A Sense of Possibilty...

The development of a people

By Thomas Walsh
January/February 2001

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This expression, “a sense of possibility,” captures the feeling today among the Puruhae people with whom I work. One of 14 ethnic groups belonging to the Confederation of Indigenous Nationalities of Ecuador (CONAIE), the Puruhae people have made their presence felt and are participating fully in their own development. How is it visitors ask, that in the midst of Ecuador’s worst social and financial crisis, Indigenous Ecuadorians can be so hopeful for their future?

This new situation comes after 300 years of brutal Spanish colonial government, followed by 150 years of harsh hacienda rule, a time in which the Indigenous people of the Andes systematically lost their wealth, workforce and much of their culture. From the last advanced civilization unknown to the rest of the world, the Inca Empire became a wasteland for its Indigenous inhabitants.

Throughout this long dark period, the Spaniard sought to impose the faith as part of the European culture, just as some of the Apostles argued that Gentiles must first become Jews and accept the law before they received the faith as Christians. The Indigenous peoples were alienated in the Church, excluded even from seminaries and not allowed to become priests.

By 1950 the Church was the largest landowner in the province of Chimborazo. Moved by the poverty of the people, the new Bishop of Riobamba, Monsignor Leonidas Proaño, returned these lands to the Indigenous communities throughout the 1960s, precipitating Ecuador’s agrarian land reform.

In 1968, a system that kept the Indigenous people permanently in debt to the hacienda owners was made illegal. The Indigenous became free to own land, organize and think about their own development.

A story about Bishop Proaño illustrates just how poor these ‘poorest of the poor’ had really become. At a meeting with a group of Indigenous in 1971, the bishop launched a question for discussion to the assembly. This was followed by absolute silence. Anastasia Gallegos, present at the meeting, described the moment in this way:

“I looked at their faces and I felt them impassive, without time. I could not feel a sense of dialogue from their stare. I looked at my watch again and again as 14 minutes passed and no one spoke. My nerves were about to explode. I approached the bishop and said, ‘Monsignor, my nerves cannot take this, I am leaving.’ He looked at me and simply said, ‘They have been silenced for 500 years and you want them to speak in 10 minutes?’ Then he added, ‘Listen to their silence and learn.’”


After the meeting the bishop said to Anastasia, “You come from the coast where there are torrential rainfalls. In the mountain area there is often only cold and fog, but when the sun comes through, Mount Chimborazo leaves you warm and fascinated with its beauty. Remember that behind the veil of fog of the Indian is a hidden Chimborazo.”

Monsignor Proaño had the spiritual insight to realize that in the depths of suffering endured for centuries by Ecuador’s Indigenous people was God’s light. Therefore, it was essential to listen.

Proaño was not afraid to reach out into this darkness as part of his mission to the Indigenous Puruhae of Chimborazo. In fact for 30 years he left the bishop’s palace in the city to go and live with the Indigenous people in their rural areas. In this option for the poor, Proaño discovered that in the midst of their suffering, the Indigenous feel loved by God and this is a force that sustains them. Contemplative by nature, they spend long hours alone, tending their animals or working their fields with the imposing elements of a mountain environment. They see in the earth, in the sun, in the rain, in the air, in the wind, the evident manifestation of God’s love.

For the past 30 years the task has been “to return the voice to those without it.” This process became a time of silent listening, and, little by little, a way was discovered and participation increased. Community associations joined together in provincial federations that in turn joined into national federations. The national federations of Ecuador’s 14 Indigenous peoples became the Confederation of Indigenous Nationalities of Ecuador (CONAIE) in 1988.

In 1996 a political movement called New Beginnings was created and together with its allies won 20% of the national vote in the elections of that year. In subsequent elections their representatives have won more than 20 municipal elections and four provincial elections. Today the Indigenous person speaks, has a face and has presence.

Essential components of development


In this story it becomes clear that a development process must include listening, participation and organization, supported by solidarity and a thirst for justice. The grace of God is always present.

Since 1997 the Canadian government’s International Development Agency (CIDA) and Scarboro Missions have been financially supporting the El Condor Project which benefits the Puruhae people of Mount Chimborazo.

