Who killed Eduardo Mendua?
One more murder. At the rate we are going, it will not be the last.
By: Alberto Acosta
Eduardo Mendúa was murdered on February 26. This member of the A’i Cofán nationality, leader of CONAIE’s International Relations, stood out for fighting against oil extraction activities, as well as for defending Human Rights, collective rights, the Rights of Pachamama, that is to say his territory, where there are important remnants of jungle.
A few days before his assassination, this Amazonian leader had reported and blamed the state company Petroecuador and the government of President Guillermo Lasso for the violence generated in his community of Dureno, located in the Amazonian province of Sucumbios. A region that has experienced violence for many decades as a result of oil activities, and in recent years due to mining expansion.
Police investigations related to this murder are ongoing. It is urgent that the person or persons who fired the shots are caught and punished; also their accomplices and accessories; as well as any other person or persons who may have been involved as intellectual actors in Mendúa’s murder. It is to be hoped that this crime does not go unpunished as has happened on several other occasions, in similar contexts of expansion of extractivist activities, as was the brutal murder of José Tendetza in 2014.
Some precedents – always loaded with violence
In the territory of the A’i Cofán, oil pressures have a long history. Seismic activities and the drilling of oil wells along the Aguarico River have been recorded since the 1960s. In 1972, without consulting the community, the Dureno 1 oil well was drilled within their territory. The oil activities advanced with great force against the people and nature. Resistance was complex. After an arduous and, as always, unequal struggle, they achieved the recognition of their territory and in 1998 they were able to close some oil wells, including the first one.
The oil pressures did not cease. In the government of Rafael Correa, in 2014, the Dureno 1 well was reopened and the Guanta 12 platform was expanded in A’i Cofán territory. In that regime, an attempt was made to appease the resistance with a “millennium city” as part of a broad strategy that claims to encourage modernization and progress, which in practice deepens more and more the productive matrix based on the exploitation of raw materials, leading to the destruction of more and more territories.
The regime of Lenín Moreno continued along the path traced by his predecessor and sponsor. And the current president Guillermo Lasso inaugurated his mandate offering to double the rate of crude oil extraction, going so far as to solemnly affirm that “we are going to exploit every last drop of oil”. Lasso, with a couple of decrees almost at the beginning of his administration, ordered to accelerate both oil and mining extractive activities.
In the A’i Cofán community territory the pressure increased. In 2022, the state oil company tried to drill 30 wells in the territory, using three platforms. In response, Eduardo and part of the community put up strong resistance and even took legal action against the state company. They started from the principle of self-determination, demanding at least a prior, free and informed consultation. In January 2023, the company tried to enter once again with the help of public force, as it was determined to continue with the construction of the road. Petroecuador tried to divide the community by giving US$300,000 to those in favor of oil extraction. A large part of the community remained in resistance and as a result, there were several bloody confrontations and even deaths.
Additionally, in 2023, the same ruler ordered the militarization of the areas where extractive projects are being developed, establishing Reserved Security Areas. In this way, the Armed Forces would once again intervene to ensure the operations and interests of transnational mining companies. Thus, with these various provisions, the rights of indigenous communities established in the Constitution of the Republic of Ecuador are trampled upon. International norms on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples, such as the United Nations Declaration of 2007, to which Ecuador is a signatory, which prohibits military activities on the lands or territories of indigenous peoples, are also being trampled upon.
What is certain is that simultaneously in several regions violent pressures were increasing to impose mining above all. A few hours before the crime that motivates and outrages us, on February 23, military and police, together with private guards of a couple of mining companies, brutally broke into the parish of Gualel in the province of Loja, with the aim of entering the Guagrahuma hill, located in the Cordillera de Fierro Urco. They attacked the peasant populations and the Saraguro people who were defending the páramo considered as the Water Star of the South, since this region supplies water to four provinces: Azuay, El Oro, Loja and Zamora Chinchipe.
It is appropriate to mention that Eduardo Mandúa had been categorical in his commitment to defend the territory of his community. A few hours before falling victim to the murderous bullets, he wrote on his Facebook account:
“…we will remain firmer and stronger than ever, we are not to give up even an inch of our territory for oil outsiders to destroy the spiritual beings and invisible people of our jungle, rivers, lagoons, sacred places, streams, medicine, our ceibos.”
