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Amazon, Ecuador

Communities in Ecuador's Amazon Fight for Their Lives Against Mining

The sounds floated. They floated in the air, breaking the silence. They floated on the wind at night, that wind which is so refreshing to the body. They floated in in the middle of nowhere, out of sight of other humans, those humans who live in cities, that place where time flies.

They floated. They floated near the fire and the red of the embers. They floated accompanied by the smell of sajino — a type of pig — and smoke. They floated from the pinkiuí, a flute made of Amazon reed.

The sounds bounced off the wooden walls, following a rhythm from many, many years ago. And suddenly, silence. 

"Samuria, samuria. Kuá kuá kuá," began their song.

The light from the campfire illuminated the room made of ampakai, the Shuar-language word for a type of palm tree found in the Amazon. Inside, there was just a bed, a worn plank that served as a bench, and another piece of furniture, handmade from jungle wood and adorned with green plantains. 

“This is a song that my grandparents taught me. It's very old and it talks about a frog that is in a lake. (...) It is a Shuar song that was sung when our grandparents sat with the family while food was prepared at night. Men played larger instruments, and also played the tampur" — drum in Shuar — "and women sang," recalls a man with deep eyes and slight rings under his eyes.

Bosco Tiwaram is 61 and has lived his entire life in this jungle. His hair looks damp, like the environment of the jungle, and his hands are chapped from daily work: maintaining the land, taking care of the animals, hunting, and keeping an eye on what is happening at home.

Before putting the pinkuí to his lips again, the man with the sinuous face asks his wife, María Saant, a thin woman with pronounced features and wrinkles, to check if the collared peccary hunted by him on one of his visits to the mountain that afternoon was ready.

The roof was made of thatch and dry leaves. The floor was made of dirt, which allows the campfire to be kept inside the room. In this house, Tiwaram and his wife had watched their 10 children grow up. Today, most of them no longer live with them. 

“Samuria, samuria, Kuá kuá kuá,” he repeated while she accompaned his singing, bathed in the noisy silence of the night and the melody of insects in sync with her voice.

The story was just getting started.

river
In the midst of the calm in Coangos, there is something not quite right about the atmosphere / Credit: Esteban Cárdenas.  

Coangos is a place far from the world, where the shadows of modernity make it impossible to forget that there is an "outside." The Shuar Indigenous community rises in the middle of the jungle of the Cóndor mountain range, isolated by lush greenery, riverbeds and all types of animals and insects. Lowland pacas, agoutis, monkeys, collared peccaries, deer, coatis and different species of birds share this paradise with the more than 100 residents of the community.

Coangos is located around 30 kilometers from the border of Ecuador with Peru, in Morona Santiago, and more than 430 kilometers away from Quito, the capital of the country. There are no roads to get here. Those looking to enter or leave the community must travel around 10 hours from Quito to the Yuquiantza River, where they take a boat, which sets out along fast-flowing water until it ends in the Santiago River. From there, a two-hour walk separates the boat from the community.

The houses are all made of wood and have sheet roofs. The two-floor buildings look unpretentious. Sticks and boards erect a first floor, distanced about 30 centimeters from the ground, where families generally have both a living and dining room. On the second floor you can see hammocks, where those who keep watch over the jungle sleep and rest. Some people's houses don't have walls while others have managed to erect them for protection against the early morning winds and insects. 

Here, trendy reggaeton or trap songs are the soundtrack for daily life in the community. One of the houses is in charge of livening up the place from sunrise till nightfall, when a large part of the population gathers at the local cyber cafe to watch videos with the family or log into their social media accounts — there is  satellite internet service in the community which was contracted by a Coangos resident, Luis Pinzón, who charges one dollar for two hours of internet.

In the middle of the community there is a soccer field, which is also used to celebrate events and parties. On one side are two small wooden structures, no more than 20 meters long, where children attend school, although only basic education can be studied here. Children of all ages are taught in the same classroom.

