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"To Get the Gold, They Will Have to Kill Every One of Us First” Tribal Leaders Fight Gold-Hungry Investors

Ecuadorian officials want to sell gold-laden land to China, but not without a fight from the legendary Shuar tribe.

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To help him grab these shiny metals, Correa has invited foreign mining firms to deforest and drill much of the country’s remaining pristine forests. Not far from where Ankuash and I are sitting, a Chinese joint venture led by the China Railway Corp. is building infrastructure for an open-sky copper mine with the “Lord of the Rings”-sounding name of Mirador. To the north and east of the Chinese concession, the Canadian gold giant Kinross is prepping its 39 lots, including the envy of the industry, Fruta del Norte, believed to be Latin America’s largest deposit of high-grade gold. These projects are merely the first wave; others wait in the wings. Together they threaten more than the Shuar way of life and the sustainable agricultural and tourist economies of Ecuador’s southern provinces. The Condor is a hot spot of singular ecological wealth and a major source of water for the wider Amazon watershed to the east. What happens there is of global consequence.

But there’s no international outcry on the horizon to concern Rafael Correa and his commercial partners abroad. What they face is a local security problem. It is the same security problem known to regional colonial powers dating back to the Inca. As Correa has always known, and as the Chinese are learning, the Condor is ancestral home to 8,000 Shuar, the most storied warrior tribe in the annals of colonialism in the New World.

“The strategy is to unite the Shuar like the fingers of a fist,” Ankuash tells me as I prepare to dive into the icy waters of the lagoon below. “The forest has always given us everything we need, and we are planning to defend it, as our ancestors would, with the strength of the spear. To get the gold, they will have to kill every one of us first.”

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Among the tribes of the Amazon, only the Shuar successfully revolted against Inca and Spanish occupation. The Incan emperor Huayana Capac led the first attempted conquest of Shuar territory in 1527, an adventure that ended with his rump army bestowing gifts in retreat. The first European to follow Capac’s footsteps, Hernando de Benavente, ran briskly ahead of Shuar arrows back to Lima, where he complained to the Royal Court of “the most insolent [tribe] that I have seen in all the time that I have traveled in the Indies and engaged in their conquest.” Years of gift-bearing Spanish peace missions eventually won Shuar acceptance of trading posts at Maca and Sevilla del Oro. But these were never tranquil. “The Shuar are a very warlike people [and] are killing Spaniards every day,” observed a visitor to the outposts in 1582. “It is a very rough land, having many rivers and canyons, all of which in general have gold in such quantity that the Spaniards are obliged to forget the danger.” Some Shuar, he noted, worked the mines in exchange for goods, but did so “with much reluctance.”

The most famous case of Shuar “insolence” occurred in 1599, when the Spanish governor of Maca demanded a gold tax from local Indians to fund a celebration of the coronation of Philip III. The night before the tax was due, Shuar armies slaughtered every adult male in the Spanish hamlets and surrounded the governor’s home. They tied the governor to his bed and used a bone to push freshly melted gold down his throat, laughing and demanding to know if he had finally sated his thirst. According to the Jesuit priest and historian Juan de Velasco, the “the horrendous catastrophe” at Maca caused “insolences and destructions” by the “barbaric nations” up and down the Andean spine of New Spain. For the next 250 years, the Spanish mostly stayed away. Occasional attempts by Jesuit missionaries to reestablish contact were met with a welcome basket of skulls pulled from the shrunken heads of gold-hungry Spaniards.

 
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