It was in this complex environment, with a government given over to extractivist interests, that the assassination of the indigenous leader took place.
The murderer, an old acquaintance
Beyond the conclusions reached in the field of criminal justice, we must accept that whoever kills people who defend their territories, especially their leaders like Eduardo Mendúa, is well known, has a name.
It is enough to review a history whose origin is lost in the folds of the centuries. From the origins of the colony, these lands of Abya-Yala were linked to the world market. Since then, the structures and practices of today’s primary-export economies have taken shape. Since then, countries rich in natural resources were imposed a passive and submissive role in the international division of labor, tied to the demands of metropolitan capitalism. This reality has not changed. The countries of Our America, with impoverished societies, but obsessed by the delirious project of “development”, continue extracting and exporting natural resources. continue to extract and export raw materials. In the atmosphere, the foundational dogmas of the free market are maintained, which condemns us to resort again and again to the old creed of taking advantage of the “comparative advantages” provided by Nature, which we must make the most of. To underpin this fallacious message, it is repeated wearily like a prophetic litany: the imperative need to take advantage of natural wealth, so as not to remain poor sitting on sacks of gold… The result is undeniable: this logic of operation of extractivist economies causes a series of pathologies, which make up the “curse of abundance”.
There are several myths that sustain such aberration. One of them is the urgency of the income coming from these extractivist activities -oil or mining- to achieve “development” and, by the way, to finance social policies. The limited nature of the argument is evident from the fact that not even the revenues obtained from taxation of these activities -very limited, it should be noted- have adequately and sufficiently supported these policies which, moreover, are often driven by clientelistic practices: an example of this is the use of advance royalties to “oil” the acceptance of mining activities in the affected communities, something that happens in almost all the countries of the region regardless of the ideological sign of their governments.
The result of this long-standing practice is plain to see. Economies, states and even rentier businessmen, as they are organized around Nature’s rent. Clientelistic and deeply unequal and inequitable societies, perversely tied to the control of the resources obtained from such rent. Productive apparatuses characterized by their structural heterogeneity sustained by primary exports. Institutions incapable of controlling such primary export economic activities in which, in addition, various forms of tax evasion coexist with multiple mechanisms of subsidies to oil and mining companies. Political systems plagued by corruption and authoritarianism.
All as part of a model of exploitation that feeds on suffocating the lives of human and non-human beings in order to maintain the wheel of capital accumulation. At present, the plundering caused by this system is becoming unstoppably more acute with the growing magnitude of international demand for natural resources. Consequently, it is easy to understand how this predatory model feeds on multiple forms of violence.
We are talking about extractivism. A modality of accumulation that demands renewed physical, symbolic and psychological violence against communities and ecosystems to make dozens of megaprojects viable. Violence that is not a simple consequence of mining or oil (or agro-export) activity. They are violence that are configured as a necessary condition to implement and sustain these extractive activities, which end up disrupting human communities and disarticulating natural communities.
Thus, these processes of dispossession, i.e. a violent appropriation of wealth, linked to the schemes of expanded capital accumulation, give way to deterritorialization, which leads to the death of many cultures. The vital vision of being inside, of living in harmony with Nature and in community, disappears as the vision of being outside is imposed, while the commodification of Nature and of human life itself accelerates. With the discourse of modernization and extremist practices, the metabolisms of life are trampled upon.
For these reasons we cannot concentrate our attention exclusively on crime itself. We need to categorically identify the systemic cause of so much death: extractivism.
The multiple faces of extractivist violence
The violent action of extractive activities is multiple. Criminalization, harassment, persecution, repression and assassinations of opponents of mining and oil projects are the daily bread. There are many and diverse mechanisms of territorial control deployed by extractivist companies with the support and protagonism of the States, through, for example, irregular and abusive land purchases, evictions supported by the public forces and the complicity of the justice system. The perverse combination of combined transnational-state power, with the backing of the mass media and even some academic centers, marginalizes and even violently attacks those who oppose or simply question these activities. Thus, this accumulation of violence ensures control over the territories, emptying them of their essence of life, while at the same time rooting in society an extractivist vision that appears impossible to change or even criticize.
