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Exploring Ecuadorian Popular Social Movements & Intersections of Nonviolent Tactics

This paper was submitted as independent research as a Master of Arts Candidate International Peace and Conflict Resolution at American University’s School of International Service.


            This research explores how the tactics of nonviolence are used differently depending on their origin within a singular campaign or social movement in Ecuador.  In doing so, this writing analyzes the origin and reasoning behind the employment of nonviolent action as a rational choice methodology and as a strategy for long-term systemic change. The Ecuadorian case study provides an outlet to survey diverse social movements, such as CONAIE, Itchimbia, and Yasunidos, which are committed to a popular long-term nonviolent struggle, alongside various historical and contemporary campaigns that use nonviolence as an effective instrument to affect targeted goals. To support the goal of this research, this paper identifies the distinction between social movements and campaigns and how that influences the use of nonviolent action as a grand strategy, rational choice or cultural norm.


Social movements in Ecuador are historically rooted in shifting the status quo through impacting governmental regimes, policies, social norms, and environmental and indigenous rights. Despite the frequency and intensity of popular mobilization, the Ecuadorian case is considered to be by and large nonviolent.  This research surveys the strategies and tactics of three major social movements, CONAIE, Yasunidos, and Itchimbia, as well as campaigns of the 1990s, 2000s, and today. This research seeks to explore nonviolence as a grand strategy or a cultural legacy. This paper analyzes the difference between long-term social movements and short-term campaigns, and how nonviolent action is implemented differently in Ecuador along this divide.

The employment of nonviolent action in Ecuador varies between different types of popular mobilization. A historical analysis of popular struggle in Ecuador points to a trend of nonviolence as a rational method, given its ongoing success to affect social change throughout the years. That being said, however, there is a difference in how social movements and campaigns have used nonviolence as a direct action in their activism. For the purposes of this paper, a social movement can be understood as a group of actors committed to a long-term struggle. Social movements are organized around a common narrative and strategize accordingly. Alternatively, campaigns are a series of actions used as instruments for recognition, legitimacy, and exposure of injustice or suffering. While social movements seek to impact a paradigm shift, including behavioral, cultural, social, economic, and/or political changes, campaigns are organized to target a specific goal, ranging from impact on a social policy, election, or change in power. The classification between the two provides an outlet to analyze how nonviolent action is understood in the Ecuadorian context – as a strategic choice or as a rational method in an active cultural legacy.

Nonviolence is often critiqued as a form of passive submission or as a way of life for dedicated pacifists. It is important to recognize, however, that nonviolent action is a method employed by ordinary people around the world. There is a popular assumption that there are two ways to endure through injustice: obey or fight back. Struggle by means of nonviolent action, conversely, is a viable alternative and effective technique in conflict (Sharp 2014, xv). Nonviolence does not simply entail the lack of violence, but rather a collaborative and strategic means of direct action intended to make a statement to fight against injustice.

This analysis defines nonviolence within the motivation framework, which means that violence can be defined as any action that is taken with a negative intention to harm the targeted party or property. Thus, nonviolence is not the absence of violence. Nonviolent action is a direct action taken without the intention to do harm. There is a large spectrum of nonviolent action which includes diverse methods that can fight against varying types of violence – physical, structural, or cultural. Nonviolent action attracts participation more so than armed struggle. This is because the barriers to engaging in violent action, such as cognitive, physical, and commitment risks, are eliminated when participating in nonviolent action. These tactics used in Ecuadorian campaigns and movements have outstanding amounts of participation, support, and solidarity.

The primary goal of this research is to explore the origin of nonviolent action as it exists in Ecuadorian movements and campaigns. There is a core difference in the origin of nonviolent action depending on whether it exists within a movement or as a singular campaign. Nonviolent social movements are distinguished by their strategic action plans. Nonviolence as a strategy means that actors have carefully assessed a conflict and designed a series of actions and commitments to target a paradigm shift. As this paper will describe, social movements such as CONAIE, Itchimbia, and Yasunidos creatively designed action plans for a long-term struggle with the intention of building a cultural shift. As Gene Sharp explains, “The strategic plan will sketch how the struggle will begin, determine what kinds of pressures and methods are to be applied to gain the objectives, and the direct action to achieve possible intermediate objectives as the struggle gains strength” (Sharp 2013, 71).

However, many other cases of nonviolent action exist in Ecuador that are not associated with a specific social movement. These cases are referred to as campaigns and have a different origin in their reasoning to use nonviolence. This paper analyzes the utilization of nonviolent action in campaigns as a cultural legacy in the Ecuadorian context. As this research will assess, nonviolence in the form of mobilization, protests, and petitions has been historically successful in reaching political, social, and cultural goals in Ecuador and the Latin American region. From this perspective, actors choosing to engage in nonviolent struggle are making a rational choice by using a method that has had high rates of achievement in their country’s history. The rational choice method demonstrates that actors have assessed the practicality of nonviolent action and decided to use the method based on its effectiveness (Thoreson 2009, 381).  

To provide a roadmap of this paper, the analysis will first explore nonviolence in social movements in order to orient the reader to theories behind the methodology. Further, an assessment of the Latin American social movements provides a contextual analysis to situate the Ecuadorian case study in the regional dynamics. Next, this paper surveys three social movements and analyzes the origin and reason behind their use of nonviolent action. Lastly, a comparative analysis of historic and current Ecuadorian campaigns informs the reader about the utilization of nonviolent action as a rational method.

