Tag Archives: Ecuador

Can the law prevail over Chinese investments in Ecuador?

Police and Molleturo communities discuss procedures to monitor the suspension of mining activities. Photo: Manuela Picq

Manuela Picq | Intercontinental Cry | July 25, 2018

Last June, an Ecuadorean court ordered the suspension of all mining activities by a Chinese corporation in the highlands of Rio Blanco, in the Molleturo area of the Cajas Nature Reserve. It was a local court in Cuenca that gave the historic sentence: a court shut down an active mine for the first time in the history of Ecuador. Judge Paúl Serrano determined that the Chinese private corporation Junefield/Ecuagoldmining South America had failed to consult with the communities as required by Ecuador’s Constitution and by the UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples (UNDRIP).

Judge Serrano deemed the mining activity illegal and ordered the corporation to immediately suspend all its activities. Within two weeks, local communities accompanied police forces and local government officials in monitoring that the court order was respected.

The company appealed, and pressure was on the rise for the following hearing. The Chinese corporation privately offered $18 million to community leaders. Ecuador’s President, the Minister of Mines and the Minister of the Environment visited the province to pressure the local courts and indigenous communities to accept the mining activity. They defended “sustainable” mining as a form of development.

Affected communities consolidated their resistance, monitoring the access to the mine to impede mine workers to enter their territories, building support from neighboring communities, and informing the international community of the legal stakes.

On July 23, 2018, the court met again to either ratify or revert the decision to suspend mining activities in Rio Blanco. The court listened to all sides along with some expert testimonies; but there were discrepancies among the judges who postponed their verdict for another week.

Molleturo’s lasting vigilance for their waters

The Rio Blanco mine is located in the Molleturo-Mollepongo region, above ten thousand feet in the Andes. The mining license encompasses approximately six thousand hectares of paramos, lakes, and primary forests that nourish eight important rivers. This area replenishes the water system of the Cajas National Park, one of the largest and most complex water systems of Ecuador, which covers over a million hectares and holds immense water reserves.

The area is recognized as a natural biosphere reserve by UNESCO. These mountains have long been the home of Kañari-Kichwa indigenous communities. There are 12 archeological sites in the Molleturo area alone: the most famous one is the Paredones archeological site, located right by the mine.

The area is also a vital supply of water. These paramos provide water to 72 communities in Molleturo, freshwater to towns in the southern coast of Ecuador and to the city of Cuenca, the country’s third largest city which praises the quality of its drinking water.

The Rio Blanco mine is expected to be active for seven years, removing about 800 tons of rock per day and using cyanide to extract gold and silver. This entails an estimate of one thousand liters of water per hour that would be contaminated with deadly toxic waste, including arsenic, before being thrown back into rivers and soil.

Local indigenous communities were never consulted prior to the development of the project that would benefit from a recent Ecuadorean law incentivizing foreign investment. Nor did they give their consent to the licensing of their territories to the Junefield corporation. They reject the mine because it would contaminate their waters.

Women are at the forefront of the resistance that began almost two decades ago, when the mining license was first issued. Molleturo communities have been arguing in defense of water more or less actively over the last decade and a half but stepped it up when the mine started its activity in May 2018. Protests exploded, and a group burned out the miner’s living quarters.

Nobody was hurt in the explosion, but the police intervened, heavily armed, to militarize the area. The next day, protesters called in the president of Ecuador’s Confederation of Kichwa People Peoples for help, Yaku Perez Guartambel, but workers from the mine kidnapped him for eight hours, threatening to kill him. Tensions boiled to new heights.

Prior consultation as a fundamental indigenous human right

The Judge ordered the suspension on the mine–invoking constitutional and international indigenous rights to prior consultation.

Rosa, a delegate from the Andean Network of Indigenous Organizations (CAOI), discusses the territorial dimension of self-determination to community members gathered in the páramos of the Cajas mountain range. Photo: Manuela Picq

Since 1989, Art. 6 of the International Labor Organization Convention 169 safeguards indigenous rights to prior consultation on projects taking place on indigenous territories. Art. 18 of UNDRIP establishes indigenous rights to participate in decision making relating to their territories, and Art. 19 establishes that states must consult “in good faith” to obtain indigenous “prior, free, and informed consent: about legislative of administrative measures impacting their communities. In 2016, Art. 25 of the American Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples reiterated these principles in the context of the Organization of American States.

Prior consultation is not a simple law; it constitutes a fundamental human right of indigenous peoples because their existence is intimately tied to their territories. Their culture, lifeways, and community structures are woven into territorial autonomy.

An Amicus Curiae from a Chinese environmental lawyer

About half a dozen amicus curiaes were presented to Cuenca’s court supporting the communities right to prior consultation, from a range of organizations including the Environmental Defense Law Center, Ecuador’s Ecumenic Commission of Human Rights (CEDHU) and the Ecuadorian group Critical Geographies. Amicus were presented by scholars from Ecuadorean and American universities, including Universidad Internacional del Ecuador, Universidad de Cuenca, Universidad San Francisco de Quito, American University, and Coastal Carolina University.

Environmental lawyer Jingjing Zhang, from Beijing, submitted an amicus in which she provided an overview of relevant Chinese laws and regulations. She testified to the court on July 23, 2018, explaining that China ratified the UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples in 2007, thus supporting prior consultation and consent for any project on their territories. She reminded the words of the Chinese delegate at the 13th Session of the UN Permanent forum on Indigenous Issues (2014): “ the international community is duty bound to fully meet the legitimate requests of indigenous peoples, to promote and protect their basic human rights and freedoms, to safeguard the natural environment and resources on which their survival depends” and China “firmly supports the promotion and protection of the basic human rights and fundamental freedoms of all indigenous peoples around the world. ”

She explained to the court that China has regulations establishing that enterprises may not violate international treaties ratified by the Chinese government and that they are bound by the laws and environmental regulations of the host country. She stated that The Communist Party of China (CPC), State Council, and various government agencies have issued policy guidelines that encourage Chinese companies to focus on ecological environmental protection in their foreign investments. In her view, the Chinese government has deep concerns on the law-abiding and environmental performance of Chinese companies operating overseas.

Her amicus concluded that China’s Environmental Protection Law, Environmental Impact Assessment Law, and the Government Information Disclosure Regulation have strict provisions on the public participation rights of citizens. These regulations are based on the same principles and contain similar provisions to the Ecuadorian norms on the rights of indigenous peoples to prior consultation.

One step forward or two sets back?

The court sentence to suspend the mine marked a milestone of hope to Indigenous peoples and nature defenders. Yet the old tactics of legal warfare are still in use. Within a week of the court sentence, over 20 nature defenders were criminalized, eight of them charged with the crime of sabotage.

The private corporation Junefield/Ecuagoldmining South America did not have to do engage in public debate, Ecuador’s government is taking the lead. It was the Ministry of the Interior who accused indigenous peoples to defend the interests of the Chinese corporation. “The state proves that it is the best lawyer of mining companies,” says Yaku Perez Guartambel.

Will the criminalization of nature defenders continue? For now, judges are holding off a final verdict, and as the clock ticks political and economic pressures thicken. Molleturo leader Fausto Castro says that communities want their right to life back, and that they seek a peaceful solution to this mining conflict. It is indeed an achievement that serious confrontations were avoided, but this may not last forever. Yesterday, when the Judge staved off sentence as hundreds of nature defenders awaited outside the courtroom, many expressed their fears: “if the court reverts its sentence to benefit the State, it is a declaration of war.”

