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Good News for Julian Assange, Bad News for Manuela Picq & Ecuador’s Indigenous Peoples

This week, as Julian Assange marks his fifth year inside the Ecuadorian embassy in London, international media coverage continues to strengthen Ecuador’s image as an international champion of free speech. While the diminutive Latin American nation should be applauded for its courageous stance against the US, the good PR masks much darker truths about Ecuador which rarely reach the attention of the international community.

The recent election of President Lenin Moreno, former Vice-President to Rafael Correa and candidate of Ecuador’s ruling party Alianza País, was good news for Assange. Polls had predicted the victory of Moreno’s rival, conservative banker Guillermo Lasso, who had promised to evict the Wikileaks founder from the embassy should he come to power.

As Moreno’s election victory was announced and Assange celebrated his continued safe haven, another political refugee wept. That April night, French Brazilian professor and journalist Manuela Picq was finally forced to accept her exile from Ecuador, the country she had called home for nearly a decade. In 2015, she had been peacefully covering a protest with her husband when the couple were set upon by police officers, beaten with batons and separated. Picq’s visa was revoked overnight and she was detained as an irregular migrant. Days later, she was expelled from the country for ‘participating in politics’.

Manuela and Carlos at Lake Kimsacocha, which Carlos has spent over a decade defending from mega-mining

In fact, Professor Picq was forced into exile by the very same government, led by Rafael Correa, which offered sanctuary to Assange and Edward Snowden. As Moreno was announced President-elect she knew she would be denied re-entry to Ecuador. After two years in limbo, she would have to start building a new life away from her husband, the indigenous lawyer and water defender Carlos Pérez Guartambel, and her job as a Professor of International Relations at a prestigious Quito university.

Picq’s detention was the culmination of months of government harassment against her for expressing criticism of Correa’s government, such as an article about the Vice-President’s father raping and impregnating a 12-year old girl. Without doubt, her detention was also a political retaliation against her husband, a key figure in the indigenous resistance movement, who has been imprisoned three times by Correa’s government for defending water against international mega-mining projects.

Picq was detained at a national protest against a law that would have permitted Rafael Correa’s indefinite reelection. The official version of events was that a foreign national had been attacked by unknown assailants in the street and rescued by police, who then discovered her illegal visa status and handed her over to immigration. However, a journalist filmed the moment that she and Pérez were brutally attacked by police, exposing the government’s lies. In fact, there were no ‘unknown assailants’ and her visa was valid at the time of her arrest, as verified by Human Rights Watch.

The attempt to silence Picq is just one example of many in Ecuador’s crackdown on dissenting voices. The day after her detention in August 2015 the government declared a state of exception to quell the protests, raiding houses in the indigenous town of Saraguro, beating and arresting hundreds. Picq is one of 700 people criminalized by Ecuador’s government, the majority indigenous leaders and environmental activists. While the government positions itself in the media spotlight as an international champion of free speech, within its own borders it is quietly implementing the most repressive media legislation in Latin America and forcibly closing NGOs and unions that disagree with its policies.

Ecuador became the first foreign government to advertise during the US Super Bowl with this $3.8m commercial, soundtracked by The Beatles “All You Need Is Love.”

Many governments use oppressive tactics to silence critics. What sets Ecuador apart is a world class marketing department that proactively defines Ecuador’s brand. Public relations and marketing are the biggest ministerial expenditures, used to generate a smokescreen behind which the government feels free to implement its own agenda, largely free from scrutiny and media criticism.

It’s not just in the area of free speech where positive PR acts as a fig leaf for the Ecuadorian government’s less palatable activities:

Ecuador was applauded by the global community for its high profile Yasuni Initiative in 2014, when the government sought international funds in exchange for not exploiting the oil under the most biodiverse national park in the world. However, the Guardian revealed that the administration was simultaneously negotiating a secret $1bn deal with a Chinese bank to drill for the very same oil.

The use of PR as smokescreen can be blatant. In 2015, Ecuador was awarded the Guinness World Record for planting the most tree species in a single day. No mention was made of the auction of 3 million hectares of pristine Amazon rainforest to oil companies, a process known as the XI Oil Round.

The Ecuadorian government is widely viewed as an environmental pioneer for awarding legal rights to nature in its constitution, even though it constantly prosecutes, threatens, or assassinates those who attempt to uphold these rights. The rights of nature have become rhetoric, disconnected from the constant attacks against environmental defenders.

