'The forest is life': Indigenous Ecuadorians fight gold miners

Prospects of employment are not lustrous enough for indigenous Ecuadorians who value the natural wonders of the Amazon over its stores of copper and gold. Communities are fighting back against mining on their lands and are the rainforest’s best bet, experts say. 

Fabio Cuttica/Thomson Reuters Foundation
Bird hunter Carlos Enqueri, from the Waorani of Pastaza indigenous group, uses a leaf to simulate the sound of a toucan in the Amazon rainforest in the province of Pastaza, Ecuador, April 25, 2022. Indigenous communities are best custodians of the Amazon, experts say.

The brightly colored chiva bus rocked back and forth, branches scraping across its sides, as it traveled down the narrow dirt road traversing mountain ranges of the Cordillera del Condor, in Ecuador’s southern Amazon.

The region, which stretches about 150 km (93 miles) along the border with Peru, is famous for its rare species and for its large deposits of gold and copper, which Ecuador and its neighbor fought over for half a century until a 1998 border deal.

Today the area is wracked by a different kind of conflict, as the indigenous Shuar people fight to protect their land, forests, and rivers from the creeping spread of Ecuador’s mining industry.

Since 2019, the Maikiuants, a community of about 50 Shuar families, have been trying to stave off attempts by Canadian mining company Solaris Resources to set up a copper mine just 7 km (4.3 miles) away in Warints, another Shuar community.

The firm has already built a base camp and started exploration activities.

“These industries are the very same ones that are destroying the world with their activities,” said Josefina Tunki, who has become a prominent voice against mining extraction as president of the Shuar Arutam People (PSHA).

Her organization represents about 10,000 indigenous Shuar in the region, including the community of Maikiuants.

While many in Warints support the mining project for the jobs it will create, the Maikiuants and other Shuar communities are adamantly against it.

“Here we have waterfalls, rivers, medicine. Here we have meat. For us [mining] isn’t development. For us, the forest is life, it is the market,” Ms. Tunki told the Thomson Reuters Foundation.

Industry experts say there’s a growing need for sustainable mining to feed surging demand for minerals such as nickel, cobalt, lithium, and copper that are used to make electric vehicles, solar panels, wind turbine systems, and batteries as the world tries to move to renewable energy to slow global warming.

“The energy transition is not possible if we don’t [also] talk about how we are going to significantly increase the level of mining activity to produce the metal required for that transition,” said Nathan Monash, head of Ecuador’s Chamber of Mining.

But as global hunger for minerals eats into the Amazon, mining projects are swallowing the land of indigenous communities that climate groups say are the best custodians of the world’s largest rainforest, whose protection is considered essential to slowing climate change.

More than 60% of ancestral Shuar territory, spread over 230,000 hectares (568,000 acres), is covered by mining concessions, said Carlos Mazabanda, country coordinator with the international human rights organization Hivos.

In most cases, the communities were not consulted before their territory was sold for extraction purposes, something that companies and the government are required to do under both Ecuador’s constitution and international law, he said.

Ms.Tunki said Solaris did get the approval of the Warints community before starting its project, but neither the company nor the Ecuadorian government consulted the other local communities or the PSHA.

Solaris states on its website that it “always places the highest importance in creating and maintaining open, respectful, proactive, and productive relations” with all the communities where it operates.

After initially agreeing to an interview, the company did not respond to several follow up emails.

‘Brutal’ deforestation 

Ecuador’s government is eager to build up the country’s mining sector and reduce its financial dependency on crude oil exports. It has estimated mining could generate $40 billion in export earnings over the next decade.

In August 2021, Ecuador’s President Guillermo Lasso passed a decree outlining a new mining policy. It promises to crack down on illegal mining and make buying concessions easier for foreign investors, all while emphasizing that mining activities in the country need to be sustainable and responsible.

But his plans have sparked a backlash from environmental activists and indigenous communities who say the industry is already doing irreversible social and environmental damage.

According to Global Forest Watch, the two Amazonian provinces of Morona Santiago and Zamora Chinchipe that encompass the Cordillera del Condor have together lost more than 44,000 hectares (108,000 acres) of forest over the past 20 years.

Jorge Brito, a biologist with Ecuador’s National Institute of Biodiversity, said the vast majority of that tree loss has been due to legal and illegal mining, as well as illegal logging.

