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The Ghost
of Nankints

In 2016 a Shuar community in southern Ecuador was attacked, forcibly evicted and legally harassed. A mining company was set up in their territory. More than two years later, its 32 inhabitants have not been able to return to their land.

When Sandro Chinkim returned to his village, his village no longer existed.

Chinkim, a father in his thirties, had just left his community, Nankints, a day earlier to visit his in-laws, who live only 100 kilometers away.

“When I returned, there was no house, and all the houses were buried. There was no board,” he said.

Thirty-two people lived in Nankints, a tiny enclave of Shuar Indians in the foothills of the Condor Mountain Range in Ecuador's southern Amazon. But when Chinkim returned there was no trace of them, nor of their houses. There were soldiers, policemen, and remains of wood and zinc, perhaps the only evidence that there used to be a community there. It was Aug. 13, 2016 

Forty-eight hours earlier, a picket line of policemen, brandishing a court order, had evicted the community. The land, they were told, was owned by the mining company Explorcobres S.A., and they were invading it. Unlike their son, Sandro Chinkim’s parents were in Nankints.

"They were told they had two minutes to get their stuff and get out,” said Chinkim. “Then they (authorities) knocked down the houses, buried them in a hole that they covered with dirt.”

On that day, Aug. 11, 2016, the eight Nankints families took refuge in neighboring towns like San Carlos de Limón, Santiago de Pananza and Tsuntsuim. Nankints had ceased to exist. Their four small hectares became, by force of eviction, the mining camp La Esperanza.

Their people were never able to return to their homeland again.

Two-and-a-half years later, 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 tidy dirt roads, surrounded by a 2-meter-high metal fence reinforced with threatening barbed-wire spirals. Inside a cement sentry box, a security guard watches suspiciously as a 4-by-4 rattles and lifts dust as it slowly passes outside the Panantza-San Carlos project camp, where Explorcobres S.A. wants to start exploiting the rich mountain range, replete with coveted copper, for 25 years.

La Esperanza Camp is surrounded by a metal fence reinforced with barbed wire. Photograph by José María León

But the company can’t do it because of the resistance by the Shuar people. The forced eviction that left Sandro Chinkim homeless and without a town, was only the beginning of a four-month journey started that day in August 2016. At that moment began the violent escalation of a conflict between a powerful mining company and a small indigenous community, which would result in death, persecution, judicial harassment and displacement.

***

Not far from Nankints in the southern Ecuadorian Amazon is Tsuntsuim, another Shuar indigenous community submerged in the middle of mountains covered by tall trees and full of copper. The region is the Cordillera del Condor, a small mountain range recognized as one of the most biodiverse areas in Latin America, and 1,100 meters above sea level.

The thick tree canopy shrouds the clear blue sky at midday, and early morning thick clouds hinder the view of mountain peaks, while at night there’s a refreshing wind. It is silent at all time. The 27 families who live there occupy two-story wooden houses with zinc roofs. They are arranged as in a large rectangle, in the center of which is a multi-purpose cement court with two football arches 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, squatting, 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.

On Aug. 11, 2016, the day the eight families were evicted from Nankints, some sought refuge in Tsuntsuim, about 6 kilometers away. 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 Shuars, one of Ecuador’s 15 indigenous nationalities. Nearly a dozen men, who were not from Nankints, went to Tsuntsuim to support their comrades and retake their community.

Domingo Nayash had been the trustee - the highest administrative authority - of  Tsuntsuim for barely a month, and 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 the men who joined to defend 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 clear,” recalled Nayash. 

It was 6 a.m., when the Shuar - some with spears, some with explosives and some with shotguns - 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 in retreat.

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 re-found their community.

But the counterattack by the mining company and the State was strong-handed. After a night’s sleep in La Esperanza, the Shuar were surprised the next morning by a large contingent of police and military,  according to Nayash. The Shuar seizure of La Esperanza lasted 24 hours. 

The Shuar retreated to San Carlos de Limón, a small town of settlers and Shuar people that lies between Tsuntsuim and the space where Nankints existed.

The tarabita that connects Limón with the other populations. Photograph by José María León.

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 trustee Nayash, adding that several men had joined them from other communities. Twenty-four days later, 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,” 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.

***

That same day, Dec. 14, then-President Rafael Correa ordered a military increase in the area and a 30-day state of emergency in Morona Santiago province.

