ImportantCool‘s Important Editor, Christian Tym, talks about the murder of José Tendetza, a man he lived with and knew, and how this indigenous leader’s death has been exploited by The Guardian in their campaign against one of Latin America’s most dynamic and defiant leftist governments.
Recently I came across a report in The Guardian about the murder of José Tendetza, a Shuar indigenous leader, in a remote region of the Ecuadorian Amazon near the Peruvian border. The Guardian gave the impression that Ecuador’s left-wing government had turned murderous in an obsession with exploiting mineral wealth; the death of the indigenous leader was all but explicitly blamed on President Rafael Correa.
I was not surprised by the paranoiac take on the leftist leader. When Correa was held hostage by police during an attempted coup on 30 September 2010, The Guardian incredibly criticized Correa for “an authoritarian drift” for declaring a state of emergency during the crisis. The report declined to explain the context of the declaration, which ended in a firefight between police and loyal sectors of the military.
Then in their preview of Correa’s 2013 bid for re-election, The Guardian painted his popularity thus far as the result of a populist spending spree “thanks largely to the high price of oil and hefty loans from China.” That Correa had successfully renegotiated Ecuador’s foreign debt and the state’s share of the oil sector went unremarked.
It seems that we Western progressives, including The Guardian, do not appreciate being shown up by comparison with successful Third World leftist leaders.
Then I did a double take. Shuar leader José Isidro Tendetza Antún. Mirador. Zamora-Chinchipe. I knew this guy. I’d lived with him for weeks, as part of my PhD research on Shuar indigenous medicine and spirituality. The more I read, the clearer it became that The Guardian was turning his death and the surrounding context into something it was not.
With the demise of printed newspapers, every year the media landscape becomes more and more concentrated. The most well-funded and highly-regarded news sites draw readers from across the globe. The editorial lines of a select few opinion makers have unprecedented power.
The Guardian is one such media landmark, reaching an estimated 9 million readers per month. Its impact, moreover, is focused on those who identify as left-leaning or progressive. This is what makes its coverage of the Third World so galling.
In the English-speaking world we hear that there is no alternative to corporate dominance of society. Yet in Asia, Africa, and Latin America there are numerous examples of popular struggles that have taken the reins of political power and used them to improve their impoverished peoples’ standards of living.
However, these movements cannot succeed in the long-term without alliances with the disempowered majorities of the First World. Their countries simply are not powerful enough otherwise.
Either by design or by prejudice, The Guardian seems bent on stymying any such alliance by refusing to give credit to independent and progressive Third World governments. Their treatment of the murder of José Tendetza is a classic illustration of that dynamic.
Murder in the Amazon
Last month, the body of José Tendetza was found floating in a tributary of the upper Amazon in Ecuador. His hands and feet were tied and his body beaten. He had been missing for nearly a week.
Tendetza was a community leader of the Shuar indigenous group. He was the eldest male in the tiny town of Yanúa, whose population of some 40 people is composed of a single extended family. Yanúa, in the Quimi River Valley, was bequeathed to its current owners by José’s father, who claimed ownership when indigenous land began to be legalized in Ecuador in the 1970s.
José Tendetza’s death is a great tragedy. It follows the recent death in a motorcycle accident of his father. In a society that is for the most part hierarchical, patriarchal, and centered on family, it’s hard to imagine the devastation the loss of these two men must be causing.
The Guardian’s Martyr
From having died in a far-flung corner of the planet, José Tendetza became an international political pawn when The Guardian reported his death on 7 December 2014. The Guardian considered it an open-and-shut case that Tendetza was killed for his opposition to Mirador, a nearby gold and copper mine.
But it didn’t stop there. Suddenly, the murder had everything to do with President Correa’s plan to drill for oil in the Yasuní Amazon reserve, 700 km away from Mirador. The article was headed with a photo of Yasuní.
The Guardian saw patterns everywhere. A hippie bus was confiscated from Yasuní activists. Shuar men Fredy Taish and Bosco Wisum died in 2013 and 2009 respectively. A climate conference was about to take place in Lima, Peru. A talkfest some 1,700 km away apparently meant more than local realities in Shuar country.
Readers were left with a strong impression that José Tendetza was assassinated in a government conspiracy to silence an activist, with the implication that the cover-up went all the way to the president.