In the planning of the Chimborazo Condor project, I repeatedly heard the community members speak of their leadership role saying, “For the first time we are leading the process while the technical people are here to support us. This time we do the planning. This is self-management. Development is more important than simply receiving things.” The paternalistic forms of aid whereby the development workers know what is good for them (the poor) lose favour when a people have their own development project.

While improving the lives of 93 families, the project has led to a movement directed by 10 communities working together as co-managers of the park area they inhabit.

In 1988, the 60,000 hectares belonging to the Puruhae people living on the upper slopes of 22,000-foot Mount Chimborazo, was declared a Plant and Wildlife Park. However, as hillside farmers moved up the mountain and overgrazed the slopes, severe erosion threatened the delicate environment. With park authorities threatening to expropriate their land, 10 Puruhae communities organized themselves into a Federation and over several years came up with their own development plan to be the park’s co-managers. With plan in hand they have been able to convince government ministries and private institutions to support their projects.

Young people in the Federation have been trained to maintain the database that was started with the planning work. Today it is they, the Puruhae, who are able to provide the best information, whether social or environmental, concerning the region. Administering this knowledge has expanded their development role allowing them to participate more fully in decisions affecting their future.

As recently as four years ago the communities had low levels of production and were barely subsisting. With no educational and health facilities available in the area, no electricity nor access roads, the people felt abandoned and had begun to sell their land to outside interests.

However, through the planning process a strategy was adopted to strengthen the community associations. This would involve projects aimed at increasing levels of production and income in harmony with the ecology of the area, and practicing conservation to recover damaged areas. Quality of life was to be improved through actions that guaranteed harmony with the community, with the culture and with the environment.

Sheep farming was improved and women organized into weavers’ co-operatives to mechanize their production. Realizing that alpacas, once indigenous to the area, were more environmentally friendly and profitable than sheep, led to a project to re-introduce alpacas to the region.

A community building in the shape of a condor was built with communal labour and now houses the school, the health clinic, a co-operative store and a place for tourists to spend the night. Community banking has begun. Mountain springs have been tapped to provide drinking water and to irrigate lands for growing crops year round.

Twenty young people prepared themselves for a year as professional guides and have been licensed by local authorities to lead tourists on climbing and trekking expeditions. They have called themselves “Waman Way” (Guardians of the Mountain). With the help of the Condor project they have an outfitters cabin, have been equipped and have equipment to rent to tourists.

The community eco-tourism offered by the Indigenous people has been well received with the area fast becoming a destination for tourists. Conscious that this new industry has its negative side, the project has stressed cultural affirmation and identity in the preparation of the guides and in its work with the community.

Devotion to Jesus, Lord of Justice, is the most popular religious expression in Riobamba, Ecuador. The Indigenous of Riobamba, in the Province of Chimborazo, look for a God that identifies with them; a compassionate God, a God they do not fear; a God not reflected in the power inherent in the domination of the white person; a God of Justice.

Extensive training on environmental and conservation issues has resulted in the creation of Conservation Corps in each of the participating Puruhae communities. They will focus on the recovery and conservation of Mount Chimborazo’s vegetation, and will impart this knowledge through the school curriculum.

After centuries of being excluded, the third millennium presents a ‘sense of possibility’ whereby the Puruhae Indigenous of Chimborazo can be the principal actors in their own development. More equitable processes are possible bearing in mind that within countries like Ecuador there are valid alternative models on how to create society. Supporting these ‘distinct societies’ with their inherent diversities will strengthen democracy in a country like Ecuador. The challenge for all is to make ‘a sense of possibility’ a reality. International solidarity can be supportive of this challenge.

Tom Walsh works with the Puruhae Indigenous people in the Province of Chimborazo, Ecuador, implementing community development projects funded by the Canadian government’s International Development Agency (CIDA) in association with Scarboro Missions. Tom is married to Scarboro lay missioner Julia Duarte.

See the El Condor project website: www.interconnection.org/condor/english_/informat/ecua_est.html

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