Three days later, on radio and television networks that broadcasted speeches Correa gave every Saturday to discuss his management and to chastise his enemies, he alleged that the Shuar were part of “an extremely violent armed group” and denied that this space was their ancestral territory. The then-police commander, Diego Mejía, said the Shuar had “large caliber weapons.”

Alvino Pinchupá and Domingo Nayash insist that they only 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 and trapping mud, like fresh concrete with travelers surprised by slithery anacondas. Other stretches are steep and rocky, between steep gorges and prehistoric stones that are crossed by downed slippery tree trunks.

The villagers take about 40 minutes to cross it, while outsiders can take up to four hours.

Nayash remembered that as he walked to Tsuntusim he heard shooting and the sound of whirling helicopter blades.

“They came with armored cars, with tanks destroying everything. They used three fronts to enter, they wanted to ambush us,” Nayash said.  

The military and police broke into several towns in the area. Their objective was to arrest the suspects in the death of policeman José Luis 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 and we have hens. That gun was taken.”

The then-Minister of the Interior, Diego Fuentes, published in his Twitter account: “We disprove any assertion and information of violent interventions on the part of the public force.”

The inhabitants of Tsuntsuim were afraid on that December day. The noise of helicopters, bullets and drones horrified the children. Around 8 p.m., 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.

People were unable to pack clothes or food. Nothing, Nayash said, commenting that most didn’t have a flashlight to pierce the darkness as they stumbled through the thick jungle.

The next morning they arrived at Tink, another Shuar community 12.4 kilometers 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. I just started to recover,” 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 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 Mondays through Fridays in the community and the weekends with her family in Gualaquiza, a nearby town.

Chumpik was not there the day all the inhabitants fled to Tink but returned to the community two days later. The education district asked her to report on the school’s situation. When she arrived in Tsuntsuim, she said, 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.

Photography by José María León.

One morning in February in 2019, in the corridor of the Tsuntsuim school she still directs, Chumpik said she 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 slept one 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 incitement to discord among citizens.

Later, while waiting for the children to finish a task before sending them on holiday for the end of the first half of the school year, she recalled how the police arrest affected the youngsters.

***

One inhabitant of Tsuntsuim who requested anonymity spoke while his five daughters between 2 and 7 years old 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 organizations - 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 concrete works. It is enough to travel the muddy and impassable road up there to understand that taking care of residents is not a priority.

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 recognized, according to indigenous people in the area.

After the conflict in Nankints, said the father of five, 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 - three times the size of Miami.

According to a report by 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 concession areas. 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 audited environmental aspects of the management of the Ministries of Environment, Energy and Non-Renewable Natural Resources and other institutions related to the Panantza-San Carlos mining project.

The report concluded that the project has seven irregularities because the ministries involved failed to comply with legislation such as the Mining Mandate or the Constitution

Specifically, according to the Comptroller General’s Office, the government had to suspend the project for reasons including: Explorcobres S.A. exceeded the number of concessions allowed under the mining mandate (a maximum of three were possible, and they had four in force and seven suspended); it is in a territory with births and water sources; and because the environmental impact study that was carried out 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 stage to determine if there are minerals in the soil and the exploration stage where trails are opened and boreholes are drilled.

In Ecuador, only one open-pit mine project has begun, and it is not far from Panantza-San Carlos, in the same Cordillera del Cóndor where Nankints used to be.

It is concessioned to a different company, Ecuacorriente S.A., a subsidiary of the same Chinese conglomerate, and made up of the state-owned companies Tongling Nonferrous Metals - dedicated to metal mining - and China Railway Construction Corp. (CRCC) - dedicated to infrastructure construction.

The two projects aim to exploit the same deposit, which extends beneath the provinces of Morona Santiago and Zamora Chinchipe, and is known as the “copper belt.."

Mirador has attracted more Ecuadorian public attention for the already-visible environmental damage and impact on surrounding communities.  

But Panantza-San Carlos is expected to double in extension and, therefore, in environmental damage, according to critics. It has not been made public who chose the name La Esperanza for the camp. Many question whether the motivations were daughters of cynicism, contempt or abject arrogance.

***

Shuar resistance is not new. In November 2006, inhabitants of the Shuar community of Warints, also in the southern Amazon, arrived with lances and shotguns at the camp of the Canadian company Lowell Mineral Exploration and demanded that they leave their territory.

