Ecuador failing to protect environmentalists in the face of Chinese mining expansion
A “just, transparent and expeditious” investigation into the killing of an environmentalist in Ecuador late last year has been called for by a collective of 14 human rights and environmental organizations.
In a letter addressed to Ecuador’s Minister of the Interior and the District Attorney for Yantaza – the canton in the province of Zamora Chinchipe where the body of José Isidro Tendentza Antún was discovered – its signatories stressed the need to prosecute the “material and intellectual authors of the crime”.
Co-signed by Friends of the Earth, Global Witness and Amazon Watch among others, the letter also denounced a police raid on Tendetza’s home over a week after his death, something they claim amounted to a “blatant show of force” and which was deliberately intended to intimidate the Shuar indigenous community of which Tendetza was a member.
Tendetza’s body was discovered on 2 December, a few days before he was due to travel to Lima to participate in the People’s Summit on Climate Change, an alternative to the UN-led climate negotiations. He was planning to speak out against the Chinese-owned gold and copper mine El Mirador in Zamora Chinchipe, in the south-east of Ecuador, in front of an international environmental tribunal.
“We need as many voices as possible to speak out against injustice,” said Juan Carlos Jintiach, also a member of the Shuar indigenous community and representative of the Coordinator of Indigenous Organizations for the Amazon Basin (COICA), in an interview with Diálogo Chino.
“This must be fully investigated, regardless of the consequences. That’s the most important thing. It’s tragic and painful for me because we were part of the same indigenous community. I’m starting to find out about how he died,” remarks Jintiach, without going into details.
Following his disappearance on 28 November, Tendetza’s body was found on the River Chuchumbletza in Yantzaza, which neighbours El Pangui, the canton in which Tendetza lived. According to the local press, his body had already begun to decompose and he had no identification.
But according to the letter, his body also exhibited signs of torture despite Interior Minister Jose Serrano declaring that Tendetza had been strangled. Serrano also announced a reward of US$ 100,000 for anyone able to provide information about the death.
Jintiach admits that the case is a complex one. “There are many factors involved. But he is our brother and his death has had a profound effect on us. I knew him because he was a leader. There are rights of nature and rights for indigenous peoples.”
The rights of nature have been enshrined in the Ecuadorian constitution since 2008, which states that “every person, people, community or nationality can demand the recognition of the rights of nature before public institutions.”
But most crimes against defenders of the environment go unpunished.
“It’s not just in Ecuador. Many people throughout Latin America who stand up for nature are not receiving the protection they need,” explains Billy Kyte, campaigner at Global Witness.
A report published by the organization in 2013 drew attention to the fact that more than half the murders of environmental activists over the last decade occurred in Latin America and indigenous groups face the greatest risks.
“Their attempts to protect their forests mean that indigenous peoples are directly in the line of fire from the increasing threats posed by illegal logging, the unlawful appropriation of land and large development projects,” argues Kyte. “Indigenous peoples have historically been marginalized in Latin America and the majority live in remote areas, making them vulnerable to becoming victims of crime.”
Resistance to mining activities in the region is becoming increasingly dangerous. According to the letter and to local press, conflict over El Mirador has to date claimed three of the lives of its Shuar opponents.
China drives Ecuador’s mining expansion
Mining operations at El Mirador are the responsibility of the Chinese-owned Ecuacorriente S.A., which was jointly acquired by the state-run companies Tongling Nonferrous Metals Limited and China Railway Construction Corporation from the Canadian firm Corriente Resources.
There is no suggestion that the company has been involved in any of the killings of environmental activists.
Chinese credit and investments have been at the heart of the reorientation of Ecuador’s development agenda towards extractive industries.
Since the partial default in 2008, Rafael Correa’s government has accrued huge debts with China, receiving US$ 2bn in advance payments to develop the mining sector.
El Mirador is planned to operate for 17 years, with the extraction of 2,208 million pounds of copper and 535,500 ounces of gold.
The wealth of biodiversity in the Condillera del Condor, the mountain range and home to indigenous communities in which El Mirador is located, makes it one of the most biologically-rich regions in South America. It is here where the “Copper Belt” has been discovered, a reserve spanning an area of 1,600 km² and one of the world’s biggest untapped copper deposits.
Lorena Tapia, the Ecuadorean Minister of the Environment declined to comment on the death of Tendetza. When approached by Diálogo Chino for comment on the case in December 2014, she simply stressed the need to strengthen the official police investigations:
“I have no official information on the case…It is up to the appropriate authorities in Ecuador to respond. Like any case, it will be investigated, and care must be taken with information that has yet to be confirmed.”
It is these same authorities – namely those under the command of the District Attorney of Yantzaza, Galo Arnulfo Rodriguez Abarca – which according to the letter were tasked with raiding Tendetza’s home in the hope of finding “arms” and other materials that might somehow explain his death. There are no mentions of any arms being discovered.