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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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Of the thousands of “Avatar” screenings held during the film’s record global release wave, none tethered the animated allegory to reality like a rainy day matinee in Quito, Ecuador.

It was late January 2010 when a non-governmental organization bused Indian chiefs from the Ecuadorean Amazon to a multiplex in the capital. The surprise decampment of the tribal congress triggered a smattering of cheers, but mostly drew stares of apprehension from urban Ecuadoreans who attribute a legendary savagery to their indigenous compatriots, whose violent land disputes in the jungle are as alien as events on “Avatar’s” Pandora.

The chiefs — who watched the film through plastic 3-D glasses perched beneath feathered headdress — saw something else in the film: a reflection. The only fantastical touches they noticed in the sci-fi struggle were the blue beanstalk bodies and the Hollywood gringo savior. “As in the film, the government here has closed the dialogue,” a Shuar chief told a reporter after the screening. “Does this mean that we do something similar to the film? We are ready.”

Three years after “Avatar’s” Quito premiere, declarations of martial readiness are multiplying and gaining volume throughout the tribal territories of Ecuador’s mountainous southeast. The warnings bare sharpest teeth in the Shuar country of the Cordillera del Condor, the rain forest mountain range targeted by President Rafael Correa for the introduction of mega-mining.

In recent years, the quickening arrival of drills and trenchers from China and Canada has provoked a militant resistance that unites the local indigenous and campesino populations. The stakes declared and the violence endured by this battle-scarred coalition is little-known even in Ecuador, where Correa has made muscular use of state security forces in arresting activists and intimidating journalists who threaten his image as an ecologically minded man-of-the-people. This repression has only intensified in the run-up to Correa’s expected reelection on Feb. 17.

My guide to this simmering “Avatar” in the Amazon was a 57-year-old Shuar chief named Domingo Ankuash. Like many elder Shuar, Ankuash does not appear to be blustering when he says he will die defending his ancestral lands in the province of Morona-Santiago, which borders Peru. Early in my month traveling the Condor, he took me deep into the country for which he is prepared to lay down his life. After a steep two hours’ hike from his village, we arrived at a forest clearing of densely packed earth. Through the trees and hanging vines, a 40-foot waterfall replenished a deep rock-strewn lagoon. The cascade is one of thousands in the Condor cordillera, a rolling buffer between the cliffs of the eastern Andes and the continental flatness of the Amazon basin.

“We have been coming to these sacred cascades since before the time of Christ,” said Ankuash, preparing a palm-leaf spread of melon and mango. “The government has given away land that is not theirs to give, and we have a duty to protect it. Where there is industrial mining, the rivers die and we lose our way of life. They want us to give up our traditions, work in the mines, and let them pollute our land. But we will give our lives to defend the land, because the end is the same for us either way.”

Beside the bright melons, Ankuash unfolds a frail map of the Condor to come. The industrial future overlays the natural present in a dense geometric circuitry that blots out the region’s rivers and mountains with a patchwork of oddly patterned boxes, as if some madcap Aguirre had gerrymandered the jungle. Rafael Correa’s PAIS Alliance was elected in 2007 with heavy indigenous support, but the map’s vision is the president’s own. His economic development plan, enshrined in a series of controversial laws and strategic declarations, centers on prying Ecuador’s southern rain forests of their rich placer deposits of base and precious metals, which fleck the Condor’s soils and loams like the stars of the universe. Ecuador, Correa has declared, can no longer be “a beggar sitting atop a sack of gold.”

 
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