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Josefina Tunki: ‘If we have to die in defense of the land, we have to die’

  • Josefina Tunki, the first woman to preside over the Shuar Arutam People (PSHA), an Indigenous association in Ecuador, faces death threats due to her opposition to mining on Indigenous lands.
  • The Ecuadoran government has granted 165 concessions to mining companies — for copper, gold and molybdenum — that covers 56% of PSHA territory in the Condor mountain range in southeastern Ecuador.
  • Tunki’s election as president of the PSHA has revealed structural sexism, but it has also shown hope to a generation that sees women like her in positions of power.
  • This report is part of a journalistic collaboration between Mongabay Latam and La Barra Espaciadora (The Space Bar).

Josefina Tunki is a mother, even though she doesn’t have any biological children. In 2019, she became the first president of the Shuar Arutam People (Pueblo Shuar Arutam, PSHA, in Spanish). The PSHA is an Indigenous organization that unites about 12,000 people living in the Condor mountain range in southeastern Ecuador. From the moment Tunki became president, her protective instincts toward her community and their land strengthened her vital commitment.

Her voice firm and confident, Tunki says she would never order any armed action. However, if the Indigenous Shuar people need to defend themselves against the pressure and violence of mining companies and the Ecuadoran government, Tunki says she would put herself at the forefront to protect the mountains, forests and waterfalls that her people have taken care of for centuries.

Tunki adds she’s not afraid of armed police or soldiers, or swayed by the death threats she’s received from mining companies. Instead, she says she fears that members of her community will lose their home. “What concerns me most is that at the moment we least expect it, there could be evictions or confrontations,” Tunki says.

Josefina Tunki walks in traditional clothes through the streets of the Maikiuants community, where the PSHA headquarters are. Image courtesy of Lluvia Communication.

According to the NGO Amazon Watch, the Ecuadoran government has granted 165 mining concessions that occupy 56% of the 230,000 hectares (about 568,000 acres) of PSHA territory. Since the 1990s, these concessions have been granted to Solaris Resources of Canada, SolGold (Australia), ExplorCobres S.A. (EXSA, a Chinese-Canadian joint venture), and Aurania Resources (Canada) to extract copper, gold, and molybdenum.

The mining projects are now in the exploration stage, although the PSHA has not been consulted on whether it agrees with open-pit mining on its mountaintops. Tunki often reiterates to the media, in forums, and in other spaces: “The Pueblo Shuar Arutam already decided! No to mining!”

Carlos Mazabanda, a geographer and the Ecuador coordinator for Amazon Watch, says several waterways originate in these mountains, and if they’re contaminated by mining activity, they could set off a chain reaction of environmental damage. He says this is an area where rain is fairly constant and there’s a high risk of seismic activity. “This poses a risk for the mining structures, the sinkhole [which has been opened for mining] and the pools of waste,” Mazabanda says.

This map shows the 165 concessions granted to mining companies in the territory of the PSHA, which is outlined in red. Image by Carlos Mazabanda/Amazon Watch.

However, the administration of President Guillermo Lasso is promoting the expansion of extractive activities like mining in the Ecuadoran Amazon. In the first 100 days since taking office in May 2021, Lasso, a former banker, signed two pieces of legislation, Act 95 and Act 151, that allow for the rapid issuance of environmental licenses to oil and mining companies.

“For us, Act 151 means that our territories are threatened by mining on a large scale. We realize that this is not good,” Tunki said. “With whom did Guillermo Lasso consult? With whom did he discuss the positive and negative impacts of mining? With nobody, because we were not consulted. Everyone in community-based organizations should have an opinion, but neither he nor his advisers even know our communities.”

She was speaking on Oct. 18, 2021, during the first presentation of a series of demands that the communities and ethnic groups plant to make to Ecuador’s president, with the ultimate goal of getting the legislation withdrawn.

The Condor mountain range and the Santiago River behind Josefina Tunki. Image by Ana Cristina Alvarado.

