MAC: Mines and Communities

Ecuador: Mining by blood and fire in Shuar ancestral lands

Published by MAC on 2017-01-28
Source: La Press, Intercontinental Cry, Acción Ecológica

Leading environmental organization Acción Ecológica will not be shut down

As leading environmental justice organization Acción Ecológica has come under threat of being shut down, the Shuar and campesino communities in the province of Morona Santiago have faced criminalization, militarization and severe restrictions on their rights as a result of the imposition of a Chinese-owned mining project in the area.

The project area was originally explored by BHP Billiton and Canadian mining company Corriente Resources, an earlier source of repression and violence against Shuar and campesinos who have long fought to defend their land, water and ways of life from big mining.

Although Acción Ecológica will not itself be shut down, after the Ministry of the Environment found that there's no basis for this, the bad news is that, on the same day this was decided, the president of Ecuador renewed the state of exception (emergency) in Morona Santiago for another month.

Militarization in Morona Santiago is reportedly creating a state of fear in various small communities. Some nine community members have been detained, including the president of the Interprovincial Shuar Federation (FISCH), whose offices were raided by about 100 police at which time the president, Augustín Wachapá, was thrown in maximum security jail. Many other indigenous leaders are in hiding, as a result of arrest warrants issued against them.

See previous articles:

2016-12-16 Ecuador: Government declares state of emergency, sends troops to Chinese copper project in Amazonia

2016-11-20 Ecuador: Water protectors vow to defend their land from mining

Shuar indigenous peoples in the eye of the storm

Luis Ángel Saavedra

23 Jan, 2017

On Aug. 11, 2016, the name Nankintz became a trend in the mass media. Before then, only a few people in Ecuador had heard anything about this Shuar community located in Panantza parish, in the Amazonian province of Morona Santiago, in the south of the country.

On that day, eight families — the last resisting the setting up of the “La Esperanza” mining camp, belonging to the Chinese company ExplorCobres S.A. (EXSA) — were forcibly evicted. Police and military personnel destroyed the homes and crops of the families settled in Nankintz; despite this, the Shuar communities in the surrounding villages did not give in to losing their territory.

On Nov. 21 and 22, members of the Shuar indigenous population took back the land that they had been determined to defend from mining exploitation when Nankintz was founded in 2006, after they very similarly expelled the former owner of that mining concession, the Canadian company Corriente Resources Inc., owner of ExplorCobres back then.

The People’s Republic of China complained to the national government and a new confrontation took place on Dec. 14 in an effort to evict the villagers, this time resulting in the death of a police officer, with seven members of the government forces and two Shuar injured.

Far from proposing an adequate solution to the conflict in Nankints, the government answered back by declaring a state of emergency in the province of Morona Santiago, limiting certain rights such as free movement or the freedom of assembly. In a parallel move, the Interior Ministry activated a rewards program of up to US$50,000 for those who provided information on those responsible for the events occurred on Dec. 14. The Government Council of the Shuar Arutam People denied any responsibility for the death of the police officer: “We have been blamed for the tragedy of this officer who was killed, but we never gave any orders to kill anyone (...) None of our people is a sniper or has a weapon capable of penetrating those types of helmets,” they assured in a statement, making reference to the bullet of the rifle that perforated the helmet of the police officer.

The state of emergency allowed for the mobilization of military personnel that bears similarity only to that of the Cenepa war, in 1995, when the indigenous population that is now being persecuted, were considered heroes for defending the Cordillera del Cóndor during the war conflict between Ecuador and Peru. The heroes of times past have been besieged in their communities; the access of reporters and members of the national indigenous leadership is prevented; the paths are controlled by the military and the communities live in permanent restlessness faced with the constant flyovers of helicopters.

Some background

The history of mining in the south of the Ecuadorian Amazon region is a history of stripping of ancestral lands of the Shuar nation. At first with the process of colonization with the support of the now defunct Ecuadorian Institute for Agrarian Reform and Colonization (IERAC) from the decade of the 1960’s, which assigned lands to settlers and religious orders without giving proper consideration to the existence of some already consolidated Shuar communities and other dispersed Shuar groups who lived throughout the territory. The establishment of the present Panantza parish, on June 30, 1992, was also done in order to legitimize the colonizing presence, without meeting the necessary requirements and without considering the rights of the Shuar communities.

