Documentation:Open Case Studies/FRST522/Why the struggles of the Shuar Indigenous People in Ecuador to conserve their culture are key to local conservation

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The history of the Shuar indigenous people of Ecuador has been characterized by being one of constant battle. First, against other indigenous peoples who came to conquer them; then, in resistance to Spanish colonizers and currently, against abusive practices from the government and extractive industries. Their struggles for sovereignty over their territory, cultural practices, livelihood and political and social structure are key to preserving the invaluable natural capital found in the Ecuadorian Amazon. The Shuar were the first indigenous people in Latin America to establish a formal indigenous organization, serving as an example to indigenous groups all over the region fighting for their territories. Also, their customary livelihood revolves around shifting cultivation, agroforestry and hunting, mainly relying on a wide variety of native plants, trees and animals. By engaging in sustainable, low-impact agricultural practices, they help preserve biodiversity and maintain the ecosystem services provided by the forests where they inhabit. Moreover, their religion is based on a deep respect and connection to their lands, which will help perpetuate their commitment to conservation if passed on to younger generations. Additionally, their recent fights against authoritarian decisions over extractive industries and human rights violations have been pivotal for blocking harmful industry practices in the ecosystems of their traditional territory. As the Shuar continue to fight and overcome patterns of entrenched discrimination, they become stronger icons of hope for indigenous rights all around the world and their value to conservation is asserted.

Shuar man


The Shuar indigenous people can be traced back 2,500 years ago[1]. They are characterized by their territory, language, race, culture and warrior practices[2]. They were a large population inhabiting the southwestern part of the Ecuadorian Amazon adjacent to the Peruvian border in the provinces of Pastaza, Morona Santiago and Zamora Chinchipe[2]. Their language is Shuar-Chicham[2]. They fiercely defended their territory against Incan and Spanish colonizers, the latter who contemptuously called them “jíbaros”[2], which has a connotation of being savage[3]. The Shuar practice of the tzantza (shrinking of their enemies’ heads) gave them a reputation of being fearless and unforgiving warriors. Recounts of their bravery and fierceness when resisting conquests became a source of ethnic pride to them[3].


The Spanish first became interested in the Amazon due to its gold deposits and sent expeditionaries, who began trading with the Shuar around 1550. The Spanish expeditionaries needed labor to extract the gold, so they terrorized and subdued the Shuar by “cutting breasts of women, throwing people to vicious dogs and requisitioning their food so they would starve”[3]. Still, they didn’t manage to completely conquer them. In 1552, the Spanish founded the villages of Logroño and Sevilla[3] and forced the Shuar to work in gold and silver mines[4]. There were multiple indigenous uprisings, the most deadly being in 1559 when a group of 20,000 indigenous peoples from Upano, Paute, Santiago and Morona united in protest over a newly instituted tribute in gold dust and attacked Logroño. They massacred its inhabitants except women and children[4]. The uprising resulted in the expulsion of the Spaniards[3] and the indigenous populations temporarily regained their sovereignty. After that and until the middle of the nineteenth century, the Shuar had little contact with conquerors as later military expeditions failed[3]. Christian missionaries who initially attempted to enter their territory were also unsuccessful. First, the Jesuits in 1631 followed by Franciscans and Dominicans[3]. No more expeditions happened during the first part of the 19th century due to the battles for Ecuador’s independence from Spain taking place in the more central parts of the country[3].

From 1890 to 1910 the Shuar traded rubber and animal skins with the Western population in exchange for tools, firearms and cloth[3]. In the 1930s the gold rush brought settlers to the Upano valley and when the rush ended, they turned to agriculture and invaded Shuar lands with no permission[3]. They also brought epidemics, killing more than half of the Shuar in the Upano valley[3].

During the 1941 war between Ecuador and Peru, Shuar and Westerner relations worsened as both governments believed there was oil in the region and distrusted the Shuar[3]. Ecuadorian troops engaged in at least one Shuar massacre in this period allegedly because they thought they were Peruvian indians. Reportedly, Shuar women and children also died[3]. After the 1950s, the Shuar had become so dependent on trade with the white and mestizo population that resistance to them would have been impossible[3].

