The echo of helicopters, enormous trucks removing tons of rock (with gold), military vehicles 24 hours a day, and periodic gunshots — all this has become common to the indigenous Shuar in the Amazonian province of Morona Santiago in Ecuador.
For months, the Shuar have been waging a fierce resistance against the government of President Rafael Correa over granting mineral rights to a Chinese company to conduct large-scale mining in their homeland. This company, ExploreCobres SA, has had the full support of the Ecuadorean military, police and private security forces.
Massive repression. The recent conflict in Morona Santiago began Aug. 11, 2016 when hundreds of police entered the region to forcefully remove the Shuar in order to construct a base of operations for the mining company.
In response, the Shuar organized protests of thousands and on Nov. 21 they occupied the mining camp of the same above mentioned mining company and removed the Chinese workers imported to build the base. The next day President Correa mobilized hundreds of military personnel, effectively militarizing the entire mining zone.
The Interior Minister declared a $50,000 reward for information leading to the arrest of the organizers of the takeover. Seven Shuar were arrested together with five mestizos accused of participating in the occupation. Security forces kidnapped Shuar activists from their homes in the middle of the night and deported them from the mining area.
On Dec. 13, when hundreds of police again attempted to remove Shuar from their ancestral lands, another more violent confrontation took place and resulted in the death of a policeman. The very next day Correa imposed a State of Emergency over all Morona Santiago. It suspended what little was left of the province’s constitutional rights — to associate, to congregate, to protest. It also eliminated freedom of movement, the right to choose one’s residence or to leave the country, and explicitly denied the right to privacy in the home.
The Governor of Morona Santiago, Marcelino Chumpi, ran with the Plurinacional Coalition which opposed President Correa’s Alianza País Party four years ago. In the recent presidential elections, the Plurinacional Coalition, which includes Pachcakuti, an indigenous party, and other Coalition organizations took a strong position in support of indigenous nations in Ecuador.
A country-wide conflict. There are many conflicts taking place in Ecuador at the present due to resistance to foreign, mostly Chinese, mining companies. In the city of Cuenca, thousands have marched against the Quimsacocha mining project which is after 605,000 ounces of gold and more than five million ounces of silver. This mining will destroy several lakes. The governor of the province of Azuay where Cuenca is located, Paúl Carrasco, as well as the mayor of Cuenca, Marcelo Cabrera, have declared their opposition to the Quimsacocha mining project.
Protests have also been held in the province of Zamora Chinchipe against the Chinese company Ecuacorriente. All the indigenous organizations of Ecuador have at one time or another organized mass protests against these mega-mining ventures, accusing the Correa government of not even conducting studies on the environmental impact of such projects.
Far from over. The conflict in Morona Santiago resulted in the arrest of a major Shuar leader, Agustín Wachapá, who since his arrest last December is being held along with many others facing no possibility of a trial in sight. Government forces arrested another important leader, Claudio Washikiat, on Feb. 22, and accused him of violent acts. No eyewitnesses have come forward to implicate the dozens currently detained.
After extending the State of Emergency in December, President Correa has recently allowed it to expire. But this means little, because the helicopters and military vehicles continue to guard the work of Chinese companies which continue to destroy the land in search of gold and silver profits, while the indigenous Shuar remain banned from their homeland.
Their resistance is in keeping with the courageous fight by native peoples worldwide. The international outpouring in support of the Standing Rock water protectors in the U.S. provides a model for the kind of mutual solidarity so desperately needed.
Daniel Vila is Chair of Manhattan Greens and labor coordinator at Sisa Pakati Cultural and Labor Center, Queens, New York City. Contact at email@example.com.