To me, having lived in Ecuador for the best part of 2013–14 and spent some six months in Shuar towns, the story didn’t read as journalism. It was more an exercise in connecting the dots between the few Amazon-related stories that have been in the English-language media cycle. It left an impression of the Ecuadorian government as advancing violently on the environment and Amazonian communities, partnered, as if in some demonic, three-legged race, with Chinese mining corporations.
A Pattern of Escalating Violence against Indigenous Leaders?
Let’s start with the height of the chutzpah. According to The Guardian, the killing of José Tendetza is indicative of the reality of Ecuador. “Several other Shuar opponents of Mirador,” readers were told, “have died as a result of the conflict in recent years, including Bosco Wisum in 2009 and Freddy Taish in 2013.”
Yet these men’s deaths had nothing to do with Mirador. Firstly, Bosco Wisum was killed in September 2009 hundreds of kilometres from Mirador at a highway blockade between Macas and Puyo.
As detailed in a US Embassy analysis, released by Wikileaks, Ecuadorian police only moved to clear the blockade after President Correa agreed to meet with national-level indigenous leaders. Indigenous organizations lifted their blockades across the country, but one group of Amazonian protestors refused to demobilize. When confronted, protestors fired on the riot squad, wounding some 40 police and killing Bosco Wisuma in what was “reportedly an incident of friendly fire.”
Ecuador’s corporate media, a tireless source of opposition to Correa, came to the same conclusion as the US Embassy, highlighting the inaccuracy of the pellets and muzzle-loaded muskets commonly used by Shuar men when hunting. The commission investigating Wisuma’s death included a representative from the self-proclaimed “indigenous” party, Pachakutik, and three other opposition parties.
Fredy Taish, the other supposed victim of government repression, was killed in a confrontation with Ecuadorian soldiers supporting an operation by Arcom, the government mining regulation agency. The operation was part of Arcom’s efforts to eradicate small-scale or “artisanal” mining, which it argues contaminates waterways through the use of toxic solvents.
A sizable minority of Shuar men pursue small-scale mining, which some report earns them an average of US $2,000 per month. For reference, this is roughly double the salary of a public-sector office worker. On the occasions that Shuar men are seen in towns purchasing liquor or hiring prostitutes, they are widely assumed to be artisan miners.
On 7 November 2013, shooting broke out when Arcom personnel backed by soldiers attempted to confiscate dredging machinery from a group of Shuar on a riverbank outside Gualaquiza. Nine soldiers were wounded and four of them were left in serious condition, but all ultimately survived (no-one ever suggested the Shuar maintained their independence through Gandhian tactics.) Fredy Taish by contrast didn’t have the benefit of expert medical assistance and died from his injuries.
In other words, a government operation to limit environmental damage caused by mining was painted by The Guardian as evidence of a pro-mining campaign of terror.
A generous interpretation would be that The Guardian’s correspondents spent more time getting drunk on a paid trip to the climate conference in Lima than they did fact-checking. The only source used in their article to support their story about Bosco Wisuma and Fredy Taish is Amazon Watch, far from an impartial organization. However, to so blatantly make three unrelated deaths into a narrative of state repression raises the prospect of an editorial agenda against Ecuador’s government.
Who was José Tendetza?
As a doctoral student in medical anthropology, I lived with José Tendetza in his house in Yanúa for several weeks in mid-2014. Every weekday morning José worked as an agricultural laborer for a nearby landowner. In the afternoons he returned to Yanúa and tended to his small plot of land and his mother’s cattle. He spent much of his time with her after her husband died, and they passed the time drinking the Shuar alcoholic beverage chicha that she made in impressive quantities.
Other Yanúa residents tended to their plots of plantains and root vegetables, raised chickens, went hunting for armadillo and paca, and even worked in the Mirador mine. As an outsider, the rhythm of life was slow, but not unpleasantly so in light of Yanúa’s setting in a vast, forested valley.
When I wasn’t trying to strike up conversation with locals, I spent my time reading or swimming in the Quimi River, despite being constantly teased that I would be eaten by an anaconda.
My main task was to interview local Shuar about their preferences between traditional medicine and clinical medicine, to which the Ecuadorian government provides free access even in remote, indigenous areas. The nearby mine was an interesting twist on the research scenario I had repeated in numerous other Shuar communities, but it wasn’t the main story.
Though he knew this, José managed to turn an unbelievable amount of talk to the topic of the mine. Despite having worked at Mirador many years before, José had become a vociferous opponent. Fond of seemingly endless rants in the tradition of Shuar male oratory, our conversations required little input from me.
