The Uses of the State:
Indians, Law, and Government Discourse in Early Twentieth-Century Ecuador

A. Kim Clark
Department of Anthropology
Social Science Centre
University of Western Ontario
London, ON N6A 5C2

Prepared for delivery at the 2000 meeting of the Latin American Studies Association, Hyatt Regency Miami, March 16-18, 2000.

DRAFT: Please do not cite without permission. Comments welcome.

This paper examines some of the ways that, in pursuing their own projects, highland Indians in Ecuador in the first half of this century were able to use law and government discourse to their own ends during local conflicts. I therefore see the state not only as a repressive institution, but also as one that enables particular kinds of subaltern activity (while ruling out other forms of action). Of central interest here is the question of what kinds of indigenous claims were seen as legitimate, and therefore succeeded in being heard by the state. While constraints of time and space do not allow a thorough analysis of these issues, some examples will be presented of indigenous claims during two periods: the liberal period from 1895 to 1925, and the subsequent period, with an emphasis on the 1930s and 1940s.

During the liberal period, labour issues were at the forefront of indigenous petitions and complaints to the central state. This was the case not only because highland Indians faced a series of problems in their labour relations, but also because labour issues were of crucial concern to liberal governments. One of the social bases of liberalism was the cocoa-producing elite of the sparsely-populated Ecuadorian coast, who faced a chronic shortage of labour. In contrast, a great deal of indigenous labour was tied up in the conservative stronghold of the highlands through what liberals saw as archaic and exploitative forms of extraeconomic coercion, which were seen as frustrating the export potential of the country. Since liberals were unable to fully impose their own projects during the liberal period, in part due to the weight of highland representatives in the congress, they tried to gradually undermine the control over indigenous labour by local power holders in the highlands by passing a series of laws and executive decrees that favoured indigenous workers' individual rights to freely contract their labour.

According to the rhetoric of the liberal state, it was the responsibility of goverment officials to protect Indians from those who would abuse them. They required this protection due to years of harsh treatment at the hands of the forces of tradition: conservative landowners, the Catholic Church, and local political officially allied with the former. While we might think that this was empty rhetoric, in fact, liberal officials did indeed position themselves as the protectors of Indians' rights as workers. While ultimately the liberal state might have liked to directly undermine the control of highland landowners over labour, the central state was not sufficiently powerful to enter into haciendas to regulate labour relations, until at least the 1920s (1) (although there were laws passed earlier that did require local political authorities to oversee the establishment of debt peonage relations and similar measures). Where it was perhaps easier to establish state authority and to push through the liberal project regarding labour rights was in some of the early conflicts between church and state. An even more important arena of conflict, generating a large amount of archival material, emerged in regard to the labour regime for local public works, overseen by local government officials. (2) The most frequent abuses, which were all against the law, were the non-payment of workers, the use of force during recruitment, and the employment of such peons in private rather than public projects. These abuses occurred most commonly at the hands of political lieutenants at the parish level who, deeply immersed in local social relations, recruited temporary indigenous labourers to send them to local haciendas or to work in the lands of these officials themselves or those of their relatives or friends.

The rights of indigenous labourers were upheld by a series of constitutional or other legal provisions, but most importantly, when their rights were abused by local officials, the Indians often sent petitions to supralocal political authorities. In these petitions they pointed out, in equal measure, that their constitutional rights were being trampled, and that they deserved protection from the central state. The response on the part of the central state (as represented by the president and his appointees, such as cabinet ministers and provincial governors) came in the form of executive decrees or specific orders sent to officials at the local level, reiterating indigenous rights. When specific orders were sent down, a whole web of rights was reinforced, and it is important to note that this process was initiated through indigenous action. The conflict between local and central state officials was crucial in this dynamic, as local officials were not infrequently fined or even dismissed due to their infractions of central state policy regarding the importance of protecting indigenous labour rights.