Shuar history is deeply marked by Christian missions. The Salesians were the first missionaries to successfully settle in Shuar communities in 1935[5]. Initially, the Shuar were reluctant to adopt their teachings and some of the first missionaries were even killed and their heads turned to tzantzas, although there is no data on the number[2]. Eventually, some Shuar took in the new culture while others fled to even remoter areas or into the Peruvian jungle[2]. With the coming of the Salesians, they eventually made Shuar households resettle into small village centers in attempts to convert them. Missionaries introduced the Spanish language, the cultivation of new crops and cattle ranching cooperatives[2]. Salesian missions also established boarding schools. At the beginning, Shuar children were forcibly taken from their homes, but later, families voluntarily took them and many children grew up there[3]. Similarly to residential schools in Canada, this was used as a government tool to attempt to bring the Shuar into the majority society by Westernizing them. The schools have been closed since the Shuar Federation was established in 1964[3].

Another defining moment in Shuar history is the large influx of populations from the highlands beginning in the 1960s due to government programs to colonize the Amazon region as it faced land shortages in the Andean region, or "Sierra"[3]. The IERAC (Ecuadorian Institute of the Agrarian Reform and Colonization) put in force the first agrarian reform project in 1964[3]. Its purpose was to give lands to peasants who worked them and provide them assistance in developing the land. The IERAC viewed all the territory as state property given that almost all lands in the area lacked titles and Shuar rights to customary territories were not recognized. There was no distinction made between indigenous groups or colonizers, so the IERAC favored colonizers when granting titles because they cleared all the land they occupied[3]. This forced the Shuar to engage in the same harmful agricultural practices as the colonizers[3]. Along with the Agrarian Reform, a law of “Uninhabited Land and Colonization” was issued with the purpose of occupying “uninhabited” lands to bring them into the country’s economic system[3]. Many Shuar ended up ceding land to settlers through persuasion due to lack of information, never intending to sell it; while others left, escaping overpopulation[3]. The result was that they were driven to small areas where bare subsistence was possible[3].

These policies were not studied appropriately through social or cultural impact assessments so they brought unforeseen consequences such as loss of language, changes in the Shuar traditional political system, land degradation and exacerbation of the economic gap between indigenous and settlers. An important social impact that wasn't taken into consideration in the Salesian missions nor the agrarian reform is that Shuar populations traditionally lived dispersed in the forest, as opposed to in village centers. By forcing them to settle, their entire social dynamic was changed. Before, their society was characterized by autonomy and balance of power and now, it was based on dependency and hierarchy of authority[3]. This caused tensions within Shuar households that traditionally had been self-sufficient and self-governing and were now forced to live in close proximity and abide by Western notions of power.

In this instance, the Ecuadorian government should have recognized the Shuar's rights to customarily held lands and obtained their Free, Prior and Informed Consent before deciding on any land uses. Then, an agreement could have been reached grating an appropriate compensation or access and benefit sharing scheme with the Shuar for using their territories. In failing to do so, the sovereignty of the first inhabitants of the lands was ignored, leading to a degradation of their culture, livelihoods and an impoverished relation with the state.

However, during those times, indigenous rights movements were not as strong and internationally recognized as today. ILO 107 had come into effect less than a decade before in 1957 and it still considered indigenous peoples' best interests were to assimilate to the main society. Therefore, it was a pattern that occurred in many nations across the world and which still continues to need improvement.

Nonetheless, one can argue that not all of the consequences of Westernization were negative, as was the creation of the Shuar Federation explained in the next section.

