indigenous movement’s demands and aiming for a favorable position with the United States and its corporations.

In terms of rhetoric, Moreno has tried to distance himself from his former ally, Correa. In January 2019, he publicly spoke of alleged corruption in oil sales under the Correa administration and said of an investigation into these corruption charges that, “The conclusions are so shameful and scandalous that I have decided to present a denunciation with the full reports…so that all these crimes that may have been committed can be investigated” (“Lenín Moreno pidió investigar los proyectos petroleros”). He made a public statement on April 2, 2019 denouncing “the quantity of unjustly incarcerated people” under Correa (@elcomercio). Like Correa, Moreno does frequently state his support for the indigenous people of the Amazon and throughout Ecuador. For instance, he tweeted on February 12, 2017 (soon before taking office), “Today in the Ecuadorian Amazon I reaffirm my commitment to the future of the indigenous pueblos and nationalities.” As Moreno’s presidency is still relatively young, time will tell how his policies affect social movements in the Amazon[20].

External Environment: Media Representation and Technology

Interviewees expressed mixed opinions on the way national and international newspapers and other news sources depict anti-extraction movements. One interviewee said he felt that the representation was fairly accurate. He said that news comes from local reporters familiar with the situations and local context, and that those stories then essentially get copied on the national and sometimes international levels (Interview 7). Reports are often created after journalists attend press briefings held by local leaders (Confeniae Facebook, Interview 5). These leaders are, in general, part of the anti-extraction movement. However, other interviewees expressed the concern that some media seemed to paint companies and governmental officials in a more favorable light than protestors and local leaders (Interview 2, Interview 8). Some noted that Chevron and other companies use their economic resources to buy publicity and space in press, which gives them an advantage over movement participants (Interview 2). One interviewee said that the type of publication mattered. He felt that foreign magazines or papers with an economic or business focus tended to describe protestors more negatively, or Chevron more positively, than other news sources (Interview 8). This can be seen in language used in articles from sources like Forbes, which typically do not use particularly negative language for the protestors themselves but do express disdain for courts that decide against Chevron, i.e. “Time to Hit Ecuador with Tariffs for its Bad Faith Towards Chevron” (Krauss). News releases from advocacy groups and some left-leaning newspapers tends to paint activists as strong people fighting for their lives, i.e. the National Resources Defense Council’s article, “A Village in Ecuador’s Amazon Fights for Life as Oil Wells Move In,” from April 2019.  No interviewee directly mentioned any impact that the Correa administration’s restrictions on press freedom may have had on the representation of the movement in Ecuadorian media sources.  

Further, a common theme in interviews was the feeling that press, especially foreign press, always focused on individual leaders or protest participants and sought to make heroes out of people. One of the interviewees who complained about this dynamic felt that he had been made into a hero in the legal battle against an oil company and expressed annoyance that journalists chose to focus on him rather than the large collective of indigenous protestors and their allies. He said, “The fight is the affected peoples’ and the documentaries ignore that.” He prefers to be viewed as a part of the large group of people who had been affected by extraction (Interview 2). One interviewee said, “It’s not about making people into figures like Rigoberta Menchú[21], it’s about a pueblo or a family” and that foreigners want to make stories “in a Hollywood way” (Interview 5). The same interviewee did feel like this trend towards individual-focused representation was less common within Ecuador, and that movement leaders like him often explicitly communicated to local NGOs and journalists that they do not want to be the subject of that sort of individualistic reporting (interview 5), which has led to some improvement. However, the interviewee feels that even with this communication, some western journalists continue to report on the actions of individuals, rather than collectives. This type of representation can be seen in the 2008 documentary Crude, perhaps one of the most well-known representations to western audiences of Ecuadorian social movements. The documentary focuses primarily on an American lawyer and an Ecuadorian lawyer and their actions, rather than on entire groups of people.

Another key external factor is the presence of social media and other modern technologies which are used within the movement. Many indigenous organizations (i.e. Confeniae, CONAIE) have Facebook accounts that post at least once each day, and Twitters that post even more frequently. Beyond posts from organized groups, many individuals involved in the movement also use Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, WhatsApp and other social media and messaging applications to share about their anti-extraction actions and views. These tools connect people and make it easier for the messages of movements to spread on the local and global levels, as has been seen in various social movements throughout the world[22]. The particulars of social media use will be discussed more in the Messaging and Framing section. Other technologies used widely within the anti-extraction movement include modern mapping tools, video editing, and cell phones.

The unique location of the new oil blocks further distinguishes the anti-extraction movement of today from the past. Many movement organizations today grapple with the fact that some oil blocks overlap with the territories of uncontacted peoples like the Taromenane. When asked about Confeniae’s position against the incursion of extractive corporations on this territory, interviewee 3 said, “That’s within our agenda, but it’s not a topic that we’ve been able to work on in any detail, because even we don’t know them…so it’s difficult to provide any answer for that demand.” Some Waorani people do have contact with these tribes, as uncontacted groups and the Waorani are closely related. Since uncontacted peoples have not been incorporated into anti-extraction movements, it is unclear how they will affect and be affected by the movement going forward. As of right now, they are often referred to when movement participants discuss cultural loss and damage, but activists are not sure how to turn this rhetoric into action.

