In Indigenous Shuar mythology, the Iwia is a gluttonous demon who is never satisfied. 

According to Josefina Tunki, a leader of the Shuar Arutam in the Ecuadorian Amazon, mining companies are akin to the Iwia: they extract resources without ever becoming full.

Over the past two years, the first woman president of the Shuar Arutam Government Council (PSHA) has led opposition against one such demon: Canadian mining company Solaris Resources, which is aiming to develop the gold and copper Warintza mine in the southeast of the country.

This demon comes in a particularly beguiling disguise. Solaris has made big claims about their activities in Ecuador, emphasizing their model of dialogue between communities, the state and the private sector. 

Company officials—including a vice president who was previously with British Columbia’s Ministry of Indigenous Relations and Reconciliation—suggest their efforts to build relationships locally has been informed by the Canadian government’s approach to Indigenous peoples. Besides the company, the federal government is also involved in helping establish a “free, prior and informed” consultation process with Ecuador.

But Shuar leaders like Tunki live in fear, and protest the extractive industries at great risk. Community members maintain they were not properly consulted by Solaris, and that the company’s model of dialogue has in fact displaced their ancestral governance systems. Meanwhile Canada’s government is chipping in by helping develop a licensing system in the country that could expand mining even more.

Solaris appears to have fully exported the Canadian reconciliation model: a new rhetorical and tactical embrace of Indigenous peoples, covering for the same old resource pillage.

Ecuador, ridden with mining conflicts

The role of Canadian companies in Ecuador is unprecedented, according to William Sacher, professor of Environment and Sustainability at the Universidad Andina Simón Bolívar in Quito, Ecuador. 

“The vast majority of projects in the pipeline today have at one point been in the hands of Canadian companies,” said Sacher. “They identified new deposits and conducted exploration campaigns but were also highly criticized due to their land grabbing strategies as well as links to the repression of local Indigenous and peasant populations who were protesting against their activities.”

Out of the 20 ongoing social conflicts related to mining in Ecuador, Sacher says at least five are due to Canadian companies. 

In a crowded field studded with community resistance to extractivism, Solaris has worked to make a name for itself as a socially responsible company. But far from blazing a path toward free, prior and informed consent, Solaris is repeating the patterns of others in the industry. And resistance is mounting.

Last week, representatives from Solaris showed off the “Warintza model” of Indigenous relations to Ecuadorian and the Canadian governments at the Prospectors and Developers Association of Canada (PDAC), a major yearly mining summit in Toronto. 

The Warintza model is a “participatory mining model that promotes dialogue between State-Company-Community based on transparency, collaboration, and trust contributing towards the sustainable socio-economic development of the communities and project,” according to the company’s website

Meanwhile, in Ecuador, the Confederation of Indigenous Nationalities of Ecuador (CONAIE) began erecting roadblocks and protests against—among other things—mining without consent. 

Protests in Quito on June 22, 2022. Photo: CONAIE.

Mobilizations intensified after the National Police detained CONAIE’s president Leonidas Iza. The leader was accused of paralyzing access to public services. Subsequently, the court ordered his release on probation.

Dozens of communities affected by mining activities have joined the strike from their territories of origin. The protest, which has no clear end in sight, has gained ground since June 13. Over 79 people have been detained, one protestor was murdered by police, and nearly 60 have been injured. 

An attack at the Solaris camp on Tuesday brought the Canadian miner into the spotlight. It is not yet known who is responsible for entering the camp and setting it on fire.

The Shuar Arutam people number around 12,000 and are organized into 47 communities, which have lived in Ecuador’s mountainous southeast for about 7,000 years. According to Amazon Watch, over the past 30 years 56 per cent of Shuar Arutam territory has been concessioned to mining companies without consultation. 

By Latin American standards, Ecuador was a late comer to metallic mining. It wasn’t until Rafael Correa’s government, which governed from 2007 to 2015, that Canadian junior mining companies were granted en masse concessions and began to open new mines around the country.

The Warintza mine was first discovered in 2000, but put on hold for almost 20 years due to community opposition. It’s an exploration-stage gold, copper, and molybdenum project which covers over 250 square kilometers in the Ecuadorian Amazon, all of it on Indigenous Shuar Arutam territory.   

Critics point out that mining projects have been imposed with the help of the public police and military forces, resulting in sometimes violent evictions, as well as murders of land defenders. 

Freddy Taish and José Tendetza, two Shuar defenders, were murdered defending their lands against Ecuacorriente’s mining interests. Their killers have never been charged.

Solaris has made an effort to distance itself from these conflicts by developing its “Warintza Model” of alliance-building with the directly-impacted communities of Warints and Yawi. Its connections to Canada run deep, with a former B.C. government official involved in reconciliation politics helping to build the Waritza model.

From B.C. to Quito, from Toronto to the Amazon

Solaris regularly claims its executives understand and respect Indigenous peoples and their rights. “We understand that the Ecuadorian government as well the communities themselves must guarantee that Indigenous subjects are able to fully exercise their rights,” said Ricardo Obando, country manager for Solaris Resources in Ecuador, in an interview with The Breach. 