During the liberal period, Indians repeatedly appropriated the discourse of the central state, and rather forcefully and cogently argued, ironically, that they were timid and ignorant and thus deserved protection from the state, particularly in relation to labour issues. Highland Indians were indeed able to use these legal provisions to limit abusive treatment by local powers: for instance, their petitions eventually led to the virtual dismantling of the system of forced labour recruitment for local public works. In the course of these processes, the central state strengthened its legitimacy among subordinate groups, often at the expense of the state's own officials at the local level, as well as undermining the control of local landowners and the church over indigenous labour. This analysis also suggests something about how state formation occurs, at the micro level. Laws may be passed in the upper realms of government, expanding certain subaltern rights in principle (often in accordance with the interests of dominant groups or reflecting schisms among these groups), but then subaltern action is required to make those rights real and effective at the local level. This reminds us of the importance, in the words of Joseph and Nugent, of "bringing the state back in, without leaving the people out." (3)

In the 1930s and 1940s, indigenous petitions took on a rather different tone, drawing on other kinds of political and legal resources. This was a period of severe economic and political crisis, which also saw new forms of organization emerge among workers and peasants. In this period new forms of social policy and workers' legislation were passed, and urban populism emerged as an important force. In the context of economic and political instability, state officials began to recognize that large agricultural estates were not always sufficiently productive, resulting in high food prices in urban areas, which in turn exacerbated the belligerance of urban workers. New political actors began to intervene in conflicts between peasants and large landholders, including the newly-formed Socialist and Communist parties, newly-created labour inspectors, indigenistas, and even populist politicians.

Here I want to briefly examine the changing tone of peasant claims on one hacienda, named Tolóntag, just east of Quito. This was a government owned hacienda, which had been expropriated from a religious order in 1908, and was leased to a private individual for a set price. I examine peasant strategies on this estate not because they were typical, but rather because they were unusually successful. In the context of the economic crisis of the 1930s, the lease-holder began to intensify his demands on resident peasants (huasipungueros), who responded by striking in 1934. In this conflict, the peasants were able to enlist the assistance not only of certain Senators, but also of President José María Velasco Ibarra, who intervened directly. The peasants rejected all efforts at resolution that did not involve the president, and met with both Velasco Ibarra and the lease-holder, Izurieta, in the presidential offices, much to the latter's chagrin. In the words of Izurieta, at one point the President told the peasants "that they were free, that debt peonage no longer existed, that no one could compel them to do anything, that they should demand a wage and a high one, that the women did not have to work, even if they were paid; in sum, all discipline was destroyed and I am at the mercy of the Indians who have been provoked to a thorough insolence by the Sr. President." (4)

The peasants in Tolóntag were fairly successful in strategically using relations with the newly-elected Velasco Ibarra to undermine Izurieta, during Velasco's brief period of rule (he took power on September 1, 1934 and was overthrown on August 20, 1935). Indeed, Tolóntag seems to have been a kind of test case for the extension of a paternalistic, personalistic (and what had been primarily urban) populism into the countryside. The peasants certainly played on this paternalism, if we are to believe the existing reports. For instance, when a police lieutenant delivered a new work regulation to Tolóntag in 1935, (5) at first the peasants refused to believe that the regulation had been sent by Velasco. When they were assured that this was indeed the case, the peasants responded by asserting that:

If he really sent it, then we will obey. But first we have to go to Quito to make sure that what you tell us is true, patrón. There, speaking with Amo Velasco Ibarra, nuestro papacito, we'll find out if it is true that he sent you to say these things. And we'll also speak to Genaro, who is our lawyer, so that he can make the arrangements.

While the Indians may have used deferential language, they were clearly not prepared to give in easily, and their reference to the President also takes on the tone of a delaying tactic. As the conflict continued past the end of Velasco's government, the peasants ended up taking over all of the hacienda's livestock, as well as introducing into its pastures a large number of their own animals, and distributing subsistence plots, without permission, to some 70 additional families of huasipungueros.

By 1943, the peasants had developed a new strategy to deal with the hacienda, and their petitions take on a very different tone than the claims to paternalism in the previous decade. The peasants on Tolóntag began to request that they be granted a small area of the hacienda in order to build a school, establish a chapel (with the support of the local priest), build a soccer field, and so on. As they phrased it, this request was based on not only "the norms of hygiene" but also their "firm intention to progress, to become useful for ourselves and ultimately for our country (la Patria). These reasons ... are highly just and imperative for the national culture and dignification of the indigenous class." (6) Rather than playing on paternalism, the peasants now claimed their right to improve themselves and progress in order to better serve the nation. These sentiments echo almost perfectly some of the thoughts expressed by one of the leaders of the Instituto Indigenista Ecuatoriano when it was founded two months later. The leader in question was in fact the person to whom this petition was addressed, the Subsecretary of Social Welfare. (7) Clearly, these ideas were in the air in 1943.