Ecuador promotes itself as plurinational state with constitutionally guaranteed indigenous land rights, however it commits ethnocide (according to the same constitution) by exploiting for oil in the territories of the country’s last two uncontacted tribes; and has undertaken the largest licensing of land for extractive industries in the history of Ecuador, much of it in indigenous territory.

The government celebrates the indigenous Shuar’s contribution to the war against Peru, while carrying out a campaign of repression against these war heroes’ communities. It has even fired upon them from helicopters and is actively militarizing their territory to make way for a billion-dollar Chinese-owned copper mine.

Correa often boasted about Ecuador’s financial independence from US, however, his administration more than doubled Ecuador’s external debt to $32 billion (32.9% of GDP), mostly in loans from China.

Protesters outside the national electoral council headquarters in Quito, Ecuador, April 2017. (Photo: Reuters)

The recent Presidential election was one more example of things not being what they seem. Guillermo Lasso, who narrowly lost a second round vote to Lenin Moreno, presented convincing evidence of election fraud and a partial recount was undertaken, but with every institution controlled by Correa, there was little hope for a transparent outcome.

In the limited international media coverage it has received, the continuation of Correa-ism under Lenin Moreno has largely been portrayed as the triumph of a democratically elected socialist government over a right-wing, corporate-friendly, US-backed opposition. Many Ecuadorians, however, would tell a different story. In fact, a broad coalition of normally left-leaning Ecuadorian civil society groups, indigenous organisations, academics, activists and NGOs united behind Lasso. “Better a banker than a dictator,” explained Carlos Pérez succinctly.

To these sectors of Ecuadorian society, the election of Moreno represents the triumph of oppression, fraud and good marketing. It would be some comfort to these Ecuadorians if the international community recognized their government for what it is: an authoritarian, extractivist regime.

It is distressing that even world renowned critics and thinkers such as Chris Hedges appear to have been taken in by Ecuador’s PR. Chakana Chronicles wrote to Chris Hedges following this pro-Correa-ism podcast from his show ‘On Contact’, suggesting he does not limit his story to a government’s official narrative and proposing he interview Professor Picq to present a countervailing view, but received no response.

Why does the international left, including influential dissidents like Hedges, prefer to believe the lies of Ecuador’s government than the cries for help of Indigenous peoples and journalists on the ground? Indigenous peoples are stewards of the most threatened biodiverse regions, such as the Amazon rainforest, and play a key role in combatting climate change. As they put their bodies on the line to defend their lands from extractivist regimes, the left chooses to turn a deaf ear to their cries, continuing their oppression, rendering them voiceless.

So, as Julian Assange begins his sixth year inside the Embassy, the continuation of such an extractivist regime under Lenin Moreno might be good news for Julian Assange, but it is bad news for Manela Picq, Carlos Pérez and the indigenous peoples of Ecuador.


Letter from the Shuar Arutam People to the Country & the World

“From somewhere in the Cordillera del Cóndor, January 4th 2017

To my Shuar brothers and sisters, to the indigenous peoples of the Amazon and Andes, to the men and women of Ecuador and the World.

As many of you know, recent days have been very dangerous for our people. These days have not yet ended and are, indeed, probably only the beginning of a great territorial dispute initiated by the National Government against the Shuar Arutam People.

Our jungle has been stained with tears, anguish and blood. The paths and trails that we used to travel in peace have now become unsafe and dangerous. Almost 30 years have passed since Ecuadorians spoke of us as the Warriors of Cenepa, the defenders of Ecuador, the country to which we belong.

But now it is necessary for people to know us through our own voice. No one has asked us but many have spoken on our behalf, including the Government and social and political leaders, some with good and some with bad intentions.

We were born here in this immense jungle of the Cordillera del Cóndor and on the banks of the Zamora and Santiago rivers. We did not know barbed wire or private property. The State declared that these were uncultivated lands and organized the colonization of our territory with the same conviction and self-legitimacy of any colonizer. When the settlers came to this land we received them well, because we knew that these were poor and hardworking people looking for an opportunity in their lives. From one day to another, large tracts of land no longer belonged to us because they had been sold to people we had never even met.

In the 1960s, we had to create the Interprovincial Federation of Shuar Centers (FICSH), which even today we refer to as our Mother, so that the State would recognize what has always been ours: the territory, our living spaces and our culture. It was only in the 1980s that we began to legalize our lands with community deeds. We began to be recognized, not only for the Cenepa war, but because we have taken care of these immense millennial forests in peace, protecting the borders.

