Indigenous Federations, NGOs, and The State: Development and the Politics of Culture in Ecuador's Amazon

Patrick C. Wilson

PhD Thesis 2002

This dissertation studies indigenous federations in Amazonian Ecuador, and the historically changing relationships between them and the Ecuadorian state, national and international non- governmental development organizations (NGOs), and multinational oil companies. Their interaction is partially situated within conflicting understandings of development and its objectives, in which development is understood both in economic and cultural terms. State elites and NGO personnel typically view development in terms of economic modernization, and state policies and NGO projects for Amazonian indigenous communities have included agrarian reform, colonization, and the wider participation of indigenous people in the market economy. Elites and NGOs attempt to impose particular visions of economic and cultural behavior on indigenous people as "backwards" and "underdeveloped", while hoping to transform them into "modern", "productive" national citizens.

Since the 1960s, indigenous leaders have used federations to contest these models of development by negotiating with and/or challenging state and NGO officials, rejecting the perpetuation of culturally-based hierarchies with pseudo\racial undertones which relegate indigenous people to the bottom. Increasingly since the 1980s, and in the context of neoliberal reforms and the rapid growth of NGOs in Ecuador and elsewhere, indigenous leaders, instead of rejecting "development" altogether, have used it as a stake in cultural politics by forging alliances with sustainable development and conservation NGOs. They have proposed alternative visions of development to reconfigure local economics in culturally-sensitive terms, dismantle prevailing "racial" hierarchies, and reconceptualize the Ecuadorian nation as plurinational.

The study of indigenous federations helps broaden our understanding of the relationships between social movements and the state in the context of economic, political, and socio-cultural processes shaping them. Ideologies of development, globally conceived by international development organizations and locally implemented through neoliberal reforms, decentralization, and permissive expansions of NGOs, present a multidimensional stage on which economic and cultural politics are played out. This has further implications for our understandings of "race", ethnicity, and the politics of culture, as development ideologies and practices generate prescriptions for the ethnic and cultural (pseudo-racial) composition of local populations. Development becomes intertwined with issues of cultural politics and national identity, as different actors create and contest conflicting representations of each other.