Nonviolent Methods in Social Movements

Nonviolence is both a philosophy and a method of action. To influential leaders such as Martin Luther King Jr and Ghandi, nonviolence was used not only as a strategic means to reach their goals, but also a philosophy of life. The spectrum of nonviolence is complex and it is critical to acknowledge that not one form of nonviolence is superior or more legitimate than another. Although many critiques argue that nonviolence is a passive or ineffective means to influence change, nonviolent action is in fact a powerful and active force. In fact, nonviolent movements are twice as likely to be successful than violent struggles. Statistically 54% of nonviolent movements succeed, while one only 26% of armed struggles succeed (Chenoweth and Stephan 2012). The reason for each movement’s success depends on the context, but one primary advantage of nonviolent action is its ability to attract participation on a grand scale. Nonviolence has a participatory advantage, which means that the barriers for entry into mobilization are low on the basis of diverse demographics, practicality, and low levels of risk, given that there are minimal levels of danger within nonviolent campaigns. In their research, Erica Chenoweth and Erica Stephan found that on average, a nonviolent campaign has 150,000 more participants that the average violent campaign (average violent campaign has 50,000 members, while nonviolent has 200,000 members (2012, 32). Chenoweth and Stephan analyzed the largest 25 campaigns (both violent and nonviolent) and found that the majority lasted one year or less, but 5 out of the 25 lasted for five years or more (2012, 1981).

Defining Nonviolence

 It is important to acknowledge that nonviolence is not an easier or simpler tactic to employ; rather, nonviolence is quite complex, as it involves intensive organizing and high levels of emotional, mental, and physical commitment. Further, nonviolence can be used towards diverse goals. While some activists could have a personal connection to the philosophy of nonviolence in every component of their lives, nonviolence could also be perceived as the tool that would provide the greatest reward in a given context. Nonviolence can be recognized as civil resistance, nonviolent struggle, or people power, but ultimately each individual actor defines their own true meaning of nonviolence. Using nonviolent action is a means for marginalized voices to regain power: “nonviolent action is a technique used to control, combat, and destroy the opponents’ power by nonviolent means of wielding power” (Sharp 2013, xv).

While refraining from violent means can often legitimize an individual’s or group’s efforts, acts of violence do not automatically disqualify a movement from being nonviolent. It is important to consider that there may be moments of weakness or outliers or bandwagon participants who are not at the core of nonviolent action, but their violent participation may disrupt the organized methods. However, Mark Becker, an expert on Ecuadorian social movements, argues that although a movement is unarmed does not automatically qualify that movement as nonviolent (2003, 7). Further, Becker argues that the active and conscious choice to use nonviolent tactics is more important than putting down arms. Nonviolence implies a level of understanding and commitment to the type of action that is being taken.  Acting without violence can be analyzed in terms of Joan Galtung’s positive and negative peace framework (Galtung 1969). For example, if a movement refrains from using violence by circumstance they could be a contribution to negative peace. In this case, there are no acts of violence, but there is a level of passivity, which detracts from building towards something greater. If nonviolent action is strategically organized, however, it can be considered in the realm of positive peace because it is contributing to a more peaceful or more just state.

Conventional and Nonconventional Tactics

Tactics of nonviolence can be broadly organized into two categories: conventional or nonconventional. Conventional tactics work within formal institutions and legal bodies and, in doing so, nonviolent actors are using the system in order to change the system. Conventional methods include voting, referendums, cross-sector dialogue, or formal negotiations. Unconventional tactics, on the other hand, intentionally work outside of institutions in hopes of challenging the existing structures. Unconventional tactics could range from public assemblies, marches, and demonstrations to boycotts or invasions (Gurr 2010, 156). Unconventional methods are more likely to signal a group’s capacity for disruption and demonstrate the popularity of the struggle by its show in numbers. Neither conventional nor unconventional methods are superior, rather, each type can be used rationally depending on the context. For example, if a marginalized group is excluded from the political system, it would not be a rational choice to engage in conventional methods (Gurr 2010, 157).

Tactics of Nonviolence: Protest, Noncooperation, and Nonviolent Intervention

Tactics of nonviolence can further be organized into three groupings: protest/persuasion, noncooperation, and nonviolent intervention (Sharp 1973). Protests or acts of persuasions are public demonstrations that are symbolic and a tool of influence. Campaigns are most likely to use acts of persuasion as their primary tactics. Noncooperation, also known as acts of omission, refers to a nonviolent action that stops doing something the group would usually do. The refusal to do something economic, political, or social creates a void in society and disrupts regular patterns of interaction. Examples of noncooperation include strikes, boycotts, or the refusal to sell produce at a market. Acts of intervention, or acts of commission, occur when a group starts doing something they did not used to do. In doing so, nonviolent actors are creating an alternative to combat against injustice. Examples of nonviolent intervention strategies could include a new institution to increase legitimacy and transparency of leaders, or a new school to provide higher quality education.

Nonviolence as an Active Choice

 While nonviolent action can happen by chance, it is often understood as an active choiceto oppose violence, despite repressive acts by other actors. Actors in social movements are inherently rational in the way that they act in their best interest and choose their strategies, methods, and tactics accordingly. Charles Tilly’s rational-actor model supports the idea that “when organization, resources, and opportunity become available, people will mobilize for collective action, including through rebellion, if they calculate it is in their best interest to do so” (Tilly 1978). This rational-actor model points to the idea that nonviolence can be used as a logical strategy rather than as a set of deeply held beliefs. As the rational-actor model suggests, certain methods and tactics will be more practical in different scenarios given the context.

Social movements are experts in their ability to assess a conflict and design a strategy that is most likely to induce a positive change or paradigm shift against injustice. Ecuador and the Latin American region have an active culture of social movements that use nonviolent or violent mobilization for social change. A survey of mobilization in Latin America will situate the Ecuadorian case study within the regional dynamics.

Survey of Latin American Mobilization

Latin America has a rich history of social mobilization, activism, and resistance. These movements and the actors that compose them are complex with unique struggles, strategies, and goals. Throughout Latin American history social movements have been identified by many terms, such as armed struggle, civil resistance, peace movement, revolution, and many more. Whether considered as activists or rebels, each participant mobilizes for change in the political, social, economic, or cultural realm. Historically movements have used both violent and nonviolent methods of mobilization depending on the context. Nonviolent action is rooted in many Latin American social movements, however “few political activists in LA would consider themselves to be pacifist. In part this is due to a lack of the development of a political culture that has valued nonviolent strategies, and in part because icons of nonviolence such as MLK have been imported as symbols of struggles for social justice rather than as examples of viable strategies” (Becker 2003, 88). Waves of Latin American mobilization can be categorized into three primary time periods: independence, democratization, and neoliberalism.