Shuar Federation

In response to the Agrarian Reform and with the help of the Salesian missionaries, the Shuar prepared applications for collective land titles to the lands surrounding their village centers, where each household received an individual plot to cultivate and pass on to their children[6]. The Federación Interprovincial de Centros Shuar (FICSH), or Shuar Federation, was established in 1964 with the help of the Salesians for this purpose. It was a means of ensuring land would not continue to be lost to settlers[3]. They requested the IERAC to provide global titles, in which all members of a center owned the land communally and no one could sell it without the community’s consent[3]. Each family was given a sufficient plot and some land was kept collectively for hunting and cooperative pastures[3]. However, an issue with this scheme was that the maintenance costs of the communal structures such as schools, chapels, airstrips and housing for teachers were high. Also, the tightly defined boundaries did not accommodate for population growth[3].

By the end of the 1980s the Shuar Federation had gained title to about 40% of the farmable land in the province, becoming one of the first indigenous groups in Latin America to gain control over significant amounts of land[6]. However, Shuar collective lands could not be sold to non-Shuar entities (like banks), whereas mestizo colonizers were able to place their lands as collateral for bank loans in order to purchase cattle[6]. As the Shuar's access to financial capital was restricted, they became rentiers to mestizos with cattle[7]. This degraded Shuar lands, lowering their productivity[6]. Thus, the different bundles of rights associated to each tenure type widened the wealth gap between settlers and the Shuar even more.

There was a subsequent decline in the size of Shuar farms; as they had high fertility rates, farms would get subdivided for younger generations[6]. As younger Shuar inherited smaller properties, it became harder for them to generate a subsistence from them. Therefore, they continued to rent and degrade their lands more and looked for other types of jobs. However, many Shuar people can’t afford housing in the cities so they usually don’t migrate. For this reason, they became locked in a poverty trap where they owned fragmented and degraded lands that they were forced to rent, which degraded them more, which in turn lessened their ability to generate income even further. This has made them even more vulnerable to environmental degradation caused by mining near their villages. Thus, they have become highly affected stakeholders, which has "strengthened their commitment to defend the local environment"[6].

As mentioned before, it is noteworthy that the Shuar Federation was the 1st indigenous organization created in Latin America[8]. This marked a very significant milestone for indigenous rights across Latin America in showing other indigenous peoples that they could unite to gain a certain position to legitimize their claims and in doing so, obtain tangible results. The Federation currently represents 490 centers located in Morona Santiago and Zamora Chinchipe[1]. The Shuar Federation also had a pivotal role in that it inspired the creation of the Confederación de Nacionalidades Indígenas del Ecuador (CONAIE), or Confederation of Ecuadorian Indigenous Populations, in 1986. It is the largest and main indigenous political grouping in Ecuador. It encompasses all indigenous populations in the country and organizes nation-wide uprisings against mining, oil exploitation and other political decisions[8].

The Shuar have also been pioneers in shaping indigenous education across the country through the creation of the Shuar Federation Bilingual Distance radio station (SERBISH) in 1968, allowing Shuar leaders to have a political presence in the country[2]. It served a crucial role “providing unified education to school-aged children living in dispersed communities with the goal of maintaining Shuar language and culture”[8]. Before, many Shuar children didn’t finish school nor learn their language due to the inconvenience of attending far away schools. SERBISH started with 31 centers and reached 506 students. By the late 1980s, 4,519 students at 187 primary schools and 731 students at 39 secondary schools were enrolled[8]. The government gave official recognition to SERBISH and used it as a model for bilingual education in the Amazon region[8]. However, there still has been a loss of the Shuar-Chicham language.

The Shuar have been pioneers in establishing institutions to help them preserve their cultural identity and in that way they have become stronger in their efforts to advocate for their rights. This is important as they have helped shape the way in which indigenous communities around the country are heard.