“If they were really protecting the animals,” José told me, “Why would they cut down the forest? Why would they make noise with so much machinery? Why would they dump gasoline and polymers into the river?”
“The $10 billion worth of copper,” I replied.
“That’s it!” said José. “The $10 billion worth of copper. The state says that we are ignorant and that we are blocking development. This isn’t development comrade Christian. For development they have to help the indigenous with our claims for some funds to help us with things. Instead of helping they offer us threats. This is why our comrades are already off on the march [a protest against the mine], and by 8 July  they will arrive at Quito, and here we have to take action as well.”
Incidentally, the march ultimately drew just a couple of hundred supporters by the time it reached Quito, the Ecuadorian capital, despite logistical backing from the opposition MPD-Pachakutik political coalition.
Like many activists, José understood the political implications of every claim and could be a little loose with the truth at times.
He once told me that the Quimi River that passes by Yanúa was too polluted for animals and fish because of the mining. Another day he proudly pointed out the tracks of a wild boar in the sand of the riverbank.
I also once asked him about the Shuar history of cattle-raising. Anthropologist Janet Hendricks, who lived in Shuar country in the 1980s, documented how the Shuar had been forced into cattle-raising by perverse Ecuadorian laws in the 1960s that treated forest as terra nullius but cleared land as cultivated and therefore eligible to be claimed as property.
“Who told you that?” responded José angrily. “Shuar never cut down the forest. Whoever said that deserves to have chilli shoved up his anus,” he said, referencing one of the great variety of Shuar traditional punishments involving chilli. I declined to tell José the names of the elderly Shuar men who had confirmed this aspect of local history to me.
This fiery intransigence in the face of differing opinions won José many enemies. “When he gets in one of his moods,” a Shuar employee of the Mirador mine told me, “there’s no talking to him.”
Who Killed José?
It is certainly possible that José was killed as retribution for his opposition to the mine. For the moment though, no one knows for sure. By only interviewing those with an interest in painting mining as good for nothing but violence – rather than, say, a revenue source for a government with, at 14 percent of GDP, the highest rate of social investment in Latin America – The Guardian flattens a complex scenario down to good versus evil.
José had a life that was broader than The Guardian’s one-dimensional portrayal of him as indigenous forest protector. Sadly, he was embroiled in conflicts on several levels. For one, he was engaged in a bitter dispute with the lover of his ex-wife. José accused him of stealing his wife with the love potion sígueme-sígueme and even attempted to spy on the man through psychedelic visions.
Another concern is that twice while I was living with him, José was accused by other Shuar of the deadly serious matter of trafficking in shrunken-heads. Amongst Shuar it is gravely suspicious to associate with white men such as myself, as we are said to contract killings for the purpose of producing and selling authentic shrunken-heads. It is not out of the question that the family of someone who had gone missing, such as one young woman said to have been murdered in the Quimi Valley, could have carried out a reprisal.
Even more gravely, José was involved in an ongoing land dispute in the upper Quimi Valley, further up from the site of the Mirador mine. His maternal grandparents were evicted from the land at gunpoint by colonists on horseback.
With few exceptions, José despised the non-indigenous locals. “The campesino [rural Ecuadorian] only thinks of money,” José said. “The Shuar are happy with a little: maybe 200, 300, or 2,000 dollars, this is enough. By contrast, the campesino just keeps going. He puts it in the bank and he keeps going, in the bank and keeps going, hoping that he’ll end up with 20 sacks of money.”
Many years ago, José ambushed a group of campesinos on his grandparents’ former land and marched them back down the valley to the nearest town at gunpoint. He warned them to keep off the land he used for hunting and for harvesting palms. Many local campesinos would not have shed a tear with news of José’s death.
Finally of course, José could have been killed in connection with his opposition to the mine. Needless to say, José’s activism would have earned him the ire of the mining company, who reportedly threatened him, and most ominously, its ex-military private security contractors.
José’s stance also won him enemies among those Shuar who earn their living at the mine. The company pays unskilled workers US $450 per month for 15 mdays of labor, well over the minimum wage in Ecuador. In the Shuar context it is a very large sum, for they pay no rent and grow most of their own food.
There are many possibilities but no firm answers as yet. The one thing that is certain is that The Guardian clearly has no set standards for evidence-based journalism. Armed with a brace of quotations all taken from marginal opposition activists, The Guardian closed the case and implicated the Ecuadorian state and President Rafael Correa.
A Government Conspiracy?