The lands in the hands of the colonizers turned into merchandise that switched hands many times until the time when Julio Alvarado and his wife, with privileged information on hand, or working as figureheads of the mining company, started buying lands and hoard them to then transfer them to EXSA.

“When the settlers arrived to these lands we welcomed them, because we knew that they were poor and struggling people looking for an opportunity in their lives, but, from one day to the next, large portions of land no longer belonged to us, as they had been deeded in the names of people we had never even heard of before,” says the Government Council of the Shuar Arutam People in a statement they circulated from a secret location this past Jan. 4.

“The indigenous territory is for the ancestral use and possession given to it by the people, and the formalities created in order to legitimize the stripping of their lands lack of any legal value,” said professor David Cordero Heredia, of the Pontifical Catholic University of Ecuador and member of the human rights organization Fundación Regional de Asesoría en Derechos Humanos (INREDH), and adds that “the possession and use equate to ownership, and thus the lands in which the EXSA project has been developing has never stopped belonging to the Shuar nation.

Criminalization of the social movement

The conflict in Nankintz brought on the creation of international solidarity networks, and this community positioned itself as the example of anti-mining resistance, not only in the country, but also in all other countries where mega mining projects that violate the rights of indigenous and peasant communities are being implemented. In order to keep Nankintz from being mentioned, the government opened a new front to deviate the attention: the threat of closing down Acción Ecológica (AE), an Ecuadorian non-governmental organization with a history of more than 30 years dedicated to defending the environment and the indigenous peoples.

On Dec. 20, the Ministry of the Environment notified AE regarding the start of their dissolution for supposedly “deviating from the real purposes for which it was created.” The dissolution had been requested on Dec. 19 by the Interior Ministry pointing out that the organization had expressed its support “to the actions and violent events perpetrated by the Shuar community, making statements regarding the serious impact on the environment and the ecosystem as a result from extractive activities (...), promoting social mobilization and endorsing the hostilities, and in doing so, seriously affecting and causing social unrest within the Ecuadorian society.”

A similar precedent had already taken place in December 2013, when the Ministry of the Environment dissolved the Pachamama Foundation, the environment and human rights defense organization accused of “interference in public policy and undermining the internal security of the state and public peace.”

In August 2016, the government ordered the closing down of the Unión Nacional de Educadores (UNE), the largest teachers union in the country, established in 1944, for infringing on regulations of social organizations. Also, Correa threatened to dissolve the Fundación Andina para la Observación Social y Estudio de Medios (Fundamedios), dedicated to the social observation and study of the media, “for being part of a plan to destabilize his government.” The same AE, in 2009, was shut down for 10 days by the current government for the same reasons they are contending now.

Since none of the repressive procedures bore results, as the Shuar nation was not intimidated and did not go against its principles, the government looked to turn the attention from what is taking place in the province of Morona Santiago and isolate the indigenous community that is now suffering the battering from armed entities of the state. The government thought that by forcing AE to defend itself, it would take away from their ability to continue informing on what is taking place and it would slow down the strengthening of the solidarity networks that were being created. The government was very sure that the threat of closing down AE would dissuade other groups from continuing showing solidarity with Nankintz and the flow of information would be stopped.

The government’s objective was partially met, as it was fundamentally able to deflect the international attention and protect the Chinese investments from the prying eyes that began to question them after the violent events in Nankintz. Although the call to dissolve the AE was struck down on Jan. 12 with a favorable resolution for the organization, recover the attention on Nankintz, and to put it again in the media agenda and in the solidarity networks will be very complicated.

By Blood and Fire: Mining and Militarization in the Ecuadorian Amazon

Jake Ling

January 16, 2017

Before dawn on the Dec. 21, 2016, dozens of police raided the headquarters of the Shuar Federation (FISCH) in the Ecuadorian Amazon and arbitrarily detained its president, Agustin Wachapá. The indigenous leader was thrown to the ground and repeatedly stamped on and ridiculed beneath the boots of police in front of his wife. The police then razed the Shuar Federation’s office—turning over furniture and carrying away computers. According to the indigenous leader's wife, her husband was taken away without any kind of explanation. An arrest warrant for Wachapá was never presented. 