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‘Our territory is our life’: one struggle against mining in Ecuador

Members of Sinangoe’s guardia indigena established last year to protect their territory from miners and others. Photograph: Nicolas Mainville/Amazon Frontlines

The A’I Cofan in the Amazon fight back against small-scale gold-miners invading their land and new, large-scale concessions upriver

David Hill | The Guardian | 9 April 2018

Three A’I Cofan men were staring down at a pit of rocks, dead foliage and filthy water where two gold-panners were working. Beyond was a sluice and hoses running down to the rushing, green waters of the River Aguarico. To the right, there was mud, more rocks, more equipment, a makeshift tent and camp. Behind, to the left, a Hyundai excavator and a track running downriver.

No more than two weeks before, no track had existed and all this had been primary forest. Now that was gone. Only an area about 110 x 50 metres, you might say, but this is how gold rushes start.

Down below, several other A’I Cofan men – most wearing tunics, kerchiefs and life-jackets after a rocky canoe ride – were standing with one of the miners. He said his name was “Joselito” and he wore a yellow hardhat and pique shirt suggesting he was from the nearest village, Puerto Libre. Minutes before, the miners had been pumping water through the sluice and the excavator had been filling in the pit, but all that stopped with the arrival of the A’I Cofan – most immediately concerned if the miners were using mercury and the potentially catastrophic impacts on their village, Sinangoe, less than an hour downriver.

Joselito told the Guardian and others standing there that wasn’t the case. No mercury. “Eight years in prison [if you do that],” he said at least twice.

The mining site recently discovered by the A’I Cofan upriver from Sinangoe. Photograph: Nicolas Mainville/Amazon Frontlines

The new mining site is in a concession awarded to one Celso Amable Ureno Quezada in January 2018, according to the Ministry of Mines, in Sucumbíos province in a stunning part of the Ecuadorian Amazon. Joselito claimed it was his first day working there and he didn’t know who the concession belonged to, although he identified one of the others, a woman he called Alejandra Cortes, as the “boss.” Asked if the concession had obtained its licence from the Ministry of Environment, as is required by Ecuadorian law, Joselito almost laughed and said he didn’t know anything about that.

The miners had been spotted and filmed by drone the previous day, but Sinangoe’s president, Mario Criollo, had been warned they might soon be there when earlier in the week he had visited operations on a large beach slightly downriver, purportedly within the same concession. Accompanied by representatives from the Defensoría del Pueblo and government water agency SENAGUA, Criollo saw the same excavator and noticed a track recently cleared through the forest along the riverbank. According to Criollo, he had been told the plan is for the track – or rather, a road – to run all the way up to the northernmost tip of the concession towards the confluence of the River Cofanes and River Chingual, where form the River Aguarico.

Prior to that, in late February, Criollo had visited the same beach with a representative of the Sucumbíos province’s public prosecutors’ office, environmental police, other A’I Cofan and two NGOs supporting Sinangoe: the indigenous-run Alianza Ceibo, based in Sucumbíos, and the international Amazon Frontlines. The prosecutors’ office had been informed that allegedly the miners were operating illegally, without a licence, just outside the concession, and impacting the Cayambe Coca National Park. No arrests were made.

The large beach downriver from the recently-discovered site, where miners had previously been operating using the same excavator and sluice. Photograph: Nicolas Mainville/Amazon Frontlines

Criollo is shocked at how quickly the miners are moving. “We did a reccy two months ago and there was nothing like this there then,” he told the Guardian. “In two months they’ve made major advances. Maybe in four years they’d clear the entire riverbank. We don’t want it to get to that. That’s why we’re monitoring what’s happening.”

Criollo seems most concerned about the potential impacts on the River Aguarico. A major tributary of the River Napo, which in turn is a major tributary of the River Amazon, it is a crucial source of water for the A’I Cofan in Sinangoe – not to mention 1000s of other people even further downriver. Another concern is the colonisation that a concession and road might encourage, making it easier for miners and others to cross to the other side of the river to the national park and Sinangoe’s own land.

Criollo emphasises that his community doesn’t want to take control of the concession area, although he acknowledges that it is considered to be ancestral Cofan territory. Sinangoe already has an agreement dating from 1998 to use 13,700 hectares within the park – but no legal title – and in total it claims land rights over more than 55,000 hectares stretching westwards.

“Our interest in [the concession upriver from Sinangoe] isn’t about obtaining more land,” Criollo says. “It’s not that we want to cut that forest down ourselves, or mine for gold, or exploit oil. It’s just that we don’t want the water to be contaminated.”

Concern about the water is echoed by Nixon Narvaez, a 20 year old A’I Cofan man receiving communications training from the Alianza Ceibo who photographed the recent visit to the new site. He calls what they found “a little horrific”, saying the riverbank is “literally” being destroyed and the river risks being contaminated.

“We live along the banks of the river,” Narvaez told the Guardian. “It is fundamental to our lives. We drink the water, we bathe in it, we fish. Maybe the fish are being contaminated and our health will be endangered. It’d be better if the concession was cancelled.”

Similar concerns are expressed by Alex Lucitante, an A’I Cofan man with the Alianza Ceibo. “The River Aguarico is a source of life,” he told the Guardian. “As indigenous peoples, we rely on it for our families’ subsistence. It has already been difficult enough following the contamination caused by oil companies [downriver], which was never cleaned up. But now, with this mining, it would be a kind of double hit – a very serious risk.”

Back in Sinangoe, on the day the A’I Cofan returned from the new mining site, a Ministry of Environment park guard and two scientists paid a surprise visit to discuss a proposed “conservation corridor” in the region. According to a map given to Criollo, this would stretch across a huge swathe of northern Ecuador from the Cotacachi Cayapas Ecological Reserve to the Cofan Bermejo Ecological Reserve on the border with Colombia, and would include the north of Sinangoe and the national park.

Neither scientist said he was previously aware of the mining concession or operations upriver. Milton Tirado, a botanist, told the Guardian he had been contracted by Spanish company INYPSA to develop the corridor proposal for the Ministry of Environment, but is financed by the German government bank KfW. He says he is “totally” concerned because “the mining would affect our project’s objectives to establish conservation corridors.”

The concession upriver from Sinangoe, named Puerto Libre, is actually just one of four concessions bordering the community and national park that have been awarded in recent months – two in January, one in December 2017, one in August 2017. In addition, there are another six concessions along the River Chingual. While the A’I Cofan are already extremely concerned about Puerto Libre, the potential cumulative impacts of all 10 concessions are unimaginable.

According to Alex Lucitante, the A’I Cofan federation Nacionalidad Originaria A’I Kofan del Ecuador (NOA’IKE) is “extremely concerned” about the concessions. He told the Guardian that some of them run for up to 25 years and they will impact not only Sinangoe but other parts of A’I Cofan ancestral territory, as well as other indigenous peoples downriver. “I’m not just speaking as an A’I Cofan leader, but thinking of the other indigenous nationalities living along the Aguarico,” he says.

Map from the Ministry of Mines’s website showing the concessions – marked in red – upstream from Sinangoe – not marked – along the River Aguarico and tributaries. The concessions now run around the entire north-eastern rim of the Cayambe Coca National Park. Photograph: Ministry of Mines

These newest concessions bordering Sinangoe have appeared despite recent pledges by Ecuador’s president Lenín Moreno that no new mining concessions would be awarded. In December 2017 he was reported to have told indigenous federation CONAIE and other indigenous leaders after 1,000s of people marched to the capital Quito that there would be “no more mining concessions in Ecuador”, and then in February he was reported to make similar comments during a visit to the Morona Santiago province. According to Agence France-Presse (AFP), he said that mining had “severely” contaminated the country’s rivers, that he had previously promised “not one concession more”, that the government had backtracked on awarding 2,000 new concessions, that some new concessions had been awarded anyway, and that he had asked the Minister of Mines to resign.