Traditional Subsistence

Traditional Shuar survival is based on tuber horticulture of palm, maize, yucca, peanut, chonta palm, plantain and potato[2], with yuca (cassava) being their main crop[3]. Each time a plant is harvested, a new one is planted[3], ensuring year-round availability. Other traditional crops include sweet potatoes, yams, taro, cocoyam, bananas, squash, beans, peppers, papaya, sugar cane, chirimoya, cacao, avocado and pineapple[3]. The Shuar practice shifting cultivation through slash-and-burn agriculture in gardens located close to their houses, which are called Ajas[9]. Men clear the gardens, women cut the undergrowth and once the garden has been cleared women are in charge of planting, weeding and harvesting[3]. They move their gardens periodically when they experience lower productivity and increased time in weeding[3], which allows for the regeneration of the soil as they move to other land plots. The Aja is a mixed orchard where different plants are grown such as fruits, medicinal, for food, poisonous and ornamental[9]. The Shuar also practice an agroforestry approach, which supports a better habitat for the flora and fauna of the jungle as it combines natural trees with planted crops. Additionally, the way women plant the different crops is so that they can obtain the best nutrient outcome for the soil[9]. This traditional ecological knowledge is the kind that article 10(c) on the Convention of Biological Diversity references; that Article states that "parties shall, as far as possible and as appropriate: Protect and encourage customary use of biological resources in accordance with traditional cultural practices that are compatible with conservation or sustainable use requirements"[10], and seeks to protect. The Shuar use around 120 different native species, most for food (27%), construction (23%), medicine (16%) and other uses (34%) [reference].

This form of subsistence is beneficial in terms of food security as well. As families rely on a wider variety of crops, they are more resilient to climate changes, seasonal changes or changes in market demands and prices. Their food security depends on harvesting from both the forest as well as their family plots, which contain a great plant diversity on their own. Another study found that they relied on 185 planted and native species[9]. This type of resilience is valuable in today's world, where we are more vulnerable to the changing climate.

Customarily, family is the most important economic unit. Households are self-sufficient and their maintenance is the central activity of the Shuar[3]. Traditionally, households are dispersed across the jungle, as opposed to gathered near city centers[9]. Men and women have a very clear division of labor and their distinctness is still recognized as an important element for the survival of the group[3]. Men fish, hunt, build houses and structures, make household items such as baskets, string bags, tools for hunting like darts, fish nets, containers for arrows, featherwork and adornments[3]. Women take care of land parcels, kids and housework such as preparing meals[2]. Collection of foods from the forest is performed by men as well as women[2]. Women also gather seasonal wild foods such as chonta fruit, palmito, insects and larvae while accompanying the men in hunting trips[3]. Children also gather fruit[3]. They also used to make their own clothes, but not anymore[3]. Traditionally, men could have multiple wives and daughters and in that case, each would usually have their own garden[3]. However, that tradition seldom happens in the present.

There have been negative environmental impacts caused by the trend towards settling in city centers and cattle ranching. Settling down has forced Shuar populations to plant gardens further away from their homes each time until there are no more suitable sites nearby and when they build new houses near the far away gardens, they reduce the land available for wild animals[3]. Cattle raising is a relatively new occupation after the IERAC’s agrarian reform, which gave land to whoever worked on it. A lot of land that was reserved for future garden plots or hunting and provided habitat for forest animals and plants was lost to settlers because the Shuar couldn’t prove that it was being used[3]. There is a reduction in soil productivity in lands used for cattle ranching as the livestock compacts the soil, causing it to lose its nutrients[3]. Cattle raising also causes a sedentary lifestyle. Pastures aren’t moved, so in order to increase cattle, more lands must be cleared[3]. This also has negative health impacts. As more families engage in cattle ranching, they must buy their food from town shops, losing their balanced and nutritious natural diets[3].

Their traditional housing is oval-shaped with 2 main areas: the “Ekent” for women and small children and the “Tankamash” for male sons and visits. It has a soil ground, chonta board walls and ceilings made of palm leaves[2]. However, colonist style houses are now viewed as a status symbol[3]. These are usually wood houses with flooring and a zinc roof[3]. Nonetheless, they have poor ventilation, trap heat and are intolerably loud during rains[3].

Traditional Shuar housing

Traditionally, the Shuar didn’t read or write, but they passed on knowledge orally, which helped generations preserve their language and customs[2].  