In Coangos, minutes pass by as if they were hours. Parrots fly overhead, squawking, while people like Alfonso Saant prepare his boots and rifle before going out to the fields to find greens for food and try to hunt something along the way.

A calm reigns in the community, although a shout from one of the houses warns the others that the tap that brings water from a nearby source is clogged. Even though it is surrounded by rivers and streams, Coangos does not have water all the time. Every day, the men take turns making the hour-long trek up the mountain to ensure that the water reaches the community through a pipe, which is a little worse for wear.

But, in the midst of the calm, there is something in the atmosphere that doesn't feel quite right. 

map
A map of the Shuar Arutam people / Credit: Fundación Ecociencia. 

People's eyes follow me as I walk around Coangos. An unknown face always raises suspicions about the motives behind a visit, according to Jimmy Tiwaram, 32. On more than one occasion, foreigners and businessmen interested in mining have come to the community seeking to make off with the area's natural wealth. Near Coangos, in the Condor Mountain range, there is not only plants and animals. In these ancient mountains covered in jungle and water sources, large deposits of metals have been found, mainly copper and gold.

“As a leader here, we have heard from the authorities and businessmen that the Coangos River and the mountains have lots of gold. Just a year ago a Chinese businessman came to visit the community. I welcomed him into my house, because he said he wanted to do some tourism.” He raises his finger to point to one of the mountains in front of the community. “There, half of that mountain is my family's land and I have my house there, because I can't get used to living within the community. The Chinese businessman wanted to buy all that land from me to exploit the copper. At first, he offered me money and I refused. Then he offered to give me a house, car and money to live in the city and I thought about selling it to him. But I talked to my parents and we decided to turn him down, because in the end the land where we live, farm and hunt is more useful to us.”

After a brief pause, Jimmy Tiwaram continues on his way. He says that these scenes have become commonplace for the community. In Coangos, they have been approached several times by miners who have tried to buy land to start exploration processes.

“Here and in the Shuar Indigenous communities, decisions are made together. And after the meetings, both with authorities and with the community, we have decided not to give way to the mining companies," he says while the same finger points to some traditional orchards, where families grow chili, chonta, papaya, Chinese potatoes, green plantain and other foods. “See, those are Shuar orchards.”

landscape
Deforestation in the region / Credit: Esteban Cárdenas. 

The Coangos community is part of the territory of the Shuar Arutam people, located south of the Ecuadorian Amazon. "Arutam" is the highest deity of the Shuar worldview, generally believed to be present in caves and sacred spaces. Forty-nine communities and around 6,300 people live in this area of ​​the jungle of the Condor Mountain range. More than 90% of this space is primary forest, which means that it has been untouched or manipulated by human activities.

Here, a place that seems empty and almost non-existent when contrasted with the noise and movement of a city, the mountains are unique for their great natural diversity. In this hidden paradise, more than 2,000 species of plants, 140 species of mammals, 620 species of birds, 10 species of reptiles and around 56 species of toads and frogs have been found.

The Condor Mountain range is also treasured for its water. Its tall, leafy cliffs give life to hundreds of water sources that end up becoming rivers; among the main riverbeds are Santiago, Zamora and the Coangos. It is not unusual, when walking along its trails that zigzag like the mountains themselves, to find water sources or small waterfalls that descend into a larger stream.

During a trek that was only two hours long, I was able to count 15 water sources, ranging from small to pronounced. As he continues along the path, Tiwaram says: 

“The jungle is our home, our supermarket, our pharmacy, it is practically everything to us. That's why we want to take care of it and we don't want mining to come in."

But little by little, despite their resistance to mining, their home is stalked by large conglomerates, illegal activities and the clamor of development.

The man raises his thin arm, like a stick, to point at an object crossing the sky. This is accompanied by a great roar that is reminiscent of the noise at airports or in cities during rush hour.