It is important to acknowledge the spectrum of nonviolent tactics that exists within Latin American trends in order to comprehend the diversity and distinctiveness of each movement. For example, some movements such as the Rural Landless Workers’ Movement (MST) in Brazil used tactics such as large-scale land occupations across the state to fight for access to land (Wolford 2010). Other movements in Colombia and Peru have mobilized for peace and stability during conflict-ridden times. For example, communities in Colombia have used zones of peace (ZoP) throughout the civil war as a means of protection, empowerment, and resilience against violence (Rojas 2007). Similarly, the Rondas Campesinas of Peru nonviolently mobilized against the Sendero Luminoso and today continue to battle against structural violence and living conditions of campesinos (peasant farmer) (Langdon and Rodriguez 2007). La Coordinara in El Salvador is active in the post-conflict setting and mobilizes through a Culture of Peace Program (CPP) to educate, create, and share grassroots methods of peace and conflict resolution (Hancock 2007).

These examples of mobilization demonstrate a small portion of Latin America’s nonviolent activism and resistance. Two other cases, the Bolivarian Revolution in Venezuela and the Water and Gas Wars in Bolivia also provide a glimpse into Latin American historical trends. Venezuela’s Bolivarian Revolution is composed of barrio (urban neighborhood) residents and campesinos who are speaking out against imperialist forces, negligent regimes, and neoliberal policies that denied their active participation in politics and, in turn, are calling for a participatory democracy. Participants of the revolution, known as Chavistas after former Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez, mobilize through participatory democracy, street demonstrations, economic cooperatives, and through the provision of health care and education (Ramirez 2005).

Bolivian mobilization uses multiple platforms of conventional and unconventional platforms to fight for their social, cultural, and indigenous rights. By conventional this means working in coordination with institutions, such as political dialogues or constitution building, and by unconventional this means working outside of institutions, through protests or boycotts. With support from, but still independent from the state, Bolivians, particularly of indigenous descent, have mobilized to make their claims public. The social movement has occupied, marched, and protested, both strategically and symbolically utilizing public space. The crucial strategy of resistance has been the role of culture and indigeneity as means to merge collective identity and constitute a wider definition of social rights. The most influential campaigns revolved around the nationalization of natural resources with the Water Wars of 1999 and the Gas Wars of 2003, which successfully rejected the privatization of the industries, removed the corporations from the state, and placed the resources in the hands of the state. The protests, strikes, and roadblocks did experience infrequent clashes with the police, which resulted in violence, but the movements were primarily nonviolent (Global Nonviolent Action Database 2015).

Ecuador’s Mobilization in the Latin American Context

Ecuador’s breadth of activism and resistance is comparable with the Latin American context. Social groups have a history of mobilizing against both the government and the private sector in the name of human rights and justice. Despite the frequency of mobilization, the levels of violence in Ecuador remain very low and social movements in Ecuador rarely escalate to use violent tactics. Ecuador’s history of social movements can be categorized into three periods: the wave of democratization, anti-neoliberalism, and the Correa administration. This section will discuss historical stages of mobilization, which demonstrate a cultural legacy to employ nonviolent action for social change in Ecuador.

Ecuadorian Mobilization in a Historical Perspective

The Glorious May Revolution of 1944 marks the uprising and transition from dictatorship into democracy in Ecuador. The uprising was initially led by protesters and armed forces, but quickly supported by diverse sectors, such as women, intellectuals, Catholics, and campesinos, who organized in the streets for massive demonstrations. Student groups organized as civil urban guardians and patrolled the streets during the mobilization. There were minor injuries and casualties, but Ecuadorians successfully overthrew Dictator Carlos Arroyo and democracy was established with Velaso Ibarra as president (Becker 2003, Global Nonviolent Action Database 2015).

Ecuador experienced a stable democracy from 1979 to 1996 but this time period was very active in mobilization after the 1982 debt crisis and the rise of neoliberalism in 1984 (Thoresen 2009).  This time period of the 1980s and 1990s marked the second wave of mobilization as social movements rose in opposition to unpopular politicians and policies. Between 1990 and 2001 indigenous movements coordinated six major uprisings (2009). The democratic revolution of the late 1990s in Latin America carried through Ecuador as the state mobilized to overthrow three presidents: Abdala Bucaram (1997), Mahuad (2000), and Lucio Gutierrez (2005). This period was defined by Ecuador’s rejection of neoliberal policies, which deepened social inequalities, structural violence, and further marginalized communities.

A Survey of 20th Century Ecuadorian Campaigns

To review, campaigns are a series of actions used as instruments for recognition, legitimacy, and exposure of injustice or suffering. Campaigns can occur as independent acts, or a series of campaigns can build a social movement. While this analysis focuses on nonviolent action, the tactics used in the following campaigns occur along the spectrum of violent and nonviolent action. The case studies below review the removal of three Ecuadorian presidents in 1997, 2000, and 2005. These three examples demonstrate how Ecuadorians aren’t shy to mobilize to achieve a purpose. In these cases there are isolated incidents of violence, but that does not undermine or discount the nonviolent origins within these campaigns. These examples do not reveal an intention to do harm in their mobilization, rather they use protests as a vehicle to bring awareness to their demands: to remove a president from office and to change government policies.

The first case involves the removal of President Abdala Burcaram in 1997. A national strike led by CONAIE, the United Labor Front, and the Co-ordination of Social Movements included participation of an estimated 15% of the population (Thoresen 2009). The demonstration was not violent and, in response to the rising protests, the military also called for a civil solution to end the conflict. The Ecuadorian Congress ruled that President Bucaram was “mentally unfit to govern” and terminated his mandate (Thoresen 2009, 367). The campaign is considered a success as the mission of ousting President Abdala was completed and without violent incidents.

