Why Has Mining Sparked Conflict Between Ecuador’s Government And Indigenous Peoples?

In the Amazonian village of El Tink, the indigenous Shuar have become embroiled in an escalating conflict with the Ecuadorian government and Chinese mining companies. The only entrance to the village, a 15-metre bridge, has been barricaded and is manned constantly, as aerial surveillance persists overhead. Yet, when President Rafael Correa was first elected in 2006, he had the support of the Shuar, as they believed he would support their interests against Chinese companies. What has happened in Ecuador for this situation to develop?

This conflict is not new to Ecuador. Since the 1950s, the traditionally semi-nomadic Shuar were necessitated to begin permanent settlements due to external interests in the region’s resources. When mining land was allocated to companies in 2000, the Shuar people argued that they had not been consulted. Tensions have remained high since, peaking in 2014 following the suspicious death of a local leader, Jose Tendentza, who was vocal against gold and copper mining.

But the focal point for the most struggle has been the Shuar village of Nankints, where residents have been resisting the eviction of local people for a 41,000-hectare mining project called the San Carlos Panantza. In December 2016, an outbreak of violence resulted in the death of a policeman, Jose Mejia. The authorities declared a state of emergency in the province, Morona Santiago, raiding homes and making arrests. The most high profile arrest was Agustin Wachapa, the President of the Inter-Provincial Federation of Shuar Centres (FISCH), who has been accused of inciting discord through a Facebook post, which is critical of Correa. Correa has said there will be no dialogue until Mejia’s murderer is held accountable (although the Shuar argue they cannot be responsible for the death as they lack high calibre weapons). Consequentially, many refugees have fled to El Tink, resulting in the present stand-off.

The UN has accused Ecuador’s government of employing a “strategy to asphyxiate civil society,” given its attempts to silence its critics. Beyond the Shuar leaders, this has included environmental organizations, like Accion Ecologica, which was falsely charged with espousing violence on social media. Correa has also targeted individual journalists, such as Fernando Villavicenio, who published a book criticizing Correa’s links with China. The courts have ordered Villavicenio to pay Correa $141,000 to compensate for this “slander.”

The current siege of El Tink is emblematic of a larger struggle in 21st century Ecuador, where the liberties of indigenous people are threatened by powerful businesses, while dissent is met with Government oppression. While the international community has been critical of Correa’s approach to the situation, no hard levers have been used to change his position, yet. Without a real manifestation of this external condemnation, it is likely the Shuar people will remain powerless in the face of economic opportunities.

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