“I had to, unfortunately, tell the Minister that my promise must be met and [therefore] he had to go home,” AFP quoted Moreno saying.

The new concessions upriver from Sinangoe – large-scale, supposedly legal, but possibly involving mercury – have come after years of small-scale, illegal miners and others invading the community, and within less than a year of the A’I Cofan initiating a series of concerted efforts to repel them. The first of these efforts has been to conduct systematic monitoring with mapping and GPS, drones, camera traps – three of which have since been stolen – and conventional film and photography.

Members of Sinangoe’s guardia indigena have been using GPS to monitor miners and others invading their land. Photograph: Jeronimo Zuniga/Amazon Frontlines

The results of the monitoring have been startling, although not particularly surprising: dozens of miners using sluices, dredges and other equipment entering Sinangoe, along with hunters, loggers and fishermen. Some fishermen have used dynamite, while others have half-dammed one river to stun fish with a toxic plant known as barbasco. At least six shot-gun traps have been found – intended for peccary and other wild game but equally fatal if one of the A’I Cofan walked into them – and on at least four occasions metal cables have been found strung across the river.

Who are the miners? Criollo and others say some are “colonos” from Puerto Libre, some from elsewhere in Ecuador, others Colombians. Some people from the community itself mine too, but it is limited and only involves panning.

In addition to the monitoring, Sinangoe has formed a “guardia indigena” of almost 20 people and promulgated its own law, as is arguably its right under Ecuador’s Constitution, international law and the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples. This happened after just three months monitoring, once the A’I Cofan realised how many people were invading. The law, dated May 2017, prohibits outsiders from conducting “any kind of mining activity with pan, sluice, winch, dredge and/or other equipment”, from “any kind of fishing using unconventional methods such as barbasco, poison, dynamite, water pistols, nets and/or other equipment”, and from “any kind of hunting using traps, shotguns, dogs and/or other unconventional methods.”

Local authorities soon became aware of the law, reportedly leading to a “drastic increase” in threats made to Criollo and other community members. When the number of invaders continued to remain high, the A’I Cofan held a public event on 14 September in order to further spread awareness of the law. The event was broadcast live on Radio Sucumbíos and attended by the provincial governor and representatives of the public prosecutors’ office, Defensoría del Pueblo, Ministry of Mines, Ministry of Environment, Ministry of Interior, other A’I Cofan communities and other indigenous leaders.

“Our message is very clear,” Criollo said in a press release at the time. “We want our neighbours to respect us and our territory. For many years we have witnessed invaders exploiting the resources in our ancestral territory without our consent. Today we are saying, “No more.””

That press release quoted one of the few female members of Sinangoe’s guardia, Lisbeth Narvaez. “Our territory is our life,” she said. “This new process of territorial defence is historic, legitimate and crucial to ensure the protection of our rights and to maintain the integrity of our ancestral lands. We call on all communities of A’I Cofan nationality and other nationalities in the Ecuadorian Amazon to support this process and fight for the defence of their territories.”

To date, the law appears to have had some impact. Although a report by Sinangoe in September stated that the number of miners remained high and some of the same people were repeatedly entering, the situation is reported to have improved since the public event. Nixon Narvaez puts that down to the establishment of the guardia too, whose members are responsible for enforcing the law.

“Before the law there was a lot of people entering,” he says. “Since then, things have quieted down a little.”

The irony that the A’I Cofan themselves have had to make such efforts – even though their land is in a supposedly protected national park established in 1979, almost 40 years ago – is not lost on the community. According to the park’s Management Plan, it is the most important water reserve in northern Ecuador, supplying Quito with “almost all” its water, and it is home to the country’s third biggest volcano, “extraordinary” biodiversity, the stunning 160m-high San Rafael waterfall and a “great number of species that are endemic or new to science that aren’t protected in any other part of the world.” The website of the Ministry of Environment, which runs the park, dubs it “the national park of water.”

But among the A’I Cofan in Sinangoe frustration with the Ministry clearly runs deep. Community members argue that the park was established without consulting them, and the Ministry takes no serious measures to protect the part where they live. This is despite the fact that the Management Plan, dating from almost 10 years ago, acknowledges the park’s “great mining potential” and the potential pressure on the area as a result.

Last November the Ministry of Environment, together with various other state institutions, did pay a rare visit to Sinangoe. A Ministry report acknowledges that evidence of mining was found and several commitments to the community were made, but the trip itself was cut short and various institutions were slow to report back to the A’I Cofan – further fuelling their frustration.

“We’ve called the Ministry many times, but they don’t do anything,” Criollo told the Guardian. He wasn’t just talking about mining. “For example, when we’ve seen a fisherman using dynamite.”

Nixon Narvaez puts it another way: the Ministry and park are regulated by a “ley de afuera” – laws promulgated in Quito. “They don’t have any value here,” he says. “The Ministry comes but doesn’t do anything. They don’t enter. They’ve never said to us, “Let’s go, guys [into the park]!”

The sudden appearance of the miners in the concession upriver from Sinangoe has come at a particularly crucial moment for mining in Ecuador. In February it was the subject of one of seven questions in a national referendum, with 68% of Ecuadorians voting against mining in protected and certain other areas. In March over 1,000 people marched to Quito to mark World Water Day and raise awareness of the dangers posed by the industry, and female indigenous leaders met president Moreno to request an end to all operations in their territories. A collective of organisations and individuals, “Caminantes”, has emerged calling for all concessions to be annulled. On 16 April a march is planned in the north of the country, with members of Sinangoe due to participate.

Luisana Aguilar, from the Comision Ecumenica de Derechos Humanos (CEDHU), told the Guardian that the Caminantes have adopted their position after “10 years of no dialogue and the violent imposition” of concessions and mines.

“Some initial achievements have already been made: putting the issue on the political agenda, getting a question about mining into the referendum, the offer to award no new concessions, the Minister’s dismissal and the backtracking on some concessions [in the process of being established],” Aguilar says. “We believe that this is the moment when Ecuador must make a decision: either take a step back, annul the concessions and build a post-extractivist economy, or continue along the same lines and pursue profit at the expense of mega-biodiversity, indigenous territories and campesino communities.”

Yet at the same time approximately 15% of the country is included in mining concessions and despite the recent decision to backtrack on some new ones, a further 170,000 hectares were awarded between December 2017 and February, mostly to Australian, Canadian, Chilean and Chinese companies, according to the Coordinadora Ecuatoriana de Organizaciones para la Defensa del Ambiente y la Naturaleza (CEDENMA). Last week Quito hosted an international mining conference, “Ecuador minero por buen camino”, where the acting Minister of Mines said that $4.5 billion is expected to be invested over the next few years in mining projects already under construction, and exports and other revenue streams will generate a further $5 billion.

“Our national policy is defined and looks to attract and encourage private, national and foreign investment which will be productive and socially and environmentally responsible, and generate decent employment,” the Minister, Rebeca Illescas, was reported to say. “About 5,000 jobs have already been directly created and it is calculated that the strategic projects [San Carlos Panantza, Rio Blanco, Loma Larga, Mirador and Fruta del Norte, all towards the south of the country] will generate roughly 25,000 jobs directly and indirectly through to 2021.”

Meanwhile, in the La Merced de Buenos Aires parish in Imbabura province, slightly to the north-west of Sinangoe, a much-publicised gold rush has been taking place. The Ministry of Mines issued a statement last week estimating there are more than 3,000 people mining illegally in that region, saying it is committed to “combatting and eradicating illegal mining” and that it has detained over 130 people.

