Amazon land battle pits indigenous villagers against might of Ecuador state
Only a bridge separates the Shuar village of El Tink from threat of military and mining interests in high-profile dispute resulting in death and displacement
Military drones and police helicopters circle above the Shuar indigenous village of El Tink, an Amazonian community in Ecuador where a high-profile dispute against a Chinese copper mine has become a standoff and a siege.
Aerial surveillance is the only way the authorities can monitor this cloud forest enclave because residents have blocked the sole entrance to their home: a bouncing plank-and-cable bridge suspended 15 metres above the brown torrents of the Zamora river.
Some wear masks to hide their faces. Others appear so casual, they could be out for an afternoon stroll. But together, they take it in shifts to guard the crossing 24 hours a day. Friendly vehicles are allowed through. Government forces are turned back, but the siege is exacting a humanitarian toll on the villagers.
The river protects us. The military cant cross the bridge because we guard it day and night. If they come, well set fire to it, said Alfonso Chinkiun. But we feel like we are captives. We cant leave this place because we fear we will be arrested. That means we cant work so we have to forage deep into the forest for food. Some days our children go to sleep without eating a single meal.
Chinkiun is one of a few dozen people who recently sought sanctuary in El Tink after a bloody confrontation with security forces sparked by a dispute with a Chinese mining company Explorcobres SA (EXSA), in their previous home of Nankints on the other side of a mountain ridge in the Cordillera del Condor.
They were forced to flee here after a policeman Jos Meja was killed during a protest on 14 December. Blaming the death on the demonstrators, the authorities declared a state of emergency in the province of Morona Santiago, raided homes and made several arrests, including the president of the Inter-Provincial Federation of Shuar Centers, Agustn Wachap.
The Nankints refugees said they had to run to avoid capture. We fled into the woods with our families. We walked here over the mountains at night. It was very traumatic, said Guillermo Uyunkar.
He acknowledged the community had fought eviction for several months and showed three small scars on his arms and shoulder that he says are the wounds from live rounds fired by the military.
The security forces initially arrived in Nankints on the night of 11 August, surrounding the small community of 32 families with vehicles that revved their engines to intimidate the residents.
We decided to defend our land. The military police fired gas at us and set fire to the grass. They killed our animals. We cut down trees and tried to build barricades, but they ploughed through them with armoured cars, recalled Uyunkar.
The evicted residents scattered to nearby villages and then regrouped several times over the following months for demonstrations that sometimes ended in violent skirmishes.
Alex Chuji, external relations representative of the Shuar Arutam People, said the Nankints community were entitled to fight for their territory because they had not been adequately consulted about the plans for the mine as they were entitled to be under the Ecuadorian constitution and UN treaties on indigenous rights.
However, he rejected claims that the bullet that killed the police officer was fired by one of the protesters. Ballistic tests, he said, indicated it was more likely to have come from one of the police or military guns.