Chris Willet, ’09, (standing, far left) and Mario Franke, ’10, (standing, next right) members of the UT delegation, at a community meeting in Maldonado, Esmeraldas, Ecuador.
The Bernard and Audre Rapoport Center for Human Rights and Justice at the University of Texas recently sponsored a human rights delegation to Ecuador to investigate the present situation of rural Afro-Ecuadorian communities and their struggle to secure rights to land tenure, property and development. The delegation, cosponsored by the Robert S. Strauss Center for International Security and Law and the Lozano Long Institute of Latin American Studies, consisted of an interdisciplinary group of seven students from the University of Texas School of Law, Lozano Long Institute for Latin American Studies, and the LBJ School of Public Affairs along with Rapoport Center director Karen Engle and Rapoport Center post-graduate fellow Kaleema Al-Nur.
Following intensive study of Afro-Ecuadorian history and contemporary political and economic struggles, the group conducted a week-long fact-finding trip from March 13, 2009, to March 22, 2009, in which the delegation traveled to Quito, Esmeraldas, and the Valle del Chota to meet with communities, non-governmental organizations, and government officials. The students will use the results of their study and trip to Ecuador to write a comprehensive human rights report detailing their findings and making policy recommendations to relevant governmental, intergovernmental, and nongovernmental organizations and policy makers.
The delegation found that though Ecuadorian citizens approved a new constitution on September 28, 2008, recognizing Ecuador as a “multiethnic, intercultural and inclusive nation” and reaffirming existing collective rights to ancestral lands for Afro-Ecuadorian communities, these communities face several challenges to the full enjoyment of their rights. Lindsey Engelman noted that “the week we spent in Ecuador talking to government officials and members of Afro-descendant communities provided an understanding of the gap between the laws written in the constitution and the reality that Afro-Ecuadorians live every day.”
“It was amazing to see the passion and the long years that communities and their leaders have fought for their basic constitutional rights and dignity,” said law student Mario Franke, ’10. However it was also quite disheartening to see the lack of political will to change the obstacles that systematically keep Ecuadorian afro-descendant communities from realizing those constitutional promises.”
Throughout the week in Ecuador, the delegation heard community leaders discuss the complex challenges faced by Afro-Ecuadorian communities. Emily Joiner described how she was “impressed by the contradictions the group encountered on the trip. For example, while Afro-Ecuadorian communities and leaders in Esmeraldas emphasized the urgency of the issues surrounding land, the government expressed unwillingness to enter the border zone where many of these lands are located. This type of disconnect results in laws without implementation and a need for creative strategies to garner political will.”
“Community leaders expressed that even though the new progressive constitution reaffirmed the collective rights of Afro-Ecuadorian communities, there continues to be a lack of public policies that effectively combat the extreme economic and social pressures that threaten these communities,” said law student Chris Willett, ’09.
Working as part of an inter-disciplinary human rights delegation provided valuable practical experience for the students. Edmund Gordon said that the experience taught him “how to develop the research methodology needed to conduct studies on the complex problems of race and social exclusion, and the importance of team building and discussing topics from a wide range of perspectives.”
Desireé Ledet highlighted how the trip reflected “the intricate roles we play as students and human rights advocates. Throughout this journey, I have learned the importance of goal setting and communication and am aware of the many opportunities and limitations of human rights workers.”
“The Rapoport Center’s project on Afro-descendant collective land rights in Latin America represents a unique approach to the study and practice of human rights,” said teaching assistant Matthew Wooten. “Through a critical engagement with human rights issues at the intersection of international advocacy and academia, we have used our work to push for more meaningful forms of both activism and pedagogy.”
Kaleema Al-Nur further underlined the role that the delegation hopes to play as human rights advocates. “As part of a historically invisible and oppressed racial minority, Afro-Ecuadorian communities continue to form strategic alliances nationally and internationally to advance their struggle for recognition and human rights,” she said. “I am grateful for the incredible amount of resources and materials gleaned from the visit and through the generosity of community members. We hope to be good stewards of these valuable conversations, stories, and information by producing an accurate advocacy tool that supports the struggle of Afro-Ecuadorian communities for collective security and integrity.”
The report on Afro-Ecuadorian rights is the third in a series of reports on Afro-descendant land rights in Latin America. Relating Ecuador to previous studies of Colombia and Brazil, Karen Engle noted that “Ecuador is in a unique position to formulate economic and social policies regarding its Afro-descendant population. If it takes seriously its intercultural constitution in its restructuring of the state and its resolution of land conflicts, it could serve as a model for all of Latin America. Doing so, however, means that policy decisions can only be made in consultation with Afro-descendant communities.”
Sarah Cline, Rapoport Center, 512.232.4857, firstname.lastname@example.org