Agustin Wachapá has since been accused of publicly calling for the mobilization and violent resistance of the Shuar communities against state security forces in San Juan Bosco, where the indigenous community in Nankints was evicted and had their homes demolished against their will to make way for the Chinese Explorcobres S.A. (EXSA) open-cut copper mine. In the two months since the forced eviction, members of the communities surrounding Nankints have twice attempted to retake the land that was confiscated from them. On Dec. 14, the second attempt to storm the mine resulted in the death of a policeman and wounded seven other members of the state security forces.

The Ecuadorian government also declared a State of Emergency suspending basic rights such as freedom of assembly, freedom of movement, and due process under law, as well as granting the military the exceptional power to enter private residences and arbitrarily detain people without warrants or evidence.

An overwhelming military presence was then deployed across the Amazonian province to bolster security around the Chinese mine and quell all dissent, prompting Domingo Ankuash, the historical leader of the Shuar to call upon the United Nations and other international human rights organizations to monitor the militarization of his people’s ancestral lands, in which he estimates 8,000 high-ranking members of the military—marine, air and land troops—as well as 4 war-tanks, surveillance drones, aerostatic balloons, mobile satellites, and helicopter gunships, have been deployed.

The region—known as the Cordillera of the Condor—is where the cloud forests on the eastern slopes of the Andes drops off into the vast rainforests of the Amazon basin. It contains some of the most richly biodiverse ecosystems in the world. Once operational, the Explorcobres S.A. (EXSA) mine—a joint venture of Tongling and China Railway Construction—will be the second largest copper mine on the planet. It will make an estimated $1.2bn in annual royalties for the Ecuadorian government. It will also consume 41,769 hectares of rainforest and rural agricultural land, much of it belonging to the Shuar Peoples.

Now, almost a month after his arbitrary detention, Agustin Wachupá is being kept in a maximum security prison on the other side of the country near the capital Quito, despite a call from Amnesty International to respect his judicial rights. The State of Emergency within Morona Santiago has been extended for another 30 days, and a media blackout has been imposed, forcing 15 community radio stations to broadcast the state-run Radio Publico.

Meanwhile, the government stepped up its manhunt for the “illegal armed group” involved in the violent incursions onto Explorcobres S.A., but community leaders are claiming a witch-hunt has begun in order to capture and detain people of influence such as teachers or leaders who belong to local committees opposed to the mine, as well as the heads of households whose homes were bulldozed in Nankints. All of these people have one thing in common: they are predominantly indigenous males of military age. 

“The government of Rafael Correa is pushing the Armed Forces to play a role that we have never seen before, not even in times of dictatorship,” said Jorge Herrera, an indigenous leader of the Kichwa Peoples from the neighbouring Andes highlands. As president of the Confederation of Indigenous Nationalities of Ecuador (CONAIE), Herrera has expressed his increasing alarm at the military buildup inside of the Condor Cordillera on behalf of the 14 other indigenous nations of Ecuador that belong to the confederation. “The military is not defending the security of the population, but rather the transnational corporations that have purchased licenses [to exploit] large hectares of Ecuadorian territory as private property.”

From Dayuma to Sarayuku, President Correa’s government has deployed its overwhelming military might against rural and indigenous communities that oppose the nation’s booming mining industry before; but the current mobilization of state security forces inside Morona Santiago is unprecedented in terms of scale and scope in the country’s modern history. Not since 1995, during the Cenepa War between Ecuador and Peru, has their been such a massive build-up of armed forces along the Peruvian border on the western ridges of the Condor Cordillera, but back in 1995, in a complete reversal of roles, former president Sixto Duran commended the Shuar for working with the military to defend the Ecuadorian homeland from an invading foreign army.