“The first thing [mining companies] do is open roads to have better access. That’s when the impacts start,” he said, calling the results “brutal.”

Proponents of Lasso’s plans to grow Ecuador’s mining industry say the potential benefits – jobs and a stronger economy – outweigh the environmental and social costs.

Mr. Monash at the Chamber of Mining pointed to the country’s first two large-scale mines in Zamora Chinchipe, saying they have already cut poverty levels and doubled average incomes in some parts of the province – assertions the Thomson Reuters Foundation could not confirm.

But some local people say those mines stand as examples of the devastation the industry can cause.

Since development began in the mid-2000s on the sprawling Mirador copper, gold, and silver mine, owned by the Ecuadorian-Chinese company Ecuacorriente, human rights groups have denounced the project for forcibly evicting more than 30 Shuar families from the community of San Marcos.

Carlos Cajamarca, a Shuar farmer who lives in YanuaKim, about a kilometer upriver from the mine, said his four adult children were evicted from San Marcos by the military in 2014.

The mine has also contaminated the area’s water supply, he said.

People who bathe in the local river emerge with rashes and lesions on their skin, he said, and his small crops of yucca, plantain, and other fruits don’t produce as much as they did before the mine opened.

“The contamination is everywhere, in plants, people, and animals,” he said.

Neither Ecuacorriente nor Ecuador’s Ministry of Energy and Mines responded to several interview requests.

Protests and roadblocks

Indigenous communities around Ecuador have been pushing back against the spread of mining, with protests, lawsuits, and efforts to develop economic alternatives such as stepped-up tourism.

They have managed to halt several large mining projects over the past five years, and in January the Constitutional Court ruled that mining operations need to seek consent from all indigenous communities affected by their projects, not just a select few.

Last year, the Maikiuants bolstered their guard force, an unarmed self-defense group, to stop mining personnel using the road through their community - the only way to get to the facilities in Warints.

Now helicopters fly over the area several times a day, bringing people and supplies from the city of Macas to the mining camp by air.

Maikiuants resident Victoria Tseremp said the fight is vital to save her community and the nature around it from Ecuador’s land-hungry mining growth.

For her, the promise of jobs and money is not enough to justify the destruction of nature that comes when a mine moves in.

“We have everything we need to eat,” Ms. Tseremp said from her kitchen, as she peeled plantains picked from a chakra, or community plot. “I don’t need money to eat here.”

This story was reported by the Thomson Reuters Foundation.

You've read  of  free articles. Subscribe to continue.
Real news can be honest, hopeful, credible, constructive.
What is the Monitor difference? Tackling the tough headlines – with humanity. Listening to sources – with respect. Seeing the story that others are missing by reporting what so often gets overlooked: the values that connect us. That’s Monitor reporting – news that changes how you see the world.

Dear Reader,

About a year ago, I happened upon this statement about the Monitor in the Harvard Business Review – under the charming heading of “do things that don’t interest you”:

“Many things that end up” being meaningful, writes social scientist Joseph Grenny, “have come from conference workshops, articles, or online videos that began as a chore and ended with an insight. My work in Kenya, for example, was heavily influenced by a Christian Science Monitor article I had forced myself to read 10 years earlier. Sometimes, we call things ‘boring’ simply because they lie outside the box we are currently in.”

If you were to come up with a punchline to a joke about the Monitor, that would probably be it. We’re seen as being global, fair, insightful, and perhaps a bit too earnest. We’re the bran muffin of journalism.

But you know what? We change lives. And I’m going to argue that we change lives precisely because we force open that too-small box that most human beings think they live in.

The Monitor is a peculiar little publication that’s hard for the world to figure out. We’re run by a church, but we’re not only for church members and we’re not about converting people. We’re known as being fair even as the world becomes as polarized as at any time since the newspaper’s founding in 1908.

We have a mission beyond circulation, we want to bridge divides. We’re about kicking down the door of thought everywhere and saying, “You are bigger and more capable than you realize. And we can prove it.”

If you’re looking for bran muffin journalism, you can subscribe to the Monitor for $15. You’ll get the Monitor Weekly magazine, the Monitor Daily email, and unlimited access to CSMonitor.com.

QR Code to 'The forest is life': Indigenous Ecuadorians fight gold miners
Read this article in
QR Code to Subscription page
Start your subscription today