The lands of the Shuar Indians in the Amazon are rich in wildlife such as tapirs, toucans and red howler monkeys. They also hold treasures more coveted by outsiders: rich deposits of copper and other minerals that the government is eager to cash in on.
Projects to build open pit mines that would rip into their forest-covered hills have spawned a protest movement that sets leaders of the ethnic group against the country's popular president, Rafael Correa, who says development is essential to the future of this nation's 14 million people.
Hundreds of indigenous people marched for almost three weeks to protest planned mining projects, and on Thursday, reached Quito.
Earlier protests, including road blockades, have led to conflicts with police and with government prosecutors who have been quick to issue criminal charges.
Pepe Acacho, who wore a yellow-and-red feathered headdress during the long days of the hike, said he was undeterred by criminal sabotage charges that he faces from leading a 2009 protest.
"A lot of my friends have said, 'Don't get mixed up in more fights with the government. Think of your family,'" says Acacho, whose Shuar ethnic group is the largest in southeastern Ecuador's Amazon with more than 100,000 members. "But I can't abandon a cause that is an entire people's struggle."
He is among at least 205 activists who have been criminally charged, mostly with sabotage and terrorism, during Correa's tenure, according to a study by two human rights groups and an environmental group.
Typically jailed for a week or so, the activists then face lengthy legal battles. All but 16 have been cleared, the study found, and none has yet been convicted.
The aim, says Cecilia Cherrez, spokeswoman for the environmental group Accion Ecologica, is to "intimidate those most critical of what the current regime considers to be priority projects."
Acacho was president of Ecuador's powerful Shuar federation in October 2009 when he led a bridge blockade in his home city of Macas to protest Correa's refusal to grant Ecuador's native peoples the right to veto mining projects on their lands. While the Shuar are recognized as owners of the land, the government owns the mineral rights.
A teacher was shot and killed during the protest. It is not clear by whom, though authorities blamed the Indians, and Acacho and two other indigenous leaders were arrested.
He was jailed for eight days for terrorism and sabotage and then released pending trial. The terrorism charge was dropped.
The latest protest march began on March 8 in the Amazon town of El Pangui, about 215 miles (350 kilometers) south of Quito. Marchers entered Cuenca last Monday, where nearly 1,000 filled the city´s Parque Calderon..
Correa said he welcomes the protest if there is no violence, but indicated his supporters will stage counter-demonstrations.
"Everyone has a right to protest peacefully," Correa said during his weekly broadcast Saturday. "They'll be welcome, and if they're 500, we will be 50,000," he added, referring to the government's supporters.
Protest organizers said more than 1,000 protesters participated in the cross-country march and group grew to 4.000 to 5,000 once it reached Quito.
The march was organized by the Confederation of Indigenous Nationalities, the country's indigenous umbrella group, of which Acacho is vice president.
While contracts specify that 10 percent of the royalties should benefit local communities, activists say that can't compensate for harm to Amazon forests and important watersheds. The activists point to the damage oil drilling has done to Ecuador's northern jungles, resulting in last year's $18 billion judgment against Chevron Corp.
"After 40 years of oil drilling, the only things it's left are destruction of the forest and pollution. That's why we don't want large-scale mining," said Humberto Cholango, the indigenous organization's president.
In Bolivia, the country's first indigenous president, Evo Morales, also has clashed with lowlands Indians over the president's insistence on building a road across a jungle preserve and for forging ahead with natural gas projects on their ancestral lands.
For Correa, whose social welfare spending has helped boost his approval rating to more than 70 percent, mining on a grand scale is of paramount national interest, even if it angers those who live nearby.
"We can't be beggars sitting on a sack of gold," the president said this month when he signed the first major contract. Under that, Chinese-owned Ecuacorriente will begin stripping copper as early as next year from a hillside in Shuar country whose reserves are estimated at 4.7 billion pounds (2.1 billion kilograms). Protesters are particularly angry about Chinese involvement since China has long been considered a threat to indigenous artisans due to low prices of its products.
The government says Ecuador will reap 52 percent of the venture's profits, or at least $4.5 billion over its 25-year life.
Another proposed mining project in the Amazon aims at an estimated 6.4 million ounces of recoverable gold reserves, currently worth $10.6 billion.
In all, the government hopes to attract $3 billion in investment in big mining projects by next year when Correa, who first won office in 2006, seeks a second re-election. Ecuador's leading export is oil and Correa is seeking bids to rejuvenate old petroleum fields and open up new ones.
The protesters are using road blockades and peaceful occupations of state or private property, the same tactics that in the past helped contribute to the toppling of two presidents: Abdala Bucaram in 1997 and Jamil Mahuad three years later.
Correa has expressed impatience at such tactics.
"If they want to impose an agenda on the government, let them first win elections," he has said repeatedly.
Correa's deputy secretary for social dialogue, Marco Troya, defends the tough line on protesters.
"If a crime is committed it should not be sanctioned, although it must be recognized that the state has shown a wide margin of tolerance," he told The Associated Press.
New mining deals that give the state a generous cut of profits will permit "a revolution in education, health care and infrastructure of those very people" who are protesting, Troya said.
Ecuador has vast untapped mineral reserves easily worth more than $200 billion, according to its Chamber of Mining, including more than 71 billion ounces of gold, 3.7 billion ounces of silver and 75 billion metric tons of copper.
Most indigenous groups backed the election of Correa, who worked as a Roman Catholic missionary as a teenager in a highlands community where he learned the basics of the Quichua language spoken by about half a million Ecuadoreans.
But that support has been eroded by his refusal to grant native groups prior consent over any mineral extraction, and Cholango says Correa has put himself on a collision course with Ecuador's indigenous people.
"We don't want to destabilize the government, never," Cholango said. "What we want is for the government to hear our voice of protest against large-scale mining and in defense of our water."
Credit: By Gonzalo Solano, Associated Press, www.startribune.com; photo caption: protestors demand ouster of Chinese mining interests; Marchers enter Cuenca last Monday.