The ousting of right-wing President Jamil Mahauad in 2000 is not considered a nonviolent campaign, but it was a pivotal moment in Ecuador’s history that could have had an outbreak of violence, but violence incidents were minimal. A banking crisis in 1999 and the transition of the national currency to the US dollar resulted in widespread disapproval and mobilization against Mahuad in many sectors. One defining element of this mobilization is that the middle class was a primary participating group. One middle class resident explained, “and if the indigenous people can, we (the urban middle class) can do it too” (Thoresen 2009, 378).CONAIE and other indigenous organizations called for a national uprising for the President to resign and to close the Congress and Supreme Court. In response, the Mahuad regime declared a state of emergency and ordered 100,000 police and military to monitor the highways in route to Quito (Throresen 2009). The military initially used tear gas on thousands of protesters, but shortly after the landscape of the uprising changed when hundreds of junior officers rejected the President’s ruling and sided with civil society. When the President’s office was taken over, a Parliament of the People was declared with leadership from Colonel Luico Gutierrez, CONAIE President Antonio Vargas, and Former Supreme Court President Carlos Solorzano. This temporary “Junta of National Salvation” held power until the military’s General Mendoza negotiated with the Junta to peacefully transfer power as President. Although the ousting of Mahuad is perceived to be a military coup, here it is considered as a campaign because of the mass mobilization of protesters prior to the military’s involvement.

The final presidential removal of this time period occurred in 2005 when Lucio Gutierrez was ousted from office for his contributions to neoliberal reforms and poor functioning of the justice and democratic institutions. There were ongoing rebellions by protesters and political parties, but it was a spontaneous protest that shifted the political landscape. President Gutierrez reacted with repressive police tactics, using tear gas and firearms against protesters. Yet again, the armed forces rejected their support for the president, which significantly impacted the high risk for violent outbreak. The political transition occurred peacefully when Congress declared that “Gutierrez had abandoned his duties” and removed him from office (Thoresen 2009, 371). Yet again, Ecuadorians were successful in using grassroots mass mobilization to reach their goal of removing a president in hopes of improving government institutions.

The military plays an influential role in the campaigns described here. As seen throughout Latin American history, it is probable that the military would support the President and his decree. In these three campaign examples, however, the military rejected executive power and sided with civil society. The origin of this decision to support civil society could be debated, but the impact of this decision resulted in reduced repression, violence, and conflict escalation. The fact that the military does not have a repressive history in Ecuador could be considered as one reason that the country has low levels of violence.

Ecuador in the Correa Regime

Rafael Correa was elected as President of Ecuador in 2006 and proclaimed a Citizen’s Revolution to prioritize social justice, stability, and alleviate inequality. Correa joined the leftward turn in South America alongside President Chavez of Venezuela and President Morales of Bolivia by rejecting neoliberal policies that marginalized poorer sectors and indigenous groups. The election of Correa was perceived by Ecuadorians as an opportunity to move forward on the agenda of human rights, indigenous rights, development of a non-extractive economy, and declare Ecuador as a plurinational state. The future of Ecuador as a plurinational state meant that the government would move forward with inclusionary policies that recognized the social and political organization of all nationalities. Despite Correa’s leftist policies, the president continues to receive high levels of criticism from indigenous movements and environmental activists who argue that the administration has failed “to foster transformation of the structures that exploit and oppress marginalized communities” (Becker 2013, 43). The third and ongoing wave of mobilization lies in the Correa administration period from 2006 into the present.

In 2008, two thirds of voters approved Ecuador’s 20th constitution, which was primarily drafted by Rafael Correa’s party Aliana Pais (AP) who had control of the Constituent Assembly. Since the new constitution was revealed, the state has undergone numerous referendums and local, congressional, and presidential elections. Most recently Correa was reelected in 2013. After years of neoliberal and conservative regimes, Correa has taken the state on a leftward turn. Correa rejects international development standards and balances social welfare needs with economic growth, as seen through the rejection of loan repayment, the removal of international armed forces bases, and the nationalization of the oil industry. Correa has received support from Indigenous, environmental, and agrarian groups throughout his presidency; however, his primary supporters still remain critical and actively challenge the president’s decisions. The majority of the movements and campaigns discussed in this research were at one point or remain to be allies of Correa.

 Correa’s policies around oil extraction are one point of contention with ongoing social movements. Oil exploitation is a major driver of conflict and reason for social movements in Ecuador. Oil reserves were discovered in Ecuador in the 1930s and immediately had negative impacts on indigenous Ecuadorians. The new industry created exploitative labor relations and led to the abandonment of subsistence and local agriculture practices (Davidov 2013). The resource-based conflict attracts diverse actors to advocate for human, indigenous, and environmental rights on a national and international scale.

The Latin American and Ecuadorian trends and waves of social mobilization provide insight to the tendency for social groups to employ resistance strategies against injustice. Social movements use both violent and nonviolent action, but there is evidence that nonviolent social movements are familiar territory in Latin America. In the Ecuadorian context, a review of social movements reveals that nonviolent action was regularly utilized in the three waves – democratization, neoliberalism, and Correa administration. It could be argued that this continuing trend to use nonviolent tactics for social change is a product of years of successful and beneficial trial. The tendency to use nonviolent tactics because they have worked in the past creates a cultural legacy. Cultural legacy refers to the way that Ecuadorians continue to use methods of nonviolence because they have become rooted in the cultural understanding of how to effectively impact social change. An analysis of three nonviolent social movements, will provide context into how this cultural legacy merges with strategies in practice in Ecuador.

Analysis of Ecuadorian Social Movements

The social movements reviewed in this analysis use nonviolent action as their principal long-term strategy to create a cultural, social or political shift in Ecuador. The three movements represented in this analysis are diverse: 1) Itchimbia is an urban land occupation movement in the capital Quito, 2) CONAIE is a coalition of indigenous actors fighting for indigenous, environmental and social rights across the country, and 3) Yasunidos is a coalition of indigenous and environmental activists fighting against oil extraction in the Yasuni National Park. Itchimbia and CONAIE began in the 1990s, while Yasunidos was birthed in the Correa era. These movements are assessed in regards to their choice to use nonviolent tactics as a predetermined strategy. The intentions and goals of each movement are different, but they all share a common mixed methodology of conventional and unconventional nonviolent tactics. Despite small achievements and many setbacks that each movement has endured, they remain committed to their vision. The following analysis will survey each movement and its tactics, explore its origins of nonviolence, and assess its strategy and sustainability.