“Those are small planes that generally go to Warintza, one of the Shuar communities that has allowed miners to enter," he says, raising his voice to drown out the sound of the aircraft. "They fly all day long and they are from the mining companies. According to what my relatives in Warintza have told me, they're shuttling workers and products there every day."

During the day, these small planes flew over the Coangos community at least 10 times, interrupting the birdsong and flow of water. Mining feels closer and closer. 

Night falls, and it's time for dinner. One of the residents who is the current trustee (main authority) of Coangos invites me to his house to rest and talk. A plate of fried yucca, accompanied by guayusa tea, awaits.

There, José Saant, a thin and short man, voices a concern that, he explains, is part of the community's daily life and something that they are fighting for: “We are very worried about what is happening outside in other communities. We see how mining advances in communities like Warintza," a territory located around 15 kilometers from Coangos, closer to Peru. "There, mining showed up, offering money to the Shuar and we see now how it has destroyed their lands, water and has brought other customs to the community.”

Saant fears that this will also happen in Coangos and, according to what the leaders of other nearby communities tell him, the danger is getting closer.

Saant is 51. In the dim light of the living room of his house, which is missing half of the wooden floor, his face looks tired after a long day in the mountains. His eyes squint at times, over deep dark circles. But, despite his fatigue, he does not falter when talking about the problem.

“We have asked the authorities for help. Here, as you can see, we have many needs. The education our children receive is not good and we do not have enough money to send them to study in the city. Plus, we don't have medical care. We have already asked several times to help us with the construction of a small health center, even if it just has two beds, oxygen and medical tools. But it seems like they don't even care about us,” he says, distress and sadness on his face.

The lack of resources and state neglect experienced by Coangos and other Shuar communities are routine. Saant explains that if someone gets sick in the community, they must travel to Macas, the closest city, to receive medical attention. The trip can cost up to $600 if the person must be hospitalized. “Just think about it: A sick person can't go out alone. If a family member accompanies them, they must pay for a place to stay, food and medicine, which they generally do not provide.” 

This lack of attention and resources has led community members to consider mining proposals, although, for now, the majority still closes the door to extractivism. 

Corralled by mining

55% of the territory of the Shuar Arutam people is concessioned to mining companies. Of the 190,000 that comprise its territory, 104,500 have been delivered by the Ecuadorian Government to mining companies of all types.

Map2
Mining concessions / Credit: Fundación Ecociencia. 

Each square on the map above represents a mining concession. It was prepared by the EcoCiencia Foundation as part of the Monitoring of the Andean Amazon Project, in which the Shuar Arutam people also participated with monitoring activities.

Within the territory of these towns, 42 areas have been dedicated to artisanal mining and 16 have been given over to large-scale mining. The project report, which analyzes the extractive activity in the area, also evaluates the damage that the different territories and communities have experienced due to these operations.

In the case of Warintza, a community that was cited on several occasions in Coangos as an example of the consequences of mining, EcoCiencia Foundation documented a total of 15.7 hectares affected by mining activity — the equivalent of nine soccer fields — between June 2020 and October 2022 and 12.4 kilometers that have been allocated for the construction of roads.

“The total mining activity reported in this case study is within two concessions. Most of the increase in activity was identified in the Caya 21 mining concession, dedicated to the extraction of copper, under the general mining regulations, run by the company Lowell Mineral Exploration Ecuador S.A (ARCERNNR, 2022)”, the report reads.

map
June 2020 vs. October 2022 / Credit: Fundación Ecociencia.

The damage at Warintza is even visible from space. The image released by the EcoCiencia Foundation presents two satellite photographs, in which the effects of mining are clearly seen a few kilometers from the border with Peru.

“To make more visible the impact caused by mining activity in this case study, we have used a very high-resolution image (Skysat, 0.50 meters) from November 29, 2022. The deforested areas inside the ravine and the size of the dredging pools can be analyzed with great precision,” the document adds.

pools in a map
Dredging pools / Credit: Fundación Ecociencia. 