Joselito, upriver from Sinangoe, had mentioned the Buenos Aires gold rush when recently confronted by the A’I Cofan. He estimated there are 5,000 people there and appeared to claim mercury was being used, unlike at his site along the River Aguarico.

But was he telling the truth? Earlier this year Amazon Frontlines’s Nicolas Mainville, a French-Canadian biologist specialising in mercury contamination in the Amazon, recorded the president of Puerto Libre’s small-scale miners’ association saying that some operators – distinct from his association – have been using mercury on the River Aguarico. Mainville believes that many other people in the region would agree with that, and he has taken soil and water samples from the large beach just downriver from the new site where the same excavator and sluice had previously been operating.

“I really don’t know and I sincerely hope they aren’t, but everybody we’ve talked to says yes,” says Mainville, who piloted the drone over the new site. “Because economically it just makes little sense to have all that machinery – the excavator and the sluice – and all those people and not use mercury. Because if you don’t use mercury, you just use sight. You have to sift through everything. It’s incredibly inefficient at that scale. With that sluice, and with mercury, all the gold would be sticking. Everyone I’ve spoken to says, “Of course they’ve been using mercury.””

The A’I Cofan in Sinangoe aren’t sure either. But both Narvaez and Criollo appear aware of the potentially devastating consequences and are waiting for the samples results. The community has requested that the Ministry of Environment take samples too, but nothing has yet been done.

“We don’t know, but if they’re using mercury it could be extremely dangerous,” says Alex Lucitante, from the Alianza Ceibo. “We understand what it is, what it can cause, what harm it can do. It’s very toxic. That’s what concerns us the most. That’s mainly why we’re rising up and fighting.”

The Ministry of Environment, Ministry of Mines, National Communications Secretariat and INYPSA did not respond to questions from the Guardian. Celso Amable Ureno Quezada could not be reached.

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The Struggle Between Ecuador’s Indigenous Shuar and the Mega-Mining Project That’s Displacing Them

Marlon Vargas (second right), President of the Confederation of Indigenous Nationalities of the Ecuadorian Amazon (Confenaie): “Our brothers who are there right now have told us that they will fight until the last consequences." Photo: Bryan Miranda

Marlon Vargas (second right), President of the Confederation of Indigenous Nationalities of the Ecuadorian Amazon (Confenaie): “Our brothers who are there right now have told us that they will fight until the last consequences.” Photo: Bryan Miranda

Bryan Miranda | Remezcla | 23 November 2016

In 2008, Ecuador became the first country in the world to recognize the rights of nature in its constitution, giving its natural communities and ecosystems the right to exist and persist. It was a progressive and unprecedented legal move. But since then, the Ecuadorian government under Rafael Correa has green lit numerous massive development projects helmed by Chinese companies, including a controversial copper mining project in the Amazonian territory of the Indigenous Shuar people.

For years, the Shuar have been fighting to halt the project, called El Mirador, noting that it would “irreversibly damage the region’s fragile ecosystem and violate the legal rights of indigenous peoples to live, develop and control their land and territory,” according to China Dialogue. And on Monday, the conflict escalated after a group of Shuar reportedly clashed with police and military troops following attempts to recover ancestral territory from Chinese mining operations, as reported by Indigenous leaders and state officials.

Clashes came as Shuar nationals from the Nankints community in the Amazonian province of Morona Santiago coordinated an incursion into a mining camp of the Chinese company Ecsa Ecuacorriente at dawn on Monday.

The Interior Ministry said in a statement that Indigenous Shuar participated in an “unexpected armed attack” against the Ecsa camp, which they say is the “legal landowner.”

Seven police officers were allegedly injured during the Shuar’s take-over, Interior Minister Diego Fuentes said on his official Twitter account Tuesday morning.

Fuentes reported, at 12 PM EST on Tuesday, that control over the territory was restored. Indigenous political leaders in close contact with Shuars on the ground, however, say clashes still continue.

“The warriors of Nankints continue fighting and the military represses with brutality,” Severino Sharupi, leader of territories and natural resources of the Confederation of Indigenous Nationalities of Ecuador (Conaie), reported on Twitter.

Shuar leaders said in a press release on Monday that the coordinated take-over comes as a result of military and police raids that forcibly evicted 32 Shuars from their land to make room for open-cast pit mining operations.

“This is why the Shuar Nation takes decisions to expel the company and to rescue what by right and legitimate position belongs to us,” the press release stated.

They further urged the military to abstain from violence and called on other Shuars and Indigenous communities from the Amazon to join them in solidarity as part of a larger fight against military presence and state-backed extractivism in the rainforest.

“Our brothers who are there right now have told us that they will fight until the last consequences,” Marlon Vargas, President of the Confederation of Indigenous Nationalities of the Ecuadorian Amazon (Confenaie) said at a press conference Tuesday morning.

“If anything were to happen there, any disgrace, to our brothers; the only responsible one will be the government of (president) Rafael Correa. We will stand up to fight and we will not desist, whatever the costs. That’s the decision we’ve made in the Amazon,” Vargas added.

A woman who was evicted from her home in San Marcos on September 30, 2015, searches the location where her house was for belongings. The location for the Mirador Mine pit is just beyond the nearest ridge in the distance. Photo by Beth Wald

A woman who was evicted from her home in San Marcos on September 30, 2015, searches the location where her house was for belongings. The location for the Mirador Mine pit is just beyond the nearest ridge in the distance. Photo by Beth Wald

Under the San Carlos Panantza copper project, the Ecuadorian government conceded 41 thousand hectares of land to the Chinese mining company ECSA for a period of 25 years. The project, which is currently in the exploration phase, is estimated to deliver around $1200 million USD in annual profits.

Shuar communities, however, say they were neither informed nor consulted prior to the forced evictions, which they claim violate their constitutional rights.

Tensions between Indigenous groups in the Amazon and the national government have heightened after the same mining project pushed dozens of families from their land in the Amazonian province of Zamora Chinchipe in 2015.

Meanwhile in 2014, José Isidro Tendetza Antún, a leader of the Shuar people in Zamora Chinchipe and prominent activist against Chinese mining operations, was found dead under unknown circumstances.

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Indigenous women speak out against extractive industries in the Amazon

amazon indigenous women

Land is Life

Yesterday at United Nations Headquarters, Alicia Cahuiya (Vice President of NAWE, the Waorani Nation of Ecuador) and Gloria Ushigua (President of Ashiñwaka, the Sápara Women’s association) from the Ecuadorian Amazon spoke out against the threats to Indigenous rights due to extractive industries in their lands and territories.

With support from Land is Life and Acción Ecológica, the two leaders traveled to New York for the 15th Session of the United Nations Permanent Forum on Indigenous Issues. They are here to request a meeting with the Permanent Mission of China to the UN following the signing of two new oil projects between the Ecuadorian government and Chinese oil companies to explore oil reserves in their ancestral territories without their free, prior and informed consent (FPIC).

“We are here to defend our rights because they are contaminating our lands and rivers… and the Ecuadorian government is not defending the rights of the Indigenous Peoples living in voluntary isolation, the Taromenane”
– Alicia Cahuiya, Vice President of NAWE

The Amazonian women were also joined in solidarity by Indigenous leaders from North America and Asia. “Our strength is the unity of the communities affected by extractive actions,” declared Beverly Longid of Indigenous Peoples Movement for Self-Determination and Liberation.

Ms. Cahuiya and Ms. Ushigua read the letter to the Chinese Mission to the UN and are hoping to arrange a meeting in the coming days. They expect that United Nations system will listen to their voices and fully respect their rights.