The intimidation of the Shuar community

After midnight on a Monday in September 2021, Tunki enters a hotel in Sucúa, a city in Morona Santiago province. She asks for a room for the night, her strong voice echoing through the lobby. She doesn’t demand any special attention because of her leadership role. The receptionist has no idea she’s talking to the leader of 47 Shuar towns organized into six associations. As on most nights, Tunki won’t get much sleep.

Just after 4 a.m., Tunki receives a call from provincial authorities, who tell her that some community members from Maikiuants, where the PSHA’s headquarters are, are charging through the community. Tunki isn’t fooled. She says this isn’t the first time that lies have circulated about the PSHA or its leaders. By 6 a.m., Tunki is already on her way to the offices of the organization that she leads.

The PSHA offices aren’t identifiable from the outside, and its members prefer it that way for their security. On Nov. 6, 2020, Tunki received a death threat via a phone call. She paraphrases it: “If you keep bothering me with national and international complaints, we will have to cut someone’s throat.” The call was allegedly from Federico Velásquez, the vice president of mining operations for Solaris Resources and president of the Warints mining project.

Velásquez gives a different account of the incident. In a statement sent by email, Velásquez said that during that phone call, he had complained about Tunki’s “attacks on the company that she was carrying out using social media.” According to Velásquez, Tunki had said that she “did not manage, nor was she responsible for the social media of the Pueblo Shuar Arutam.” Velásquez said that, in response, he told Tunki that “if that happened in the company that I represent” — that is, unmonitored used of the company’s social media — “without my authorization, heads would roll.”

On Dec. 21, 2020, Tunki filed a complaint with the prosecutor’s office in Sucúa against Solaris Resources and Velásquez for threats and intimidation. As of Oct. 25, 2021, the process was still in the preliminary investigation stage.

This map shows that gold and copper are the minerals most frequently sought by miners in PSHA territory. Map courtesy of the Geography unit of EcoCiencia.

This is not the only form of intimidation that Tunki and other PSHA leaders have been subjected to. Marcelo Unkuch, the organization’s external management director, says that drones sometimes appear outside of the PSHA offices and even some members’ homes. Edy Chinky Nawech, director of communication, adds that the PSHA social media accounts have been hacked.

That September morning, Tunki and Unkuch visit Maikiuants to hear from community members regarding a toll collection. They also collect information about a confrontation between the women of the community and pro-mining individuals during a meeting a few days earlier.

From the PSHA offices in Sucúa, it’s a two-hour drive along a paved road, followed by three hours on a dirt road on the edge of the mountains. For many, the geography makes it difficult to enter the communities in the area, but this has never been an impediment for the Shuar people. Tunki says that before there was a road here, she used to walk to Maikiuants, a journey of two days.

Josefina Tunki, surrounded by members of the six associations that make up the PSHA, speaks in front of cameras with her characteristic energy. Image courtesy of Lluvia Communication.

A leader from the start

The trip is long, but the conversation makes it seem shorter. Tunki, originally from the canton of Tiwintza on Ecuador’s border with Peru, says she was enrolled in a Salesian boarding school at the age of 7. From then until the age of 15, she only returned home for two months in the summer. “When I spoke my [native] language, I got a ruler or eraser to my face,” Tunki says. “The Salesian missionaries told us that our legends were not valid, that they were pagan things, that we were lazy, and that they came to teach us how to work. But at the same time, they told us that money is devilish and that you have to have little.”

Tunki maintains her Catholic faith, but she questions the methods used by religious leaders to impose Western thought on Indigenous peoples. She no longer attends mass or confession very frequently. Tunki says she relies on “the judgment of God” and also on her grandmother’s stories about the Shuar worldview and knowledge of ancestral medicine to guide her.

Tunki’s rise to leadership was already apparent when she was in high school, although she says she began developing the ability as a young child. Until she was sent off to school, she was raised by her grandmother, who instilled in her a knowledge of the discipline of the ancient Shuar people. During vacations, she accompanied her mother to carry out farm labor in exchange for food. “We began to organize ourselves; we were very active. There, I learned what it means to organize,” Tunki says. Her first official leadership position was as secretary of her community, Chiches.