On many occasions, violence is disguised in actions that claim to seek the well-being of communities. In order to obtain community support, extractive companies seek allies, as happened in the case of the A’i Cofán community. With various pro-development actions, the State and extractive companies provoke deep divisions. There are groups that accept these benefits in terms of access to employment, road improvements, construction of schools or medical centers, in exchange for opening the door to extractivism. Other groups remain firm in their defense of their territory, demanding that the State – not the companies – comply with its obligation to meet their demands. This generates differences and tensions. Often bloody confrontations are recorded between the same community members and even between family members. In this way, the virus of greed is inoculated from the outside and ends up breaking up the communities.
Then, when extractive companies move in, violence multiplies in many forms. As an example of a very long list of abuses and violations, let us mention the problems caused by the arrival of outside workers (mostly young men). This new population, composed of technicians and foreign workers, who form enclaves in the territories, drastically increases the cost of living in the communities (food, rents, property values, basic services). The resulting imbalances in the areas of exploitation have repercussions even in neighboring regions, generating new social conflicts. Because they have no social or cultural ties with the rest of the community, the new settlers can cause serious social problems of which women and children are the first victims. Prostitution, drug addiction, alcoholism, delinquency, insecurity, criminality, femicides, including sexual exploitation and human trafficking. As a consequence of these processes, there is a redefinition of gender roles, masculinization of spaces and re-patriarchalization of communities. The militarization of territories plays a decisive role in these processes of terror.
In oil-producing Ecuador, practices harmful to nature and the lives of its Amazonian inhabitants began more than 50 years ago with the Texaco Gulf consortium. Sufficient information, with environmental data of irrefutable validity, demonstrates the environmental contamination in the area of the concessions. The ecosystems, infected with hydrocarbons and other contaminants related to oil operations are innumerable. Soils in stations and wells contain oil residues and metals in concentrations many times higher than international standards. Groundwater beneath waste wells is contaminated above maximum standards, not to mention rivers, wetlands and lagoons. Direct observations in the territory confirm how plant and animal life is impacted by so much destruction and poisoning. The deafening noise and the burning of associated gas complete this scenario of multiple destructions. In addition, many companies have operated with inadequate environmental practices and policies for ecosystem conservation, using little or no environmental controls.
In particular, it should be remembered that Texaco Gulf, in addition to the environmental damage it caused, also caused social and cultural damage to the Siona, Secoya, Cofán, Kichwa and Waorani indigenous peoples, as well as harm to the white-mestizo settlers. And we cannot forget the extinction of native peoples such as the Tetetes and the Sansahuari, whose name, ironically, is given to two oil fields in the same area where they used to live.
So much destruction is immeasurable. The impacts of spills, contamination of marshes, gas flaring, deforestation, loss of biodiversity, and loss of wild and domestic animals killed are truly unquantifiable. To the above should be added the materials used that caused the salinization of rivers. Diseases (such as cancer) and even poorly paid work are impossible to calculate. In the psycho-social sphere, the impacts are brutal: rapes by oil company operators against mestizo and indigenous women and minors, miscarriages, discrimination and racism, forced displacements, harmful cultural impact and rupture of social cohesion. And by the way, all this dantesque scenario has as actors all the oil companies, whether private or state-owned, always in open collusion with the State.
In mining Ecuador, in spite of being a recent activity, as was to be expected, violence is growing rapidly. With enormous police and military operations, the Correa administration imposed mining in the Cordillera del Cóndor and the Intag valley. The eviction of territories, the repression of communities that resist and the criminalization of those who try to keep their territories free of mining are still the order of the day. Here too, extractive activities are carried out without environmental consultations, in systematic violation of the Constitution and the law, so much so that all mining activity considered legal is illegal.