What makes Solaris different from other companies, according to Obando, is that they work with community assemblies. “Each one of our activities undergoes an assembly exercise. This assembly exercise is the guide for the development of our activities.”

The Warintza model is also based on a development-based discourse which claims to support the Shuar through investment in health, education and community participation in legal mining activities among other things.

In practice, critics say, the Warintza model is little more than hot air. 

“Solaris Resources’ ‘reconciliation model’ is a profit-oriented contract agreement overseen by a private board composed of company-employees which operates parallel to the traditional Indigenous government structure of the Shuar Arutam Peoples,” said Kirsten Francescone, the Latin America Program Coordinator at MiningWatch Canada. 

Promoters of Solaris Resources traveled to Toronto to boost the company’s Warintza project at Toronto’s mining summit last week. The company also brought community members from the Shuar nation to speak in favor of the project. 

Members of the PSHA then claimed that those who travelled to Canada are not elected representatives of the community.

“We are very grateful to Canada,” said Federico Velásquez, the Solaris VP, in a presentation at the summit. “Every aspect, in terms of the relationship between the private sector and First Nations here in Canada, has been the baseline to develop the foundations for our own model for South America. And it works.”  

A slide from a presentation during Ecuador Day at the Prospectors and Developers Association of Canada in Toronto. Photo: Alan Bailey.

Before joining Solaris Resources in 2018, Velásquez worked for B.C.’s Ministry of Indigenous Relations and Reconciliation as a Senior Advisor on Health & Safe Communities. While part of the ministry, Velásquez helped draft laws on revenue-sharing with Indigenous people.

Between 2005 and 2010, Velásquez worked for B.C.’s Ministry of Energy and Mines as provincial Director of Operations. 

Velásquez appears to maintain relationships with high-ranking B.C. government officials. His relationship to Ravi Kahlon, the province’s current Minister of Jobs, Economic Recovery and Innovation and reportedly the likely successor to Premier John Horgan, is no secret on social media. Velásquez also has connections with First Nations in Canada, which he has used to strengthen the Warintza image. 

During a previous PDAC summit in 2020, the Shuar delegation met with representatives of the Tahltan National Government along with members of the B.C. government to discuss the “successes of dialogue and economic development.” 

When Velásquez worked for AltaGas, the company signed agreements with Tahltan for economic benefits related to a massive hydroelectric project. 

“Federico Velásquez is taking advantage of the political context in Canada to use this ‘reconciliation speak’ in Latin America,” said Mining Watch’s Francescone. “He says that positive results are being achieved with First Nations here despite the fact that the same root problems persist.” 

Last year, Tunki went public about a death threat she says she received by phone from Velásquez.

“I’m a woman and I’m leading the PSHA government for the first time,” she said during a press conference at the time. “If I’m involved in some kind of accident, Solaris and Federico Velásquez are directly responsible.” 

Tunki made a criminal complaint against Velásquez for threats and intimidation, which she said were made to dissuade her from organizing against Solaris.

Velásquez did not respond to requests for comment. Two secretaries of his repeatedly declined on his behalf.

The “Warintza Model” allows Solaris to sell shareholders on the idea that the Shuar peoples are in favour of mining. But like Tunki, Marcelo Wachapa, the president of the Yawi syndicate within the PSHA, has contested the company’s claims about Indigenous consent. 

“They did not do a prior consultation process in accordance with the Constitution. There was no free, prior and informed consultation. They only did an information sharing process with the Yawi and Warints communities,” said Wachapa in a phone interview. “They did very few information [sessions] and from there, the company started to work.”

An international complaint against Solaris

In February 2021, the PSHA submitted a complaint to the International Labour Organization (ILO) against Solaris and the Ecuadorian government, claiming both violated ILO Convention 169, which guarantees consultation with Indigenous people before megaprojects are developed on their lands. Convention 169 is a binding agreement for the Ecuadorian State.

“Our case is very strong. We demonstrated that collective rights protected under Convention 169 were violated,” said Mario Melo, the PSHA’s legal representative in this case and an expert in Indigenous rights. “We are hopeful that there will be a decision in our favor.” 

Melo expects the ILO to release a report with measures outlining the obligatory reparations owed by the Ecuadorian government by the end of this year.

“The PSHA was created with the objective of defending our territory which is being threatened by mining companies,” said Tunki. “Never have we determined in one of our assemblies that Warints and Yawi could engage freely in mining activities.”

For Amazonian Indigenous groups like the Shuar, assemblies are the primary instrument for collective decision-making. Demands from the territories are backed up by Ecuador’s Constitution, which was re-written in 2008 following a constituent assembly process.

Article 57 of the Ecuadorian Constitution requires “prior, free and informed consultation, within a reasonable time, on plans and programs for prospecting, exploitation and commercialization of non-renewable resources found in their lands and that may affect them environmentally or culturally.”

In a recent, precedent-setting decision in favour of the A’i Kofán, Ecuador’s Constitutional Court clarified that Indigenous peoples and nations have the right to self-governance and self-determination in their territories. 

