When Sandro Chinkim tried to return to his village on Aug. 13, 2016, he found that it no longer existed.
Chinkim, a father in his thirties, left his community, Nankints, a day earlier to visit his in-laws, who live 100 kilometres away.
“When I returned, there was no house. They were all buried,” he said.
Thirty-two people lived in Nankints, a tiny enclave of indigenous Shuar in the foothills of the Condor Mountain Range in the southern Ecuadorean Amazon. There were soldiers, policemen, and remains of wood and zinc, perhaps the only evidence that there used to be a community there.
They were told they had two minutes to get their stuff and get out
Forty-eight hours earlier, a picket line of policemen, brandishing a court order, had evicted the community. The land, they were told, was now owned by mining company Explorcobres S.A., and they were invading it.
“They were told they had two minutes to get their stuff and get out,” said Chinkim. “Then they (the authorities) knocked down the houses and buried the remnants in a hole that they covered with dirt.”
Eight Nankints families took refuge in neighboring towns like San Carlos de Limón, Santiago de Pananza and Tsuntsuim. The Nankints community’s four hectares became, by force of eviction, the mining camp La Esperanza.
On a February morning in 2019, in what used to be Nankints, there are no longer any traces of wood and zinc. But there are seven small buildings with silver roofs, in the middle of small dirt roads, surrounded by a 2-metre-high metal fence reinforced with threatening barbed-wire. Inside a cement sentry box, a security guard watches suspiciously as a 4x4 rattles slowly past the Panantza-San Carlos project camp, where mining company Explorcobres S.A. wants to exploit the copper-rich mountain range for the next 25 years.
But the company can’t do it because of resistance by the Shuar people. The forced eviction that left Sandro Chinkim homeless was only the beginning of a four-month journey. At that moment, the violent escalation of a conflict between a powerful mining company and a small indigenous community began. It would result in displacement, judicial persecution and death.
Not far from Nankints in the southern Ecuadorian Amazon is Tsuntsuim, another Shuar indigenous community submerged in the middle of tree-covered mountains that are also full of copper. The region is the Cordillera del Condor, a small mountain range 1,100 metres above sea level that is recognised as one of the most biodiverse areas in Latin America.
The thick tree canopy shrouds the clear blue sky at midday, and early morning thick clouds hinder views of the mountain peaks. At night there’s a refreshing wind. It is silent at all times. The 27 families who live there occupy two-story wooden houses with zinc roofs. They are arranged in a large rectangular form, in the center of which is a multi-purpose cement court with two football goals and a volleyball net.
Jonathan, 6, and Steven, 4, laugh as they run free. On the grass that separates the houses from the court, a lady pulls a neighing mule. Rita, 21, squats as she machetes the grass around her house. A hen cackles.
In Tsuntsuim there is no health center, no grocery store. There is a small school for all children between the ages of 5 and 13.
Tsuntsium resident Alvino Pinchupá, remembers that “they (refugees from Nankints) arrived with only a blanket under their arm. “ ‘They kicked us out, it was an eviction’, they said, and we invited them to stay here.”
News of the displacement spread through the provinces of Morona Santiago and Zamora Chinchipe, part of the ancestral territory of the Shuar people, one of Ecuador’s 15 indigenous nationalities. Nearly a dozen men, who were not from Nankints, went to Tsuntsuim to support their comrades and reestablish their community.
Domingo Nayash had been the trustee - the highest administrative authority - of Tsuntsuim for barely a month, when he helped plan what he calls “the attack.”
“Before what happened in Nankints, people were already talking and protesting the mining issue, but here someone had to decide and act,” said Nayash, a thin, brown, wide-nosed man with strong arms.
He was sitting on a wooden bench, under a zinc roof from where newly washed t-shirts, trousers and wet socks hang. During the months after the eviction, there were assemblies and meetings between leaders of the Shuar organizations and those who joined them in defense of their territory.
After weeks of planning, in the early hours of Sunday, Nov. 20, 2016, nearly 25 men left Tsuntsuim for La Esperanza.
“It took us longer than expected because there were two chubby men walking slowly between us. We wanted to arrive at three in the morning to surprise the employees, but we arrived when it was already light,” recalled Nayash.
It was 6 a.m., when the Shuar - some with spears, some with explosives and some with rifles - burst into the mining camp. Amid the shots, blows and intense confusion, the workers of Explorcobres S.A. and the policemen who guarded it fled.