Such was the pressure - they blocked the airplane runway to prevent the arrival of military and police - that the mining company left.

Raul Ankuash is one of the Shuar leaders who has been very close to anti-mining struggle and resistance. He is the territory leader of the Interprovincial Federation of Shuar Centres (Ficsh) and said that Shuar nationality has always rejected mining in their ancestral territory.

“But the companies have generated internal divisions within the organization and continue to generate more conflicts. There is still one person financed by a company,” he said. Mining has also created footprint of social problems in southern Ecuador.

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 interrupted the Panantza-San Carlos project, whose camp a decade ago, was called Rosa de Oro 

“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 recognizes ancestral indigenous territories, the political history, especially that of lands in the Amazon, is more complex.

On Aug. 11, 2016, the joint operation evicted the inhabitants of Nankints because, according to the Ministry of the Interior, it was an “illegal invasion” because the properties had been granted to Explorcobres S.A.

Ten years earlier, in November 2006, in the same space (now Camp La Esperanza, formerly Nankints) another mining camp, Rosa de Oro, was operating. The Shuar Arutam took the camp, baptized it Nankints, and lived there for 10 years.

The owners of Rosa de Oro sued the Shuar Arutam, and in 2015 the Provincial Court of the province of Morona Santiago ruled in favor 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 and insists that this territory belongs to the Shuar nationality.

The historical context is long and complex, but 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 that led peasants to occupy lands in the Amazon, and the first agrarian reform in 1964.

A report by the Fundación Regional de Asesoría en Derechos (Inredh) also mentions that in the 1970s there was a colonization process promoted by the then-Ecuadorian Institute of Agrarian Reform and Colonization (IERAC) “which awarded Shuar ancestral lands to settlers as if they did not exist.”

Melo explained that the State, although it knew that 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 legalize their name, individual, two, three hectares,” Melo said.

They were small and isolated, which did not seem worrying for the Shuar. But everything changed when the peasants sold those titles to the mining companies.

In 1998, prospecting began in the Cordillera del Cóndor, an area that had previously been in dispute, was a war zone (three years earlier, Ecuador and Peru had sent soldiers to the banks of the Cenepa River), 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 soon and, once they had the papers, they sold them to the companies.

“The company owns that land, but that transaction was not really legitimate. If you go backwards, you’re going to find a time when there was an adjudication by some state organization. That’s the beginning of the dispossession of the Shuar,” said Verónica Potes, a lawyer who specializes 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 processes for the State to give them titles to a territory that, in theory, the Constitution of Ecuador recognizes as belonging to them, 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, lawyer Mario Melo, accompanied by Shuar leaders, began the press conference and announced that the Shuar Arutam people would take protective action - a legal mechanism to protect human rights - against the Panantza-San Carlos project.

He said the 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.

It was a commitment that the country also made when it signed Convention 169 of the United Nations International Labour Organization.

In areas of exploitation, it basically consists of consulting the inhabitants of ethnic villages whether or not they allow resources to be extracted from their territories.

When the government of Rafael Correa created wording in the Constitution involving the extraction industry, they created models of paper consultations. 

According to Melo, in the case of Panantza-San Carlos, the cultural identity of indigenous peoples is being disrespected.

“Additionally, 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, Claudio Washikiat, a Shuar leader of Conaie territory, who wears red zigzag marks on his cheekbones, spoke at an assembly of the Shuar communities of Morona Santiago about protective action.

The assembly was held in a community center with a curved zinc roof and a cement multi-sports court and steps painted yellow and green, the colors of the province, symbolizing the condor mountain range, forests and minerals.

In the same place, two years earlier the military set up their tents and lived there for the 30-day state of emergency. Now, however, the attendees, seated in white plastic chairs want to know what will happen to the exploitation of the territory they consider theirs.

Claudio Washikiat, Vicente Tsakimp, president of the Shuar Arutam People, and two other Shuar leaders spoke from the stage, and most of the dialogue is in their language.

Attendees gave long commentaries, and the moderating secretary asked them to make concrete proposals.

“But are we going to recover the territory?” asked one of the attendees, after they are told what the protection action is for.

It is a question that no one dares to answer.