Religion and Rituals

Shuar religion involves nature, men and deities such as Etsa and Iwia (good and evil), Shakaim (hard work), Nunkui (idol for female protection, cultivation and orchards), Tsunki (god of water and health) Arutam (energy granted to men for more power and strength) and Uwi (divinity of a prosperous jungle)[2]. They also believe in spirits that inhabit the jungle, waterfalls and riverbanks and also in reincarnation and the power of shamans to deal with the supernatural[2].

The Shuar perform the celebration of the chonta, which is carried out to obtain the protection of the spirits, and the waterfall celebration where they ask Arutam for power and positive energy for their survival[2]. They also perform the ritual of the ayahuasca directed by a shaman; it entails drinking a hallucinogen beverage, which allows them to enter their spiritual world and experience its secrets and revelations[2].

For the Shuar, some parts of the jungle such as waterfalls and certain riverbanks are sacred sites. As mentioned in the Akwé Kon Voluntary Guidelines by the Secretariat of the Convention on Biological Diversity, sacred sites not only represent sites of cultural significance, but it is very likely that they have a practical function in maintaining biodiversity on which the communities depend for their livelihoods[11]. Therefore, these sites should be granted protection.

A tzantza or shrunken head

The much feared ritual of the tzantza, where heads were cut off from bodies and shrunk is no longer performed. Nonetheless, it has a deep meaning for the Shuar. According to their belief, the practice is done to retain the soul or essence of the person, whether it is an enemy or not. That is why they reduced the heads of the wisest of the group in order to contain their knowledge and keep their spirit within the tribe[2].

Due to their worldview, there is an inherent protection of nature in their practices because they believe in its power and respect it. It is important to ensure the preservation and passing on of these values on to younger Shuar generations given that it will promote a deep connection to the land and an appreciation for its intrinsic value.

Current Livelihoods

Presently, there are around 110,000 Shuar, who mainly inhabit the provinces of Morona Santiago and Zamora Chinchipe and in lower numbers in Napo, Orellana, Sucumbíos and Guayas[9].

In a lot of localities where the Shuar inhabit, there is a tendency of Westernization and loss of culture, even in those where the Shuar ethnicity is still the predominant one[2]. Some of the changes that can be observed are:

  • Changes in their way of life
  • Acculturation
  • Loss of language
  • Youth moving to cities to study or work
  • Adoption of Western-style clothing except during their traditional celebrations

In a study performed by Cedeño in the Shuar-dominated parish of Yunganza, located in the canton of Limón-Indanza within the province of Morona Santiago, it was found that 70% of the Shuar population speak Spanish, 17% their mother language and 13% both. Young generations are ashamed of speaking their indigenous language and they are not taught it at school nor at home. They no longer live in their traditional homes, but in Western-style housing. However, the study shows that traditional medicine is the most valued as 50% of people in Yunganza still use traditional medicine, 25% go to the community health center, 12% to the social security hospitals, 8% to peasant insurance and 5% use private medicine. The people still maintain a balanced diet of fruits and legumes planted in their plots and tilapia. However, as more people move into city centers, there is a risk that they will lose the tradition of the Ajas. Regarding religion, 51% of the Shuar in the study are Catholic, 49% worship traditional Shuar deities and 1% is Evangelic[2]. While there is evidence that Shuar culture is being lost, a lot of Shuar still practice their religion and traditional medicine. This represents an opportunity to protect their traditions before it becomes too late.

In another study performed in Shuar communities in the Paquisha canton in the province of Zamora Chinchipe, it was found that the main family activity is agriculture, followed by artisanal mining, cattle ranching, timber extraction and brickwork. Artisanal mining and timber extraction are illegal, but the salary is $22-$25 USD a day compared to $5-$12 USD a day for agriculture. As Ajas do not provide a viable source for income and members focus on other jobs, families tend to have less plots. 65% of families have 1 Aja, 26% have 2 and only 8% have 3. Additionally, as men find other jobs and women have less help to cultivate a wider variety of foods, they focus on less. This has negative environmental consequences as important agrodiversity is lost. The following figures demonstrate that the majority of Shuar keep Ajas for auto consumption as they don't provide enough returns to be their main source of subsistence, with 56% for self use, 35% for both consumption and sale and 8% exclusively for sale[9]. The time a family spends on the same Aja is being reduced, this may be due to the degraded nature of the lands in which the Shuar have been forced to plant them; 43% last 1 year, 35% last 2 years, 15% last 3 years and 7% last 4 years. As Ajas are used for less time, more land needs to be cleared to make new Ajas, causing biodiversity loss[9].