Goals and Overall Methods and Actions

Today, the goal of those participating in anti-extraction movements mirrors demands of the past. Many state that they want all extractive corporations to be prohibited from entering indigenous territory. One interviewee made a further claim of hoping Ecuador can become a “post-extractive state” in which the economy no longer depends on extraction at all (Interviewee 5). Some people, especially those working in the north of the Amazon region, stated that they wanted reparations for damage already done and public recognition of the damage by companies involved (Interview 2). Several interviewees described themselves simply as “against mining” (i.e. Interview 4). Many also ask for informed consent and more equitable consultations (“Acción Ecológica and Ecuador: Indigenous Women Protest Lack of ‘Consultation,’”). Mirroring the consultations of the past touched on earlier, Interviewee 1 described a consultation in Mera, Pastaza in which the government only described the potential good that could come from extraction, without mentioning any risks. In this way, anti-extraction movements have remained fairly constant in their goals since the 1980s. Of note is that at Confeniae’s beginning-of-the-year meeting, community leaders, Confeniae directors, and other participants frequently mentioned oil extraction specifically when discussing their objectives for the year. However, in the written plans laid out for the year, in which central plans were listed next to actors involved with the topic and a time frame for addressing the goal, the words “oil” and “extraction” did not appear at all. Main plans included “training about the human rights of the Amazonian nationalities,” and, “elaborating and updating action plans for conservation and environmental protection.” (Confeniae 2019). These themes were then discussed verbally alongside conversations about extraction. Because of this, it appears that some people involved in anti-extraction movements see extraction as something that affects many of the goals that they work towards, though not necessarily as a central target in and of itself.  

It is important to note here that, though many people who live in communities which experience the effects of extraction support anti-extraction movements, not everyone in these communities does. Everyone who I interviewed made it clear that they were against extraction within indigenous territory. I asked four interviewees if they believed that the majority of people from the Ecuadorian Amazon agreed with this anti-extraction position. All said yes, at least in general. Interviewee 3 qualified his answer, by saying that he felt confident that the majority of people in the central-south region were in agreement but that he didn’t feel he could speak for the North. Of the North, he said, “They already live with this reality. So, they need to, often, negotiate with the businesses” (Interviewee 3). Starting around 2012, many people in the Cofán community of Dureno supported seismic exploration by oil companies on their land, as long as they would get a fair share of the profits of oil. Many thought that oil exploration in the area was inevitable. Since any nearby activity could end up drawing the crude oil out from directly under Dureno[23], it would be best if they had direct contact with the companies and could work out a way to profit from it (Cepek 2018 215-217). Therefore, activism for fair profits from extraction, and for safe and healthy extraction methods happens alongside movements against extraction in Dureno. In the past, this led to conflict, physical violence, and mistrust within the community. Cepek writes that initially, the conflict occurred mainly between generations, with younger people supporting oil extraction with fair terms and older people categorically rejecting extraction. However, over time, elders were convinced that if companies weren’t allowed to enter yet, the young people would simply allow it after older community members died, and therefore unfairly receive all profit that came from extraction (Cepek 214-215).  Other interviewees did point out that even in the Central-South, there are some people who support extraction within their territory, though Interviewee 6 felt sure that all those people had a deal with a company (i.e. a payment or a promise that a needed public service would be provided by the company). Interviewee 4 noted the different experiences of the North and Central-South much as Interviewee 3 had. However, in contrast with the image of Dureno outlined above, she felt that as a whole, the indigenous peoples of the North held the same view as those of the Central-South, and that their different experience actually fortified anti-extractivism. “We work with the nationalities of the Amazon region. So, in the North, they’ve worked against petroleum exploitation more than 40 years. They have lived in their own blood and seen the reality that they [extractive companies] have come to divide and to destroy.” It does seem that overall, anti-extractivism throughout the Ecuadorian Amazon region remains strong, though the goals of the movements take on different nuances depending on factors like location, generation, and personal experiences.

In general terms, the tactics used by the movements of today bear many similarities to previous movements. They rely on the use of various forms of media–including traditional news, social media, art installations, and documentaries–to create public campaigns about the situations they confront and about the movement. They also use marches and other large demonstrations, sometimes including disruptive tactics like burning tires to prevent road passage (“Llantas quemadas en vias de Ecuador”). For example, protestors last year (2018) camped outside the presidential palace in Quito in order to protest a law meant to allow local people to benefit from extraction in their land, which they felt did not address the concerns they had about threats posed by extractive companies. (“Indigenous Women Protest Lack of Consultation, Environmental Damage”). Further, people involved in the anti-extraction movement continue to fight legal battles. The most famous example is the ongoing litigation between Chevron and the affected peoples of Sucumbíos. This currently involves multiple cases being brought in several different countries, including Ecuador, the United States, Brazil, and Canada. Litigation is also being used by the Waorani of the Block 22 area in western Pastaza, and by others (“Waoranis presentan acción de protección para frenar licitación del bloque 22 en Pastaza”). More so than in the past, the anti-extraction movement involves building economic alternatives to extraction, particularly through community-based tourism and eco-tourism (Interview 1, Interview 5, Toxic Tour).

Messaging and Framing

Messages spread by movement participants today in many ways mirror those of past movements. Like the framing used in both Sucumbíos and Pastaza, people speak and write in terms of the death of ancient cultures and the extinction of Amazonian biodiversity. Like earlier protestors, leaders of communities and organizations today frequently talk in terms of territory and its historical meaning, beyond simply land (Confeniae meeting 2019). For example, in The Last Guardians, a Kichwa activist states, “We are here. This is our territory. This is our children’s territory.” In conferences between different movement participants, people also frequently discuss the themes of autonomy and self-determination (i.e. Confeniae 2019). The prevalence of these topics shows a connection to non-extraction related indigenous movements of the past which called for recognition of plurinationality and land reform–concepts clearly related to ideas of “territory”–and of the autonomy of indigenous groups. It is significant that these messages continue after plurinationality has been legally recognized in the Ecuadorian constitution.