***

Three days before the assembly in Limón, on the night of Feb. 14, 2019, Claudio Washikiat – round face of hard gestures, an air of superiority over the mestizos and a strengthened leadership-  arrived in Tsuntsuim from Quito. He had not returned to the community since December 2016, after the policeman died and President Correa declared a state of emergency.

Trustee Domingo Nayash, the communal man Alvino Pinchupá and his wife Maria Natalia Nankamai, give him a warm reception. In 2016, Washikiat was vice-president of the Interprovincial Federation of Shuar Centres (Ficsh).

When the conflict broke out in November, 2016, Washkiat was one of the men who tried to recover Nankints, and he was one of those wanted by police and military as they surveilled small Shuar communities with helicopters and patrols.

“That day you disappeared, we thought you had been killed or you had died,”  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 that murder. But Unlike Washikiat, Rosa Tuits and Oswaldo Dominguez were not at La Esperanza on Dec. 14, 2016  when Mejia died.

According to the Attorney General’s Office, the case of Mejía's murder is still under investigation. After a month of sending requests for information, the office relied, via e-mail, that charges were filed against the three had been dismissed. The information matches the information disclosed by the Judiciary 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 attack or resistance, 10 of intimidation, 10 of inciting discord, 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 denounced. 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, from January 2009 to December 2018, more than 200 people were prosecuted after demonstrating for a territory free of mining. 

In Ecuador, the most recurrent violence suffered by defenders of territory during the last decade was the criminalization of protest.

On March 6, 2019, attorney Mario Melo filed the protective action he had announced 22 days earlier. While in Quito, the organizations 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 the weight of murder accusations against them. The families of Tsuntsuim have continued to mourn the loss of their meager belongings. And the 32 displaced people have not been able to return to Nankints. 

Sandro Chinkim, one of the 32 violently displaced inhabitants, still speaks bitterly.

“The day we were evicted, from that moment on, we were left without land. My whole family had to find shelter. I lost everything.”

***

She traveled to Coca, the city where the headquarters of the Fourth Division of the Ecuadorian Army that patrols the entire Amazon are, to ask to speak with the general who commanded it. For a week she went every day to knock on the barracks’ doors asking for a general whose name she no longer remembers. They gave her typical answers, designed to wear her down: that the general was in Gualaquiza, in the south, that his superiors had called him to Quito, that he had returned but had left immediately to Macas, near the border with Peru. "Tell him that Miss Patricia Gualinga is looking for him," she repeated to the cadets who attended her, somewhat bewildered by her plaid pants and t-shirts tied to her navel. "Write the message, please", she would tell them and leave, and return the next day, to repeat the same routine. She was the one, in the end, who wore the soldiers down. "Maybe he received me out of sheer curiosity, to know who was this girl who was looking for him every day," Gualinga says with a half smile, as if acknowledging the dimensions of her audacity.

When she met the General, she not only asked for a helicopter, but told him it had to be the largest one the Army had: a Russian made MIL MI-171. "I do not know what allure I had that day, or what mood the General was in, but he told me he could have the chopper, and that he would also come." A few weeks later, Minister Rocío Vásquez, a vegetarian who could not eat the meat she offered, visited Sarayaku, along with military and advisors. When the helicopter landed, raising an ancestral and yellow dust, the first thing Vásquez asked was to speak with Mrs. Gualinga, the one who had organized the visit. When they pointed out a girl in checkered trousers and a shirt tied to her navel, her face made the same expression that the conscripts at whose door Patricia Gualinga stood asking for a General, but Minister Vásquez did not say a word. She ate what she could, danced, drank the ancestral beverage of chicha, and left. Three months later, she called the young sarayaku to offer her to direct the entire office of the Ministry of Tourism in the Ecuadorian Amazon.

***

Patricia Gualinga turned down the Minister’s offer. "I was scared," she says. The tumultuous times of the banking crisis of Ecuador came, and President Jamil Mahuad fell from power. Ecuador was a bankrupt country, in which eight of every 100 inhabitants (that added more than a million) had left, by all possible means, legal and illegal, risking their lives to look for a better one, to countries like Spain, Italy and the United States.

With a decimated banking industry, in which 70% of all the banks in the country went bankrupt, without a sound industrial complex, and in full process of dollarization (before exiling for good to Boston, Mahuad had ordered the death of the national currency, the sucre, which would be replaced by the US dollar, at the rate of one dollar for every 25,000 devalued sucres), Ecuador only had to offer, to those who would pay for them, the commodities it produced without much effort. Among them, the biggest of all, oil.