This is just one out of four case studies that the report includes in its analysis. In total, among Tsuiis, Kusumas, Warintza and Nayap (all within the Shuar Arutam territory), the Foundation reports 257.7 hectares directly affected by mining activity between June 2020 and October 2022; this is equivalent to 154 soccer fields. In cases like Kusumas and Tsuiis, the damage even extends to areas outside those allocated for mining activity. All extraction points are in places that have rivers nearby.

Nayap has been impacted the most, with 108 hectares battered by mining activity. As can be seen in the images taken as part of community monitoring efforts in the area, large machinery has invaded the green of this space, breaking with the landscape.

comparative map
January 2020 vs. October 2022 / Credit: Fundación Ecociencia. 
three maps
October 2022 / Credit: Fundación Ecociencia. 

Little by little, mining has been closing in on the Shuar Arutam people and disrupting the calm of the jungle.

But that's not all. In addition to the legal activity in the area, illegal mining has also gained ground. According to information from the Ministry of the Environment, these operations increased with the arrival of the pandemic, which reduced the controls carried out in the area.

The ministry explains that the illegal mining carried out in the Condor Mountain range is related to “alluvial and underground mining” activities. This “generates direct effects on water, soil and biodiversity; due to the inappropriate use of chemical substances, hazardous and special waste, discharged into bodies of water and soil.”

In controls carried out together with law enforcement, by air and land, “deep sinkholes and tunnels have been identified for the extraction of gold and other metals.” Added to this are camps that are set up in river beds to extract metallic material from the surface. 

Regarding the environmental effects of these activities, the ministry assures that “negative impacts have been identified related to direct discharges of common and dangerous waste, inadequate management of waste dumps, use of dangerous and prohibited substances, surface subsidence due to soil instability, lack of rehabilitation and reconformation of intervened areas, felling of native vegetation, sedimentation pools without waterproofing.”

In other words, this involves deforestation and contamination of land and water with different chemicals and heavy metals (such as mercury, cadmium and lead) used for mining activity.

“The damages in many cases are complex to remedy, considering that the economic costs are high (the institution does not clarify how much they could amount to). Likewise, the rights of nature have been violated as a result of pollution and destruction of the ecosystem,” says the government department in charge of environmental protection. 

Landscape
Communities are trying to protect the territory / Credit: Esteban Cárdenas. 

On the boat back to the city, I was able to talk with one of the illegal miners who was leaving the area after days of work on the banks of the Zamora River. For security reasons, the man asked to keep his name confidential.

Hector (a pseudonym) holds on tight as the boat moves in the strong current. He says that on the way to work there are a large number of mining camps. He, a foreigner, was hired by a person who “has a machine to extract the gold.”

“I used to work somewhere else, but one of my friends told me that there was a vacancy to work here. I've been working here for almost two years extracting gold," he says while checking the brightly colored, thick watch that adorns his arm.

He says that in the extraction process he carries out, products such as mercury are used “to separate and sift the gold.” When asked about the treatment given to the water afterwards, he pauses and says: “We just let it go down the river.”

Components such as mercury and lead are commonly used in mining activities, both legal and illegal. Whether part of illegal mining or due to lack of controls on legal mining, these substances can be discharged, greatly polluting the area surrounding the mining activity, according to geologist Fabián Guerra.

Such damage is also approaching the land and water of the Shuar Arutam territory.

town
Shuar Arutam territory / Credit: Esteban Cárdenas. 

Alfonso Saant is 54 and has a kind face. Beads of sweat roll down his forehead as, at a slow but firm pace, he walks towards the door of his house carrying his work weapon.

“In the end I didn't manage to hunt anything,” he laughs while searching for a place to rest. The man, no taller than 1.65 meters, is one of the biggest opponents of mining in his territory, in his community.

Patiently, Saant sits on a piece of wood that marks the entrance to his house. Looking towards the green and leafy horizon that has accompanied him since his childhood, he sighs and says, “I'm going to be honest with you, I do have some fear about what might happen in the future with this.”