Today, there appears to be even more appeals to the global importance of the region than before. In other words, not only should extraction be halted for the people and creatures who live in extractive zones, but also because this region of the Amazon provides oxygen for the world and because the continued reliance on fossil fuel will only put more people at risk of being negatively affected by climate change (Interview 4, Interview 5). Some even clearly assert the importance of their fight over similar struggles elsewhere. One interviewee stated that the battle against extraction differs between the Amazon and sierra and wrote that in contrast to the serranos (people of the sierra) who only need to protect their own small pieces of land, “we’re caring for it [the forest] for the world” (Interview 4). I did not see this sort of assertive, comparative statement while reviewing rhetoric of earlier movements. While this type of statement did not come up frequently throughout my research, its existence may be a sign of a necessity for participants to make their own movement stand out in a national and global sea of social movements.  

In public statements and in meetings within the movement, many appeal to what they describe as the dishonest and patronizing nature of the extractive companies. For example, in a meeting at Confeniae, a participant said, “They give us little candies” and “They lie to us” (Confeniae 2019). “Candies” refers to companies giving out or saying they will give out favors to those who cooperate with their plans. The use of this word emphasizes that these favors do not compensate for what many indigenous activists feel is lost when the companies work on their land.  While these quotes come from a meeting between local leaders, accusations of dishonesty and patronization are also repeated for the general public. For instance, Amazon Watch released a document called, “Chevron’s Ten Biggest Lies About Ecuador.”

One of the most striking differences between the movements of today and those of the 1980s-2000s is the decision to abstain from all direct communication with representatives of extractive corporations. As seen in Sawyer and Cepek’s accounts of, respectively, Pastaza and Sucumbíos movements against subsoil resource extraction in the 1990s to 2000s, nationality leaders and representatives of indigenous and ally organizations frequently met directly with representatives from oil corporations at that time. I asked 6 of 8 interviewees if they had had direct communication with any representative of an oil or extractive corporation, and only one said they had in the past, but had not directly interacted with oil representatives in years (Interview 2). This interviewee is a lawyer who had needed to directly talk to representatives of the corporation in the past. All other interviewees had said they do not directly communicate with extractive companies. Interviewee 3 said “The decision is to not have any type of dialogue with the businesses because generally the businesses search for a way to convince the leaders. The simple act of talking to them could lead to something happening.” Other interviewees echoed this sentiment or said simply that dialogue with the companies is “impossible.” (Interview 7).

Direct dialogues with government officials have been rocky, though it is not obsolete as is dialogue with oil officials. Interviewee 5 stated that there was no dialogue between the local government and Confeniae or organizations that partner with Confeniae from about 2007 to 2017, but that they are now in direct communication with governments on various levels. Representatives of the organization have communicated directly with President Moreno, as well as with local and provincial governments. The ten-year period in which the interviewee stated there was no dialogue were the same years Rafael Correa was in office. The interviewee said that it was when Correa left that communications “opened” at all levels of government. Interviewee 7 echoed this, saying, “this current government opened the national dialogue.” Interviewee 6 discussed trying to have dialogue with the government in the past (it was not specified when exactly these attempts were made), but that nothing ever came of it and ties, at some point, broke. Interviewee 8 echoed the idea that nothing ever comes out of direct conversations with Ecuadorian governments and describes this as being the result of the strong ties that exist between the government and extractive companies. He said that he just wanted the government to “not participate in this…not in favor of the company nor in favor of the affected.”

 Interviewee 5 stated that he had won in some ways in the past by working with local and national government and that he thought one potential strategy that could impact success in the future is working more directly with mid-level (i.e. provincial) governments. He said, “It is important to work on the level of, for example, Pastaza because these are the authorities that make public policies. At the international level there’s pressure from the UN, human rights bodies…but that’s not it [what is needed]. In this case, it’s not binding. If the state says, ‘I don’t want to pay attention,’ well then, no… but it was important for us to win on the international level.” No other interviewee specifically mentioned shifting towards increased communication with province-level governments, though this interviewee wanted to incorporate this type of dialogue into the movement.

A substantial change in messaging strategy is the current, extensive use of websites and social media. As briefly discussed earlier, many indigenous organizations (i.e. Confeniae, CONAIE) frequently post on platforms like Facebook and Twitter. Posts include photos taken at conferences, information about demonstrations, and campaigns surrounding critical dates (i.e. anniversaries of court decisions and International Women’s Day). Individual activists post and share posts about threats to their land or community and information about protests, alongside personal posts about their lives. This use of social media allows the movement participants to reach larger audiences and to disseminate information quickly to those who are involved in or following the movement. It also becomes easier for people outside the movement or on its outskirts to quickly contact players within the movements. A simple example is the ease with which I, in Boston, could email or Facebook message possible interviewees in Ecuador. The same would be true for other researchers, foreign or Ecuadorian journalists covering the movements, people living in extractive areas who don’t have close ties within the movements, or, essentially, anybody at all. This opens the possibility for western consumers of Ecuadorian resources, possible donors, or experts in organizing and other relevant skills to hear and be heard by Ecuadorian activists. Many organizations have directors of communication, and a large part of their job is managing social media accounts. Confeniae also has a program called “Lanceros Digitales” or “Digital Spear-Bearers,” which is made of people from multiple different communities who all communicate with press and post on the website to share the latest news from their own communities. The lanceros also collaborate with each other, for example creating and posting a video expressing their shared indigenous identity. Further, messaging apps change the way people communicate and allow for easier and quicker organization of demonstrations or coordination for meetings. For example, Interviewee 4 described organizing a conference for indigenous women and said that she simply uses WhatsApp to communicate with other leaders and directors involved.