Mahuad was succeeded by his vice president, a good-natured lawyer named Gustavo Noboa, who tried to lead the country through the crisis. His Minister of Tourism was once again Rocío Vásquez, the vegetarian who had summoned the sarayaku leader in plaid pants to public service. Once again she called the same young sarayaku woman and made her the same offer.

Patricia asked her family. Her brothers told her that it would be too big a burden. "I was scared: how was I going to speak in public?" she says. "I did not really know what the State’s structure was like, nor how it worked." She was doubtful. Yet her father, one of the most respected shamans in the community, told her to accept the position, for he had foreseen it would all go well.

And everything went well until it started to go wrong. At the beginning, Minister Vásquez gave Gualinga authority and resources. The office of the Ministry of Tourism in Puyo ceased to be a dark office relegated to a building without shine or staff. But, around the same time, Noboa, the head of Vásquez, reauthorized the concession of the Sarayaku territory to the Argentine oil company Compañía General de Combustible (CGC). "The State and the oil companies have called us terrorists since the 70s, when I was a boy," says Eriberto Gualinga, "but everything intensified in 2002."

The concession had been made six years before, during which the oil company several times tried to enter the Sarayaku territory, where 65% of the 200,000 hectares that CGC had a government —but not ancestral— permission to prospect and extract oil. The contract had not been consulted with the Sarayaku people, but in a time of need, the Ecuadorian government offered all the guarantees for the Argentine corporation to restart its exploration —and none to the very owners of the land, the Sarayaku.

It was a time of division for Sarayaku: some leaders were enchanted by corporate siren songs and the resistance began to crack. It was then that the leaders of the indigenous nation believed that they could find in Patricia an ally for the cause of the Sarayaku people. "She was a very well known person. She had worked in the radio, at the Andean University and had been in the Ministry. She had a lot of credibility, " says Eriberto Gualinga. Three historical leaders of the Sarayaku people, Marlon Santi, José Gualinga and Heriberto Viteri, went to talk to the provincial director of the Ministry of Tourism to ask her to leave the government flanks and return to her village to meet her fate. "It was a difficult decision," she recalls.

He had made a career, she was the top Ministry official in the region, she had gained authority and experience. At the same time, she thought, government jobs are ephemeral, as they are dependent of the volatility of politics. "But there was something true," says Gualinga, from the café where she speaks, in Puyo, looking through the intermingling of bamboo cane and ferns that hang and fall on a poster that shows a group of Amazonian women declared in resistance, where she appears in the center. "If there is something you always have, is your people. So I decided to go with my people, the Sarayaku people. "

***

When the State and the oil company attacked, the Sarayaku were paralyzed. "Everything was suspended, education, health, work on the land. The only task we were focused on was defense," recalls Eriberto Gualinga. The community organized peace camps along the trails that link the 135,000 hectares of Sarayaku land to patroll it. "There was no time or energy for anything else. Even if you’re from the jungle, the jungle burns you out: defending it from within costs all your energy, " the filmmaker says. It was a revealing time for Sarayaku’s youngest: "We connect with the historical leaders", Eriberto says, "we saw them, we met them, we went out with them to the beaches and the jungle, we learned from them". People like his father, Sabino, his mother Corina Montalvo, his uncles, the Viteri family, and other leaders assumed the legendary role of guardians of the territory. 

It was during this time of crisis that Patricia began her work in sarayaku defense. Without being formally a leader, she led communication and relations with the mestizo world, including the state and oil companies. "The question I asked myself was: Who do we go to if justice in Ecuador did not respond?" she says. Her role was focused on getting the national media and radio in Quito interested in what happened in the Amazon. “Patricia is a bridge between a world, the Sarayaku world, and multiple other worlds”, says Viviana Krsticevic, director of the Center for Justice and International Law (CEJIL) based in Washington. That connection would achieve the sympathy and empathy of people from all over the planet with the common cause of the Sarayaku.