One phenomenal example of a nonviolent social movement is Itchimbia, an urban land rights movement in Quito from 1995 to 2005. Itchimbia, formally known as the San Juan Bosco de Tito Co-op, was comprised of 60 families and led by a group of college-educated career activists in the battle for land rights in the city of Quito (Chamorro 2010, 217). Itchimbia used creative unconventional tactics and direct action to build their movement and work towards the ultimate goal: property security.

In 1994, the co-op was seeking permanent residence and saw an opportunity at Itchimbia, a district historically zoned for a community park but had been used as a dump for many years. Instead of using the land invasion method as it is regularly understood, the co-op creatively designed a plan: beautify the city, make the land functional as an eco-park, and build their own homes inside the park (Dosh 2010). The strategy was met with resistance by the local government and police, the media, and private corporate interests, but the co-op was resilient and committed to a long-term struggle.

As a social movement, Itchimbia was dedicated to nonviolence as a primary component of their mission. After attempts to gain rights to the land through negotiation with the municipal government failed, Itchimbia moved forward with innovative tactics to transform the land as an asset to the community and residents and visitors of Quito. The leaders of the movement, Juan Carlos Manzanillas, Maria Hernandez, and Milton Chamorro, prepared the 60 families with intensive training prior to the land occupation on September 23, 1996. The trainings educated the participants on what to expect over the coming months and years, how they were expected to respond to violent threats, and the threat of outside participants seeking to reap the benefits of the co-op’s hard work. Itchimbia invaded not with temporary housing materials, but with cleaning supplies to clear the dump and lay the groundwork for a long-term struggle. When the co-op was faced with threat of eviction and militarized police force with tear gas and body armor, they peacefully exited ready to return the following day.

As the conflict escalated through the years, participants used creative and diverse tactics to attract awareness, stand their ground, and demonstrate their commitment to nonviolence. For example, on two separate occasions several members of the movement chained themselves to their temporary shelters with the slogan “not one drop of blood” and buried themselves in the ground up to their shoulders (Dosh 2010, 170). While the use of nonviolent action could be considered a rational tactic to attain the movement’s goals, nonviolence was also a fundamental component of the movement’s long-term commitment. Itchimbia knew that the movement’s goals were not going to be easily attained, and they were prepared to face challenges for years to come. As Milton Chamorro, a community organizer and Mayor of Itchimbia explains, “You have to educate people, but with real things like housing, building houses, like health care, the building of a health-care center and work, the creation of microbusinesses. That’s the kind of power we’re building. And Itchimbia is an example of that kind of power” (2010, 220).

Co-op members continued the battle to beautify the park and build condominiums as their homes over the coming years. Despite ongoing persecution by the municipal government, the co-op received increased support from other activists, media outlets, and an international audience. One striking element of the Itchimbia movement is their well-developed and consistent levels of organization, leadership, training, and ongoing participation. The co-op structure designed weekly meetings for neighborhood leaders, block captains, and focus groups in order to keep all participants active and fully informed. Committees regarding security, sports, women, and youth helped make the movement more than reaching a single goal, but rather built a community.   

Through sustained participation, diverse tactics, physical labor, and a commitment to nonviolence, 220 families acquired legally owned condominiums at Itchimbia.  Itchimbia used creative nonviolent tactics, such as park beautification, an online campaign, and protests, until they successfully negotiated with the municipal government to build a permanent residency within the park. Co-op members faced many challenges, such as access to resources, resistance from the municipal government, and compromises with the municipal government, but endured in reaching their goal of establishing sustainable housing for their families. Although leaders of the movement had to negotiate with numerous outside participants and squatters to guarantee space for original members, the co-op was able to expand the housing from the original 60 families to 200 families by the time the condominiums were built. Today the co-op maintains its structure and community, but participation in forums and activities has dwindled over the years since Itchimbia reached its goal.


Yasunidos is a youthful collective that is fighting for a post-petroleum society in Ecuador. The term post-petroleum society refers to building an economy that is not dependent on an oil economy, but rather diverse in terms of the resources that can support Ecuadorian society. The movement sparked in 2013 following Rafael Correa’s plans to exploit crude oil in the ITT region of the Yasuni National Park (also referred to as block 43), despite his promises to protect the land. Yasunidos was created to directly target government policy and halt further crude oil extraction in the Amazon. The name Yasunidos derives from unity in the Yasuni National Park. As a movement, Yasunidos uses conventional and unconventional nonviolent tactics towards the Ecuadorian government and oil companies. In their movement Manifesto, Yasunidos declares itself “as a purely peaceful movement without any partisan positions seeking the protection of life, human rights, respect for the Constitution of Ecuador as well as the protection and conservation of our Ancestral Natural Heritage” (Yasunidos 2014).

Yasunidos is analyzed as a nonviolent social movement because of their commitment to conventional and unconventional strategies to influence a paradigm shift in Ecuadorian society and beyond. The movement is dedicated to nonviolence and uses a creative mixed methodology in order to attract attention from powerful voices and stakeholders. Additionally, Yasunidos provides support to isolated communities that are being impacted by oil extraction. Their strategy is reliant upon direct contact with the adversary (government, military, and oil corporations), statewide mobilization, the utilization of constitutional procedures, and a lively international internet advocacy campaign. Yasunidos has short-term and long-term strategy, which is reflective of their mission and goals.  