Additionally, activists use a variety of creative, visual means of communicating messages about their movement. For example, activists in Sucumbíos collaborated with Quito-based art collective Nina Shunku to create a mural denouncing the actions of Texaco. It now stands in the center of Lago Agrio. Video is a common way to communicate the damages done by extraction and the movements against it. These include short videos shared on social media and websites (such as the Lanceros video described above) and full-length documentaries in both English and Spanish like The Last Guardians (2018). There are also musical projects meant to display the culture of indigenous communities living in extraction areas. For instance, there are young Cofán people currently working on a recording project to share their music and their oral stories, in both A’inguay and Spanish. Mapping technology is also being used. Waorani activists currently fighting the incursion of new gold mining companies recently released a map on social media and websites. The map overlays historical Waorani knowledge of the territory (i.e. animal habitats, sites of historic battles, the locations of medicinal plants, etc.) with current government maps which show oil blocks and current cities (“Mapping Waorani Territory”). This creates a clear visual for outsiders to get an idea of the conflicting views of the territory and its value.

Alliances and Identity

Today, movements against extraction in the Ecuadorian Amazon are more connected with each other and with movements and Social Movement Organizations (SMOs) outside the region than ever before. Local organizations like Confeniae bring together smaller, single ethnicity organizations and individuals, leading to high levels of interaction between different peoples. Movement participants also work frequently with non-indígenas who have a variety of different backgrounds and careers. Several ecologists and biologists, both from the region and from other regions and other countries, play roles on an individual level, helping build eco-tourism initiatives and otherwise working directly with community leaders to protect the plants and animals within their territories.

Eco-tourism is an important product of alliances on the local level. It is seen by many protest participants see as an alternate to oil extraction (Interview 1) and has involved the collaboration of people of different ethnicities and with different knowledge backgrounds. Interviewee 1 expressed hope for eco- and community based-tourism initiatives, saying that as a result of eco-tourism, “there are some crazy biological results, some crazy cultural revitalization.” Interviewee 5 also supported increased community-based tourism, saying that, “It allows us to raise awareness about the importance of the Amazon ecosystem and especially indigenous territories.” While community-based tourism is growing and some scholars have expressed hope that it can help economically empower disenfranchised peoples (Inostroza), it does not yet appear that tourism would bring immediate profits on the same scale as petroleum extraction. Financial data on profits and costs of tourism in the region are not well-studied. A study of ecotourism in part of the Peruvian Amazon found that eco-tourism, when combined with compatible activities like small-scale pig farming, was the second-most profitable use of land next to logging. If ecosystem services and social benefits were to be factored into the measure of profit, the researchers predicted that ecotourism would even exceed logging (Kirkby et al.). While these results are promising, Ecuadorian ecotourism may face a larger challenge due to the fact that crude exports are a much larger part of the Ecuadorian economy than timber exports are in Peru.

On an international level, according to interviewees 4 and 5, relationships with COICA are currently very strong. Interviewee 4 discussed her excitement to organize a meeting between indigenous women from all the Amazonian countries, to be held at the COICA headquarters in Quito. Relationships with western allies, including NGOs, also continue to shape anti-extraction movements. I found mixed experiences in terms of partnerships with western organizations. In 2013, an already strained relationship[24] between Cofán communities and Acción Ecológica ended when Dureno decided to allow BGP to conduct seismic exploration on their land (Cepek 2018 193-194). Cepek writes that though the reasons for the ties breaking may be complex, many Cofán people from the area interpret the relationship’s end as a result of such organizations, “only being interested in them as opponents of the petroleum industry” (194). In this example, we see how it is necessary for indigenous protest participants to adhere to the belief systems of their allies if they wish to continue their partnership. In contrast with the ruptures between western NGOs and indigenous organizations outlined in the literature, few interviewees claimed to have experienced any negative consequences of partnering with western allies. Interviewee 3, for example, said that the organizations with which he had worked on both a national and international level had all held the same firm position against extraction that he had; he did not report any conflicts with these organizations.

The only criticism of allies that came up during interviewees is when Interviewee 5 said that he did experience cases when foreign NGOs, like the foreign press discussed earlier, wanted to make “public figures” out of certain individuals, particularly women. Though I didn’t see any evidence of concrete ways that alliances with foreigners may change the actual identities of indigenous movement participants, we can see how the participants feel the need to present certain aspects of their identity in easy-to-understand ways for western audiences. For example, indigenous activists often dress in more traditional clothing when addressing non-indígenas, while they may wear jeans and other western clothing in daily life. Interviewee 5 said that in response to this directing of identity representation, particularly the individualistic representation, he “reminds them [the organizations] to be very careful with that.” He went on to say that because of the clear reminders and communication from indigenous movement participants, no NGO has been able to “break the organic parts” of local organizations. This implies that though there is a struggle between the ways indigenous activists and their western allies want to depict the anti-extraction movement, this interviewee feels foreign actors were not able to change any essential piece of the identities of indigenous organizations.

Further, Interviewee 5’s comment about choosing female leaders as “heroes” is interesting. It may point to how organizations from the western world want to focus on certain identities that will appeal more to progressive western audiences. My interviews did not focus specifically on gender representation in the movement, and it is difficult to say to what extent different genders are represented and how exactly roles differ based on gender. However, it is clear that women have a unique, identity-based, and significant position within the movement. Groups like Mujeres Amazónicas—”Amazonian Women”—are comprised of women and focus centrally on the role of women in indigenous protest. Women take on roles as leaders in many communities, nations, and organizations, for instance in the leadership of Sarayaku or as directors in Confeniae. In her account of the movement in the 1990s, Sawyer shows that in the past, discussions between oil companies, governments, and indigenous representatives were male-dominated. Though it is difficult to judge the degree to which this is true today, I have seen indigenous women participating in meetings led by Confeniae and UDAPT, contrasting Sawyer’s description in which she was typically the only women at a table (119). Combined with the leadership roles held by women and women-centered SMOs, it does seem that the women are legitimately important forces within the movement. Becker wrote, “recognizing the central role of women as not exceptional but rather characteristic of Indigenous movements is key to understanding the development of popular movements in Ecuador” (8). Maybe today, these women who have always been driving anti-extraction and other indigenous movements are simply taking a more center-stage, visible role than they were able to in the past.