"Things happen for a reason," Gualinga reflects, twenty years on, "At the Ministry, I had a job that I liked, but the best of it was how it later it served me for the sarayaku struggle." She attracted the media’s interest to Sarayaku —which, in turn, nurtured international interest in what was happening in the Ecuadorian Amazon. Her time in government, academia and the media had left her not only with communication skills, but with crisis management abilities. "I learned something that in the indigenous world is not very internalized: documents". In the indigenous world, eminently oral, the value of the word is supreme. "In the mestizo world, one’s word is not enough," she reflects.

The Sarayaku people faced a prepotent state in a society (the Ecuadorian) that still lacked clear environmental awareness, and that, however, retained a marked contempt for and ignorance of the lives of ancestral peoples. The fight was not going to be simple. 

Yet, as in all conflicts, the calculation of costs and sacrifices did not rule out an attempt to resolve the lawsuit on the discussion table. The manager of the oil company CGC called the Sarayaku representatives to a meeting. He summoned them to an elegant hotel in Quito. The Sarayaku had been in the capital over three weeks by then, trying to stop the extractive machinery. "We did not have money, nor anything to eat, we wanted to return to Puyo, but we still had meetings pending, so we could not leave,” Gualinga recalls. 

Tired and hungry, they went to a meeting where the oil company tried to win by means of seduction. "Very friendly, as they usually are, they offered us abundant food and drink," Patricia Gualinga, who was then not yet 30 years old, remembers. "I knew deep down that it was a trap, so I only accepted a glass of water." Her choice led her colleagues to also resist the gargantuan corporate temptation. In a moment of the meeting, Gualinga remembers that she took the floor and spoke frankly: "You are not going to enter our territory," she told the Argentine oil executives. "Then they showed their true colors: the manager, surnamed Soldati, shouted at me 'you are a capricious girl, the government has given us the rights and can militarize them and will do it." There would be no armistice possible. The war —an unequal war— was declared.

***

The confrontation intensified in 2003. The government of Gustavo Noboa was over. The presidential elections were won by Lucio Gutiérrez, the former military who had led the coup d'état that overthrew Jamil Mahuad. With him, his ministerial cabinet decided to bank on large scale oil exploitation. The governmental apparatus was set in motion to fulfill the promises made to CGC —and to many other oil, mining and timber companies. Patricia Gualinga organized media interviews for the Sarayaku leaders, organized the women, got international allies and funds to finance the resistance.

Gualinga went to get legal help from anyone who wanted to give it to her. This is how she met Mario Melo, one of the lawyers who would defend Sarayaku from the oil and state attack. "Together with another leader, Cristina Gualinga, they came to request legal support in the face of the invasion they were suffering," Melo recalls.

In parallel, in the jungle, the harassment escalated. In January 2003 in Jatún Molino, a community bordering the Sarayaku territory, an assault was reported on a Sarayaku group traveling in canoes along the Bobonaza River. From the shore, they were shot at.

Later, the Sarayaku people denounced before the Inter-American Human Rights Commission that their passage on the river —the main means of communication they have— was blocked. At the end of that month, soldiers and CGC security personnel detained leaders Elvis Fernando Gualinga, Marcelo Gualinga, Reinaldo Gualinga and Fabián Grefa, and, allegedly, tortured them: they were tied up and left for an hour on the ground. Grefa was forced to kneel next to a rifle and taken photos of, "apparently for the purpose of accusing him of carrying weapons," according to a document from the Inter-American Court.

In May, the Commission granted precautionary measures to the Sarayaku, but the harassment did not cease. On the contrary, the government said, according to a response sent to the Commission, that "the residents of Sarayaku had threatened neighboring communities and that the Fourth Command of the Amazon would have initiated a security operation to prevent 'criminal activities' on the part of the indigenous people. "

In addition, the government said that precautionary measures were being used to prevent certain persons from being brought before the ordinary courts, and that many of the allegations made by the Sarayaku people in their request were exaggerated or false. Gualinga recalls that General Oswaldo Romero, Chief of the Joint Command of the Armed Forces of Ecuador (the highest military authority in the country), flew in a helicopter into Sarayaku to tell them that it was better that they surrendered. "Otherwise, they would militarize the town." The soldiers and military officers who arrived with him belonged to the Fourth Division of the Army, the one that, not such a distant time ago, had lent a helicopter to Patricia Gualinga to transport an enthusiastic minister. Eriberto's cameras recorded the raid. 

