Ecuador endured 2 very different eruptions on the same day this past month. The first was geologic and the second was societal. And both left scars.
On August 14th the world learned that Cotopaxi, 30 miles south of Quito, had erupted once again. One of the tallest, most picturesque, and one of the most dangerous volcanoes in the world, it is readily visible from here in the capital on clear days. After months of ground swells along the flanks and mild tremblors from within the crater, the volcano sent an ash cloud skyward that inflamed our eyes.
Cotopaxi is an important spiritual center for many people in Ecuador. The Quechua, who inhabit the Andes not only in Ecuador but also the other countries making up the spine of South America, regard the mountain as the “Sender of Rain.” Until it became a national park with attendant admission fees, the volcano was the site of regular pilgrimages. Now, though not visited by large numbers of Quechua as before, it is still regarded as sacred. So when it did erupt, they were listening.
But the volcano was not the only disturbance in the country that day. Here in Quito indigenous people met barricades and tear gas. This second eruption though did not register on the Richter Scale, nor did it capture the attention of many beyond Ecuador’s borders. Yet this eruption was felt around the country and even as it is repressed here in Quito it continues in other towns and cities in all parts of Ecuador.
Both of these tectonic disturbances, Cotopaxi and the people’s riots, elicited immediate and far-reaching actions from Rafael Correa, the President of Ecuador. And he has used Cotopaxi as a reason to declare a state of emergency with a clampdown on the media “to discourage false rumors.”
One month earlier, during mid-July and in the southern province of Zamora Chinchipe, a small but swelling group of indigenous collectives began their long march north. Their plans were to join other indigenous groups from south and central Ecuador and meet in Cuenca, long a center of anti-Correa sentiment. Their ultimate goal was to reach Quito on August 13th and present the government with ultimatums from his voting base.
The president’s rise to power and his subsequent re-election were both due to a large extent from strong backing by the indigenous segment of the population. Historically, once he entered politics he had capitalized on the country’s endemic marginalization of the indigenous way of life. While more than 70% of the country’s population is of mestizo heritage, the old ways had always been seen as 2nd class and therefore unfit for the modern world.
Correa defied this old-guard attitude and argued successfully for the inclusion of traditional beliefs and even changed the constitution to reflect a new reverence for nature and those who are guided by it. His courts allowed Pachamama (mother earth) to bring suit against environmental violators and he gained a great deal of world-wide approval for such enlightened regard for this view of the country and by extension, the planet. Sadly, this enlightenment was not to last.
Declaring that it was foolish for a pauper to be sitting on a bag of gold, Correa, in his second term in office, began instituting changes in policy that are now viewed as inimical to Pachamama. The biggest of these changes involved treaties he has made for extractive rights given to the Chinese. New mineral rights contracts allowing for gold and other precious metals mining on indigenous lands now threaten the existence of the lives and lifestyles of the very people who elected him. They are not happy.
The above video was recorded by John Caselli, the director of SAEX/Quito. John’s an ex-Marine who served (combat) in Viet Nam and never ran from a fight. Thanks for the permission to use it, John.
But since the Cotopaxi eruption allowed Correa to declare a national emergency with the subsequent media clampdown (already one of the most repressive in South America), Pachamama has worked in his favor. At this point he is safely in office and his party holds an overwhelming majority in congress. It is widely believed that this formula will allow a change in the constitution, removing term limits and setting up a move to see him re-elected as often as he likes. The vote on revising term limits comes up early in 2016.
In 2 days I fly to the Galapagos Islands, where I’ll be schmoozing with the sealions, the tortoises, the iguanas, and laughing at the blue-footed boobies. I’ll be there for 15 days, arranging day-trips out from the capital, Puerto Ayora. After that I return to Quito, pack my bags and say good-bye to Ecuador by flying to Lima, Perú, my new home. I picked a fine time for leaving, Lucille.