But, as interviewee 5 pointed out, some allied organizations and media sources intentionally center the images of women to the point of unreasonably exalting women activists. The 2018 documentary “The Last Guardians” has a section which focuses specifically on the women involved in organizing marches and otherwise leading the movement, featuring statements such as, “Us women have stepped up and taken the lead” alongside references to children’s futures. Additionally, while interning with UDAPT, I was told my interviews for a video I created for the organization would be best if I focused on women, especially mothers. This shows the desire to represent the movement as being led by women, and particularly to appeal to the idea of a protective, nurturing woman standing up for her children’s future. Though the role of women is genuinely important in this movement, it is difficult to separate how much of the depiction of women is an accurate representation of a movement and how much is attempting to appeal to an audience with either feminist beliefs or a general desire to protect women and children. Interviewee 5 concluded that, “The role of women is important, but it can’t be exploited.”

One form of alliances that I saw more in the modern movement than in the past is celebrity allies. When looking at the anti-extraction movement of the past, I did not find examples of any celebrities known outside of Ecuador involved. Today, global celebrities who have spoken or shared content about indigenous anti-extraction movements in the Ecuadorian Amazon include Leonardo DiCaprio, Roger Waters of Pink Floyd, actors Brad Pitt and Danny Glover, Sting, and Trudie Styler. Their involvement has increased international awareness of anti-extractivism in Ecuador and has gained funds for water filters in polluted areas and other public service installations.

One difficulty throughout the process of attempting to evaluate the costs and benefits of alliances formed in this movement is the simple fact that people may want to protect or speak well of their allies. Even if relations aren’t perfect, people may want to continue the relationships with allies and may choose to focus on the positive aspects of their partners in interviews. Interviewee 8 also noted that foreign NGO allies (i.e. Amazon Watch and Greenpeace) have faced threats from people representing oil companies. For this reason, it may be difficult for some interviewees to discuss their relationships with allies in detail. With that said, the information I was able to get about allies shows that alliances with SMOs help indigenous organizations mobilize and spread their messages, though at times the allies may misrepresent certain aspects of the movement (i.e. exalting the role of women).

Outcomes and Further Analysis

The movement of today has, at this point, only met some of its goals, as stated by the participants—the goals being end of extraction, payment of reparations, and transparency from extractive companies and in government-led consultations. A few of these goals, i.e. Ecuador developing a “post-extractive economy” are unlikely to be met anytime soon due to the nation’s high dependence on crude export revenues.

There have been some successes, mostly partial successes. For example, a 2011 Ecuadorian court ruling, which was then upheld in 2018, said that Chevron owes affected communities $9.5billion in reparations. This case was won by the affected peoples after filing the case in Ecuador in 2003, and a previous legal battle in New York dating back to 1993. However, the Ecuadorian court has not been able to enforce this ruling, the ruling has been declared fraudulent in a New York court, and no money has been paid. Recently, an attempt to try the case in a Canadian court failed (New York Times). Throughout the years of complicated litigation, the affected peoples have won some cases, but have never received any reparations or public acknowledgement of wrongdoing from Texaco or Chevron. Interviewee 8 said, “Winning the trial gave us nothing” and, “We can’t clean the Amazon with the paper on which the sentence is written.” While the movement’s success in winning a court case against such a large company and in gaining public recognition is acknowledged as success by the participants, many agree that these successes alone are “nothing.” There is a sign that this may change in some way. In 2018, a group of Chevron shareholders wrote a letter to the Chevron CEO, criticizing him for Chevron’s handling of the case in Ecuador (“Chevron Shareholders Slam CEO”). This could represent a step towards success for the affected peoples if Chevron does in fact start to handle the case differently as a result.

Some progress has already been more concretely realized in the North. The Cofán of Dureno experienced success when the Ecuadorian government paid for the construction of houses in the central Dureno community. This development is called the Ciudad del Milenio and will have cost the government millions of dollars by the time it is complete, showing a large investment in repaying the people of Dureno for harm done by Petroecuador. Though activists expressed that they will not be satisfied until Chevron fully pays for Texaco’s part of the damage in this area, many are excited that their demands are being met by the government (Cepek 229-230).

In 2012, the Kichwa of Sarayaku succeeded in winning a court case which forced the Ecuadorian state to publicly acknowledge their unconstitutional promotion of Sarayaku land for oil exploitation (Environmental Justice Atlas). In 2013, exploitation was indefinitely delayed within Sarayaku, though an interviewee said, “for now, there’s no exploitation,” (Interview 3) emphasizing that this may not be the permanent result the activists of Sarayaku want. New blocks which overlap with Sarayaku are now up for auction for exploitation. However, when asked if they had experienced failure during their time in the movement, interviewees didn’t label partial successes like these as failures at all. When asked, Interviewee 4 simply said “I haven’t yet had any failures.” Both interviewees 2 and 8, speaking from their experience with the Chevron case, suggested that they thought the international justice system had failed those in the movement, but that within the movement itself, there wasn’t any failure. Generally, my interviews show that movement participants are often unwilling to label their movement as successful or unsuccessful. None of the interviewees have attained their ultimate goals, but all have experienced some form of victory.

