Was this indigenous leader killed because he fought to save Ecuador's land?

Date of publication: 
2 June 2015

José Isidro Tendetza Antún’s battered body was found in an unmarked grave and loved ones blame his death on his opposition to $1.4bn Chinese-backed mine

Dark clouds loom over the Tundayme bus station where José Isidro Tendetza Antún said goodbye to his family for the last time.

The moody skies above the Cordillera del Condor would have been a familiar sight to the indigenous leader as he set out on 28 November to join a protest meeting against a huge Chinese-backed mine being carved out of his ancestral homeland.

He never arrived. Four days later, his son Jorge found Tendetza’s body in an unmarked grave, showing signs of torture and strangulation.

Six months on, that murder continues to reverberate among the residents of this jungle mountain range straddling Ecuador’s Amazon frontier with northern Peru.

Tendetza was a prominent critic of President Rafael Correa’s government, which he accused of making a U-turn on its pledge to respect nature and indigenous lands. In 2008, Ecuador became the first country in the world to legally recognise the rights of nature in its constitution, but it has since approved a series of mega-projects, including large-scale mines and hydroelectric dams – mostly in Chinese hands.

One of seven siblings, José Tendetza grew up in the Cordillera del Condor, learning to farm, hunt and fish just as his forefathers had. This biodiverse cloud forest is the home of the Shuar, Ecuador’s second-largest indigenous group who fought both the Incas and the Spanish conquistadors, but are now struggling to cope with the arrival of El Mirador – a $1.4bn gold and copper mine.

Locals say the community has experienced a surge of conflict since work began at El Mirador, which has been owned by Chinese company EcuaCorriente SA – a subsidiary of CRCC-Tongguan Investment – since it was bought from a Canadian firm in 2010.

Shuar families have already been displaced by the project, which if completed will result in the destruction of 450,000 hectares of cloud forest.

Tendetza’s family, supporters and lawyers suspect that his opposition to the mine led to his death – the third violent death of a Shuar leader in six years. (Freddy Taish was shot during a military operation against illegal mining in 2013 and Bosco Wisum died from gunshot wounds in clashes with police in 2009.)

Tensions are still high. On a recent visit to the Shuar territory, the Guardian was followed and filmed by men who locals identified as employees of the mine’s security detail.

Ecuador’s ambassador to the UK, Juan Falconi Puig, said the government had offered a $100,000 (£66,000) reward to anyone who could provide accurate information about the crime. In a letter to the Guardian, he said the investigation into José Tendetza’s death would be independently overseen by the Shuar federation.

Then, on 23 May Ecuador’s interior minister, José Serrano Salgado, announced on Twitter that police had arrested two men on suspicion of Tendetza’s murder. The two suspects are both Shuar men employed as labourers by EcuaCorriente, and according to Serrano, one was found in possession of Tendetza’s mobile phone. In another tweet the minister praised the police and attorney general’s office and said they would pursue the “intellectual authors” of the crime. The two men, however, have not been charged with any crimes, after a judge ordered their release for procedural reasons following a preliminary hearing.
Bruno Segovia, a lawyer representing the Tendetza family, says they remain sceptical. “The family knows the accused men and say they have never had any problems with them,” he told the Guardian.

Tendetza’s relatives say they have long lost faith in the authorities.

Just a week after the murder, helicopter-borne police armed with automatic weapons raided Tendetza’s family’s home in Yanua hamlet. The raid was allegedly ordered by the local prosecutor with the purported aim of finding evidence and “weapons” which would explain his death, according to the US-based NGO Amazon Watch, which, along with 13 other non-governmental organisations, wrote a letter calling for transparency in the state’s investigation into the murder.

“My brother was a leader who defended our rights, our rivers, the rights of nature as the government had set out but we don’t believe the government any more,” said Tendetza’s brother Carlos, as seasonal rain drummed on the corrugated iron roof of the family home.

With quick, dark eyes framed in an angular face atop a wiry frame, Carlos resembles his late brother, a man who friends and family describe as a charismatic and natural leader.

At the time of his death, Tendetza, 47, was organising local indigenous federations which were protesting against the contamination of local rivers by mining sediments and the eviction of local people, both Shuar and colonos – a term used for mixed-race Ecuadorian settlers. He had filed a complaint against El Mirador mine with the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights.

His supporters say he had been the subject of a campaign of harassment, and had received a string of threats against his life and home. In 2012 his house and crops were set on fire by a group of men his family claim were EcuaCorriente employees.

The last time Tendetza’s family saw him, he was getting on the bus to a small town called Bomboisa, on his way to meet his uncle, Domingo Ankuash, and other Shuar leaders. The family say they planned to discuss how they would report the harassment they faced to the UN climate change summit in Lima the following month. He never arrived.

Four days later, his son Jorge, alerted by a tipoff, travelled to the morgue in the town of Yantzaza, where he discovered that his father’s corpse had been pulled from the Zamora river by mine workers. An autopsy had been carried out, and Tendetza was buried in a grave marked “no name”.

At the request of his family, the body was exhumed and a second autopsy was carried out. While the first autopsy concluded the cause of death was drowning, the second determined that Tendetza had been asphyxiated. Segovia, the family’s lawyer, said witnesses had said his hands had been bound to the waist and the body had shown cuts and bruises.

