Face-off in for­est for be­sieged in­dige­nous Ecuado­ri­ans bat­tling Chi­nese min­ing firm

The Guardian - - INTERNATIONAL - Jonathan Watts El Tink A sus­pended plank bridge, top, and river, be­low right, form a de­fence for res­i­dents in El Tink, be­low left, against the se­cu­rity forces that evicted them from their pre­vi­ous home af­ter protests against a min­ing project Pho­tographs:

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.”

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