Ecuador was the first country in the world to recognise nature’s rights in 2008 after its president, Rafael Correa, backed by indigenous and Left parties, came to power. Instead of the common understanding of nature as a property or resource, these rights adopted in the country’s Constitution acknowledge that nature has a right to exist, persist, maintain and regenerate its vital cycles and vests with people the authority to enforce these rights on behalf of ecosystems.
But the Correa government’s credentials are being questioned now following the death of an anti-mining activist. The body of José Isidro Tendetza Antún, former vice-president of the Shuar Federation of Zamora, surfaced from an unmarked grave in South Eastern Ecuador on December 3. Tendetza, a Shuar community leader, went missing on November 28 when he was on his way for a meeting of the community assembly in Morona Santiago. The assembly was called to oppose the Mirador copper and gold mining project to be developed by a Chinese company. On December 2, Tendetza’s son, Jorge, received a tip off that his father may have been murdered on the banks of Zamora river in Chuchumbletza sector of Pangui canton. According to several news reports, Tendetza had planned to speak against copper and gold mining activities by a Chinese company in his region at a Rights of Nature Tribunal organised by South American NGOs at the Climate talks in Lima.
Indigenous communities question government role
Luis Corral, an advisor to Ecuador’s Assembly of the People of the South, an umbrella group for indigenous federations in southern Ecuador, told the Guardian Newspaper that if Tendetza had been able to travel to the COP20 it would have put in “grave doubt the honorability and the image of the Ecuadorean government as a guarantor of the rights of nature”. “We believe that this murder is part of a pattern of escalating violence against indigenous leaders which responds to the Ecuadorean government and the companies’ need to clear the opposition to a mega-mining project in the Cordillera del Condor,” Corral said. The government has rejected the claims that government officials were involved in the murder of Tendetza.
Domingo Ankuash, a Shuar leader, told the local press that there were signs that Tendetza had been tortured. He said the family was extremely unhappy with the investigation and the reluctance of the authorities to conduct a timely autopsy. “His body was beaten, bones were broken,” said Ankuash. “He had been tortured and he was thrown in the river. The mere fact that they buried him before telling us, the family, makes it suspicious.” Leader of the political party backed by indigenous and leftist groups, Popular Unity in Zamora Chinchipe, Alonso Cueva, is planning to raise issue in the government assembly. The interior ministry has criticized Cueva’s remarks, as reported by Elcomercio.com.
Tendetza is not the first mining activist to have been found murdered. According to South American environmental non-profit, Bosco Wisum in 2009 and Freddy Taish in 2013, opposing the Mirador project, were found murdered, while investigations did not reveal much. Earlier last week, after news of the Tendetza’s death, anti-mining activists were detained by the police while on way to Lima on a bus for the climate change summit.
Nature’s El Dorado
The Shuar dominated Cordillera del Condor region in south-eastern Ecuador is known for its cloud forests having rich biodiversity and unique watershed that contributes largely to the Amazon river. The Condor region has been often being called El Dorado, after gold was discovered there about 500 years ago by the Spanish conquistadors. Shuar and other indigenous communities living in this region guarded against any attempt to mine in these areas until mid-20th century. It had been over 50 years since mining companies entered the are under the pretext of carrying out geological exploration. Previous regimes opened these areas to foreign mining companies leading to clashes between locals with the government as well as private militia owned by the mining outfits.
Following Correa’s election to the top job, there was hope for the community. In 2007, Correa banned all the mining and enshrined new rights of nature in 2008. However, at the same time, he opened the mining leases in this region. The protests picked up again in 2008-2009 as ownership changed hands from Canadian companies to Chinese miners. Critics have alleged that Ecuador is in debt and China, which has offered $10 billion as a long term loan, is helping Chinese firms to acquire overseas resources. Mirador mine is just one of them, with mineral concessions for gold, copper and rare earths being giving to consortiums of Chinese companies.
According to the Confederation of Indigenous Nationalities of Ecuador, the Mirador Mining project owned by Chinese consortium, CCRC-Tongguan Investment, will devastate around 450,000 acres (one acre equals 0.4 ha) of forests. Its earlier owners, Canada-based Ecuacorriente, said that the area is expected to hold about 2.15 million tonnes of copper. Incidentally, news reports from 2010 suggest Ecuacorriente told the locals that abundant water available from deep aquifers in the mountains would have diluted the massive tailing ponds, consisting of acidic water from the copper separation facility.
The Condor region is home to more than 2,000 vascular plants and flowers, including 40 unique varieties of orchids. Recent discoveries of marsupials and amphibians in the region make the cloud forests of Ecuador a biological treasure trove. According to various reports, this life is supported by at least two dozen kinds of fragile soils and vegetation cover, which are protected by the Shuar people.
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