The plan was to burn the houses, Nayash said, but someone in the group suggested saving them because they could serve the inhabitants of Nankints who, according to their plans, would return to reestablish their community.
But the counterattack by the mining company and the State was heavy-handed. After one night’s sleep in La Esperanza, the Shuar were surprised the next morning by a large contingent of police and the military, according to Nayash. The Shuar seizure of La Esperanza lasted just 24 hours.
The Shuar retreated to San Carlos de Limón, a small town of settlers and other Shuar that lies between Tsuntsuim and the space where Nankints existed.
San Carlos de Limón can be reached in three ways. The simplest and quickest way - which takes between 3 and 4 minutes - is to cross half a kilometer on a small open cable car 300 meters above the Zamora River. The 20-something men who were thrown out of the former Nankints took refuge in Limón for three weeks.
"We're going to do one more attack," said Nayash, adding that several men had joined them from other communities. On Dec. 14, 2016 the Shuar moved against La Esperanza. But this time the camp was guarded by thousands of police and military, and the confrontation was more violent.
“The shooting was heard so far away,” said Tsuntsuim resident Natalia Nankamai.
Two soldiers, five policemen and two Shuar were wounded. Police officer José Luis Mejía died from a gunshot. Each side blamed each other in the shooting.
They came with armored cars, with tanks destroying everything
That same day, Dec. 14, then-President Rafael Correa ordered an increased military presence in the area and a 30-day state of emergency in Morona Santiago province.
Three days later, his weekly Saturday radio and television broadcasts often used to discuss his administration and to chastise his enemies, he alleged that the Shuar were part of “an extremely violent armed group” and denied their claim to ancestral territory. Then-police commander, Diego Mejía, said the Shuar had “large calibre weapons.”
Alvino Pinchupá and Domingo Nayash said they had carbines, dynamite and lances.
For them and the women and children of Tsuntsuim, those days of December 2016 are unforgettable. Nayash was in San Carlos de Limón when two days later he decided to leave Tsuntsuim to tell the others what had happened.
The road between the parish head and the community has stretches of deep, trapping mud, like fresh concrete. Slithering anacondas surprise travelers. Other stretches are steep and rocky, between steep gorges and prehistoric stones that are crossed by felled, slippery tree trunks.
The villagers take about 40 minutes to cross it. Outsiders can take up to four hours.
Nayash remembered hearing shooting and the sound of whirling helicopter blades when he walked to Tsuntusim.
“They came with armored cars, with tanks destroying everything. They entered from three fronts. They wanted to ambush us,” Nayash said.
The military and police broke into several towns in the area. Their objective was to arrest suspects in the death of Mejía.
Rosa Tuits, a resident of San Pedro, a community near Tsuntsuim, said she was bathing when the police and military kicked in her door.
“That scared me,” she said. “Luckily I was there because the people who weren't there had their doors broken, their hinges. In my house they checked and dismantled everything and took the carbine with them. We always have weapons because we live in the jungle. That gun was taken.”
Then minister of the interior, Diego Fuentes, tweeted: “We disprove any assertion and information of violent interventions on the part of the public [security] force.”
families fled Tsuntsuim in one night
The inhabitants of Tsuntsuim were afraid on that December day. The noise of helicopters, bullets and drones horrified the children. Around 8 pm, the 27 families decided to leave their community. They didn’t want to run into the military or police.
“The soldiers came with gunshots, the helicopters could be heard low. I had to take the children. What animals? What blankets? Nothing. We left with nothing and it was time to sleep in the mountain. The children without a snack,” remembered Benito Jimpikit, a member of the Tsuntsuim community.
Nayash said most didn’t even have a flashlight to pierce the darkness as they stumbled through thick jungle.
The next morning they arrived at Tink, another Shuar community 12.4 kilometres from Tsuntsuim, where they took refuge.
“We didn’t know what was going to happen. I thought the next day I would come back to see my things, to bring food for my children,” Nayash said, but it took them four months to return to Tsuntsuim.
They returned only when they were sure that all the military had left the community.
The houses of Jimpikit and three other villagers were burned down.
“I had a kitchenette, fridge, seven cattle, 78 chickens. And when I returned, I received only 25 sheets of zinc to rebuild,” Jimpkit said.
Hidden that night from the military who still occupied Tsuntsuim, Jimpkit saw that he didn’t have a house, and there wasn’t a cow left in his herd. He went back to his wife and cried, heartbroken at all he had lost.
