Dozens of Shuar families forced from their land late last year by Ecuadorian security forces face a shortage of food and medical care in what indigenous leaders say is a growing humanitarian crisis.
The families were evicted violently to make way for a Chinese-owned copper mine in southern Ecuador. Most of the evictions occurred when the government placed the indigenous territory under military control in December, according to Tuntiak Katan, coordinator of territories for the Confederation of Indigenous Nationalities of the Ecuadorian Amazon (Confederación de Nacionalidades Indígenas de la Amazonía Ecuatoriana, CONFENIAE).
“A state of panic was created with the use of military force,” Katan told Indian Country Media Network in a telephone interview. “There hasn’t been due process.”
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The Chinese company Explorcobres S.A. has a 25-year concession for the San Carlos Panantza mining project, which covers about 160 square miles in Ecuador’s southern Morona Santiago province.
Ecuadorian law calls for prior consultation of Indigenous Peoples about development projects affecting their territory, but Katan said exploration began with no consultation of the Shuar communities.
Police and soldiers forcibly evicted eight families from the community of Nankints in August 2016 to make way for a mining company, said Carlos Mazabanda, Ecuador field coordinator for the non-profit organization Amazon Watch.
Families fled into the surrounding forest as bulldozers razed their homes.
“They weren’t given the chance to get their belongings out of their houses,” Mazabanda said.
The families spent several nights in the forest, making their way toward another community, where they took refuge, Katan said. Two pregnant women gave birth during the ordeal.
On November 21, a group of Shuar occupied the mining company’s encampment, clashing with police and soldiers. One police officer was killed and several occupiers and members of security forces were injured.
Several Shuar men were arrested, and Agustin Wachapa, president of the Shuar Federation, remains in a maximum-security prison, Mazabanda said.
After another confrontation between Shuar and security forces in early December, president Rafael Correa placed the indigenous territory under military control on December 14. As a result, two dozen more families fled the nearby communities of San Carlos Limón and Tsuntsuimi.
The evicted families took refuge in the more distant community of Tiink, but Shuar leaders and their advocates say conditions there are precarious.
The group includes 32 women and 168 children, according to a press release issued by the Shuar Arutam People.
The extended families are crammed into their hosts’ houses, and the community is sharing crops and water with the refugees, but their resources fall short, Mazabanda said.
The state of emergency was officially lifted in mid-February, but military helicopters still buzz overhead and soldiers stop travelers at military checkpoints, Katan said.
“The women and children stay in the community, but their husbands spend much of their time in the forest, because they are afraid they will be arrested,” Mazabanda said.
Children are suffering from diarrhea and respiratory illnesses, but their parents are reluctant to take them to the health center in the nearest town, out of fear of arrest or harassment from security forces.
The military control of the indigenous territory has triggered a humanitarian crisis, said lawyer Mario Melo, who is advising the Shuar federation.
“The government is not guaranteeing that people can return peacefully to their territory,” Melo said. “They want assurance that they can return and harvest their crops without fear of persecution, since this is the Shuar’s ancestral territory.”
The Shuar are considering possible legal action, including taking their case to Ecuador’s Constitutional Tribunal or the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights, Melo said.
This is not the first clash over mining in Shuar territory. Protests erupted in 2014 over another Chinese-owned mining project, El Mirador, in the neighboring province of Zamora Chinchipe.
Both projects, which involve open-pit mines, are in an area the Shuar claim as their ancestral territory, in a rugged and biodiverse mountainous area called the Cordillera del Cóndor, or Condor Range, near the Peruvian border.
Government officials say large-scale mining is needed to boost revenues the government needs to combat poverty, especially now that the international price of oil, historically a mainstay of the economy, has plummeted.
But Ecuador’s indigenous organizations pledge to fight for their territory and the right to be consulted about development projects.
“We are the owners of the tropical forest,” said Elvia Dagua, women’s coordinator for CONFENIAE. “We can’t leave it, and the government has no reason to force us out.”
Note: An Ecuadorian government map of the areas where mines are located is here.