“We can already see the effects of what is happening in Warintza and other communities here. The mining company is up the way a bit, and its workplace connects with the Coangos River." 

"In the Coangos river I have seen how as the years go by there are fewer and fewer fish. Before there was plenty of fishing there and the water was transparent. Nowadays, the water is cloudy and with luck we catch some catfish.” He looks down while his children run around playing with two small puppies. “I worry about what will be left for my children.”

In the middle of the conversation, Saant remembers how, when he was a child, he would go out to play and swim in the river or help his father with fishing. Today, this is prohibited for children who live in the community.

“A few months ago, the children went into the river and ended up getting sick. Red welts appeared on their skin and it was very itchy. We gave them some herbs from here in the mountains to reduce the inflammation and in a few days it went away. Before that didn't happen. (...) These are the effects of the pollution that the mining companies are leaving us with,” he says without raising his head.

He maintains that the fight against mining is not a whim of the communities. “We have been fighting for years, as my grandparents told me, because we are owners of the territory. And today we will continue fighting because it's not possible that they stick large machinery in the yard of our house and bring chemicals, which in the end are going to end up killing us. And without even asking us.”

Saant gives a simple example to understand the real impact of the pollution in the water sources that reach their home: “Here all the water is connected. So, if I use water that comes from a polluted river or stream, for instance, to irrigate plantations, the land also becomes contaminated. Plants grow contaminated. The fruits are born contaminated and what we eat ends up contaminating us.”

The same thing happens with the animals that drink that water and, if they manage to hunt them, they also end up on the food plates of those who live here. Everything is connected.

The fight against mining is a fight for the body and for life. Say it again: The fight that the Shuar communities have undertaken in the Condor Mountain range for their territory is also a fight for their bodies, for their health and that of their children and grandchildren.

man backwards
“I worry about what will be left for my children,” says Alfonso Saant / Credit: Esteban Cárdenas. 

Heavy metals on demand

In the midst of the noise of the city, hundreds of kilometers from Coangos, Pamela Valverde, an anthropologist who researches Amazonian communities, confirms what Saant said. She explains that the relationships that communities establish with their territories put those who live in these spaces in “serious conditions of vulnerability.”

“As you may have seen, the people who live in these communities have more attachment to and a close relationship with their territory. All the resources they consume come from the jungle, not from large factories with sanitary processes and health controls, as happens in cities. When you pollute and invade their territories, you are not only affecting nature and the environment, which also happens. You are directly affecting the communities that have developed in these spaces: their health, their relationships with the environment and their lives, obviously,” she explains.

According to a study by Bionatura Magazine, mining has already left its mark in areas where extraction has been gaining strength in the Ecuadorian Amazon. The research shows that the increase in extractive operations has also increased the amount of heavy metals, especially lead, magnesium and mercury, in the soils near mining areas.

By carrying out urine, blood and hair tests on more than 200 residents of communities near mining extraction sites in Ecuador, the research detected high levels of lead and mercury in their bodies. The results found that the levels of these heavy metals in the bodies of the residents exceeded the maximum limit established by health organizations.

Daniel Guillén is a medical expert in toxicology. He explains that compounds such as lead and mercury are heavy metals that, due to their composition, have a high molecular weight and cannot be eliminated from the body. "When these enter the body, they have health effects and affect different organs."

“Lead, for example, affects the nervous system and can damage neurons, especially those in the brain. Lead also affects the bone marrow. The damage itself is very diverse, depending on each metal, but in general it causes cellular injuries in the body. (...) Something important about lead is that it has been linked to mental retardation and loss of cognitive abilities. (...) As for the kidney, heavy metals can even lead to kidney failure,” he says.

As Guillén explains, the main problem with these contaminants is that they cannot be eliminated from the body, and they generate cumulative effects. That is, as long as people are in contact with these compounds, their concentration grows in their body, increasing the possibility of suffering consequences, which can lead to death.