Josefina Tunki’s leadership path began when she was in high school. Image courtesy of Lluvia Communication.

Now 59 years old, Tunki has had different roles throughout her life: she was a bilingual teacher for seven years, but says she left the education field to have the freedom to walk with her community. She was also treasurer of her community; the women’s director of the Interprovincial Shuar Federation (FISCH in Spanish) and the Kanus Agroforestry Association (ASOKANUS in Spanish); a member of the Council for Children and Adolescents of Tiwintza; and president of the Santiago Association, one of the six associations that make up the PSHA. It was from that last position that she was elected president of the PSHA.

Nawech, the PSHA communications director, says he first heard Tunki give a speech when he was 10 years old. “For me, it was a source of motivation to see a woman in those positions and to see them as leaders; I wanted to follow their example,” Nawech. Now, some 20 years later, Nawech and Tunki walk shoulder to shoulder in defense of their territory.

The first time Nawech and Tunki met was in 2005, when Nawech began to work for the Tiwintza municipality. At the time, Tunki was a dispatcher for the municipal warehouse. They became close friends after a short time. “That is how community organization work is; there is a lot of criticism, but you have to stay firmly planted. You must listen to everything that happens,” Nawech recalls Tunki telling him. “Josefina is a humble, natural, supportive woman. She is calm; she listens to us. In this organization, she is like our mother.”

Others have referred to Tunki this way, too. Occasionally, she treats the members of the PSHA as if they’re her children. When she talks exclusively to women, she calls them “daughters.”

Tunki shows a flower growing in her garden. This plant has multiple medicinal uses. Image by Ana Cristina Alvarado.

Women in resistance

There are visible remnants of a fire by the side of the road on the way to Maikiuants. On Sept. 8, 2021, machinery owned by the mining company Solaris but located on PSHA territory was burned. The company and several prominent pro-mining individuals accused the Shuar women of having burned the machinery, but the PSHA says this is yet another attempt at criminalizing their resistance.

“How are the women going to arrive here by walking?” says Unkuch, the external management director. He adds that on that day, several men were in a meeting in Tiwintza, a few hours away, and that only women and children remained. “Those who were in the meeting are also being blamed, [people say] they are the masterminds. How they lie, how they imagine!” Unkuch says.

There are two checkpoints on the entry into Maikiuants: one just outside the community, and another at the entrance to the downtown area. At the downtown checkpoint, six women are in charge of controlling entry, day and night. “The goal is that the machinery of transnational companies does not pass through,” Tunki says. The road, which runs through PSHA territory and crosses the community of Maikiuants, ends in Warints. Part of this community and the community of Yawi were included in the concession granted to Solaris Resources.

Fanny Kaekat, right, one of the leaders of the Maikiuants community, with Josefina Tunki during an anti-mining meeting. Image courtesy of Lluvia Communication.

Fanny Kaekat, a member of the community, says that around 2 a.m. on Sept. 8, 2021, they were alerted to the arrival of machinery. They stood vigil, and by 5:30 a.m. the machinery had arrived on the outskirts of Maikiuants. Kaekat and nine other women, along with their children, approached the driver and told him that he couldn’t proceed. Tunki listens to Kaekat’s recollection of the story without taking her eyes off her. Her expression is serious and concerned, even though she’s already fully aware of what happened.

Once the women were alone again, they learned through social media that one of the machines had been set on fire by masked people. “We were bare-faced, not camouflaged,” Kaekat says.

Tunki reiterates her support. “Everything is in favor of the company while a mother is standing there defending the rights of her children,” she says.

The Shuar women say they want to protect their children’s future. “We have always lived here,” says Nancy Antún, a leader of the Maikiuants women. “This is where our grandparents left us, and this is where we want to leave our children so that they never spend a day as slaves or beggars.”

Josefina Tunki, right, talks to Isabel Ushap in Maikiuants. Tunki had just arrived in Maikiuants, and it was Ushap’s turn to guard the checkpoint to the territory. Image by Ana Cristina Alvarado.