This petition was not only approved, but in 1944 the peasants of Tolóntag had a surprising success with their achievement of the legal status of comuna. This status was technically available only to indigenous communities who possessed their own lands -- that is, free indigenous communities -- and not to hacienda labourers. This status appears to have been approved following the Revolución Gloriosa at the end of May, when Velasco Ibarra swept back to power for his second government. By 1945, the hacienda had lost its previous importance as a livestock producer, while the peasants of Tolóntag were among the most prosperous in the region: they owned an impressive amount of livestock, and their wages were high for the era, given that they also received a subsistence plot. Their successes in improving their working and living conditions were achieved through their strategic use of favourable political conjunctures and their appropriation of state discourse as appropriate to each conjuncture.

What kinds of issues do we have to consider, then, in order to understand the ways that indigenous peasant claims were formulated and legitimated in early-twentieth century Ecuador? Clearly, we must begin by examining the particular kinds of problems they faced, which reflected the larger context - including the broad economic context - that made different issues central at different moments. But there was also an important political dimension to this, structuring the kinds of claims that could be made. The issues associated with indigenous labour and the abuse thereof were central to Ecuadorian liberalism, partly due to the conflicts between coastal and highland landowners. This allowed peasants to seize upon labour abuses and to use this to deal with some of the problems they faced. Similarly, the economic crisis of the 1930s and 1940s generated both new forms of mobilization among subordinate groups, precisely because they faced new economic problems, and concern among elites that agriculture was not sufficiently productive to maintain low food prices in urban areas. This was part of the context that allowed peasants to make certain kinds of claims in that era, sometimes at the expense of large landholders.

Another important point also emerges in this discussion: when we refer to how claims are legitimated, we must also ask, legitimate in whose eyes? What was seen as legitimate by supra-local authorities of the central state during the liberal period was not necessarily seen as legitimate by their subordinates at the local level. What was seen as legitimate by Velasco Ibarra in the case of Tolóntag was not necessarily seen as legitimate by the state institution that oversaw the admininstration of the hacienda. Our understanding of 'the state' must therefore take into account the many conflicting interests its various institutions can encompass and express.

Acknowledgements: This paper is based on research carried out in two archives in Ecuador: the Archivo de la Jefatura Política de Alausí (AJPA) and the Archivo de la Asistencia Pública in the Museo Nacional de Medicina in Quito (AAP/MNM). My thanks to those who facilitated my access to and use of those archives. I am also grateful to the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council of Canada and the Wenner-Gren Foundation for Anthropological Research for funding various research projects on which I draw for this analysis.


1. For an example from the 1920s, see Kim Clark, "'El bienestar nacional': Experiencias del mercado interno en el Ecuador, 1910-1930," Procesos (Quito) 7 (1995), 59-89.

2. For more information about these issues see A. Kim Clark, "Indians, the State and Law: Public Works and the Struggle to Control Labour in Liberal Ecuador," Journal of Historical Sociology 7:1 (1994), 49-72.

3. Gilbert M. Joseph and Daniel Nugent, "Popular Culture and State Formation in Revolutionary Mexico," in Everyday Forms of State Formation: Revolution and the Negotiation of Rule in Modern Mexico, edited by Gilbert M. Joseph and Daniel Nugent (Durham: Duke University Press, 1994), 12.

4. José Ignacio Izurieta to the Director of the JCAP (Junta Central de Asistencia Pública), Quito, Oct. 5, 1934, AAP/MNM LCR (Libro de Comunicaciones Recibidas) 1934-II h. 844-46.

5. The following discussion and quotes are from: "Memorandum que eleva el Señor Teniente Humberto Vizuete Ch., al Señor Ministro de Gobierno y Previsión Social, sobre la inspección hecha a la hacienda Tolóntag," Quito, Feb. 27, 1935, AAP/MNM LCR 1935-I, h. 925-6.

6. Peasants of Tolóntag to the Director of the JCAP, Tolóntag, Feb. 15, 1943, APP/MNM LCR 1943-I, h. 989.

7. See Rafael Vallejo Larrea, "Instituto Indigenista del Ecuador," Previsión Social: Boletín del Ministerio de Previsión Social y Trabajo 14 (1943), 8.