“I cried like when you want to die at that very moment,” Jimpkit said.
Maria Luisa Utitiaj, 61, sits at the wooden table next to her kitchenette surrounded by aluminum pots and bunches of plantains. In her hand, she has a closed lock attached to a hinge that she still keeps on the door that the military and police had knocked down.
She was already sheltered in Tink when it happened, but she said they ate her chickens and took away her gas tanks. “They didn’t respect anything.”
Soledad Chumpik was the teacher at Tsuntsuim school. She spent the working week in the community and the weekends with her family in nearby Gualaquiza.
Chumpik was not there the day all the inhabitants fled to Tink but returned to the community two days later. The education district authorities asked her to report on the school’s situation. When she arrived in Tsuntsuim, it was full of soldiers and policemen.
“They had invaded the houses, the school, all were in disarray,” she said. “The food I had was not in my room. Everything had been used by the police, who still occupied my room.”
That night, Chumpik slept in Tsuntsuim. The next day, she took photographs of the school and wrote notes for the report she had been asked to make.
One morning in February in 2019, in the corridor of the Tsuntsuim school she still directs, Chumpik fulfilled the order given to her.
“I wasn’t afraid to be there because I had nothing to do with it,” she said.
However, police arrested Chumpik and took her handcuffed to a checkpoint in San Juan Bosco canton, where she spent the night.
“The next day they took me to the hospital for check-ups, then to the Community Police Unit, then to the Attorney General’s Office,” she said.
Chumpik’s husband took care of the paperwork and the lawyers. During the interrogations, she was asked to hand over evidence.
“What evidence could I give them if I didn’t know anything?” asked Chumpik, who was charged with inciting violence.
Later, she recalled how the police arrest affected the youngsters.
here we are two years later, everything remains the same, we haven’t recovered and nobody cares
One inhabitant of Tsuntsuim who requested anonymity spoke while his five daughters aged between 2 and 7 embraced and played with him. He said that nothing was left of his house and that police and military broke everything and took his chainsaw.
He said that he preferred not to give his name or continue talking because “people come here all the time to ask us questions, but nobody helps.”
According to the inhabitants of Tsuntsuim, before the invasion by authorities no one - except one or two non-governmental organisations - had ever been there. Mine workers had also reached the community, according to the villagers, offering them chickens, guinea pigs for the women and notebooks and pencils for the children.
No national politician has stepped into Tsuntsuim. During election campaigns, some candidates for the parish council or prefects of the province have visited the community. But their visits have not translated into any concrete works.
Perhaps the last time they received any attention was during the war over disputed territory with Peru that ended in 1998. The coveted region is very close to Tsuntsuim, and during the conflict the Shuar were recruited by the army. After the war, however, their support and contribution was not recognised, according to indigenous people in the area.
The father of five said that after the conflict in Nankints, many journalists, environmentalists and social activists arrived.
“But here we are two years later, everything remains the same, we haven’t recovered and nobody cares,” he said.
Though the eviction of Nankints to set up La Esperanza camp was in 2016, the mining project has been going on for more than 10 years. It occupies nearly 42,000 hectares – an area three times the size of Miami.
people are within the Explorocobres mine's "area of influence"
According to a report by the human rights group the Tiam Foundation (which watches over human rights and the environment), four towns - Indanza, San Miguel de Conchay, San Carlos de Limón and San Jacinto de Wakambeis - are within the area of the mining concession. Four others - San Antonio, Pan de Azúcar, San Juan Bosco and Santiago de Pananza - are within the project’s “area of influence”. More than 12,000 people would be affected, 5,000 of them Shuar.
In 2012, the Comptroller General’s Office found seven instances of the Ministries of Environment, Energy and Non-Renewable Natural Resources and other institutions related to the Panantza-San Carlos mining project failing to comply with legislation such as the Mining Mandate or the national Constitution.
The Comptroller General’s Office ordered the government to suspend the project for reasons including Explorcobres S.A exceeding the number of concessions allowed under the mining mandate (a maximum of three were possible, they had four in force and seven suspended). It also found that the project is in a territory with water sources and therefore the environmental impact study was “outside the applicable legislation.”
The report makes it clear that in environmental, social - and even economic - terms, the project had been carried out to dubious standards.
By February 2019, Panantza-San Carlos was in an advanced exploration stage. It had already done the prospecting to determine if there are minerals in the soil, as well as opening trails and drilling boreholes.