The Amazonian women launched an emergency appeal from within the UN to seek international solidarity of all Indigenous Peoples, citizens and governments around the world to defend their traditional cultures and territories.

The letter to the Chinese Mission

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“To get the gold, they will have to kill every one of us”

The most-storied warrior tribe in Ecuador prepares to fight as the government sells gold-laden land to China

Alexander Zaitchik | Salon

Of the thousands of “Avatar” screenings held during the film’s record global release wave, none tethered the animated allegory to reality like a rainy day matinee in Quito, Ecuador.

It was late January 2010 when a non-governmental organization bused Indian chiefs from the Ecuadorean Amazon to a multiplex in the capital. The surprise decampment of the tribal congress triggered a smattering of cheers, but mostly drew stares of apprehension from urban Ecuadoreans who attribute a legendary savagery to their indigenous compatriots, whose violent land disputes in the jungle are as alien as events on “Avatar’s” Pandora.

The chiefs — who watched the film through plastic 3-D glasses perched beneath feathered headdress — saw something else in the film: a reflection. The only fantastical touches they noticed in the sci-fi struggle were the blue beanstalk bodies and the Hollywood gringo savior.

“As in the film, the government here has closed the dialogue,” a Shuar chief told a reporter after the screening. “Does this mean that we do something similar to the film? We are ready.”

Three years after “Avatar’s” Quito premiere, declarations of martial readiness are multiplying and gaining volume throughout the tribal territories of Ecuador’s mountainous southeast. The warnings bare sharpest teeth in the Shuar country of the Cordillera del Condor, the rain forest mountain range targeted by President Rafael Correa for the introduction of mega-mining.

In recent years, the quickening arrival of drills and trenchers from China and Canada has provoked a militant resistance that unites the local indigenous and campesino populations. The stakes declared and the violence endured by this battle-scarred coalition is little-known even in Ecuador, where Correa has made muscular use of state security forces in arresting activists and intimidating journalists who threaten his image as an ecologically minded man-of-the-people. This repression has only intensified in the run-up to Correa’s expected reelection on Feb. 17.

My guide to this simmering “Avatar” in the Amazon was a 57-year-old Shuar chief named Domingo Ankuash. Like many elder Shuar, Ankuash does not appear to be blustering when he says he will die defending his ancestral lands in the province of Morona-Santiago, which borders Peru. Early in my month traveling the Condor, he took me deep into the country for which he is prepared to lay down his life. After a steep two hours’ hike from his village, we arrived at a forest clearing of densely packed earth. Through the trees and hanging vines, a 40-foot waterfall replenished a deep rock-strewn lagoon.

The cascade is one of thousands in the Condor cordillera, a rolling buffer between the cliffs of the eastern Andes and the continental flatness of the Amazon basin.

“We have been coming to these sacred cascades since before the time of Christ,” said Ankuash, preparing a palm-leaf spread of melon and mango.

“The government has given away land that is not theirs to give, and we have a duty to protect it. Where there is industrial mining, the rivers die and we lose our way of life. They want us to give up our traditions, work in the mines, and let them pollute our land. But we will give our lives to defend the land, because the end is the same for us either way.”

Beside the bright melons, Ankuash unfolds a frail map of the Condor to come. The industrial future overlays the natural present in a dense geometric circuitry that blots out the region’s rivers and mountains with a patchwork of oddly patterned boxes, as if some madcap Aguirre had gerrymandered the jungle. Rafael Correa’s PAIS Alliance was elected in 2007 with heavy indigenous support, but the map’s vision is the president’s own. His economic development plan, enshrined in a series of controversial laws and strategic declarations, centers on prying Ecuador’s southern rain forests of their rich placer deposits of base and precious metals, which fleck the Condor’s soils and loams like the stars of the universe. Ecuador, Correa has declared, can no longer be “a beggar sitting atop a sack of gold.”

To help him grab these shiny metals, Correa has invited foreign mining firms to deforest and drill much of the country’s remaining pristine forests. Not far from where Ankuash and I are sitting, a Chinese joint venture led by the China Railway Corp. is building infrastructure for an open-sky copper mine with the “Lord of the Rings”-sounding name of Mirador. To the north and east of the Chinese concession, the Canadian gold giant Kinross is prepping its 39 lots, including the envy of the industry, Fruta del Norte, believed to be Latin America’s largest deposit of high-grade gold. These projects are merely the first wave; others wait in the wings. Together they threaten more than the Shuar way of life and the sustainable agricultural and tourist economies of Ecuador’s southern provinces. The Condor is a hot spot of singular ecological wealth and a major source of water for the wider Amazon watershed to the east. What happens there is of global consequence.

But there’s no international outcry on the horizon to concern Rafael Correa and his commercial partners abroad. What they face is a local security problem. It is the same security problem known to regional colonial powers dating back to the Inca. As Correa has always known, and as the Chinese are learning, the Condor is ancestral home to 8,000 Shuar, the most storied warrior tribe in the annals of colonialism in the New World.

“The strategy is to unite the Shuar like the fingers of a fist,” Ankuash tells me as I prepare to dive into the icy waters of the lagoon below. “The forest has always given us everything we need, and we are planning to defend it, as our ancestors would, with the strength of the spear. To get the gold, they will have to kill every one of us first.”

*   *   *

Among the tribes of the Amazon, only the Shuar successfully revolted against Inca and Spanish occupation. The Incan emperor Huayana Capac led the first attempted conquest of Shuar territory in 1527, an adventure that ended with his rump army bestowing gifts in retreat. The first European to follow Capac’s footsteps, Hernando de Benavente, ran briskly ahead of Shuar arrows back to Lima, where he complained to the Royal Court of “the most insolent [tribe] that I have seen in all the time that I have traveled in the Indies and engaged in their conquest.” Years of gift-bearing Spanish peace missions eventually won Shuar acceptance of trading posts at Maca and Sevilla del Oro. But these were never tranquil.

“The Shuar are a very warlike people [and] are killing Spaniards every day,” observed a visitor to the outposts in 1582. “It is a very rough land, having many rivers and canyons, all of which in general have gold in such quantity that the Spaniards are obliged to forget the danger.” Some Shuar, he noted, worked the mines in exchange for goods, but did so “with much reluctance.”

The most famous case of Shuar “insolence” occurred in 1599, when the Spanish governor of Maca demanded a gold tax from local Indians to fund a celebration of the coronation of Philip III. The night before the tax was due, Shuar armies slaughtered every adult male in the Spanish hamlets and surrounded the governor’s home. They tied the governor to his bed and used a bone to push freshly melted gold down his throat, laughing and demanding to know if he had finally sated his thirst.

According to the Jesuit priest and historian Juan de Velasco, the “the horrendous catastrophe” at Maca caused “insolences and destructions” by the “barbaric nations” up and down the Andean spine of New Spain. For the next 250 years, the Spanish mostly stayed away. Occasional attempts by Jesuit missionaries to reestablish contact were met with a welcome basket of skulls pulled from the shrunken heads of gold-hungry Spaniards.

Most people have heard of the Shuar, even if they don’t realize it. They are the storied Amazonian “head shrinking” tribe. Each of a long succession of enemies have learned firsthand of their tzantza ritual, in which the heads of slain invaders are removed at the collarbone, relieved of their skulls, and shrunk by seasoned boiling in a multi-day ceremony. Tzantza is just one of many rituals rooted in a cosmology of animist spirits. Collectively, these spirits are known as Arutam, a shape-shifting pantheistic godhead whose name loosely translates as “soul power.” Atop a bridge leading to Shuar territory in the southern province of Zamora-Chinchipe, I encountered an oversize statue of Arutam in human form wielding a staff astride a giant toucan, redolent of the dragon-like beasts of “Avatar.”