The movement’s first goal was to reverse a policy change by the Correa administration through a popular referendum. In 2007 President Correa designed the Yasuni-ITT Initiative in order to protect the land and its people by halting oil exploration in the region. The intuition behind the initiative was to collect international donations in the name of environmental protection, which would compensate the state of Ecuador for the economic sacrifice of keeping 846 million barrels of oil in the ground. After a failure to obtain adequate funding in the subsequent five years, Rafael Correa announced that Ecuador was forced to cancel the Yasuni-ITT Initiative and would instead move forward with oil exploration in order to fulfill the social programs and economic growth of the state. The shift in policy sparked the mobilization of indigenous communities and environmental activists and the mission to collect signatures of 5% of the constituency (or 584,000 signatures), which would in effect reverse the presidential decree.

The movement’s momentum and organization led to the collection of over 750,000 signatures across the state. This short-term goal with a long-term objective allowed Yasunidos to strategically organize and coordinate how the group would accomplish a statewide mission to push through the popular referendum. Yasunidos organized brigades of signature collectors across the state to ask one question: “Are you in favor that the Ecuadorian government keeps the oil underground indefinitely under the Yasuni-ITT, also known as Block 43?” (Woodrow 2014). This initiative was an opportunity for participants to organize around conventional methods. The steps taken by Yasunidos follow constitutional law, and has led to increased international support and advocacy on Yasunidos’ behalf. The government retaliated and rejected the movement’s referendum submission, annulling nearly half of the signatures submitted (Alvaro 2014).

While Yasunidos utilized a legal channel to strategically target governmental policy, the movement also planned a series of unconventional tactics that lie outside of institutional bodies. Yasunidos took upon a protective role for the environment and the indigenous populations who were most directly threatened by the oil extraction expansion. Despite the militarized zones within the Amazon, participants entered and monitored the activity of oil companies, which would hold them accountable for their operations. Further, Yasunidos targeted international support by its participating in public talks at universities, engaging in interviews with media, and using the internet (Facebook, twitter, blog, and website) as a strategic instrument to promote communication and exposure. The movement made alliances with international ecological and human rights movements, such as Amazon Watch, in which they gained a new type of power that could broaden their reach and influence amongst the international community. For example, in 2014 there was a World Action Day to Save the Yasuni, in which 50 cities around the world participated in a photo campaign and letter writing mission to promote awareness and target international embassies as stakeholders (Yasunidos 2014).

The campaign to support a popular referendum launched Yasunidos into a movement where participants planned and organized their tactics. This long-term strategy took the idea of saving one block of the Yasuni National Park and facilitated it into a cultural paradigm shift. Although the Ecuadorian government has historically supported environmental and cultural protection, Yasunidos activists have experienced militarized responses to their mobilization. The military has come to dominate the area surrounding the park, but this has only influenced Yasunidos to commit to nonviolent action even further (Leon Vega 2014). Despite the retaliation and intimidation schemes against Yasunidos, the participants were prepared for retribution and were able to remain calm. One participant explained, “We, the activists who make up Yasunidos, believe that nonviolence and resistance starting with civil disobedience should be promoted and adapted to these new realities in which natural resource shortages provoke a growing militarization of the state” (Leon Vega 2014). This statement recognizes that Yasunidos envisions civil disobedience as a strategy to fight against the military suppression, plus the human and environmental rights that are abused through oil extraction in Ecuador.                 

The Yasunidos movement is committed to a long-term popular struggle to save the Yasuni National Park with nonviolent action serving as the foundation of their strategy. Further, the movement seeks to promote the protection of other regions in the world impacted by resource-based conflict. The Yasunidos Manifesto states: “We propose a search for alternatives, we propose breaking away from the schemes with courage, in short, we propose a social revolution that challenges the values of energy consumption that prioritizes the common good, defending the idea of good living” (Yasunidos 2014). This statement reflects the priorities of Yasunidos to not only impact the Yasuni National Park, but also to contribute to a behavioral shift on the state and international levels. A Yasunidos representative explains, “Right now we continue working, promoting and carrying out actions rooted in nonviolence including pickets, observation trips to the area, international support campaigns, marches through the Yasuni, information in educational institutions and spaces. These allow us to see and speak out about the effects that petroleum extraction will have in areas like the Yasuni” (Leon Vega 2014). The recognition that Yasunidos’ advocacy will not stop with the Yasuni National Park points to a long-term vision for the movement. Although there may be short term goals to protect the ITT, the accomplishment of this goal does not shut-down their grander vision of a post-petroleum society in Ecuador and beyond. In other words, the Yasunidos movement has a campaign with the short-term goal to stop the exploitation of the ITT, but their mission does not end there. Rather, Yasunidos is committed to using nonviolent action to influence the protection of human and environmental rights and alternatives to mineral extraction on a global scale.


CONAIE, The National Confederation of Indigenous Nationalities of Ecuador, is a statewide coalition of indigenous populations that advocates for indigenous, social, cultural, and environmental rights of Ecuador. CONAIE formed in 1986 with the negotiations and merging of two prominent indigenous organizations and land co-operatives, CONFENAIE (Confederation of Indigenous Nationalities of the Ecuadorian Amazon) and Ecuarunari in 1986 (Jochnick 186). CONAIE bonded under the slogan: “We have been discriminated, we are living under the same experience, let’s unite.”  CONAIE has a rich history from the 1990’s and early 2000’s, and within the past year has made a revival in their activism. CONAIE is internationally recognized for their strategic operations and their ability to harness resources and human capital. The movement is considered as “the most powerful nonviolent social and political movement in Ecuador and as the most organized indigenous movement in the Americas” and most often focuses its efforts on autonomy, land rights, and indigenous rights in a plurinational state (Collins 2006, 199).

As a movement CONAIE is known for their ability to strategically mobilize around issues of concern. Given that CONAIE represents 12 indigenous groups, or 70% of Ecuador’s indigenous population, the movement does a phenomenal job in balancing the needs and concerns of all groups involved (Collins 2006). The movement can be analyzed as primarily using conventional methods because they typically work within the institutional and legal realms to influence systemic change. The movement is enthusiastic about using dialogue and negotiations to influence change via national policies (Collins 2006). This conventional focus, however, does not detract from the use of unconventional methods in large-scale mobilization, which aims to strengthen and empower marginalized voices.        