“It’s curious that a body is found in the river and without any investigation, without identifying the body, without letting the family know so they could investigate what happened, they bury it as ‘NN’ – no name,” said Segovia.

Tendetza’s brothers blame his death on his opposition to EcuaCorriente, the company he worked for as a temporary labourer until 2006 when he witnessed a family’s home being burned down to allegedly drive them off land ceded to the company. From then on, he actively opposed the company’s plans to build El Mirador.

In a statement to the Guardian, a spokesman for EcuaCorriente said: “We regret that insinuations have been gathered which constitute an affront to the company’s reputation and law-abiding behaviour. We have demonstrated, and we will continue to do so, total respect and regard for people and cultures, and that is reciprocated by the communities which surround us, who as proof, participate and mostly collaborate in the decent and respectful work of our company.

“The loss of a human life causes consternation, even more so when some of Mr Tendetza’s relatives are workers with the company, to whom appropriate condolences were paid at his death.

“We fully trust in the Ecuadorian state’s ongoing investigations through the ministry of the interior and the police; whose conclusions we expect to expose those responsible for such a deplorable incident.”

The impact of El Mirador is clearly visible as soon as you enter the Shuar’s ancestral lands where fields and woodland are now dotted with orange signs marked “private property” demarcating the areas bought by the Chinese company.

As we cross a swollen river that has washed part of the road away, a sign in Spanish and Mandarin on a clapboard house warns: “The person or company which enters or does damage to this property will be criminally prosecuted or subjected to indigenous justice.”

We are followed. A motorcyclist in a balaclava films our movements on a red digital camera then speeds away but continues to trail us. Security guards at checkpoints also film us, surreptitiously at first, then openly when they realise they have been spotted.

The mist rolls back and a red scar emerges on an emerald hillside. It’s several kilometres away but heavy diggers can be seen on the edge of the site. El Mirador’s first opencast mine will be 1.5km across and 650m deep. To extract some 2m tonnes of copper, about 145m tonnes of earth and rocks will be excavated, according to the company’s 2010 environmental impact assessment report, producing hundreds of millions of tonnes of acidic tailings during its lifespan.

“A mine like this shouldn’t have been developed in an area like this. There’s too much at stake,” said Richard Kamp, the director of E-Tech International, a US-based engineering consultancy which has studied the potential environmental impacts of El Mirador since 2011.

His principal concern is the company’s plan to store millions of tonnes of toxic mining waste in an enormous tailings pond just half a mile from the Quimi river. The river flows into the Zamora river, which in turn supplies the Santiago river which winds south into Peru connecting with the Marañón, a major tributary in the Amazon watershed.

Kamp cites the Mount Polley mine spill in British Columbia, Canada, in August 2014 as a worrying precedent. A dam at a waste pond burst releasing 4.5m cubic metres of toxic slurry into virtually untouched forest, affecting an area mostly populated by First Nation peoples.
Historic decision

According to lawyer Mario Melo – who helped Tendetza bring his case against El Mirador at the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights – Ecuador failed to seek prior, informed consent from the Shuar to develop El Mirador mine on their land.

In failing to do so, the government reneged on its commitment to the Inter-American Court of Human Rights, said Melo, who last year won a landmark ruling obliging the country to apologise to the Sarayaku people for drilling for oil in their territory without their consent.

Although he was largely responsible for Ecuador’s historic decision to recognise the rights of nature, President Correa has said the 2008 constitution does not prohibit the country from using its non-renewable resources.

Correa – who has warned against “infantile environmentalism” – argues that Ecuador’s natural riches offer the best chance for “sovereign development” to improve education, healthcare and standards of living.

But his political opponents accuse the president of handing out a string of oil, hydroelectric and mining concessions in an effort to secure Chinese funds. The map of government land concessions is a patchwork of geometric boxes overlaying southern Ecuador’s mountains and rivers.

Any hope of respecting the rights of nature was “totally erased when the government began to give away concessions like flyers”, said Carlos Pérez, the flamboyant leader of the Ecuador’s Kichwa Confederation, which represents the country’s largest indigenous group. Pérez – a former ally turned opponent of President Correa, who has been jailed three times during the current administration – said most of the concessions had gone to Chinese companies.

Ecuador started borrowing from Beijing in 2008 when it defaulted on $3.2bn of foreign debt, and the country’s dependence on Chinese credit shows no signs of abating.

Analysts say the country has racked up more than $15bn of Chinese debt, but the terms of the loans lack transparency and may include a “sovereignty immunity waiver” that would allow China to seize Ecuadorian assets if the country fails to repay them.

The government says the investment has helped improve public services across the country. For the Shuar, however, the opening up of indigenous territory to foreign resource extractors has so far brought misery.

Tendetza’s family say it has rained solidly and heavily since José was killed. It is the wettest rainy season they can remember.

“We, the Shuar, are the owners of all this, the forest, the waterfalls, the animals, the rivers,” said Carlos Tendetza with a broad sweep of his hand encompassing the horizon and beyond. “But the company is destroying it and we’ve got nothing but abuse in return.”

The once-warlike tribe resisted the Spanish for centuries and was notorious for the practice of shrinking heads. Much has changed, but the continued advance of the mine and the perceived lack of justice over his brother’s death has made the Tendetza consider taking matters into their own hands.

“We are civilised now,” he added, as if giving voice to an internal debate. “But we are willing to fight to the death to get our own back.”