By GONZALO SOLANO, Associated Press
QUITO, Ecuador (AP) — 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 have been marching for nearly two weeks to protest planned mining projects, and on Wednesday the demonstrators were nearing Ecuador's capital of 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, and was expected to reach the capital on Thursday.
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 were marching, and that they expected thousands more to join them in 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.