Sexism: The other enemy

Tunki says she never imagined that, in 2019, she would win the presidency of the PSHA. Many women, like those from Maikiuants, supported her candidacy.

“The [female] members said, ‘now we are going to elect a woman; it should be you. We are going to do a test, and if you work well, then we will continue,’” Tunki says, recalling what the women told her during her election.

Kaekat says she hasn’t forgotten that Tunki was the only president of the PSHA’s six associations who helped her when she presented a training project for women about political formation and rights. “The men did not take us into account,” Kaekat says.

Antún says she’s also proud to have Tunki representing her as president. She says the arrival of a woman to the presidency of the PSHA has instilled confidence in other women. “Although some see her as a weakness, and the men discriminate against her, we support Josefina fully until she finishes her term,” Antún says.

Since the start of her term as president of the PSHA, Josefina Tunki has opposed mining in the Indigenous group’s territory. Image courtesy of Lluvia Communication.

The men who are closest to Tunki have witnessed the gender conflict that her election as the PSHA president has created. Mazabanda, who works closely with the PSHA, says this is connected to the fact that there isn’t a thorough process for women to make their voices heard and lead on equal footing as men. “On our board itself, there has been sexism on the part of some of my fellow executives,” Nawech says.

Tunki says not all men are sexist, but she acknowledges that she’s suffered several incidents in her role as president because she’s a woman. “They refer to me using not-so-decent terms,” Tunki says. However, she’s received moral support from her close co-workers. Nawech is her closest fellow leader, and Unkuch is her right-hand man. Representatives from international organizations have also supported Tunki when spirits have been low. Dozens of women from the PSHA also support her and are conscious of her well-being.

Tunki has become an inspiring example of strength for many Shuar woman. “Josefina is key. Without Josefina, we are not significant. As a woman, she knows our needs; we understand each other, and she can understand us better than men,” Antún says.

Josefina Tunki, together with other leaders from the PSHA, marches against mining in Morona Santiago. Image courtesy of Lluvia Communication.

Mother and healer

Now nearing 60 years old, Tunki seems like a wise grandmother. Although she appears serious and tough most of the time, she still jokes and laughs out loud. She strategizes how to resist and fight against mining companies, but she also shows a maternal quality. She shows concern for those she talks to, asks how they are, and listens. When necessary, she tenderly gives advice based on her experiences.

“Josefina feels like a mother to me,” Antún says. “She has given me moral support and strength. Anything, any concern, we ask her with confidence. I congratulate her 1,000 times. She has been attentive, like a mother.”

Nawech says he sees Tunki in a similar light: “I have had the confidence to tell her some personal things. She has been one of the women who has given me the most advice,” he says.

Tunki’s agenda in Maikiuants ends at the close of the day. She returns to Sucúa that night. The days go by quickly, and there aren’t enough hours in them to complete all her activities; Tunki’s work schedule often stretches long into the night.

The next day, she will visit her own community, Chiches, which is about three hours southeast of Sucúa.

Josefina Tunki has a garden filled with plants traditionally used for medicine in the Shuar culture. At the end of her term as president, she says she wants to return home to care for those in need. Image by Ana Cristina Alvarado.

At the end of her presidency in March 2023, Tunki says she wants to return to taking care of her garden of medicinal plants, which contains at least two dozen species. She plans to reopen her home to heal the illnesses of community members using her knowledge of ancestral medicine that she learned from her elders.

Because of her Catholic faith, Tunki says she doesn’t believe in shamans. But she says she does believe in the power of plants as a creation of God. She says that after her presidency ends, she hopes to experience tranquility again. Even when she is no longer leading the PSHA, she plans to remain attentive.

Part of the territory of Tunki’s own community, Chiches, has also been included in a mining concession, in this case granted to the Australian company SolGold. Many Shuar community members are ready to resist the growing threat of extractive activities in the Amazon. “If we have to die in defense of the land,” Tunki says, “we have to die.”

Banner image: Illustration by Kipu Visual.

This story was reported by Mongabay’s Latam team and first published here on our Latam site on Nov. 23, 2021.