“That is the problem: They are not eliminated, but if they are it is on a very low scale. The compounds, due to their weight, cannot be metabolized and those that are diluted in the blood cause damage wherever they go. If the pollution is very high, metals accumulate in the hair, causing it to begin to break.”

In the case of mercury, according to the World Health Organization, its presence in the body can generate neurological and behavioral disorders, "with symptoms such as tremors, insomnia, memory loss, neuromuscular effects, headaches or cognitive and motor dysfunctions." For the institution, this compound is “one of the 10 products or groups of chemical products that pose special public health problems.”

And as if that was enough to worry about, studies indicate that the presence of heavy metals can affect the development of fetuses during pregnancy and can even be transmitted from mothers to their children, expanding the footprint of pollution. 

woman
Maria Saant just wants to live in peace in her territory / Credit: Esteban Cárdenas. 

The melody synchronizes with the vibrations of her voice, and an orchestra of insects accompanies her step. The woman wears blues and and other colors from the jungle. Feathers and ancient symbols adorn her complexion. Seeds hang on her chest. Her face looks wrinkled, old.

Sitting. Sitting in the middle of the deepest green, María Saant loses herself. She is lost in history. She is lost in the footsteps that have been taken on this ground. Grandparents, children, grandchildren... Entire generations who have called it home.

Next to the woman, a huge hole is hidden in the undergrowth. Green intersperses with deep black: a void. In the middle of the symphony, screams from the underworld emerge. They float out until they get lost among the bulky green. 

"Don't worry, those are the oilbirds," says the old lady calmly and with a smile. "Those are the birds that live inside the cave. They make noises like witches and never come out."

The oilbirds have flown amongst them for hundreds of years. Part of the history of her people began in the cave.

“Our grandparents told us that there was a woman called Nunkui. She was expelled from the community because she had problems with her husband.” Once again, the roar of the oilbirds interrupts her, but she smiles and continues.

“It is said that Nunkui wandered through the jungle looking for food, almost dying. There she arrives and discovers the cave. With vines and sticks she managed to go down to the top." The cave is more than 30 meters deep and extends for at least 20 kilometers. "There she found the oilbirds, black and blind birds, and she ate them. When she left the cave, Nunkui returned to the community to tell everyone what she had found. Her family forgave her, because she came with good news. From there, once a year, during the oilbirds harvest time" — this occurs in the months of April, May and June — the men of the community go down to the cave to collect the chicks, while the women sing at the entrance to thank Arutam and Nunkui. For us this land and the cave are sacred, because they have fed us since we arrived. We are guardians of the cave, of the lands, of the Arutam.”

The singing of birds reverberates in the air and marks the arrival of the afternoon. The oilbirds respond from within the deepest black. History walks in these lands and today is threatened by large mining companies.

The Shuar were born here.

"We want to live in peace, in tranquility,” says María's son, Jimmy Tiwaram. “We are not going to allow the mining companies to get here, because if they do, pollution and diseases would arrive.”

"Tayu, tayu…" the old lady starts to sing, marking the rhythm with her feet. She thanks Arutam and Nunkui for allowing us to get here.

In the rocky ground, the footsteps of their ancestors can be felt. They accompany every word of Saant's song. The hundreds of men and women who have cared for this land for decades. The owners of this jungle.

But today, this is not the only thing that is felt. A few kilometers away, the ground vibrates. It vibrates because of the great machines that development has brought. It vibrates announcing death and illness. It vibrates from the cutting down of the forest and the lifting of roads. It shakes and shakes.

As when Nunkui walked through these lands, the Shuar will remain fighting. Today, once again, they declare themselves owners of these lands, their lands. Today, once again, they fight for their bodies and their lives.

Read the original Spanish-language story here.


This story was produced with support from the Earth Journalism Network. It was first published in Ecuador Chequea on August 31, 2023. It has been lightly edited for length and clarity. 

Banner image: Wooden structures in Coangos / Credit: Esteban Cárdenas.