On November 28th, 2014, José Isidro Tendetza Antúnto went to a protest meeting against El Mirador, a $1.4 billion gold and copper mine being carved out of his ancestral homeland in Ecuador.
Four days later, his son Jorge found Tendetza’s body in an unmarked grave. Tendetza had been tortured and strangled, and on his body were cuts and bruises.
El Mirador, which is owned by Chinese company EcuaCorriente SA (a subsidiary of CRCC-Tongguan Investment), had been met with great opposition from the Shuar community, Ecuador’s second-largest indigenous group. If El Mirador is built, it will destroy 450,000 hectares of cloud forest.
Tendetza had filed a complaint against El Mirador mine with the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights. He received numerous death threats, and in 2012 his house and crops were set on fire by a group of men his family claim were EcuaCorriente employees. The last time his family saw him alive, Tendetza was on his way to visit Shuar leaders to discuss how they would report the harassment they faced to the UN climate change summit in Lima.
He was killed before he got to his destination.
Tendetza was the third Shuar leader who was violently killed in the last six years. The first leader killed was Bosco Wisum, who was fatally shot after clashing with the police in 2009. In 2013, Freddy Taish was shot during a military operation against illegal mining.
On May 23rd, Ecuador’s interior minister, José Serrano Salgado, announced on Twitter that police had arrested two men on suspicion of murdering Tendetza. Both suspects are Shuar men employed as laborers by EcuaCorriente. Serrano also stated that one of the suspects was found in possession of Tendetza’s cell phone.
Despite this claim, Bruno Segovia, a lawyer representing the Tendetza family, is skeptical of the men’s guilt. “The family knows the accused men and say they have never had any problems with them,” he told The Guardian.
The two men have not been charged with any crimes after a judge ordered their release for procedural reasons following a preliminary hearing.
The circumstances surrounding Tendetza’s murder are very suspicious. “It’s curious that a body is found in the river and without any investigation, without identifying the body, without letting the family know so they could investigate what happened, they bury it as ‘NN’ – no name,” said Segovia. Tendetza’s brothers believe he was killed due to his opposition to EcuaCorriente, stating that Tendetza had worked for them as a temporary laborer but quit in 2006. The reason for this was that Tendetza had witnessed a family’s home being burned down to allegedly drive them off land ceded to the company. He had since opposed both EcuaCorriente and its plans to build El Mirador.
Although Tendetza was killed, the fight to protect the indigenous land is still very much alive. “We, the Shuar, are the owners of all this, the forest, the waterfalls, the animals, the rivers,” stated Tendetza’s brother Carlos. “But the company is destroying it and we’ve got nothing but abuse in return… But we are willing to fight to the death to get our own back.”