Face-off in forest for besieged indigenous Ecuadorians battling Chinese mining firm
Military drones and police helicopters circle above the Shuar indigenous village of El Tink, an Amazonian community in Ecuador where a high-profile dispute with a Chinese copper mine has become a standoff and a siege.
Aerial surveillance is the only way the authorities can monitor this cloudforest enclave because residents have blocked the sole entrance to their home: a bouncing plank-and-cable bridge suspended 15 metres above the brown torrents of the Zamora river.
Some people wear masks to hide their faces. Others appear so casual, they could be out for an afternoon stroll. But together they take it in turns to guard the crossing 24 hours a day. Friendly vehicles are allowed through. Government forces are turned back.
But the siege is exacting a humanitarian toll on the villagers.
“The river protects us. The military can’t cross the bridge because we guard it day and night. If they come, we’ll set fire to it,” said Alfonso Chinkiun. “But we feel like we are captives. We can’t leave this place because we fear we will be arrested. That means we can’t work, so we have to forage deep into the forest for food. Some days our children go to sleep without eating a single meal.”
Chinkiun is one of a few dozen people who recently sought sanctuary in El Tink after a bloody confrontation with security forces, sparked by a dispute with the Chinese mining company Explorcobres SA (Exsa), in their previous home of Nankints on the other side of a mountain ridge in the Cordillera del Cóndor.
They were forced to flee after a policeman, José Mejía, was killed during a protest on 14 December.
Blaming the death on the demonstrators, the authorities declared a state of emergency in the province of Morona Santiago, raided homes and made several arrests, including detaining Agustín Wachapá, president of the Inter-provincial Federation of Shuar Centres.
“We fled into the woods with our families. We walked here over the mountains at night. It was very traumatic,” said Guillermo Uyunkar.
He said the community had fought eviction for several months. He showed three small scars on his arms and shoulder that he said were wounds from live rounds fired by the military.
The security forces initially arrived in Nankints on the night of 11 August, surrounding the small community, which is made up of 32 families.
“We decided to defend our land. The military police fired gas at us and set fire to the grass. They killed our animals. We cut down trees and tried to build barricades, but they ploughed through them with armoured cars,” recalled Uyunkar.
The evicted residents scattered to nearby villages and then regrouped several times over the following months for demonstrations that sometimes ended in violent skirmishes.
Alex Chuji, external relations representative of the Shuar Arutam people, said the Nankints community were entitled to fight for their territory as they had not been adequately consulted about the plans for the mine. They were entitled to be consulted under the Ecuadorian constitution and under UN treaties on indigenous rights.
He rejected claims that the bullet that killed the police officer was fired by a protester. Ballistic tests, he said, indicated that it was more likely to have come from a police or military gun. “We do use weapons to defend our land, but all we have is spears, machetes and the old carbine rifles we use for hunting. We don’t have modern guns with the calibre of the bullet that killed José.”
Diego Fuentes, the deputy interior minister, previously told local media that the shots had been fired from the forest by a marksman using a specialised rifle, so the authorities assumed the intention was to kill a police officer.
Rafael Correa, the president of Ecuador, has accused the Shuar leadership of supporting “paramilitary and semicriminal” organisations. He said the indigenous group’s territorial claims were based on a lie because the land had been bought and sold several times.
But the group’s representatives claim this corner of the Amazon was theirs long before the first Spanish colonisers arrived, and that in the years since they have been given little choice in land demarcations decided by governments with more military, economic and political power.
In 2000, when the territory was packaged up for copper mining concessions, they began to resist and occupied land at Nankints and elsewhere which previously they had had permission to use for hunting only. The Shuar, like most indigenous groups in Ecuador, initially supported Correa when he was elected in 2006, in the hope that he would formalise their claims. But they said he had since betrayed their interests in order to secure foreign, and especially Chinese, loans and investment.
There have been several flashpoints, including the death of José Tendetza, a Shuar leader, in 2015.
“It feels like the state is at war with us. But this is a pointless conflict. If the laws were followed this would never have happened,” said Raul Petsain, of the Shuar Arutam people. “Correa has always been working in the interests of capital. In his campaign he promised to work for the people, but once he got power he worked for the companies.”
The Chinese company, Exsa, is part of Ecuacorriente, which is jointly funded by Tongling and China Railway Construction Company (CRCC). In a statement to the Guardian the company said it had purchased the land in 2000 from local owners, some of whom had lived there previously for 30 years.
The company said that in 2006 the area was “violently invaded by antimining groups”, forcing the company to abandon the site. For the following nine years, it said, there were attempts at peaceful negotiation to remove people who were occupying the land.
After this failed, the statement said, the company filed a lawsuit and won judicial approval for the “invaders” to be evicted, which “proceeded without any kind of violence”.
The office of the governor of Morona Santiago province did not respond to
‘The river protects us. The military can’t cross the bridge. If they come we will set fire to it’ Alfonso Chinkiun
a request for comment. Although the government recently lifted the state of emergency and a new president is due to take power in the country this year, residents said they expected their struggle to continue.
At El Tink the host community is feeling the pressure. Many have taken refugee families from Nankints into their homes and shared food with them. But there is not a lot to go around. Many complain that the authorities are treating them as terrorists and trying to provoke a reaction.
José Luis Aynui, president of the Shuar Arutam, said it was a tough situation for all, but if they did not make common cause El Tink could be the next village where residents were evicted.
Aynui said, pointing to the nearby hills: “All of this land is a mining concession for the Chinese. They haven’t dared to come to develop it yet because they know we are strong. But if they had their way the land we are on now would be a mine. The only way they will take this land is if we all end up dead.
“We won’t give it up. And they can’t give us an alternative because it will never be like what we have now. The forest is not just our home, it is our church, our larder, our pharmacy. If you take us away from it, we lose what we are.”