In 2000, a group of Shuar leaders toured these lands and founded the Shuar Arutam Territorial Area, as provided for in the Constitution. This was not a simple process; there were hundreds of meetings and discussions that allowed 6 associations to unite their 48 centers (communities) and establish a continuous territory of 230,000 hectares in the Province of Morona Santiago on the border with Peru.

FICSH declared us its pilot plan, to test a new form of indigenous government within the Ecuadorian State, like a special regime government in a Shuar territory. In 2003 we wrote our Life Plan, which forms the axis of our organization. This is the guide which tells us which areas we can pass through, for we must navigate rivers, and the areas where we should not even walk. Our Life Plan addresses fundamental issues such as health, education, the economy, conservation and the good management and control of the forest and its resources. We are almost the only group in the country to organize our territory in categories of sustainable use and we leave more than 120,000 hectares under strict conservation, for the benefit of all Ecuadorians.

In 2006 we were legalized by the Development Council of the Nationalities & Peoples of Ecuador (CODENPE) as Shuar Arutam People. Two years later we signed an agreement with the Government to maintain the forest in perfect condition for 20 years and receive contributions that allow us to develop and implement our Life Plan. This agreement is called Socio Bosque (Forest Partner).

In 2014 we updated our Life Plan. Once again our Ordinary General Assembly pronounced against medium-scale and mega-mining within our territory.

Because, as we said to President Correa, do not tell us that you undertake mining projects to get us out of poverty because we, with our way of life, do not feel poor. Instead, tell us how you will protect us as a people and our culture.

In the context of this history comes the conflict in Nankints. Since 2008 we have been requesting an institutionalized dialogue with the national Government but, despite our efforts, we have been unable to establish a serious, sincere, honest and equal conversation within the framework of the Plurinational State. This is the reason for the lack of interpretation and understanding of the requirements of the Shuar people.

In the name of ‘national interest’ and by describing the situation in Nankints as an isolated case, the Government ignores other rights and issues that are also of national interest and enshrined within the Constitution: multiculturalism and conservation. In Nankints the ‘revolutionary’ Government acts like any colonizing government, forgetting even the international agreements it has signed.

The problem is not the piece of land in Nankints that we share with settlers; people think that this never belonged to the Shuar. We never imagined that a mining company would buy our ancestral heritage land from the State and a few settlers. The Government forgets and, with its many methods of making itself heard, imposes its own truth. Our territory is not only Nankints.

In fact, more than 38 percent of our territory has been concessioned to large-scale mining. All the riverbanks of the Zamora and Santiago basins have been concessioned to small-scale mining. A gigantic hydroelectric dam is about to be built. So our question is: where do they want us to live?

That is why, nine years ago, we told the company to leave and we reclaimed Nankints. Nine years later, someone manipulates the President and convinces him to forcibly evict us before the end of his term. We did not leave, so violence came. We have been blamed for the tragedy of our murdered comrade, the police officer, but we have not given any orders to kill anyone. Instead of dialogue, the Government puts thousands of policemen and soldiers into our homes, on our land, to terrorize and threaten our children. As far as I know, no inhabitant of our land is a sniper, nor does anyone possess weapons that can pierce a police helmet. Why not investigate thoroughly before persecuting us and issuing orders to capture the heads of our families? Instead of talking to us to investigate and prevent violence, why condemn us to live in a State of Exception? It is reminiscent of the terrible dictatorships of Operation Condor which, according to the President, is being planned again.

Why do they enter our homes? Why do they not let us live in peace? And the answer we have is that, in the name of the ‘national interest’, we have become a handful of folkloric Indians and terrorists who do not understand what good living is, neither Sumak Kawsay* or, even worse, the project of the Citizen Revolution.**

I do not want to dwell on the details of the President’s weekly public addresses. Instead, let us try to look at the big picture in which we find ourselves, avoiding provocation and primitive discussions that lead nowhere.

With this first communiqué from the forests of the Cordillera del Cóndor, we say to the thousand families that we will not, under any circumstance, allow the violence and force of the Government to destroy our house, your house, the World’s house.

President Rafael Correa must create a climate of peace, withdraw his troops, suspend the State of Exception in our province and cancel the arrest warrants of our leaders and relatives. The only true way to end this path of destruction – which provokes Shuar inhabitants into acts of individual resistance to reclaim their territory – is through conversation, respect and mutual understanding.