If James Cameron’s fictional Na’vi of “Avatar” reflect the essence and predicament of one real-world tribe, it’s the Shuar. While they do not expect an action-hero savior to fall from the sky, they recognize that avoiding further bloodshed and protecting the Condor ultimately depends on getting the attention of the wider world, and quickly.

“The world needs to know what is happening in Ecuador, because the destruction of the Condor will have effects for the Amazon, and what affects the Amazon affects the planet as a whole,” said Ankuash. “The world must understand the Condor is not an ordinary patch of jungle.”

*   *   *

The biologist Alfredo Luna walks with a limp and a cane, the legacy of a plane crash in the Condor that killed two of his colleagues nearly 20 years ago. The plane was carrying a team assembled by Conservation International to conduct the first and only systematic study of the Condor’s hydrological system and the abundant flora and fauna it supports. The team’s findings catapulted the Condor into the elite ranks of global hot spots as ranked by conservation significance. A synopsis of these findings is the subject of a slideshow Luna gives around the world in an attempt to catalyze the conservation community.

“The Condor combines the diversity of the Andes and the Amazon in the middle of cloud forest,” Luna said one evening at an NGO office in Quito, pausing his presentation on the image of a marsupial species recently discovered in the Condor. “There is more diversity of life in one hectare of the Condor than all of North America combined.”

Luna stresses that his slideshow only hints at the majesty of the Condor’s biodiversity. “Researchers have just scratched the surface,” he said. What is known is that the Condor breathes with more than 2,000 vascular plants and flowers, including 40 unique varieties of orchid. It is home to hundreds of endemic species of birds, reptiles, amphibians and mammals, dozens of which were new to science when first cataloged by Luna’s team.

“Unleashing industrial-scale mining in the region is a catastrophe equal to using the Galapagos Islands as a bombing range,” said the biologist. “Its flora has enormous potential to benefit man. So much of it, we’ve only seen from helicopters. Before we even know what’s there, they’re going to destroy it.”

The Condor’s ecological riches are a consequence of unusual wetness. The mountains of the Condor sit on massive aquifers containing a fair chunk of the continent’s fresh water. This water trickles out of innumerable crevices and pours forth from countless cascades. The streams feed famous rains. The volume of rain produced in the Condor’s water cycle is enormous, says Luna, thanks to a unique commixture of altitudes, endemic soils, and solar and wind patterns. The heavy rainwater feeds dozens of small rivers that wind east into the Rios Zamora and Santiago, which sustain the region’s agricultural economy. These eventually merge with Peru’s Marañón River, a major tributary of the continental Amazonian watershed.

The amount of water pulsing through the Condor, says Luna, makes laughable government and industry claims that large stores of toxic mining waste can be contained in tailing ponds, and that samples of the region’s wildlife can be preserved in greenhouse Arks for future replanting.

“The Condor cycle is supported by at least two dozen kinds of fragile soils and vegetation cover,” he said.

“This web of microclimates will not survive the violence of major mining. It all begins with the rain and the rivers, and the mining will affect rainfall, drying up and contaminating important hinges in the larger Amazon River system. The fools don’t understand that disturbing one part disturbs the whole.”

*   *   *

Shuar life in the Condor remained largely unchanged until well into the last century. Regular contact with the modern Ecuadorean state began at mid-century, when the government began a settlement program in what it called tierra baldia — “no man’s land.” Thousands of mestizo farmers were moved into the mountains and given plots of land. With them came state schools, paved roads, cattle ranching, artisanal miners and frontier towns. Beginning in the 1960s, a new character began appearing in these frontier towns: the wildcat geologist seeking El Dorado. Drawn by the old myths and encouraged by the new infrastructure, they surveyed the mountains, broke rock, sifted soils and bagged samples. “They always said they were studying the flowers,” remembers an old Shuar woman who served many first-wave geologists at her roadside grill, where she sells fish baked in leaves that sweeten the meat. “They walked around with maps and little axes. They came from many countries.”

The samples they took revived the legend of Condor gold. In the 1990s, the first mining concessions were handed to politically connected firms. The World Bank funded a geological survey of the region that turned up traces of more than 300 minerals. International mining juniors were lining up to find the biggest deposits in 1995 when the country went to war with Peru for the third time in half a century, suspending exploration. The Shuar lived along the disputed border and played an important role in the war, reinvigorating their reputation as the Gurkhas of the Amazon. In multiple Shuar villages, veterans of the war spoke of decapitating Peruvian soldiers they killed in jungle firefights and carrying the heads back home for skinning and shrinking.

“The tzantza ceremony protects against us from further invasion and shows that we do not kill lightly,” explained a Shuar veteran named Patricio Taishtiwiram. With a twinkle in his eye, he added, “It also makes us feel like we are winning.”

The foreign mining firms who set up exploratory bases in the Condor after the war probably did not know the tzantza is a living tradition. But they knew enough about the local population to stay low and mask their purpose.

“They came in very quiet, always changing names as they grew,” said Tarcisio Juep, a 50-year-old Shuar from a village near the proposed Mirador site. “First it was Gemsa, then Billington, then the Canadian ECSA, and now it’s the Chinese ECSA. They never asked permission. They never explained their plans. Then some years ago they told us they had bought the land, that mining was coming, that they’d give us jobs, that they would be the only jobs. It was a crime in pieces.”

In 2005, Corriente went public with the scale of the Mirador project. The Canadian firm announced it would build an open-pit copper mine dwarfing anything in Ecuador’s history. The mine required hollowing out one of the region’s largest mountains and clear-cutting several others. A massive tailing pond would hold the 200-plus million tons of toxic effluvia generated over the mine’s 18-year lifespan.

The site designated for the waste sits half a mile from the Rio Quimi, a tributary of the Rio Zamora, whose waters support the local agricultural economy on their way into the Amazon basin. Roads and bridges are being built for 18-wheel truck traffic to carry hundreds of tons of copper concentrate on a daily nonstop loop between the mine and a port on Ecuador’s Pacific coast. (Such projects receive much of President Correa’s “populist” infrastructure spending.)

Corriente announced its plan coated in absurd assurances that the mine and the waste pool were nothing to fear. The company even claimed that after the mine had closed, the tailing pond could be converted into a “resort lake” for swimming and water sports. Corriente printed up leaflets showing people swimming in the crystal waters of this man-made lake that once contained millions of tons of cancer soup.

“They think we are stupid and will believe their children’s stories,” said Ankuash, the Shuar chief. “But even our children can see through them. We know what oil drilling has done in the north of Ecuador. We know what industrial mining does. We are in contact with our indigenous friends in Chile and Peru and have learned from them. We know the companies will come in and take all the minerals, leaving devastation behind. Wherever companies are most active, the communities are weakest. Where people used to help each other, they begin to think only of themselves. Families are not as strong. Correa’s mining policy will be the end of everything. Already the exploratory drills are polluting the water.”

In Tundayme, the community closest to the Mirador site, the old agricultural economy has withered.

“The exploratory machines create dirty runoff by drilling huge 7-foot holes,” said Angel Arebelo, a farmer who last year moved to the nearest frontier town to drive a cab. “You can taste it in the rivers of the Quimi Valley. It is just beginning. Eventually everyone here will die from the chemicals.”

“We used to grow our own food, corn and yucca, and sell the rest in Pangui. Now they come here to sell,” said Eva Correa, a young Shuar mother in Tundayme. “Everything is upside down. They took our land away and now we need money, but the company pay is not enough and the work is dangerous. The new model is not working.”