The violations of the rights of the communities and their territories are expanding like concentric circles throughout the country: in Imbabura as well as Intag there is the case of Buenos Aires, in Esmeraldas there are several affected areas, Rio Blanco in Azuay, Fierro Urcu in Loja, Curipamba in Bolivar, Chocó Andino in the Metropolitan District of Quito, to mention just a couple of places. Gold mining is currently devastating the Amazon forests in the Punino River, Yutzupino, Shuar Arutam territory, Podocarpus National Park, Cuenca Alta del Río Nangaritza Protected Forest: the deforestation caused so far by gold mining in these five territories is equivalent to 1,660 hectares: comparable to 2,325 soccer fields.
The complicity of the state and of some “formal” companies with illegal mining, which extends its tentacles throughout the country and is even linked to criminal organizations, is undeniable in this complex network. Meanwhile, the authorities do not respect or enforce the Constitution and the laws, as well as the popular will that is expressed in majority against mining, as happened with the legal popular consultations in the cantons of Girón (2019) and Cuenca (2021) in the province of Azuay.
But there are other, apparently less dramatic forms of violence. We refer to symbolic attacks. Those encapsulated in the messages of the mass media and disseminated by the expert defenders of extractivism, who never tire of insisting on the supposed benefits of these activities, presented as indispensable to achieve “development”. To support their claims, in an exercise of extreme cynicism, they do not hesitate to say that these are “sustainable” activities.
What is extremely perverse is that all this is done in the “national interest”; an issue that, in the case of progressive governments, is crystallized by raising the flag of nationalism with a redoubled action of state-owned companies, whose actions are no different in essence from those of transnational consortiums. Not only that, state entities often play the role of battering ram to break down legal obstacles and the very community resistance that can stop the extractivist expansion.
All these multiple and diverse forms of violence, both real and symbolic, are nourished by the intolerance and authoritarianism that accompany extractivism. For example, we could recall the words of then President Correa, on December 10, 2011, when he stated that.
“We have lost too much time for development, we no longer have a second to lose, (…) those who make us lose time are also those demagogues, no to mining, no to oil, we spend too much time discussing nonsense. Hey in the United States, let them go with that nonsense, in Japan, they put them in the madhouse.”
The reality is different, but no less forceful and certainly no less worrying. Our societies are locked in the madhouse of extractivism. The only way to achieve “development” would be – according to the dominant discourse – through economic growth with which we would overcome “underdevelopment” and this requires ever greater volumes of natural resource exports to sustain, above all, social investments. Let’s face it, in our societies, starting with our rulers, a sort of extractivist DNA has developed that limits even a broad and serious debate on these issues.
The task is to get out of this labyrinth full of so much madness and violence.
Getting out of the extractivist madhouse
Pages and pages of analysis would be necessary to fully grasp the details of the multiple forms of violence linked to extractivism. The profound social and cultural, psychosocial and public health impacts, as well as the damage to nature and even to local productive apparatuses, are immeasurable. The violence that impacts the spheres of justice, democracy, culture and the economy itself – beyond the territories directly affected – cannot be forgotten either.
Let us understand that extractivisms, and the public policies that shelter and encourage them, are part of a kind of necropolitics aimed at sustaining the civilization of commodity and waste, which thrives on trampling on life. It is necessary to understand this reality. As it is also indispensable to accept that, beyond some real differences and their apparently irreconcilable discourses, both progressive and neoliberal governments share this necropolitics.
So, if we want to get out of this extractivist madhouse, it is necessary to enter into a multiple and deep analysis. All these violences must be known, understood and placed in the corresponding space in order to begin to build alternative ways out in the key of transitions. The supposed benefits of extractivism, which in reality are nothing more than false promises sustained by means of a series of fables, must be dismantled.
The way out is to stop so much destruction and build strategies to move towards other civilizational horizons. To begin with, it is necessary to strengthen the struggles of resistance, which at the same time are of re-existence, encouraging community action on the basis of an ever-widening network of multiple solidarities inside and outside the country. Likewise, it is necessary to influence in all the spheres of strategic action, without minimizing the capacity of action of the State and much less the potential for international action. Let us understand that the co-evolution between human and non-human beings makes post-extractivism an unavoidable opportunity to face the ongoing climate collapse.
Let us think and build all possible worlds where all human beings live with dignity and in harmony with Nature.
Lee el artículo en español aquí.