Contemporary Shuar family life

Conserving the Aja system is in accordance with article 10(c) of the Convention of Biological Diversity. Hence, it should be a government concern due to its cultural importance, contributions to biodiversity conservation, benefits to soil conservation and nutrient formation and the provision of food security through crop diversification. However, if the Aja system is to be perpetuated, it needs to be redesigned to be a financially viable alternative for Shuar families. This will be hard to achieve as long as the government places a greater importance on short-term profit as opposed to long-term environmental conservation and resilience.

Mining and Human Rights Violations

Current Situation in Ecuador

In order to gain votes, President Rafael Correa, who ruled from 2007 to 2017, used a populist discourse catered to the country's lower classes. During his campaign, he made several promises to indigenous groups in order to secure their support. When he came into power, Correa's government went to a large extent and costs to modify the country's constitution. Among other changes, the new 2008 constitution recognized indigenous collective rights (in article 257)[2], changed indigenous education to be composed of a bilingual system in which their native language is taught[2], "declared Spanish, Kichwa and Shuar as the official intercultural languages"[8], included the protection and development of ancestral indigenous medicinal knowledge[2] and incorporated the indigenous worldview of "Sumak Kausay", which defends peoples' rights to live in a healthy and ecologically-balanced environment[1]. Ecuador was even the first country in the world to recognize nature's rights in its constitution, treating nature as a subject with rights to be respected, maintained, preserved and restored[12].

Within the international arena, Ecuador has ratified Conventions 169 and 117 of the ILO, the UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples, the Convention on Biological Diversity, the American Convention on Human Rights, the Rio Declaration on Environment and Development, among others[1].

Even though the gazetting of indigenous and natural rights into the national law was groundbreaking, tensions have continued to exist between the central government and indigenous populations on topics such as extractive industries, agrarian politics and different ideas on social mobilizations and decentralization[2] as the new constitution has not effectively ensured the representation of indigenous interests on the ground. Assurance and enforcement of their rights hasn't happened due to a lack of government resources and mainly due to the country's need to obtain income from the exploitation of resources found on lands traditionally inhabited or used by indigenous peoples.

Ecuador is considered one of the world's seventeen most biodiverse countries[1]. The country has an immense amount of natural wealth and resources within its four climatic regions. Ecuador's economy relies mainly on oil exports, but investments from North American as well as Chinese companies in mining have increased during the recent decades[1]. China consumes 40% of world’s copper and is seeking to obtain it from one of the world’s largest reserves located in Cordillera del Cóndor (Condor mountain range), which is in Shuar territory.

Map of Ecuador and its provinces

The provinces with the most mining potential are Morona Santiago and Zamora Chinchipe[1], which are the main traditional Shuar territories. A large part of the Sangay national park, which has been declared a Wold Heritage Site by the UNESCO, is located in Morona Santiago[1]. Also, the Condor mountain range, which has great biodiversity, lies in the province's southeast[1]. Zamora Chinchipe represents 4.12% of the national territory and 85.4% of its space is made up of natural areas with rich flora and fauna[9]. The Podocarpus national park, composed of cloud forests with numerous rivers and bird and plant species is located in the southeast of the province[1].

During the 2008 constitutional reform under Rafael Correa's government, approximately 3,100 mining concessions were reversed under either of the following arguments: that there had been no Free, Prior and Informed Consent, they were inside protected areas, they were near water bodies, or they had been granted to public officials or their family members[1]. However, all of the country's commitments have been ineffective in achieving the goals they ratify as the government has repeatedly failed to abide by them and therefore, environmental degradation and societal conflicts continue to increase. There have been numerous protests of Shuar populations, who have become one of the main social actors to oppose large scale mining as they are concerned with its negative environmental impacts in their naturally rich territories[1].

