‘Mining companies make us believe that they comply with the laws. They say they have permission from the Shuar – it’s all false. They threaten us, by moving with helicopters, putting fences in our territory as well as by militarization that aims to frighten and divide our communities’ – says Josefina Tunki. ‘Like other peoples of struggle, we will not withdraw, not one step back from our territory! By defending the Amazon rainforest, we also defend lives of all of us’.
Josefina Tunki, the President of the Shuar Arutam People (PSHA), is called among her people a ‘brave woman’. She is a first Shuar female leader, and she firmly stands in defence of the Amazon against extractive activity that consistently violates the rights of the people and environment. This is why, since Josefina became a president in 2019, she has lived under constant threat from the mining companies.
The Shuar people inhabit the Cordillera del Cóndor, located in the Morona Santiago province, near the border with Peru. Their ancestral territory extends across about 230,000 Ha of the Amazon forest. Their home is sacred to them and their relationship with land and the natural environment is not just a matter of subsistence, but also involves a spiritual connection. Engagement with land and nature is an important component of the Shuar’s health and wellbeing.
Nevertheless, 56 per cent of this area is currently licensed for large-scale mining The PSHA claims that neither the companies nor the government consulted them about a ‘social licence’ to operate, although this is required in the Ecuadorian constitution and in international treaties which the government ratified.
Enter the Canadians
One of the mining companies involved, Canadian Lowell-Solaris Resources Inc., owns copper and gold extraction project Warintza, located in the Limón Indanza district, in Morona Santiago province. Solaris claims to have obtained Shuar’s consent through the establishment of the strategic alliances with the Warints and Yawi communities.
However, the PSHA points out that the company has bypassed the Assembly and Governing Council in the process of decision-making and used corrupt tactics to create connections with only 2 out of 47 communities. This has caused an internal conflict among the Shuars and seriously undermined their constitutional right to auto-determination.
No more consultation!
In response, the PSHA has launched a campaign ‘Pueblo Shuar has already decided: No to mining’, in which they make clear that they do not want any further consultation, they want their territory to become completely free from mining and they are demanding that their decision be respected.
On 29 January, the PSHA, with backing from the Public Services International (PSI) trade union, filed a complaint against the Ecuadorian State at the International Labour Organization, for breaching Indigenous and Tribal People Convention No. 169.
Not long afterwards, Josefina announced at a press conference on 28 February that Federico Velásquez, a vice president of operations at Solaris Resources, had sent death threats in explicit text messages to her and her colleague Tania Laurini.
‘If they continue to bother me with national and international complaints, we will have to slaughter one of these heads’, reads Velazquez’s message.
Josefina has filed a complaint with the Sucúa prosecutor’s office in Morona Santiago against Federico Velásquez and Solaris Resources. In a video released on 8 March, the Shuar Arutam people gave further details and once more expressed their rejection of large-scale mining. ‘If anything happens [to me], Solaris and Federico Velásquez will be directly responsible’, said Josefina.
Josefina Tunki makes a formal complaint against Federico Velazquez, 24 March, Image: Witness.
An end to corporate impunity?
In January 2020 Lowell Mineral Exploration, a subsidiary of Solaris Resources Inc. signed up to the UN Global Compact initiative, which aims to promote a responsible business practices with a sustainability-based approach. That means that the company pledged to align their operations to ‘meet fundamental responsibilities in the areas of human rights, labour, environment and anti-corruption.’
Although the Global Compact is not a regulatory instrument, it provides communities with a framework to hold the companies accountable and so the Alliance for Human Rights, made up of 18 organizations, expressed their concerns in an open letter to the Global Impact Ecuador Network, demanding that they exclude Solaris from the initiative as ‘it undermines integrity of the Human Rights Protection System’.
‘The mining company through its Strategic Alliance with the Warintza Project does not represent a model of Corporate Social Responsibility, much less an example of respect for the human and collective rights of indigenous peoples of Ecuador.’
The situation in the Shuar territory perfectly illustrates the inadequacy of voluntary Corporate Social Responsibility standards. Human and environmental rights often conflict with corporate interests and voluntary measures are simply not enough to change the ways in which companies manage their impacts.
PSHA states that since 2019 that the company has been violating the national constitution by ignoring requirement of a prior, free and informed consultation of indigenous people before developing any activities on their land,. Moreover it is involved in manipulating of the national and provincial government, militarisation of the Shuar territory and harassment of their leaders.
Presentation of the report Situation of human rights, collectives and nature defenders in Ecuador. Images: Twitter.
Meanwhile, the Alliance for Human Rights launched a report: Situation of human rights, collectives and nature defenders in Ecuador, at a press conference in Quito on 15 June.
The report shows findings of a 10-year investigation into 22 emblematic cases of persecution of activists and aims to draw attention to the severity of the problem in Ecuador. At least 449 defenders have had their rights systematically violated and two thirds of these cases involved mining projects.
‘All leaders are persecuted. I was threatened by the Solaris company via the media, they persecute us with a drone, we have been murdered, prosecuted, and we are the owners of our territory,’ said Josefina Tunki.
A number of leaders of other communities presented testimony about persecution: Carlos Jipa from the Federation of United Communes of the Ecuadorian Amazon (FCUNAE); Elzabeth Durazno, a president of the Sinchiwarmi; and Gabriela Fraga from La Merced community in Buenos Aires.
The most dangerous continent for environmental activists
This devastating trend is not confined to Ecuador. Latin America has been recognised for years as the deadliest continent for human and environmental activists. A study by Front Line Defenders shows, that in 2020 at least 331 human rights activists were assassinated, 284 of them in the Americas. Colombia alone accounted for more than a half of the total number of killings – 177, following by Honduras – 20, México – 19, Brazil – 16, Guatemala – 15 and Perú – 8. Moreover, the Front Line Defenders has observed significant growth in killings since they started to record them in 2012; the number has increased from 24 to 331.
Almost 70 per cent of the total were defending rights of indigenous people, the Earth and environment. According to Mary Lawlor, founder and executive director of Front Line Defenders, they continue to be the most targeted, because they mostly operate in ‘isolated, remote locations, far from the protective gaze of international media or embassies in major cities. These defenders are often regarded as especially soft targets, whose deaths will go largely unnoticed by the outside world.’
The report shows that while the majority of killings could be prevented, there is a lack of political interest in prioritising human rights over mega development projects. Sandra Patargo, Coordinator of Protection for the Americas of this NGO, claims that opposing such projects is very dangerous because ‘there are powerful corporate and public official interests and potential profits at stake.’
‘When these communities denounce the abuses and destruction caused by the projects, they begin to receive threats, attacks and, in some cases, assassinations.’ – said Ben Leather from Global Witness NGO.
Indeed, the report shows that killings are frequently preceded by other threats from state as well as non-state actors, such as smear campaigns, legal action, physical attacks and torture. Nonetheless, these are often left unchallenged, with investigations into persecutions and killings very rare.
‘The vast majority of attacks against environmental defenders continue with impunity; that in turn acts as a kind of green light for those who want to silence defenders’ – says Ben Leather.’’A true justice is an accountability that applies both to the companies that are acting irresponsibly, and to those who are carrying out these murders.’