One afternoon, I stopped by ECSA’s two-story mirrored-glass corporate office, which sits at the end of El Pangui’s short and dusty commercial strip. In the lobby, a poster showed Chinese managers and local employees in hard hats working together. Another poster featuring bright green frogs advertised the company’s sponsorship of an environmental-photography contest. I was directed to the office of Ruth Salinas, ECSA’s garrulous light-skinned communications officer. She dismissed the idea that mining would undermine local agricultural and tourism and launched into a rant against the Shuar.

“The Indians can’t lecture anyone on the environment!” she huffed. “They hunt, you know? They fish with poison leaves that ruin the rivers. They cut down trees. They only want money from us, but they are not responsible enough to use it. They don’t do anything but grow yucca and drinkchichi beer.”As I got up to leave, she reached into a box and handed me some ECSA literature. One of the pamphlets had on its cover a pretty indigenous girl in traditional dress, squatting by a stream. Above her it said, “Copper: A New Era for the Nation.”

*   *   *

In October 2006, mestizo and Shuar leaders organized the first action against the introduction of mining in the south: a peaceful march to the Mirador site. The protesters didn’t get far before trucks blocked their path and unloaded dozens of ski-masked men armed with rifles, machetes, sticks, and knives. The organizers of the march were badly beaten. “That was the turning point,” said Ricardo Aucay, a local farmer and leading figure in the local resistance. “The company started the chaos, the mess, the vengeance and the hatred.”

A group of Shuar communities next declared a “mining sweep” of their territory. They gave a Corriente subcontractor until November 1 to vacate the village of Warints, where it had set up a base. When the deadline passed, hundreds of Shuar swept into the camp from the forest side at dawn. They trapped company managers inside while the women and children used long spears of chonta wood to block rescue helicopters from landing. The mining staff was only allowed to leave the following day with their equipment. The Shuar army continued by foot to a site near the main Mirador complex, where they slipped past a military guard and took over the buildings. After a three-day standoff, all of the company’s machines were hauled away on military trucks. The state responded by militarizing the other mining camps. Throughout the area, road protests erupted that blocked mining traffic with burning tires, boulders, and bodies. The protests escalated in response to news that a massive dam and power lines were being built near Macas to provide Mirador with cheap energy. Spreading beyond rural hamlets, a general strike was called throughout the southern provinces.

On November 12, the government of Alfredo Palacio announced a suspension of Corriente’s mining activities and agreed to discuss turning the Condor region into an ecological and tourism reserve. Corriente and its subcontractors simply ignored the decree. On December 1, after the state made clear it was with the company, hundreds of protestors again marched to the Mirador site. While attempting to cut razor wire that had been placed in their path across a narrow bridge, police and private security units attacked. The tear-gas-beclouded battle lasted one hour. Bullets rubber and real ripped through several protestors amid Indian war whoops, chants of “Ecuador!” and old mestizo women crying, “Teach them with your blood, Oh Lord!”

Among the dozens of protestors arrested and beaten was the anti-mining prefect of Zamora-Chinchipe, a Suraguro indian named Salvador Quishpe. Six years later, Quishpe remains in office and organizes with the seven-party alliance contesting Correa in February’s election.

“Quito has slowed down payments to the province as punishment for my position on mining,” he told me one afternoon in his home on the outskirts of Zamora. “But money isn’t all. They don’t have enough to pay off the conscience of the entire country. More conflict is coming.”

Those who fought alongside Qichspe echo his conclusion. Vinicio Tibiron was shot through the chest at the bridge protests and expects to be shot at again.

“It will be wars throughout the region,” Tibiron told me over a bowl of yucca beer at his remote Shuar village of Ayantaz. “They will send police and military, and we will gather our weapons. Outsiders have always called us savages because they could not conquer us. If they continue, their actions will compel us to show them savagery, to act like the Indians we are.”

Sitting near and observing us is a thick middle-aged woman named Mercedes Samarent, herself a veteran of several violent clashes. “They will be fighting all of us,” she said, holding up a machete. “The men have their weapons, and we have ours.”

*   *   *

Rafael Correa was elected president in the weeks following the bloody bridge protest. Upon taking his oath, his left-wing PAIS Alliance fulfilled a campaign promise and convened an assembly to draft a new constitution, Ecuador’s twentieth. Burning questions of indigenous rights and environmental protection, it seemed, would be addressed democratically before the entire nation.

The constituent assembly gathered in the western town of Montecristi toward the end of Correa’s first year in office and ratified 500 articles. Among them were reforms allowing the president to run for a second term and dissolve Congress. But the bits that made international news, and promised a resolution to the mining conflict in the south, was the surprise enshrining of the Indian concept of sumak kawsay, or “good living in harmony with nature.” Ecuador’s new constitution also formalized the rights of nature itself. It was with nature’s new constitutional rights in mind that the assembly temporarily suspended all mining activity until the passage of a new mining law, which the president promised soon.

Correa, meanwhile, had pivoted away from the indigenous rights rhetoric of his presidential campaign.

In televised speeches, he dismissed Indians as backward “donkey-riders” who were blocking access to the country’s “pot of gold.” Fatal road protests from Zamora to Quito flared back up as it became clear that Correa’s forthcoming mining and water bills would ratify and expand industrial mining and water privatization. After running clashes with police in which a Shuar schoolteacher was killed, the government attempted and failed to shut down the Shuar radio station, Arutam.

In January 2009, Correa reactivated hundreds of mining permits and granted foreign companies access to indigenous territory and resources in any projects he deemed “in the national interest.” All of this occurred just before the start of the Mining World Fair in Ontario, where Correa administration officials told the gathered, “In Ecuador, large-scale exploration has begun.”

The primary target for this message was and remains China. Ecuador is a serial defaulter with a radioactive credit rating, and Correa’s entire economic program is dependent on loans from China in return for wide access to its minerals. As in Venezuela and Bolivia, China has become a happy lender of last resort, offering Quito a credit line of up to $10 billion in long-term, low-interest loans collateralized with the stuff in the ground. Where Western development banks once attached strings of political, economic and regulatory reform, the China Development Bank wants the resources. Toward this end, China has become Latin America’s biggest banker with $75 billion loaned since 2005 — which is more than the World Bank, the IDB and the U.S. Export-Import Bank combined. Beijing’s top regional borrowers are Ecuador and Venezuela, where Hugo Chavez has described his nation’s oil as “at the service of China.” As of this writing, Ecuador’s debt to China approaches a quarter of its GDP.

Mirador is just one of a number of recent Chinese strategic investments in Latin American mineral reserves. The firms Zijin, Minmetals and Chinalco have snatched up the largest copper mines in Chile, Peru and Mexico. But Mirador is the prize. The concession is estimated to hold up to 11 billion tons of copper, with a large secondary store of gold. Adding another layer of strategic depth to the holding, the contract includes rights to the waste rock, possibly a signal of Chinese expectations that the site contains uranium and even molybdenum, a coveted rare earth suggestive of Avatar’s unobtainium.  Even before estimates had been made of Mirador’s bounty, Chinese gentlemen are said to have lurked among Zamora’s dirt-floor provincial gold markets, examining bags of rock and sand brought in by small-scale miners in rubber boots, who understood the Chinese had interests beyond their ken.