The confrontation escalated until in 2005, during a march of the Sarayaku people, they were attacked on their way to Puyo. "They were dressed as oil workers," Gualinga recalls, "the oil company gave them all the supplies for the attack." It was a Friday, and there was no authority to take responsibility for what was happening. "We took 10 flights of wounded people," Gualinga says. "There were people missing, they said that my youngest brother had fallen into the river." That night she did not sleep.

Like the rest of the Sarayaku leaders, she was in distress. But in a moment of clarity, Patricia wrote to the lawyers who represented them before the Inter-American Commission in Washington. "I sent them an urgent SOS to our attorneys at the Center for Justice and International Law. The next day the Court intervened: that same day the commission had sent a request for protective measures for the Sarayaku people,” she recalls. The State could not continue with its actions against the people —nor allow the oil company to enter the territory— Sarayaku, at the risk of having to pay millions in compensation or generate even more evidence in the case that was being discussed in the Court. For seven years, until the case was sentenced, in 2012, the measures protected Sarayaku.

***

In 2010, Patricia Gualinga was working in Lima, as an advisor at the Andean Community of Nations, when one of the leaders of the Sarayaku people, Franco Viteri, called her. "He told me they needed a strong woman to be a women’s leader." In the indigenous peoples of Ecuador, each indigenous nationality has a women's leadership position. "But in our people, the post did not have much strength." Gualinga took office in 2011. "Only then did I realize that I had never formally been part of the leadership, that I had spent doing things without having any formal position." It had been ten years since she had left the ministerial offices to dedicate herself to the defense of her people.

The process before the Inter-American Court had advanced, and was in the stages before it was resolved. In 2012, Gualinga participated in the final hearing. Much had changed since the victory of 2005. In 2007, a young economist named Rafael Correa, whose only political experience had been directing for six months the Ecuadorian Ministry of Economy, had swept through the presidential elections with the promise of "refounding the Fatherland". He won with the support of a cross-party platform of left-wing organizations, environmentalists and indigenous people. Correa had promised not to drill Yasuní National Park for oil, and included an innovative set of rights for nature in the new Ecuadorian Constitution, approved in 2008.

But very soon, his government turned towards extractivism. It started losing its environmental and indigenous allies. He parted ways with his mentor, the economist and nature activist Alberto Acosta. Correa was intolerant of the press, virulent with his detractors. He made great roads and energy mega-projects. His enemies accused him of allowing corruption, of being allergic to criticism, his followers justified everything he did.

Correa repressed social protest, especially that linked to opposition to oil and mining extraction. He called environmentalists, who, like Acosta, opposed extraction, "childish". The criminalization of the defense of indigenous territories intensified. José Serrano, who was one of the Sarayaku people's lawyers in their cases before the Commission and the Inter-American Court, joined the Correa government. "He was a person to whom we had great affection and appreciation," Gualinga recalls, "that's why it hurt so much when we saw how he changed and how he started to persecute us." 

Serrano would become the almighty Interior Minister of the Correa’s government. Under his command was the Police who repressed and imprisoned people who had previously been their defendants.

To such a government the Sarayaku face on the hearing of 2012 at Inter-American Court. The lawyers of the Sarayaku gave Patricia Gualinga three roles. "I would be the main witness, make the final petition to the Court and be the translator of the other witnesses." Again, the size of the task seemed huge. "It was too much responsibility on my back." Gualinga should not only prepare the witnesses for their testimony before the Court: she had to obtain funds to take a delegation of more than 50 Sarayaku women to the hearing, that took place at the seat of the Court, in San José, Costa Rica. "At some point, I felt sick. But in the end I was able to give everything I had to in the Inter-American Court. " The lawyer Melo says that "Patricia was always a pillar in the defense". Viviana Krsticevic, executive director of the Center for Justice and International Law, that was also part of the legal defense of Sarayaku, says that struggles like those of Sarayaku are never of one person, but of entire communities. "In these collective struggles, the ability to empower the movements of leaders like Patricia Gualinga has been essential." After years of resistance, in June 2012, the Court ruled against the Ecuadorian State. The face of Patricia Gualinga, the tower of sarayaku dignity, was portrayed in media around the world.

***

The great victory that meant the condemnation in the Inter-American Court was followed by the persecution that the Ecuador government undertook in 2013 against a self-convened group of Amazonian women to oppose the eleventh oil round  —an untapped oil field bidding process in which companies from such different places, as Chile and Belarus, were interested in.