Corriente Resources and Explorcobres S.A. Cases

Ecuador’s policies designed to welcome foreign investment with little state control have provided a context where numerous human and indigenous rights violations have occurred[1]. Social mobilizations have usually been led by indigenous communities inhabiting the areas of concessions[1]. In Zamora Chinchipe alone, there are 400,000 hectares that have been granted to mining concessions, representing almost 50% of the province area[1]. The main mining companies in the area are Corriente Resources Inc. and Kinross, both Canadian companies, which together hold 150,000 hectares of concessions in the provinces of Morona Santiago and Zamora Chinchipe[1]. Even though Corriente Resources has a social responsibility policy in place, it has not been enforced during its relations with the numerous communities that inhabit the lands within and near those concessions.

One of Corriente Resources' most controversial projects is "el Mirador" in Zamora Chinchipe, it has an area of 9,925 hectares[1]. The president of the Shuar Federation (FICSH) expressed that they were never included in the process. In other words, there was no Free, Prior and Informed Consent by Shuar communities as the Ecuadorian state never performed any consultation with them, violating ILO Convention 169. The social impact assessment regarding Shuar communities was also minimal under the pretense that there is no information available on which areas are defined as ancestral territories. However, there are multiple indigenous communities in the project's area of influence. In line with the Secretariat of the Convention on Biological Diversity Akwé Kon Voluntary Guidelines, this is a site where an extensive social impact assessment should be made. Moreover, not even the local communities were given full disclosure in the exploration phase, given that during the presentation of the environmental impact assessment through a series of informational meetings in several of the villages, not all the information was shared given its magnitude and many local inhabitants did not understand it due to the complexity with which it was presented[1]. Furthermore, no government representatives were present in any of those meetings to ensure that the affected communities were being granted all their rights. Nonetheless, the state approved the environmental impact assessment.

There were also criticisms of the company's environmental management plan, given that it did not go into any depth about the negative impacts and how they would be managed[1]. Furthermore, the water studies have also been practically negligible and if compared to the information required to be presented by the company in British Columbia, where it's headquartered, the gaps are astounding[1].

There have also been irregularities in the process of land purchases by the company for its projects. The company acquired lands through an uncommonly fast process. Also, they offered prices which were way below market price and varied according to the landowner's reluctance to sell. Several families have been displaced without feeling they got what they deserved. All of this led to protests in 2006 by a group of several indigenous families claiming that those were their ancestral lands. However, many ancestral lands have not yet been recognized as collective lands, which makes it harder for the Shuar community to appeal to ILO 169. This is a failure of the Ecuadorian state to protect indigenous communities' territorial rights.

There have been innumerable unsolved deaths of indigenous leaders and protesters. One of the most recent and most obscure events happened in August 2016, when military forces forcibly displaced members of the Shuar community of Nankints (Morona Santiago) in order to give way to exploitation by Explorcobres S.A., an open pit mining company owned by Chinese state companies CRSS and Tongling. When the Shuar entered the camp as a sign of protest in November, there were several people injured and a dead policeman. The government declared a state of emergency and sent tanks and helicopters who raided households and imprisoned community leaders. They also evicted communities in the mining zones, most composed of women and children. Witnesses report the military entering communities, firing shots and placing bombs in fields and homes. Women and children fled, walking through the jungle at night. The president of the Shuar Federation, Agustín Wachapá, emitted a harsh statement against mining and encouraging Shuar nations to defend their lands. He was imprisoned and put in a high security prison charged with inciting civil disobedience. The government also tried to shut down the environmental organization Acción Ecológica and Shuar community radio Arutam. 3 Shuar anti-mining activists have died and their cases have been taken to the Interamerican Commission of Human Rights[13].