*   *   *

On the morning of my return north to Quito, I attended an environmentally themed panel discussion in a swank downtown hotel. Vandana Shiva, the globetrotting Indian anti-GMO and water-rights activist, was the star. Shiva had just returned from an official tour of Rafael Correa’s showcase conservation project, Yusani National Park. Flanked by the leaders of Ecuador’s largest indigenous groups, Shiva praised the president for his vision and happily announced her acceptance of a post as “goodwill ambassador” to Yasuni. Her comments were more suited to an international audience than an Ecuadorean one. She seemed taken aback when local activists challenged her on Correa’s mining policy and an emerging corporate police state in the southern provinces. Shiva isn’t alone in praising Correa without knowing much about his policies. John Perkins, author of “Confessions of an Economic Hit Man,” penned a column for CommonDreams.com gushing about a “new consciousness” in Correa’s Ecuador that “honors the dream of the people of the forests.”

The indigenous groups that supported Correa in 2007 do not share Perkins’ enthusiasm. Nor does the seven-party left-wing alliance campaigning against him. The leading figure of this alliance is Alberto Acosta, Correa’s former minister of mines and the first president of the 2008 constitutional assembly.

“There is nothing new in Correa’s development plan for the next century. He has simply replaced Uncle Sam with Uncle Chen,” Acosta told me after a campaign stop in Zamora. “He cites the dependency school theorists, but his idea is the same center-periphery economic model of exporting raw materials.

The government is thinking short-term about sustaining its social programs and political position at the expense of long-term sustainable industries. There’s a modern parallel to the Conquistadors, who gave the indigenous mirrors for gold. It’s happening again.”

Those who have organized against Correa’s policies have not fared well. If they’re lucky, they are merely harassed. More than 200 other non-violent activists end up in court and face serious jail time.

“Like a dictator, everyone in government repeats his pro-development themes and slogans: Responsible mining, man over nature, Indians versus progress,” said Fernanda Solis, a weary-eyed campaign coordinator for the Quito group Clinica Ambiental. “There is no independent judiciary. The three powers of government are acting with Correa and everyone knows it. Because Correa represents the left, opposing him opens you up to the charge of supporting the U.S., or the old right that bankrupted everyone. He’s betrayed the new constitution and proven himself a neoliberal with redistributive touches. He’s avoided pacts with the U.S. but has sold the country to China.”

Last March, Solis helped organize a 370-mile march from Zamora to Quito under the banner, “For water, for life, for the dignity of the people.” Seven thousand people walked boisterously under enormous flags of indigenous rainbows and Popular Front red. Correa’s government issued the permit request only after he organized a counter-protest to meet the marchers in Quito. In a radio address that described anti-mining Indians as tools of “the old right,” Correa mobilized his supporters against what he warned was an indigenous-led coup attempt.

Amid stacks of reports in her cluttered office, I asked Solis about the upcoming election, as well as the narrowing political route open to the opposition through international forums such as the Inter-American Court of Human Rights.

“Correa will win reelection and nothing will change,” she said. “Like the Mapuches in Chile, it is going to get violent.”

*   *   *

When I last saw Domingo Ankuash, he was celebrating the birth of his latest grandson, whose name is Espada, or sword, but which he defined with a flourish as lanza de Guerra. He was also organizing two summits of anti-mining forces, including a meeting of Shuar and their ancestral enemies, the Achuar, living on both sides of the Peru-Ecuador border. The first summit concluded with a statement citing the 2008 Constitution and urging the world to take notice:

“We warn the country and the world that the government intends to militarize the Amazon region to promote the interests of mining and oil companies. The Cordillera del Condor and the rest of our territories are inalienable, indefeasible, and we state our decision to defend them to the end.”

Similar declarations continue to emerge like smoke signals from across the Condor. A recent statement of the Yaupi village declares,

“We will not take a step backward in defending our territories. Interlopers will be submitted to the punishment of our ancestors. Any such bloodshed will be on the Government’s hands.”

The hour of renewed escalation may be near. Last month, Ecuador’s indigenous organizations filed legal action in Ecuadorean courts; they are currently preparing another suit for international bodies citing conventions on indigenous consultation. Both are seen as acts of desperation, final attempts at a peaceful solution few expect. The state, meanwhile, is already spending China’s money, and developing budgets on the expectation of more to come. Other international mining firms, having been told Ecuador’s south is open for business, are lining up on the door.

The Shuar are not without an alternative plan. They say they can develop the region sustainably with agriculture, small-scale ranching, dairy, and regulated small-scale traditional mining.

“Industrial mining is not sustainable,” said Ankuash.

“The gold and the copper will be gone in a few years, leaving behind nothing but poisoned earth for our people. We can have an economy here without destroying nature and the culture. We are open to the world. Let the people come here and see the native way — the bears, the monkeys, the trees, the cascades.”

And the visions. Some Shuar villages have taken advantage of growing Western interest in ayahuasca, the potent hallucinogen and healing plant used throughout the Amazon. As we walked back from the waterfall to Domingo’s village, I saw what looked like an apparition: a young blonde woman in a white cotton dress sitting by the river directly under a beam of sunshine. She had traveled from Berlin for a week-long ayahuasca regimen under the guidance of a local Shuar shaman named Miguel Chiriap. She pointed me down a nearby path, at the end of which I found to a large open-air structure of wood and thatch. Sitting on one of a dozen pillows arranged in a circle was a young herbalist from Hull, England, named David. One of several westerners at the retreat, he was paying hundreds of dollars a week to work with Chiriap, he glowed with the kind of serenity earned from drinking ayahuasca 15 consecutive nights. He was surprised and saddened to learn he was sitting in the middle of a soon-to-be exploited mining concession.

“It would be a shame to see all this ruined,” he said. “It’s paradise, isn’t it?”

The government continues to exploit the promise of paradise even as it prepares to annihilate the reality. Police cars and tourism posters in Los Encuentros, the company town of Kinross Gold, display scenes of nature above the slogan “Jewel of the Amazon.” When I met with the mayor of El Pangui, a nervous little yes-man from Correa’s ruling alliance, he dutifully muttered industry lies while sitting beneath yellowing tourism posters touting the area’s pristine forests, roaring cascades, dew-kissed orchids, and smiling Indians.

The dissonance between Ecuador’s tourism pitch and the imminent destruction of the south followed me back to Mariscal, Quito’s hostel district. There, a Jumbotron lords above the clubs and cafes day and night, beckoning backpackers south with high-definition images of happy natives and brightly plumed birds of paradise. “This,” declares the a slogan on continuous loop, “is Ecuador.”

I spent much of my last day in Ecuador drinking coffee at a café with a good view of this Jumbotron. After a month in the south, the slick nature montage appeared to me as the billboards in dystopian science fiction, a sunny, high-tech tourism version of “War Is Peace,” or Latin versions of the electronic messages projected into the dark, rainy worlds of “Blade Runner” and “Children of Men.” I was pulled out of this reverie by the appearance on the screen of a giant pixilated toucan. With wings spread wide, the bird reminded me of the Arutam statue above the bridge in Zamora-Chinchipe. As told to me by a Shuar shaman named Julio Tiwiram, the image of Arutam and the toucan comes from a bit of tribal folklore dating to first-contact with the Conquistadors.

Arutam, who lives in the rivers, the trees, the fish and the flowers, would also like to recline, Zeus-like, on a golden throne high above the mountaintop mists. One day, foreigners “with beards and large eyes” came into the area seeking food. But what they really coveted was Arutam’s golden throne. After eating their fill, the strangers searched for Arutam’s treasure. To thwart them, the spirit hid the throne deep inside the mountains. He told the Shuar to stay vigilant, that the strangers must be kept out, by force if necessary. The bearded men could not be trusted, he said. They would take everything and leave them nothing with which to live. He warned them that though he hid the gold, they would one day return. Arutam then mounted a giant toucan, looked in the direction of the Condor’s highest peak, and flew away.

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