The first march to protest it was organized by Gualinga. They were just Sarayaku women walking towards Quito. For 15 days, Patricia spoke on all the radios and television stations that gave her space. "At the end of the last interview, on the Cristal Radio station, my voice was going off until it fade completely. I could not talk for a week."

Several women of other nationalities —Shiwar, Sapara, Waorani, Shuar and Achuar— joined the movement. That was how the ‘Amazonian Women’ were born. The group brought together indigenous women who follow a single precept: land is not negotiated, only defended. That year, they delivered a manifesto to Rafael Correa, already in the final phase of his metamorphosis towards extractivism. "He told us to go to Panacocha to see the millennium city, the poor guy said crazy things, he said we would change our minds when we saw that city. Obvious that he did not know us".

Correa had managed to undermine the credibility of the indigenous leadership, basically made up of men. The rise of the ‘Amazonian Women’ gave him a new contradictor, a feminine one, who questioned him in a less virile key, a frequency that Correa did not dominate. "We would pay that heavily," Gualinga  says. 

Amazon women were called to, in November, stand at the steps of the Ministry of Hydrocarbons, where negotiations for the oil fields were held. "There was an incident: a Belarusian executive came out and the people chased him, accusing him of damaging our territory. Correa used that to sue several people —among them myself, Margoth Escobar, Nema Grefa, and other women and leaders." He accused them of terrorism and sabotage. In May of 2017, Correa left the power in the hands of his supporter, Lenin Moreno, with whom he would soon alienate himself in the midst of accusations of treason and sedition. The Amazonian women, however, remained.

***

That same year, Patricia also left her posting as Sarayaku Women’s Leader. "I thought that, at last, I was going to have a life of tranquility." She had been offered the presidency of the Sarayaku people and she, once again in her life, had said no. "I could not: my dad is 95 years old and my mother 85, I had spent all my time in the fight, my husband had also lived by the swing of my processes".

Almost thirty years later, the enthusiastic young civil servant had become a symbol of resistance: "I admire her for her tireless struggle not only for her people, but for all peoples," says Margoth Escobar, another of the Amazonian women persecuted for her opposition to the extraction of resources in the Ecuadorian Amazon. Mario Melo, the Sarayaku lawyer, believes that Gualinga is the face of a larger struggle: "She is an honest woman, tremendously committed," Melo says, "She has become a leader among the indigenous peoples of the entire world."

But three decades after the fight, Patricia Gualinga thought it was right to dedicate herself to her family. The vagaries of partisan politics had led her twice to be a candidate for elected office. Twice she lost. "I am no good for demagogy, neither to hug everyone, nor to smile at everyone, nor to say things half-way." Her brother Eriberto, with a smile, confirms it: "My sister is a temperamental woman, not in the bad sense".  

Patricia Gualinga was ready to take a break from the bustle, decided to withdraw from public life. But every story of resistance is an unfinished story. "And yes I lived a few months of tranquility, until January 2018, at one o'clock in the morning, someone threw rocks at my house, breaking the glasses of windows, shouting that the next they would kill me".

Gualinga was shocked. "It was supposed to expect these things during my term at the leadership, not now," she says. But then she realized that new oil rounds and the opening of new oil blocks were approaching. No matter who is in government: the oil companies are always in power. 

No one knows, upto to today, who did it. The only thing Gualinga knows is that the attack regrouped the ‘Amazonian Women’ of 2013. They gathered at the same cafe in El Puyo where they have always met, which belongs to the family of fellow activist Margoth Escobar. They said they would not be intimidated. "They do not know us. They do not know me, " Gualinga says. A few weeks later, she was granted the Environmental Activism Outbreak Award from the International Film Festival of the Canary Islands, which in previous editions recognized the work of other activists such as Berta Cáceres, Ikal Angelei and Ruth Buendía.

That morning of February 2019, El Puyo lives and dies in the paradox of oil —which is the great Pyrrhic victory of Ecuadorian progress, which reached the absurdity of parading its first barrel of oil in a military parade, as if it were a national hero. Patricia Gualinga continues to speak with that voice that never loses the sweet and stern tone in which she has spoken to oilmen, ministers and international courts, and says, as if revealing her secret: "It is in the greatest dangers when I am most lucid."

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