In Ecuador, only one open-pit mining project has begun. It is not far from Panantza-San Carlos, in the same Cordillera del Cóndor where Nankints used to be.
The concession was awarded to Ecuacorriente S.A., a subsidiary of the same Chinese conglomerate as Explorocobres, and comprises the state-owned Tongling Nonferrous Metals and China Railway Construction Corp. (CRCC), which is dedicated to infrastructure construction.
The two projects aim to tap the same deposit, which extends beneath the provinces of Morona Santiago and Zamora Chinchipe. It is known as the “copper belt."
Mirador has attracted more Ecuadorian public attention for the already-visible environmental damage and impact on surrounding communities.
For the Shuar, these actions were a cleansing of territory
But Panantza-San Carlos is expected to double its size and, according to critics, its environmental footprint.
Shuar resistance is not new. In November 2006, inhabitants of the community of Warints, also in the southern Amazon, arrived with lances and shotguns at the camp of Canadian company Lowell Mineral Exploration, demanding that they leave their territory.
Such was the pressure - they blocked the airplane runway to prevent the arrival of military and police - the mining company left.
Raul Ankuash is one of the Shuar leaders close to the anti-mining resistance. Territorial leader of the Interprovincial Federation of Shuar Centres (Ficsh), he said that Shuar nationality has always rejected mining in their ancestral territory.
“But the companies have generated internal divisions within the organisation and continue to generate more conflicts. There is still one person working for them,” he said.
The conflict with Explorcobres S.A. is just a new twist of a long history. “If it weren’t for the resistance of the Shuar people, the Panantza-San Carlos project would have started a long time ago,” said Gloria Chicaiza of Acción Ecológica, an environmental rights organization.
According to Chicaiza, the victory against Lowell had a cascading effect and also interrupted the Panantza-San Carlos project.
“For the Shuar, these actions were a cleansing of territory. It was a way of making it clear that they wanted their land free of mining,” Chicaiza said.
The area in southeastern Ecuador where mining companies want to dig deep, open-pit operations is the ancestral territory of the Shuar Arutam community, made up of some 13,000 Shuar people. Although Article 57 of Ecuador's Constitution recognises ancestral indigenous territories, the political history, especially that of lands in the Amazon, is more complex.
Ten years before the eviction of Nankints in what is now Camp La Esperanza, there was another mining camp, Rosa de Oro. The Shuar Arutam took the camp, and renamed it Nankints.
The owners of Rosa de Oro sued the Shuar Arutam and in 2015 the Provincial Court of the province of Morona Santiago ruled in favour of the company, granting possession and use rights.
Inside a narrow cove, Oswaldo Domínguez - a native of Azuay province and a resident of Limón for more than 50 years - shows the drilling witnesses of the Billington mining company that explored more than a decade ago.
Mario Melo is the lawyer of the Shuar Arutam people. He insists that the territory belongs to the Shuar nation.
Melo said the Shuar were cornered in their own territory through a combination of the mission of the Salesian monks, the drought of the 1960s in the southern Sierra, which led peasants to occupy lands in the Amazon, and the first agrarian reform in 1964.
A report by rights groups the Fundación Regional de Asesoría en Derechos (Inredh) also mentions that in the 1970s there was a colonisation process promoted by now defunct -Ecuadorian Institute of Agrarian Reform and Colonisation (IERAC) “which awarded Shuar ancestral lands to settlers as if they did not exist.”
Melo explained that the State, although it knew the area was indigenous ancestral territory, granted property titles to peasants.
“The people of the Sierra arrived with a different mentality, for them collective property has no meaning so they asked to legalise their name [and] one, two [or] three hectares,” Melo said.
Initially, the Shuar were not worried. But everything changed when the peasants sold their titles to the mining companies.
the year prospecting began in the Cordillera del Cóndor
In 1998, prospecting began in the Cordillera del Cóndor, an area that had previously been contested. It had been a war zone and civilian activities were banned.
According to Melo, the peasants saw a business opportunity. They asked the State for the deeds in exchange for cultivating the land and, once they had the papers, sold it.
“The company owns that land, but that transaction was not really legitimate. If you go backwards, you’re going to find there was an adjudication by some state organization. That’s the beginning of the dispossession of the Shuar,” said Verónica Potes, a lawyer who specialises in indigenous rights.
One of those few hectare deeds the settlers sold to the miners was Nankints. Explorcobres S.A. owns 150 hectares but the concession given to it by the Ecuadorian state is almost 42,000.