Members of the Shuar community in Morona Santiago protesting

Despite the state's commitment to uphold indigenous rights through the constitution and international conventions and declarations, it has struggled to meet them. As mining becomes a larger economic alternative, the state will need to balance competing claims on lands and to think about the long-term sustainability of its practices. Shuar civilian protests are practically the only force that has stopped extractive industries from destroying the natural capital in the provinces of Morona Santiago and Zamora Chinchipe. Given that indigenous peoples have substantive rights, their opposition may be the most effective force both in the national and international arenas against an abusive government and corporations.


The Shuar people of Ecuador are key to local conservation for many reasons. First, their traditional subsistence based on shifting cultivation and agroforestry is a source of traditional ecological knowledge, which can be used to promote sustainable and resilient agricultural practices in the Amazon region. Also, their religion which is closely tied to their natural surroundings can be a catalyst for future generations to value and protect it for its intrinsic value. Protection of their sacred sites will also help conserve valuable biodiversity and natural resources. Furthermore, by being a leading politically-active indigenous group, they set an example for other indigenous groups around the world to continue fighting for their rights and to preserve their cultures. Finally, by being affected stakeholders to mining and other industries, their commitment to ensure that these practices are done in the most environmentally-responsible way will not falter. Hence, it is of national interest to value the Shuar culture for its contributions to environmental protection in so many different fronts.


  1. 1.00 1.01 1.02 1.03 1.04 1.05 1.06 1.07 1.08 1.09 1.10 1.11 1.12 1.13 1.14 1.15 1.16 1.17 1.18 1.19 Comisión Ecuménica de Derechos Humanos. "Intervención Minera a Gran Escala en Ecuador y Vulneración de Derechos Humanos: Caso Corriente Resources" (PDF). FIDH (1st ed.).
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  4. 4.0 4.1 Karsten, Rafael. “La Vida y la Cultura de los Shuar: Cazadores de Cabezas del Amazonas Occidental la Vida y la Cultura de los Jíbaros del Este del Ecuador.” Translated by María Clara Montaño, Ediciones Abya-Yala, 2nd ed, 2000.
  5. Gnerre, Maurizio. "Los Salesianos y los Shuar: Construyendo la Identidad Cultural".
  6. 6.0 6.1 6.2 6.3 6.4 6.5 Rudel, Thomas K. "The Extractive Imperative in Populous Indigenous Territories: The Shuar, Copper Mining, and Environmental Injustices in the Ecuadorian Amazon." Human Ecology, vol. 46, no. 5, Springer US, 2018, pp. 727-734.
  7. "Mestizo". Wikipedia.
  8. 8.0 8.1 8.2 8.3 8.4 8.5 Katz, Susan R., and Cornelia L. Chumpi Nantip. "Recuperando La Dignidad Humana [Recovering Human Dignity]': Shuar Mothers Speak Out on Intercultural Bilingual Education." Intercultural Education, vol. 25, no. 1, 2014, pp. 29-40.
  9. 9.0 9.1 9.2 9.3 9.4 9.5 9.6 9.7 9.8 Patiño, César. “Análisis del Deterioro de la Agrobiodiversidad de la Nacionalidad Shuar del Cantón Paquisha de la Provincia de Zamora Chinchipe.” Universidad Nacional de Loja, M.S, 2015.
  10. Secretariat of the Convention on Biological Diversity. "African Training Workshop on Community Protocols, Indicators on Traditional Knowledge and Customary Sustainable Use Under the Convention on Biological Diversity". 2020 United Nations Decade on Biodiversity, Nairobi Kenya, January 2016.
  11. Secretariat of the Convention on Biological Diversity. “Akwé: Kon Voluntary Guidelines for the Conduct of Cultural, Environmental and Social Impact Assessment regarding Developments Proposed to Take Place on, or which are Likely to Impact on, Sacred Sites and on Lands and Waters Traditionally Occupied or Used by Indigenous and Local Communities.” CBD Guidelines, 2004.  
  12. Simon, Farith. "Derechos de la Naturaleza: ¿iInnovación Trascendental, Retórica, Jurídica o Proyecto Político?" USFQ, February 2013.
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This conservation resource was created by Isabel Izurieta. It is shared under a CC-BY 4.0 International License.