Beyond success and failure in relation to people’s initial demands, several of the interviewees mentioned some version of “unity” or “cooperation” as a major success. Interview 2 said, “Really it’s not easy to, for 25 years, maintain the unity of six different indigenous pueblos and peasants and mestizos. That’s a success.” When asked about successes, Interviewee 7 spoke of his time as president of an indigenous organization, saying “I achieved the unification of all the federations.” He said that before his time in the presidency, organizations “began to divide,” so he saw the “reconstruction of unity” as a success.  Interviewee 4 responded, “Here we are, women united. We have demonstrated the unity of women of different nationalities.” While people from different ethnic groups had collaborated with each other throughout Ecuador’s history[25], it is naturally not always easy to remain united as a single movement when that movement is comprised of people with different backgrounds, cultures, and vastly different experiences of extraction. Adding to the potential for division is the fact that historically, conflicts between different groups existed in some areas–i.e. between some Kichwa and Waorani groups in Pastaza (Sawyer 125). Further, as seen throughout Becker’s Indians and Leftists, adopting the broad, collective identity of “indigenous” doesn’t necessarily come naturally to many people. Therefore, the ability to work together under general identities like “indigenous” or “anti-extractivist” is seen as an accomplishment by many activists.

Interviewees also saw the increased public recognition of their fight as a success. For example, interviewee 2 mentioned that he found it amazing that people around the world now know about the Ecuadorian case against Chevron. Since a large component of Ecuadorian indigenous movements over time has been the demand for a recognition of indigenous identities and the country’s plurinationality, it is significant that some interviewees identified that more people throughout Ecuador and the world now know about their people and about the diversity of nations within Ecuador.

Another outcome is participants gaining valuable skills through their work in the movement. Interviewee 5 spoke of the need to be educated at a high level to be taken seriously by the government and oil company representatives. On one hand, this represents the cultural change of a need to turn towards western schooling, possibly giving up time with family or time spent doing traditional jobs to gain an education: a change which may have negative consequences for family relations. On the other hand, gaining this education has the potential to open up opportunities outside of the movement, which could better the social or economic standing of participants.

It appears that in the current movement, as in the past movement, external forces have a large effect on movement outcomes. In particular, the Correa government presented new challenges and costs for movement participants. We also see, perhaps more clearly than in the past, the importance of allies in changing outcomes. The public recognition that interviewees identified as important has been fostered by alliances between different groups on the local level and with international organizations like Amazon Watch. Additionally, changed strategies regarding dialogue engagement may make a difference in outcomes. In comparison with the past, dialogue with companies has decreased and dialogue with governments has been recently renewed. It is difficult to quantify the effects these changes have had and will have on movement outcomes, but these are new, potentially significant developments.       

Appendix Chapter V: Images of Today’s Movement

Figure 2 (above). Waorani protestors stand behind a sign that reads, “Waorani Resistance: Our Forest Is Not for Sale” during a demonstration in Puyo, Pastaza. Source: Comunicación Confeniae Facebook. March 13, 2019.
Figure 3 (above). “La mano sucia de Chevron” or “The dirty hand of Chevron” is a frequently circulated image which shows the crude oil found when one sticks their hand in the ground of an abandoned well near Lago Agrio. The most famous examples of this image are of Rafael Correa’s hand.
Figure 4 (above). A poster for a campaign to leave petroleum underground and advance to a “post extractive period.” It reads “Sacred Basins: Territories of Life.” Organizations partnering in the initiative are listed at the bottom. This image is being shared on social media. Source: Comunicación Confeniae Facebook. April 1, 2019
Figure 5 (above). An indigenous protestor stands in front of a row of police outside the presidential palace in Quito in March 2018 protesting a law meant to increase development in the Amazon region using oil profits. Protestors demanded an end to extraction. Source: “Indigenous Women Protest Lack of Consultation, Environmental Damage”

Chapter VI. Conclusions: Past, Present, and Future

Comparing the Past and Present

In summary, there are many similarities between the anti-extraction movements of today and those of the past. General tactics, including marches and disruptive protests, inter-community conferences, publicity campaigns, and legal action remained similar over the period from 1980 through today. Messaging and framing also remained similar across the years, often emphasizing indigenous sovereignty and indigenous concepts of territory. Messages of environmental preservation have also consistently been present, though with varying force. Alliance-formation remains an important part of the movements and today connections with potential allies may be facilitated by modern technology and forms of communication. Throughout the years, the general economic dependence on oil and pro-extraction stance of the federal government have remained constant.

 There are several major differences between the anti-extraction movement today and that of the past, both in terms of external pressures and opportunities and in terms of choices made by participants in the movement. One important external difference is the national political environment. The national administration changed frequently during the 1980s to early 2000s but remained committed to expanding extraction and promoting neoliberal ideas. In contrast, from 2007 to today, even after Correa’s time in office, the anti-neoliberal rhetoric and other tenets of Correísmo have remained present. Suppression of protests spiked under Correa and has dwindled in the early years of Moreno’s administration. The degree of communication between the movement and governments has fluctuated over the years as the government itself has changed. A stark difference between the past and present is the general commitment to having no dialogue with extractive companies, seen in the Central-South, as opposed to the frequent communication or attempts at communication with these companies in the past. Also significant is the change in technology available to and used by movement participants.

In terms of alliance formation, alliances with individual actors appeared very early in the anti-extraction movement, but larger-scale alliances with organizations, both domestic and foreign, have grown in recent years. Today, many of the local SMOs involved in this movement (i.e. Confeniae and single-nationality indigenous organizations) are well established, while in the 1980s, most were new organizations. Based on interview data, it seems that many activists today feel comfortable openly communicating their needs to allied organizations most of the time, contrasting the miscommunications and conflicts between the local participants and larger organizations in the past reported by authors like Cepek.