Those additional hectares belong to the Shuar Arutam people who, since the last decade of the 20th century, have followed the requisite processes for the State to give them titles, according to Potes.
On Feb. 12, 2019, the press room of the Confederation of Indigenous Nationalities of Ecuador (Conaie), in Quito, was full of reporters and cameramen. At the rectangular table, Mario Melo, accompanied by Shuar leaders, announced that the Shuar Arutam people would file a protective (civil rights) action - a legal mechanism to protect human rights - against the Panantza-San Carlos project.
He said their main argument was that the state violated the constitutional right to free, prior and informed consultation – an indispensable requirement in any extractive project in Ecuador and an international commitment under the UN’s International Labour Organisation’s Convention 169, which the country has ratified.
In mining areas, this basically consists of consulting the inhabitants of indigenous villages on whether or not they allow resources to be extracted from their territories.
Once the government of Rafael Correa realised that prior consultations regarding extractive projects were mandatory according to the new Constitution, they created procedures that were more of a make believe than a real participatory process.
According to Melo, in the case of Panantza-San Carlos, the cultural identity of indigenous peoples is being disrespected.
“Through violent acts in 2016, the right to a dignified life and integrity was violated,” he said.
Five days after the press conference, in the parish of San Carlos de Limón, in Morona Santiago, Shuar leaders Claudio Washikiat and Vicente Tsakimp spoke at an assembly of the Shuar communities of Morona Santiago about the civil rights action.
“Are we going to recover the territory?” asked one of the attendees. It is a question that no one dares to answer.
Three days before the assembly in Limón, Washikiat – with his round face of hard gestures and a strengthened leadership- arrived in Tsuntsuim from Quito for the first time since the state of emergency was declared.
Domingo Nayash, community member Alvino Pinchupá. and his wife Maria Natalia Nankamai give him a warm reception.
Washkiat was one of the men who tried to recover Nankints, and he was wanted by police and the military as they surveilled small Shuar communities with helicopters and patrols back in November 2016.
“That day you disappeared, we thought you had been killed,” Nayash said.
Washikiat finished eating an armadillo broth he had been offered as a welcome and rose from the table to say what no one in Tsuntsuim had known until then. He remembered the low-flying helicopters, the armored cars, the tanks and the ambush.
He said that when he felt cornered, he threw himself into the ravine full of downed trees that ends at the Zamora River, near where a tarabita (a rope bridge) connects Limón with the rest of the communities and parishes.
Washikiat was in hiding for months because of legal complaints filed against him for the murder of police officer Mejia. Like him, Rosa Tuits and Oswaldo Dominguez, a mestizo community member from Limón, were named as suspects in the murder. They, however,were not at La Esperanza when Mejia died.
According to the Attorney General’s Office, Mejía's murder is still under investigation. After a month of sending requests for information, the office replied, via e-mail, that charges filed against the three had been dismissed. The information matches the information disclosed by the Judicial Council.
The shooting, the helicopter surveillance and the displacement of the inhabitants of Tsuntsuim for four months were not the only forms of violence suffered by the people of the area. Forty-three people, among them Shuar and mestizos, were accused of murder, 22 of attacks or resistance, ten of intimidation, 10 of inciting violence, four of robbery, three of cattle theft, two of possession of stolen goods, two of damage to the property, one of theft and one of possession of weapons.
The accusations, like those faced by Tuits and Domínguez, took place in a political context in which anyone who resisted or protested was charged. According to Conaie, Ecuarunari (the Confederation of Peoples of the Kichwa Nationality of Ecuador, which brings together the indigenous peoples of the Sierra) and several human rights organizations, more than 200 people were prosecuted after demonstrating for a territory free of mining from January 2009 to December 2018,.
In Ecuador, protest has been criminalized, leading to violence defenders of their territory.
On March 6, 2019, Melo filed the civil rights action he had announced 22 days earlier. In Quito, the organisations that support the Shuar people’s struggle prepared reports, maps on the loss of territory and analyses on the impact of mining.
Benito Jimpikit has continued to live on his farm because he still does not have enough to build a new house in Tsuntsuim.
There are still Shuar living in hiding with murder accusations against them. The families of Tsuntsuim have continued to mourn the loss of their meagre belongings.
“From the moment we were evicted, we were left without land. My whole family had to find shelter. I lost everything,” says Sandro Chinkim bitterly.