The War of the Cenepa was the third military confrontation between Ecuador and Peru since 1941, and Ecuador had already suffered two embarrassing military defeats in both its previous battles with Peru along with the annexation of almost a third of the country’s former territory—hundreds of thousands of kilometres of oil and mineral rich land in the Amazon rainforest. Until its resolution in 1998, the border dispute between the two nation states had become the longest-running international armed conflict in the Western Hemisphere—and back in 1995, when the Amazon rainforest had turned into a theatre of modern warfare—this ancient people known as the Shuar were joining the Ecuadorian military en-masse.

A military anthem called “We will not yield a millimetre more” was being broadcast into television sets across the country to recruit men in their prime to join the Ecuadorian army and defend the nation’s borders against the Peruvians. The televised anthem featured clips of patriotic crowds waving Ecuadorian flags, coffins of the fallen being carried from army-helicopters, as well as soldiers in motorized canoes with mounted machine guns, scanning the thick vegetation on the river banks for Peruvian invaders. The speech of former-President Sixto Durán invokes patriotic fervour, uniting the Ecuadorian people to defend the motherland against a common enemy. The chorus, “Heroes of the Cenepa, we are all heroes” is chanted as an indigenous leader speaks to the Ecuadorian media, his traditional feather-headress proudly flashed across the screen.

The Shuar have always been a proud and fierce nation of warriors—long-feared for their practice of shrinking and mummifying the heads of enemies killed in combat in the days before contact—and they were respected and admired by their military comrades. In the Cenepa War, they were charged with transporting food and munitions over inhospitable jungle terrain, running reconnaissance missions around enemy camps and fighting on the Amazonian frontline—a mineral-rich basin by the river Cenepa within the mountainous Condor Cordillera. While the ancient tradition of head-hunting is no longer practiced by the Shuar, the feats on the Amazonian battlefield of an elite unit of Special Forces made up indigenous Shuar, and their ethnic cousins the Achuar, had captured the imagination of the Ecuadorian people. They were known as the Arútam Brigade, or the Iwia—the Demons of the Jungle—and they had become the pride of the nation. They were the Heroes of the Cenepa.

As night fell over the Condor Cordillera, legend goes that when possessed by the sacred spirit of Arútam, these indigenous commandos could enter the enemy camp with the stealth of the jaguar and the cunning of the anaconda, and then, disappear into the night as silently as they came without alerting the lookouts. When the Peruvian military woke at dawn the next day they discovered evidence of the incursion when members of their regiment would not move—they were still sleeping, lifeless without heads. 

These mythical war-stories of the Arútam Brigade on the Amazonian battlefield not only canonized the Shuar as defenders of the motherland at a time when the Ecuadorian people’s confidence in their own military had been shaken by their two previous military defeats—they struck fear into the heart of the invading Peruvian army. The Shuar Peoples helped the Ecuadorian government and its military win the War of the Cenepa. Ecuador did not yield a millimeter more of its territory to its much larger neighbor Peru—and the Shuar were proud to have served for their military and for their country in a time of need.

Ecuador’s presidential elections and backlash to the mining boom

The conflict in Nankints could not have come at a worse time for President Correa and his ruling party Alianza Pais. As the incumbent government closes ranks around Correa’s anointed successor—former Vice-President Lenin Moreno—in the upcoming February presidential elections, the Shuar uprising in the Condor Cordillera has again illuminated the dark underbelly of President Correa's so-called socialist “Citizens Revolution”. The outgoing president has spent unprecedented sums of money on infrastructure projects and social programs on his ambitious socialist agenda, but a perfect storm of plummeting oil prices, economic mismanagement, and numerous corruption scandals, have almost bankrupted the country. 

It took multiple billion-dollar loans from China to artificially prop up the Ecuadorian economy - and with it President Correa’s popularity. It will take generations for Ecuador to pay back this debt, and in the last few years the cash-strapped administration of President Correa has sold mining concessions to the Chinese that span a third of the country’s vast Amazon rainforest, as well as opened up large sections of pristine Andes wetlands and cloud-forests for mining in fragile ecosystems such as Intag and Quimsacocha.