CONAIE utilizes nonviolent action as a methodology to mobilize and advocate for change on a grand scale. Nonviolence lies at the core of the movement’s philosophy as the most powerful and legitimate tactic. As the academic on nonviolence Gene Sharp explains, “Strategy and tactics are used in nonviolent action so that the courage, sacrifice, and numbers of the nonviolent resisters may make the greatest possible impact” (Sharp 2013, 66). CONAIE is the epitome of this statement with their ability to strategically and effectively mobilize indigenous populations across Ecuador. As Thoresen explains, “Joining in a mobilization is always the result of a decision of the community, which exerts its influence to make sure that the members join in the roadblocks and rallies. The secret of CONAIE’s power, then, lies in its ability to harness the resources of collective action that exist in Indian communities” (2009, 378).

CONAIE is perceived by Ecuadorians as a movement that is legitimate, transparent and trustworthy. After decades of corrupt politicians, CONAIE is a force that liberals trust more than a political party. The movement’s use of conventional and unconventional methods is strategic to target and legitimize their demands depending on the context. CONAIE’s involvement in legislative procedures, dialogue, and negotiation is tactful in the way that the movement uses the system to their advantage. For example, CONAIE was very involved in the writing of the 2008 constitution to ensure that President Correa established and prioritized the needs of Ecuador as a plurinational state (Becker 2011). By plurinational state, indigenous activists were fighting for unity in diversity, wherein the government would recognize the social and political organization of all nationalities in Ecuador. The inclusion of the plurinational state in the 2008 constitution created “a new form of social contract that respects and harmonizes the rights of indigenous peoples and nationalities with the judicial structure and political force to recognize their status as political subjects with clear rights” (Becker 2011, 55). In 1996, members of CONAIE formed and attracted support for a political party, Pachakutik, to represent the CONAIE constituency within the political realm. While the political party is technically separate from the movement, it does give political representation and a seat at the table to voice CONAIE’s concerns through a formal channel.

 Whether CONAIE mobilizes within or outside of institutional guidelines, their actions are coordinated to complement one another. The complementary coordination of tactics supports the hypothesis that CONAIE, as a social movement, uses nonviolent action as part of a predetermined strategy. CONAIE uses “uprisings” as the central tool of their activism, which provides a visible symbolic impact and allows for a bargaining opportunity with the government (Collins 2006, 207). As Collins explains, “These modern mobilizations are coordinated at the national level by CONAIE, and have involved the participation of tens of thousands of people throughout the country. Actions include roadblocks, marches, and the refusal to bring food into the market. These mobilizations have always been nonviolent and usually involve civil disobedience” (Collins 2006, 204). In doing so, CONAIE is balancing acts of omission and acts of commission. The diverse use of nonviolent action allows CONAIE to impact diverse parts of society, such as provide a void in the produce markets, disrupt daily work commutes, and weaken or halt the operation of political bodies.

Throughout the movement’s history, CONAIE’s efforts have been generally well-respected by internal and external actors. There was one circumstance, however, when CONAIE used alternative methods and lost legitimacy within and outside of Ecuador. In 2000 CONAIE was one of the primary parties involved with ousting President Muhuad, and the President of CONAIE became one of the three leaders in the transitional Parliament of the People (Thoresen 2009). There was a broad perception that CONAIE was more of a rebellious coalition because they used illegal means to oust the President in the coup d’état. This period, however, allowed CONAIE to reassess their goals and boundaries and readdress their strategy, commitment, and tactics of nonviolence. While CONAIE participants did not engage in methods of physical harm, the coup d’état did send the message that the movement was willing to risk the escalation of conflict in order to achieve their goals. Although the coup did not lead to violence, the behaviors of CONAIE could have given government forces reason to retaliate violently. It is important to analyze this moment where CONAIE began to deviate from their mission and validate that the movement can still be considered nonviolent despite this divergence from CONAIE’s core vision.

CONAIE declares that “the strategy has been to present the movement’s demands through active peaceful actions, combined with dialogue: Our weapon has always been our words” (Thoresen 2009, 378). CONAIE’s success as a social movement derives from their balance of speaking out, opposing, and protesting the system, and their strategic approach to use the system to influence a change from within the system. CONAIE is approaching their 30th year as an official indigenous movement in Ecuador. Through their progress, setbacks, and many accomplishments, the movement is persistent in effecting a paradigm shift that has yet to be fully realized in the state.

As this paper will discuss further below, the organization remains critical of President Correa despite his numerous contributions to indigenous rights throughout his presidential terms. CONAIE had enthusiasm for Rafael Correa and his ideological support of the plurinational state, but the movement recognizes that Correa has not changed many social and economic policies (such as extraction policies, agrarian reform, water redistribution, and criminalization of social protests) of the previous administration (Becker 2013, 44). From the perspective of CONAIE, the current administration is more aligned with advancing individual rights, rather than communal rights or grassroots organizing (Becker 2011, 48). Given these critiques from the movement, they are committed to the continuance of direct action until there is a cultural shift that prioritizes the collective and their right to land, health, the environment, education, and social well-being. The strategic tactic of the uprising is nonviolent in theory, but an irresponsible or sporadic use of the tool could delegitimize its effectiveness.

CONAIE’s current mobilization against Correa uses the uprising to symbolize mass suffering and capture attention by diverse audiences. The heightened mobilization of 2015 can be considered a campaign by definition as it uses a series of nationwide marches and protests targeted towards removing President Correa from office. This recent mobilization and threat to oust Correa, however, does not define the entirety of the CONAIE movement. In other words, if President Correa would be removed from office, this does not mean that CONAIE would have reached their goal. Direct action would be used so long as the movement saw a threat to their daily livelihoods. CONAIE is committed to their mission event after making advances and accomplishments in their activism.

CONAIE’s mobilization is comprised of numerous campaigns that generate support from intergroup participants, partnering organizations, and international advocates. As the following section will explain, CONAIE remains active in the 2015 context. As of December 2015, there is a new wave of mobilization with participation from diverse actors, which includes indigenous activists such as CONAIE.