All inhabitants of Ecuador and Morona Santiago must join our demand for peace, the end of violence and a serious dialogue with the Government that respects our life as an original people.

Governing Council of THE SHUAR ARUTAM PEOPLE”

Translated directly by Chakana Chronicles from an open letter published by the  Confederation of Indigenous Nationalities of the Ecuadorian Amazon (CONFENIAE) on behalf of the Governing Council of the Shuar Arutam People.

*Translating literally as ‘good living’, the Quechua term ‘Sumak Kawsay’ refers to the indigenous cosmovision of living in harmony with our communities, ourselves, and most importantly, our natural environment.

**The so-called ‘Citizen Revolution’ is the political and socioeconomic project of Alianza Pais, Ecuador’s current ruling party

Ecuador’s Standing Rock? Tanks and Helicopters Deployed Against Indigenous Shuar People Defending Ancestral Territory From Mega-Mining

shuarresisteThe Shuar community of Nankints in Ecuador’s Southern Amazon region was evicted in August 2016 to make way for a Chinese copper mega-mining project. The mining company, through a court order, has claimed these indigenous territories without prior consultation or consent from the affected communities, who have lived there for hundreds of years. The land allocated for the project covers over 41,000 hectares and the forced evacuation of other Shuar communities is expected.

Since the August eviction, the county of San Juan Bosco has been militarized to quell protest. In November, several Shuar people attempted to reclaim the indigenous territory of Nankints within the San Juan Bosco county. Clashes broke out with police and military personnel guarding the mining camp, leaving several injured. The Confederation of Indigenous Nationalities of Ecuador (CONAIE), and the Confederation of Indigenous Nationalities of the Ecuadorian Amazon (CONFENIAE), called for dialogue with the Government to avoid further confrontations but no resolution was reached.


The militarisation of Nankints. Photo Jacobo Fierro.

On Wednesday December 14th, a new confrontation took place in the mining camp, leaving one police officer dead and others wounded. After these events, the Ecuadorian Government announced a state of exception throughout the Morona Santiago province, stripping residents of the rights to freedom of movement, freedom of association, freedom of assembly and inviolability of the home, among others. The Government also deployed over 700 elite soldiers and policemen, military tanks, trucks and helicopters to San Juan Bosco to join the existing military presence there. According to witness testimony, army rifle blasts have caused women and children to seek refuge in the mountains. Military personnel and police are patrolling the streets in armoured vehicles. The community is in a state of terror.

A statement from the President of CONAIE, Jorge Herrera, reads: “We fear that the direction [the Ecuadorian President] has taken will lead to a massacre of Ecuadorians, and it is the absolute priority of CONAIE to avoid this. We are strongly requesting that the Church and international organizations intervene and mediate to find a dialogue that does not deepen and aggravate the existing conflict.”

An online petition has been addressed to key decision makers in the Ecuadorian Government demanding:

  • the demilitarization of San Juan Bosco and dialogue to avoid further confrontation and acts of violence.

  • adherence to international law and the Ecuadorian Constitution, both of which forbid the presence of military personnel in indigenous territories and require prior, informed and free consultations before the implementation of mining or oil projects.

Dr Carlos Perez, President of the Andean Coordinator of Indigenous Organizations (CAOI) has issued a statement expressing “solidarity with the family of our brother, the fallen police officer, and those wounded, who are also our brothers, knowing that no extractive project, no matter how profitable, nor any amount of bloodshed is a justification for violence. We demand a rigorous judicial investigation into the acts of violence to find those responsible for these criminal acts”.

Dr Perez went on to demand an investigation into the unsolved murders of Bosco Bisuma, Fredy Taisha and José Tendenza, leaders of the anti-mining resistance movement in Ecuador, killed in 2009, 2013 and 2014 respectively.


Quito shows solidarity with the Shuar

Protests in solidarity with the Shuar people have been mobilized in cities across Ecuador.

For more information about mining in Ecuador, see the documentary “Paradise Under Threat: The Mirador Mine in the Condor”. The film presents information about the Chinese copper mine and its potential impacts on the environment; shows the biological and cultural diversity that is at risk; and presents some of the perspectives of the local people and other Ecuadorians about the mine project. The trailer can be viewed below.

Paradise Under Threat – The Cordillera del Cóndor from Kanaka Productions on Vimeo.

To see Dr Carlos Perez talking about why he fights against mega-mining projects in Ecuador, see this short interview from 2013.

Sign this petition to show solidarity with the Shuar people of Ecuador.