Indigenous leaders and activists gathered in Quito, Ecuador, last Thursday, March 9, to denounce the Ecuadorian government for its complicity in allowing international mining companies to take over indigenous territory.
The biggest topic on everyone’s minds was the current conflict in Ecuador’s southern Amazon region. In recent months the indigenous Shuar community there has come head to head with Ecuador’s armed forces over a new large-scale Chinese-funded mining project.
“We are being persecuted by the military and the police who are invading the territories of the Shuar communities,” Elvia Dagua, a local indigenous woman who is a member of the Confederation of Indigenous Nationalities of the Ecuadorian Amazon (CONFENIAE), told the media Thursday. “They have destroyed homes. So the Shuar people, women, men, and children have had to flee.”
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The Chinese company Explorcobres S.A. (EXSA) installed a camp in the southern province of Morona Santiago in August, preparing to begin construction of a large open-pit copper mine known as the San Carlos-Panantza Project. Hundreds of police officers entered the region of Santiago de Panantza and evicted a small Shuar community called Nankints, saying the property now belonged to EXSA.
Several other Shuar communities have since been affected in the same area of the Cordillera del Cóndor mountains, including San Juan Bosco and San Carlos de Limón. At least 35 families have been evicted from the area, according to Mario Melo, the lawyer who represents them, speaking at Thursday’s press conference. Locals contend that nearly 100 families have been evicted or forced to flee their homes.
In December the conflict reached a peak when the Shuar attempted to take over the mining camp, resulting in a violent standoff with the military and police. As a result, one police officer was killed under unclear circumstances. The national government then imposed a 30-day state of exception across the entire province and reportedly mobilized up to 1,000 military and police to the region.
According to Melo, this increased militarization violates the Shuar’s human rights as it has altered their lives and caused them to live in fear.
The events have created a “state of panic in the region,” said Tuntiak Katan, a Shuar leader and a member of the Coordinator of the Indigenous Organizations of the Amazon Basin (COICA).
“People are very scared, it’s very tense,” he told Mongabay, adding that some people are scared to leave their homes out of fear of the military presence or being targeted by police and arrested.
According to Melo, the lawyer, around 80 people have been “indicted” since August in relation to protesting the mining project. These include indigenous leaders arrested for “inciting discord” among citizens, which is punishable with a prison sentence of one to three years.
Ecuador’s Ministry of Justice did not respond to questions for this story by press time.
But President Rafael Correa has stated in radio and television appearances that it was the Shuar community that incited violence against local authorities, not the reverse, and that this lead to the police officer’s death. He also accused indigenous leaders of supporting violent “paramilitary and semi-criminal” activities.
Ecuador’s Ministry of Mining did not respond to questions for this story. A spokesperson told Mongabay that ministry representatives were currently in Canada and unavailable to comment.
While ministry personnel were on this northern trip, Ecuador received international recognition for its commitment to sustainable development in the mining sector. In a press release earlier this week the Intergovernmental Forum on Mining, Minerals, Metals and Sustainable Development welcomed the country to join and become the organization’s 57th member because of its “good governance of the mining sector.”
“Our goal is to attract the right kind of investment from socially responsible companies which maintain high environmental standards,” said Ecuador’s Mining Minister, H.E. Javier Córdova, in the press release.
This announcement outraged local indigenous and environmental rights groups, which released their own press statement denouncing the government for the forced evictions of Shuar communities in Morona Santiago and silencing dissenting voices through arrests and intimidation.
The debate around resource extraction has been controversial in Ecuador, where much of the country’s success in poverty alleviation and social programs over the past decade can be attributed to funding from publicly managed oil and mining projects. In the last 10 years, inequality in the country has decreased significantly and poverty rates have almost halved — from 42.2 percent in 2005 to 22.5 percent in 2014, according to the latest numbers by the World Bank. Cash transfers to the poor and investment in health care and education have increased. Infrastructure, such as highways and schools, has also improved.
However, according to Carlos Mazabanda, field coordinator for the NGO Amazon Watch’s Ecuador branch, these successes don’t justify ignoring indigenous and environmental rights.
“Without a doubt you have to recognize that good things have happened,” he told Mongabay. “But if you need those natural resources, you still need to strictly comply with the constitutional mandates. You can’t choose which rights to comply with and which ones not too.”
According to Mazabanda, President Correa implemented a very progressive constitution in 2008, when the socialist government still had close ties to human rights, indigenous rights, and environmental groups. At that time, Ecuador became one of the first countries to acknowledge the rights of nature in the constitution, which states that indigenous communities must be consulted before any extraction projects happen near their land.
But the relationship between social movements and the state soon crumbled because the Ecuadorian government “wasn’t complying” with these new laws, said Mazabanda.
“The truth is we have the best constitution in the world, but the worst constitution in its application in daily life,” the Shuar leader Katan told Mongabay.
This struggle isn’t unique to Ecuador. Indigenous leaders from Bolivia and Venezuela were also present at Thursday’s press conference in Quito and spoke of similar happenings in their communities. The leaders were representing the international indigenous group COICA, which includes the nine Amazonian countries of Brazil, Bolivia, Peru, Ecuador, Venezuela, Suriname, English Guyana, and French Guyana.
The group, along with the Peruvian organization Rights, Environment and Natural Resources (DAR), presented a new report highlighting the similar struggles that all these nations face. A chief complaint is the rarity of prior consultation for extraction projects in indigenous territory and the lack of territorial rights and access to healthcare and education in indigenous communities.
The group plans to present their findings to various UN bodies in Geneva at the end of the month.
“We fight for the things that we all have in common,” said Katan “we are organized as indigenous people to tell the world what is happening in each country.”