“Indigenous peoples and nationalities are recognized as subjects of rights. Among these rights, is the right to decide about their present and their future. This has been recognized by international instruments such as the [UN] Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples, which recognizes the right to self-determination, which implies territorial self-government” explained Melo. 

Little information, parallel governance

President of the Yawi syndicate Wachapa says that the company didn’t explain what mining consists of, or potential drawbacks, to his community. Instead, he says, Solaris just talked up the benefits of mining during information sessions held during assemblies. 

According to a report by Radio Pichincha, Solaris signed a memorandum of understanding with the PSHA and the Ministry of Energy and Non-Renewable Natural Resources on January 23, 2019. Additionally, on July 28, 2020, the company entered into an Impact and Benefits Agreement with the support of over 90 per cent of the Warints and Yawi Communities.

Both community assemblies approved the signing of a three year agreement with Solaris in exchange for educational, employment, and infrastructure services that the government has thus far failed to provide. 

Almost two years later, the communities are no longer in agreement. Wachapa says the company has not been transparent nor has it been complying with the terms of the agreement. 

One major cause of concern is the contamination of the Piunts and Warints rivers, previously sources of clean water for the communities. Galo Chup, member of the PSHA external management committee, says fuel has been spilled in the rivers. 

Mining exploration uses oils for drilling, which can pollute the land and seep into water bodies.

“The environmental engineer of the company told us that we should not use that water,” said Wachapa.  

The inhabitants of Maikiuants, a community neighboring Warints and Yawi, are concerned about the contamination they will suffer as the mining project advances. 

Josefina Tunki, first woman president of the PSHA, walks alongside the Shuar Arutam people in a demonstration against mining, in the town of Limón, in 2020. Photo: Lluvia Comunicación.

Fanny Kaekat, a resident of Maikuants explained late last year that the Shuar have a special relationship to the waterfalls that abound along the Condor mountain range and that they depend on clean water, hunting and fishing. 

“There were waterfalls and mountains to hunt, now the Shuar cannot go, it is not allowed,” said Kaekat. “The mining company says that these territories belong to the mining concession. Cutting trees is prohibited, but there are allies of Warints who tell us that the trees that the company cuts are taken by helicopter. As a woman it makes me angry, a strange person comes from outside to take ownership of what we had. That is what our ancestors left us.”

Marcelo Unkuch, PSHA’s External Management Executive, says conflicts commenced when the organization’s former President Vicent Tsakimp began conversations with Solaris, unbeknownst to the 12,000 people he purported to represent.

“When we took over our terms and responsibilities as the new Government Council [on March 31  2019], we realized that [the executive] had signed an agreement with the company. We made this known in our general assembly and the assembly firmly rejected it, demanding that that agreement be unrecognized and torn-up,” said Unkuch. 

Once Tsakimp finished his term with the PSHA on March 31, 2019, he became the coordinator of what Solaris called the “Strategic Alliance.” 

The “Strategic Alliance” was set up at the Warintza project months later, allowing the company to establish a parallel structure to the PSHA Indigenous government. In doing so, the company broke Shuar organizational structure and violated their right to self-governance. 

Canada’s Embassy in Quito runs interference

Back in Toronto at this year’s mining summit last week, Ecuador’s Minister of Energy and Non-Renewable Natural Resources Xavier Vera told those attending that his government is working closely with the Canadian government to establish a framework for free, prior and informed consultation processes. According to an audio recorded by MiningWatch Canada during Ecuador Day at PDAC, this project has the objective of opening up the mining licensing system by the end of this year.

Canadian Ambassador to Ecuador Sylvie Bédard has herself become a central protagonist for expanding mining into Ecuador. 

During Ecuador Day at PDAC, representatives of the Ecuadorian government, as well as executives from many of the mining companies present (including Solaris), congratulated her for her efforts to strengthen the mining sector. At one point, Bédard went so far as to identify herself as part of the mining sector.  

“The challenge for us in the mining industry is to develop it in the right way, responsibly and in a sustainable manner,” Bédard told the crowd at PDAC. “As we have done in Canada with our local Indigenous communities, the idea is transferring local expertise and know-how with this country still at initial stages of developing large-scale mining.”

Tunki is also sounding the alarm on contamination caused by Solaris’ operations, which she says will affect not only the communities closest to the proposed mine site, but others residing within the Shuar Arutam territory. The rivers move downstream from Warints and Yawi, and feed into the Santiago River. 

“The Ecuadorian government should just be outright and say that Ecuador is a pro-mining country and stop giving pretty speeches about conservation, that Ecuador is a country that conserves its forests, in order to receive international funding. It’s all false,” said Tunki. “Companies are invading our territory with authorization of the government. Not one nation of original peoples is authorizing this.” 

For the Shuar Arutam people, there can be no reconciliation until Solaris abandons its operations in their territory. “We never faced these kinds of confrontations before, but the company has brought nothing but conflict and harm to our territory. This is a true step backwards,” said Tunki. “If the company leaves, everything will return to a state of peace.”

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