Mobilization and Campaigns in 2015

The current context of mass mobilization in Ecuador provides insight on the use of campaigns as a method to reach a specified goal. Presently, there are widespread protests and growing disapproval for President Correa. This mobilization is multi-class and involves indigenous, middle class, urban, rural, liberal, and conservative participants. The 2015 mobilization began in June as conservative groups disapproved of a newly proposed tax law on inheritance and capital gains. A strike by the Workers United Front, the primary trade union in Ecuador, is simultaneously opposing new labor regulations and proposed amendments. Groups across sectors have united to strengthen their claims and provided a collaborative list of demands, which includes repealing education reform, shelving water and labor laws, repealing tax law proposals, and removing proposed amendments, particularly the proposed elimination of presidential term limits (Telesur 2015). Collaborating across sectors is a methodology that increases the power of the opposition, despite their stark differences of opinion on many issues. The fact that popular indigenous activists and conservative groups are working together to strengthen their power and voice is a new tactic in Ecuadorian campaigns.

Indigenous groups, who have received the most international media attention, organized a Great Indigenous Uprising, which included a march across the country from August 2 – 13 by CONAIE, CONFENIAE, ECUARUNARI, and CONAICE (Carwil without Borders 2015). The indigenous groups refused to dialogue with the government and identified the following as their primary goals: revive intercultural bilingual education, protect rights of the environment via water, land, and mining laws, stop the government’s political persecution of social movements, strengthen a cross-sector agenda, and strengthen the plurinational state through a rejection of the capitalist model and support of a community based economy (2015). As an isolated uprising, the marches and subsequent protests can be analyzed as a campaign in regards to the demands for immediate action. The coalition, however, does call for a paradigm shift particularly in regards to the long-term influence of policy on agriculture and water, and in their demand for a community-based economy over capitalism. It should be noted that if these demands and coordinated mobilization evolve, this campaign could be analyzed as the foundations for a new or revived social movement.

Although there has been sparks of violence during in 2015 as police resist the opposition protests, the foundation of the mobilization is dependent on the use of nonviolent action for social change. The majority of the protestors do not have intent to impose physical harm on their adversaries. These series of actions have used predominantly unconventional tactics through the work stoppages, road closures, and protests. Further, CONAIE’s refusal to engage in national dialogues with government forces reveals how the movement has changed from their historical tendency to utilize institutions to their advantage. A continued study of indigenous campaigns and movements in Ecuador could reveal how tactics and strategies evolve to suit the current needs and desires of participants.

A comparative analysis of the campaigns of the late 1990’s and 2000’s uncover that popular mobilization in Ecuador can and has been successful in using nonviolent action for political change. The success rate for using these unconventional tactics could be a reason for their continued use, especially as the campaigns have come alive on a national scale again in 2015. The diversity in actors, including rural and urban or indigenous and conservative, shows that participation in campaigns is not reserved for a particular sector of the population. Further, the popular employment of nonviolent action could be analyzed as a cultural norm for Ecuadorian society. Whether participants are active because it is what they know and understand to be a part of everyday life, or whether participants realize the rationality of the method to be potentially successful in another context, it is clear by the normalcy and frequency of these protests that nonviolent action has a cultural legacy in Ecuador. What I mean by cultural legacy is that nonviolent action is rooted in the historical memory of the country, and thus when the context is ripe, the tactic is unveiled as a customary reaction to react to groups’ grievances or suffering.

Concluding Remarks

The normalization of nonviolent action as a tactic in popular mobilization derives from two core origins: a cultural legacy and a grand strategy. As this paper initially proposed, the origin of nonviolent action differs depending on if the action is undertaken as a short-term campaign or a long-term social movement. It can be synthesized, however, that the cultural legacy does not only apply to the origin of campaigns as originally proposed, but rather that the legacy has an influence on social movements as well. This research derived that social mobilization can be identified as a cultural norm for Ecuadorian activists and civil society. The frequency and consistent participation in both campaigns and social movements demonstrates that Ecuadorians are accustomed to using tactics such as protests or political dialogues on a regular basis. As the historical briefing on Ecuadorian and Latin American social movements revealed, nonviolent mobilization has been a popular tactic and has sustained a culture of activism in the region.

The movements analyzed in this paper thrive on a cultural legacy that supports partnerships, strategizing, mixed methodology, and resilience in order to impact social change. In addition to the cultural legacy, however, Itchimbia, CONAIE, and Yasunidos demonstrated a strong grasp of using a nonviolent strategy to reach a long-term goal. These movements formally recognize that nonviolence is a core element of their grand strategy, which can and will contribute to a cultural paradigm shift so long as members remain committed. Campaigns, on the other hand, do not strategize as the movements do, thus this is not a suggested origin of their nonviolent action.  

In addition to the cultural legacy and grand strategy origins of nonviolent action, this research concludes that Ecuadorians who are participating in campaigns are rational actors because they choose a method that has been successful in the past with the hope that these methods will be fruitful again. Whether through the lens of a strategy or a cultural norm, there is a rationality to utilize nonviolent tactics given their success in changing political regimes, passing new laws, or impacting corporate practices. It is important not to romanticize these movements and campaigns or the people who bring them to life. Rather, this paper has sought to explore the origin and methodology of nonviolent action. The rational actor argument recognizes that Ecuadorian activists have agency and are making active choices in order to reach their goals.

This analysis additionally revealed that nonviolent action is a popular and successful strategy for diverse actors and targets, which ranged from indigenous, rural and urban movements working to impact change on governmental and environmental policies, as well as social and cultural rights. Campaigns and movements utilize conventional and unconventional methods, which showed that various tactics could thrive depending on the goals of each campaign or movement. Social mobilization in Ecuador is vibrant and captivating on many levels, and its origin deriving from a cultural legacy to grand strategy to rational choice gives light to the breadth and depth of nonviolence as a methodology and philosophy of life in Ecuador.

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