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.
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.