In both past and present, successfully causing the removal of an extractive company from a given territory has been very rare. Partial successes–i.e. contracts won in Sarayaku in the 1990s and cases won by UDAPT in the 2000s which were not enforced–are more common than total successes in which the demands of movement participants are met in the long term. My research has identified that success has so far been driven by not just one, but rather a combination of the factors discussed here, principally external factors and alliances. When asked what influenced any successes that they had experienced, several interviewees (discussing both the past and present) pointed to collaboration between different ethnic groups and organizations. Such alliances have contributed to greater awareness of the anti-extraction movement and, particularly as larger organizations came to be involved, more funding and external pressure. Additionally, chapter IV demonstrated how external factors like company contract terms affect movement success, as seen in the Cofán’s success against Texaco. Because framing mechanisms have remained essentially consistent throughout the history of the movement and are related well to the framing other Ecuadorian indigenous movements, it is possible that this continuity has influenced success as well. Today and in the past, concepts used in messaging about a variety of the overarching goals of indigenous organizations is thoroughly incorporated into statements in opposition to extraction. Further research would be needed to fully understand how this continuity in framing has shaped movement outcomes.

Further, I found variations in the movement’s goals in the past and present. Some activists today want an end to extraction, while others want extractive practices to be improved in some way. Others, especially in the northern part of the region, want reparations for past damage by extractive companies. Predicting exactly where these movements will head in the future and how their goals will change was not the focus of my work. However, based on the continuity of framing and in the content of goals throughout the anti-extraction movement and in earlier Ecuadorian indigenous movements, and on conversations with young people involved in the anti-extraction movement, I believe that the goals of removing extraction from indigenous territories will remain consistently strong in the foreseeable future. On the other hand, as extraction does expand or continue, those who grow up beside extraction all their lives will likely modify the views and goals of their parents and grandparents. As seen in some Cofán communities in Sucumbíos, young people in general may become more comfortable with some level of extraction. Instead of fighting against extraction entirely, they may focus their efforts on demanding monetary benefits, more eco-friendly extraction methods, and other modifications to already-existing extraction or to extraction which may begin in the near future.

Outcomes for Participants

As previously stated, many of the costs and benefits associated with becoming involved with anti-extraction movements have remained fairly similar over the years. Interviews and social media sources point to the fact that increased connections with people outside of one’s ethnic group, and the associated feeling of unity, are common outcomes of movement participation. Additionally, movement participants may gain valuable skills in communication and the use of certain technologies, like social media. Movement participants may be driven to gain further education more so than non-participants. This higher education can provide benefits in finding job opportunities or in other areas of life, as well as drawbacks for some individuals who otherwise may not have pursued a western-style education. On the other hand, movement participants are also likely to experience more danger as a result of their participation. The level of danger changes based on political climate and, possibly, based on public awareness of the protestors’ situation, as seen in discrepancies between treatment of protests in the North versus the Central-South.


These results are a basic stepping stone to understanding the current factors affecting anti-extraction movement outcomes in the Ecuadorian Amazon. The outcomes of the movements are hugely important not only for participants but also for anyone living in extraction zones, due to the myriad of social, environmental, health, and other threats of extraction already discussed above. Also, all Ecuadorians may be affected by changes in extraction due to the dependence of the Ecuadorian economy on oil and the government’s use of oil funds for public services. Further, the outcomes of social movements in the Ecuadorian Amazon have impacts beyond the region. If extraction rate is in any way affected by the anti-extraction movements, this could impact how countries like the United States[26] get their oil.  This may become especially important as the Venezuelan economic and political crisis continues, impacting another major source of oil in the region. Further, with the growing connections between movements in different countries, as exemplified by organizations like COICA, the success or failure of anti-extraction movements in one country has the potential to impact these movements elsewhere, not only within the Amazon, but throughout the world. Understanding how these anti-extraction movements function under different regimes and other varying external circumstances can help shed light on movements in other nearby countries which are experiencing change in political climate, or will be in the future, such as Brazil.


My conclusions are limited by the scope of the research I was able to complete and by constraints on the methods I had at my disposal. For example, interview analysis involved only eight 20- to 45-minute interviews, and I was only able to spend a brief time (about ten days) in contact with interviewees and in their cities and communities. Further, due to travel limitations, I interviewed six people involved in movements in the central-south region and only two from the North, meaning the current views of people from Sucumbíos and other northern provinces are less well-covered here than those of the people of the Central-South. Additionally, access to primary sources–including newspaper articles and other media–from Ecuador prior to the 2000s is limited. In order to deal with these constraints, I used various sources (a combination of interviews, news reports, published ethnographies and secondary sources, social media, etc.) in order to corroborate the patterns I observed. However, it is important to keep in mind that any results discussed here should be further investigated in the future using more rigorous and thorough methods. A further constraint is my inability to access sources in any indigenous languages, or any language apart from English and Spanish. Furthermore, I did not have information about funding and other resource mobilization for groups within this movement.

Future Research

In the future, I would be interested in learning more about how people’s views of their own identity may change in response to outside pressures like alliances and representation in the media. My interview questions and overall methods did not provide a good basis to answer this question but researching it further would allow insight into how identities may shift when people become involved in anti-extraction movements. Additionally, how does media portrayal affect the success or failure of a movement? Though I talked to people about how they felt about media representation, the question of the effects on success levels was not clearly addressed by my research. I would expect that negative portrayals of activists (i.e. presentation as “terrorists” and “guerillas”) would make it harder for participants to gain public support and therefore harder to get the government’s help, funds, and other benefits that would increase success. This prediction was not explicitly verified in my research and could be investigated further in the future. Also, in regard to media, is it possible for uncontacted peoples have agency in influencing their own representation in media? As many indigenous organizations become more and more skilled in social media and public relations, is there a way for them to use this knowledge to protect the interests of people with whom they have no direct contact and who are not developing these skills themselves?