These mines have become even more invasive and destructive to Ecuador’s richly biodiverse ecosystems and rural communities, exposing President Correa’s brand of socialism for what it is: militarized neoliberalism where anyone who is unfortunate enough to live above an oil or mineral deposit is stripped of their rights at the point of a gun. 

As the leader of the Shuar federation Agustin Wachupa sits in prison, his thoughts have no doubt called upon the memory of Jose Isidro Tendetza Antun - another Shuar leader who fought against another open-cut copper mine along the Condor Cordillera. El Mirador was the first open-cut mine in the country and was widely viewed as establishing a precedent for the nation’s booming mining industry. For years, Tendetza had organized community opposition to the mine, protesting the contamination of the region’s rivers as well as the eviction of rural and indigenous people who lived on the lands now being consumed by El Mirador. 

For his opposition against the mine, the late Shuar leader received constant harassment and death threats against him—including in 2012, when his house and crops were set on fire by men his family claimed were employees of the Chinese mine. Tendetza filed a complaint with the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights. In 2014, as the Shuar leader prepared to leave for Lima, Peru, to give a speech at the 2014 Climate Change Conference, he went missing.  After a tip-off, the son of Tendetza found his father in a grave marked “no name”. There were strangulation marks around his father’s throat, as well as broken bones and other signs of torture that marked the Shuar leaders body. His arms and legs were also trussed with a blue rope. 

Tendetza was the third Shuar leader to be violently murdered for opposing the mining industry since Bosco Wisum in 2009 and Freddy Taish in 2013. 

As is the case with many other large scale mining projects across Ecuador, a process of Free and Informed Prior Consent and Consultation was not carried out with the Shuar community over the exploration and exploitation of the minerals beneath the land in Nankints. This means Explorcobres S.A. (EXSA) is now in direct violation of Section 7 Article 57 of the Ecuadorian Constitution, as well as the rights enshrined in Articles 6 and 15.2 of Convention 169 of the ILO, and Article 19 of the U.N. Declaration of Rights of Indigenous Peoples. 

“Our territory is not only Nankints,” the Shuar Peoples stated in a letter. “In fact, more than 38 percent of our territory has been concessioned to large-scale mining. All the riverbanks of the Zamora and Santiago basins have been concessioned to small-scale mining. A gigantic hydroelectric dam is about to be built. So our question is: where do they want us to live?”

“The invasion of oil and mining companies, now Chinese and Canadian and others, are accomplices with this regime and their military police and followers,” said Domingo Ankuash, the historic leader of the Shuar. "The constitution, conventions and international declarations of human rights as well as the United Nations are worthless with no coercive power to stop this aggression. The Shuar Peoples are suffering at this time.”

Acción Ecológica, Quito, January 13, 2017

Dearest friends,

We want to publicly acknowledge the thousands of letters, embraces and messages that we have received from every corner of the world. We have, indeed, received an answer that for many, was unexpected: the Ecuadorean government has desisted in its intent to close Acción Ecoloógica.

We have known (between you and us) how to defend our right to solidarity, to participation, and to denounce the aggressions against nature. Even though it might seem strange to celebrate this, we do, because the risk of losing those rights approached, and it was terrifying.

Our defense of nature might be uncomfortable for groups of power, and to the transnational companies, and perhaps especially to the Chinese, as their companies are present in all of our national territory with their extractive projects and construccion of megainfraestructure But we recognize that our organization is also profoundly loved and respected by communities and individuales with whom we have worked. And put in the balanece, their lack of comfort on the one hand, and the love and respect on the other, the latter weighs more.

We live in a country marked by socio-environmental conflicts, oil exploitation in areas such as the Yasuní, mining in the Cordillera del Cóndor, and agrofuels in our dry and tropical forests. With such assault to territories, custodians of nature have called on us to participate, to be in solidarity, and to denounce such aggressions. We will continue to do so, with our intellectual and political support, with our presence in the streets, and through the construction of shared work - in order to confront the different causes and forms of aggressions against nature.

In accordance with our vision and mission, we commit to continue working so that the intelligence respects the Earth, and so that the Earth can sustain humanity.

We thank all of you for being there, and for giving life to and amplifying our voice, and for touching us with your loving drumbeats of peace, with justice and dignity.


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