Participatory Democracy Part I

Interview with Leonardo Alvear:  
Cotacachi’s Participatory Democracy
Revitalizes Politics in Ecuador

By Linda McFarlin in 2007

Participatory democracy in Ecuador began in Cotacachi during the mid 1990's.  It is changing the face of Ecuador politics.  In recent newsletters we presented the political views of a young man named Cesar Alvear.  

Cesar stopped by our house to share some news last week.  He has been chosen to participate in a one-month exchange program in the United States beginning at the end of March, 2008.  His trip will be divided between Spokane, Washington, with visits to Native American tribes and Washington, D.C.  

Through North American friends, he had heard about St. Patrick’s Day and he grilled us on its meaning.  He listened to our explanations of green beer, derby hats, leprechauns and shamrocks and then invited us to his family home in Cotacachi to meet his parents and to interview his father, who has been president of the local assembly for the last 3 years.

Gary and I talked with Leonardo Alvear, Cesar’s father, for over 3 hours about his experiences in local politics and the process of participatory democracy in Cotacachi.  Cesar translated.

Leonardo has been president of the Cotacachi assembly for 3 years and active in local politics for 12 years.  Like Cesar, his love for community service is apparent in the enthusiasm with which he describes his years of service.

What we discovered was very eye-opening and cleared up misconceptions we had around the meaning of socialism and the mayor’s relationship with Fidel Castro.  

Finding the Answers for This Age

By Leonardo Alvear as told to Linda McFarlin and Gary Phillips
Translation by Cesar Alvear

Passion for the Process

I am always happy to talk about my passion, which is passion for the process of participatory democracy that we have in Cotacachi.  It is something new, not perfect, but it gives us the opportunity to improve it and at the same time the people learn to empower themselves.

We have the opportunity to find the answers for this age, this people and this society.  This process began because the government didn’t do its job for us.  So the people organized and created their own solutions.

This is a solution for us because in the past, government has often brought poverty.  We have a very rich country.  We’ve made this process work without big projects like governments or NGOs make, but just with people.  The real riches are not in things but in people.

Linda – Tell us more about your passion.

 – It is to participate actively with the people, who are the force, the social movement.  I want to help make a better place for everyone to live.

Cotacachi is the largest canton in the province.  It covers three distinct zones.  One zone is made up of 43 communities of campesinos and indigenous in the mountainous areas.  The second zone is the neighborhood federation, or the urban neighborhood (zona urbana).  Third is the Intag, the subtropical part of Cotacachi.

The News is Spreading World-wide

Other cantons and other countries come to Cotacachi to learn of our participatory democracy process.  They can copy our health, education, tourism, women’s and production programs.  Of the 215 cantons in Ecuador, 130 of them are beginning to use our process.

Linda – How did this process begin?

Leonardo - Before 1996 there were 2 experiments with this process---one in the jungle and one in the south in Chimborazo.  When a municipality tries to control the process, it doesn’t work.  The municipality in Cotacachi was very interested in starting the process with Auki Tituana, the mayor of Cotacachi.  Auki was able to see why the process had not worked successfully and he decided to do it differently.

Instead of the municipality handling the assembly, which is represented by 24 organizations, with laws and rules, such as many organizations have, it is the other way around.  The municipality belongs to the assembly, not the assembly to the municipality.  This is the key to Cotacachi particapatory democracy.  There is no formal law associated with the assembly, although it is a formal organization recognized by the citizens and the municipality.  The government does not officially recognize it.

Linda – When did the assembly begin in Cotacachi?

Leonardo - The first participatory democracy assembly in Cotacachi met 12 years ago, in 1996.

The Assembly Process

Linda – How does the assembly work?

 – Every year there is a big meeting in Cotacachi of all the 24 organizations.  Together we decide what to do for the coming year--how we will work with the municipality.

Before the big meeting, each organization has its own meetings to develop ideas.  Once a decision is made, all the organizations within the assembly work to fulfill the chosen goal.  This action is key to the success of participatory democracy.  

Successful Projects in Cotacachi

Linda – Would you describe some of the projects that the assembly has proposed for the municipality to fulfill?

Leonardo – In the 5th assembly, 2000, it was decided that education was the most important thing.  A literacy program was set up to teach the people the alphabet and how to read and write. 

Then in 2002 health care became the most important issue to address. Local health care doesn’t belong to overall Ecuador health care because the country’s program can’t give a solution to everybody.  The locals wanted their own Ecuador health care programs.

Health care in Cotacachi is now much better.  Before, the people were very angry about the lack of good medical treatment.

Linda - How successful was the participatory democracy assembly in accomplishing these projects and how long did it take?

Leonardo – The literacy program took two years to reach our goal. At first, only 23% of the people of the canton could read and write. Now only 3.7% cannot read and write.  We adapted UNESCOs  proposed figure of 4% as a standard for us.  If the illiteracy rate is less than 4%, a canton is declared literate.  

The trainers come from within each community and classes are taught in Quechua or in Spanish, depending upon the language spoken in the area.

Now the second part is underway, which is for all adults to finish primary school, or the first 6 years of schooling.  People go to school in the afternoons and at night.

The cost of the entire program is a one-time $5 entrance fee plus about $7 for books, which each person has to buy.  That’s all.  There are no administration fees.

The students decide for themselves how long they will take to complete their schooling.  It may take 3 years or as long as 20 years.

The Education Program is Revolutionary for Ecuador

It is a program of self-schooling so the students study at home.   There is no need for a professor.  A student can call upon a teacher for help and receive tutoring if needed.  This is only for those who live in rural areas with no school.

Eventually, a student can earn a bachelor’s degree and receive a certificate in one of seven different areas, such as: cattle-raising, small animal husbandry, community administration, financing and economic management for family and community.

We believe this is a very successful program.  It solves the problems of immigration of our youth to big cities.  It keeps them working in their own communities.

This program allows the individual to remain autonomous, not dependent upon a university or college.  The student develops an individual program of study in his or her own community.  After completing this program, the student can obtain a university degree.

The participatory democracy assembly has 5 councils.  They are health care, education, production, tourism and environment.  Each council evaluates the student’s program and gives approval.

When a student is ready, he calls the institution or college and says, “I am ready to be tested.”  The assembly can also call the students twice a year and give them training in social participation.  This is participatory democracy in action.  

Watch for Part II in our next newsletter when Leonardo talks about the fight for their lives against mining in Intag, and explains the meaning of Socialism in Ecuador.

Click here to read Part II of this interview.

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