I would like to learn more about the historic and current gender representation of the Ecuadorian anti-extraction movement in the Amazon. At a conference I attended in March 2018, in which leaders from various nationalities each gave a speech about their fight against extraction, all main speakers were men. Similarly, most of the presidents of indigenous organizations that I have researched are men. These anecdotal incidents do not say a lot without a deeper understanding of the gender roles in the various cultures represented in this movement. Contrasting the gender composition which I saw, indigenous women are often the central focus of international media coverage (i.e. recent International Women’s Day campaigns, footage from The Last Guardians). Further, Interviewee 4 stated that she had never experienced sexism from her fellow activists. Interviewing more female activists in order to study the discrepancies between what media shows, what women in the movement feel, and what I (from my foreign perspective) see in terms of gender composition in the movement would be interesting and valuable.

Further, future research should address not just the success and failure of the faction of the movement that seeks a complete end to oil extraction, but also the faction which accepts some extraction but demands more transparency from extractive corporations and fairer sharing of profits. As noted earlier, many in Sucumbíos have shifted their attention to these goals rather than outright anti-extractivism. Further, even those who want extractive companies to leave altogether still demand more transparency from companies that are already on their land and from the Ecuadorian government. Though those I interviewed all wanted oil and mining companies to leave indigenous land altogether, all also noted and expressed annoyance or disdain at some degree of deception or lack of information from the companies. In response, it would be valuable to investigate further how movements can change the information which comes from extractive companies and how companies that are in the region may or may not change their behavior in response to social movements. Corporate social responsibility (CSR) is a related, interesting field of study. What effects might CSR efforts of companies extracting in the Ecuadorian Amazon have on the ultimate outcomes of extraction? In the case of the Ecuadorian Amazon, can negative effects of extraction truly be prevented through CSR and to what degree?

Lastly, taking into account the importance of national government which I identified, how will the apparent decrease in suppression under the Moreno administration impact the scope and success of these movements in the future? Will his administration’s policies lead to more protests as seen in studies examining partial liberalization in the past? Would this potential greater participation change the outcomes of the movements? Overall, there is much left to study in the field of indigenous anti-extraction, both inside and outside of the Ecuadorian Amazon. Studying these movements more will help us better understand how people can effectively advocate for themselves in the face of the immense economic and political power of multinational corporations and what happens when they choose to take on this advocacy role.


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[1] Note that the term “mining” includes oil and gas extraction as well as excavating for other subsurface resources.

[2] “Amazon” is used in this paper to refer to the broad-leafed tropical rainforest which covers approximately 1.7 billon acres of land surrounding the Amazon river and its tributaries. This rainforest spans nine South American countries.

[3] Note: Sucumbíos was not yet established as a province at the time Texaco entered. It was declared a province in 1989 (Provincia de Sucumbíos).

[4] The Cofán are an ethnic group with a population of about 2000, spread throughout the Amazon region of Northern Ecuador and Colombia.

[5] This city is officially known as Nueva Loja, but is more commonly referred to as Lago Agrio, meaning “Sour Lake,” named after Sour Lake, Texas, the birthplace of Texaco.

[6] See Literature Review: Definitions for more information on neoliberalism

[7] “Uncontacted peoples” refers to indigenous groups, such as the Taegeri and Taromenone, who have voluntarily decided to isolate themselves from the outside world. Due to historical relationships and territorial proximity, these peoples have contact with some Waorani groups but not with other indigenous and non-indigenous groups of people. For more information, see Cabodevilla et al. 2005

[8] Quehua generally refers to a cultural group and language in Peru, Bolivia, and Chile while Kichwa refers to a related culture in Ecuador or the related cultural group and language in Ecuador and Colombia

[9] More information about Pachamama can be found in Zaffaroni 2011 (https://scholar.google.com/scholar?hl=en&as_sdt=0%2C22&q=la+pachamama&btnG=)

[10] The Waorani (also spelled Hauorani) are an indigenous group of the Ecuadorian Amazon whose traditional territory stretches from modern-day Puyo to the eastern border with Peru, covering large parts of Pastaza and Orellana provinces. https://www.amazonfrontlines.org/chronicles/mapping-waorani/

[11] An uncontacted population

[12] As of February 2019

[13] Estates in which peasants (usually indigenous people) worked for a landowner

[14] An Ecuadorian state-owned oil company

[15] Chapter IV

[16] “compañero”

[17] No details on his death were provided

[18] The supermajors are BP, Chevron, ExxonMobil, Royal Dutch Shell, Total, and Eni

[19] See historical chapter

[20] Note added October 2019: This paper was written before the Moreno administration’s economic measures and subsequent indigenous-led protests in October 2019. These events are vital to understanding Moren’s relationship with indigenous movements.

[21] Indigenous Guatemalan activist and Nobel Peace Prize winner

[22] See Manuel Castells’ “Networks of Outrage and Hope: Social Movements in the Internet Age” for more information.

[23] Oil extraction from one area can often pull up oil from surrounding areas as well. If the company were to extract from an area outside the boundaries of Dureno, but nearby, they would likely be profiting off of Dureno’s oil.

[24] See chapter IV

[25] See Becker “Indians and Leftists” for more information

[26] The United States imports more Ecuadorian crude oil than does any other country