In its 7 December story, The Guardian uncritically published a quote from Luis Corral, who said, “The state through the police and the judiciary is involved in hiding this violent crime.”
The evidence for this claim – left unexplained by The Guardian’s article – is the irregularities in the handling of José’s body at the Public Prosecutor’s Office in Yantzaza, a city of some 10,000 people.
As explained by Domingo Ankuash in a press conference, José had been expected at a meeting in Bomboiza, an hour’s travel from Yanúa. The day after he failed to arrive, Ankuash travelled to José’s house and learned that his family did not know his whereabouts.
He then contacted the authorities and learned that a body had been discovered floating in the Chuchumbleza River. The Yantzaza Prosecutor’s Office had taken custody of the body, listed the cause of death as “drowning” and buried it as “unidentified.”
Ankuash’s lawyers contacted the chief prosecutor and insisted on the exhumation of the body and a second autopsy. Only then did they record that José had died violently. A criminal investigation was opened.
According to Ankuash, witnesses at the scene when Jose’s body was found reported that from the marks on him it was clear that he had been beaten.
The sequence of events is suggestive of complicity between local law enforcement and José’s murderer(s), but there is no smoking gun. We may instead be dealing with incompetence or racist disregard for the plight of a deceased “savage.”
Even in the event that a conspiracy between mining company personnel and local law enforcement is unearthed, the implication concerning the central government is tenuous. The events took place in the most distant province from the Ecuadorian capital. All the evidence is circumstantial.
Regardless, The Guardian uncritically published Domingo Ankuash’s assertion that “the authorities are complicit in this crime” and “the government will never give us a response.”
Two days later, Minister of the Interior José Serrano responded by offering a US $100,000 reward for information. It’s difficult to reconcile this action with central government complicity in the crime. The sum, massive in Ecuadorian terms, is clearly intended to flush out anyone with knowledge of a conspiracy either at the Yantzaza Public Prosecutor’s Office or at the mining company that operates Mirador.
The role of the Public Prosecutor’s Office is considered central by Jorge Chumapi, President of the Shuar Federation of Zamora-Chinchipe, the organization to which José’s community of Yanúa belongs.
“Their actions are in question,” Chumapi told me. “They committed a disgusting act, and really, I don’t know what their interest was…but obviously it raises certain suspicions as to whether the Public Prosecutor’s Office was conspiring, or whether they already knew of the murder.”
“Do you think mining will go ahead regardless?” I asked Chumapi.
“Well, in light of this death, they [at the mine] are afraid, because one way or another they will have to leave, because Ecuacorriente bears responsibility. They have some eight lawsuits filed, and there are recordings in which they threatened him [José]. There is a clear idea that Ecuacorriente…[pause]…it is believed that the death was due to the company. If this is proven, or if there is no investigation, this work, this mining project, will have to be halted, and it is preferable that they leave or that another more serious and responsible company comes.”
A Story Depends on Its Sources
As regards journalistic ethics at The Guardian, what is more concerning than its unsubstantiated assertions of a government conspiracy is the newspaper’s policy for selection of sources.
Luis Corral is a Chilean environmentalist who has worked with environmentalist NGO Acción Ecológica. Outside of NGO circles, Corral is best known in Ecuador for shouting at President Correa during a speech Correa was giving. When he was removed by police, Corral hysterically shouted, “Dictator, dictator!”
If these are the people whose opinions The Guardian reprints completely uncritically in its Ecuadorian coverage, how are readers supposed to trust its other world news?
As for Domingo Ankuash, he is allied with the self-proclaimed “indigenous party” Pachakutik. He speaks for that section of Ecuador’s indigenous Amazonians that seek to maintain their distance from the project of national development being implemented by President Correa.
Ankuash’s position is therefore not impartial. Moreover, The Guardian evidently hand-picked his more outlandish anti-government rhetoric. Notable was the assertion that the Mirador mine “will devastate around 450,000 acres of forest.” That is equivalent to 1,821 square kilometres, 50 percent larger than the Los Angeles metropolitan area.
According to the review of Mirador’s environmental impact statement published by Acción Ecológica itself, the mine’s diameter is just 1.2km. The tailings pool is expected to cover 625 acres.
Looking at the analysis of 2013 election results carried out by sociologist José Sánchez Parga, the Pachakutik position vis-à-vis the central government has strong support among the least urbanised regions of the southern Ecuadorian Amazon, where the Shuar nationality predominates. However in the majority Kichwa-indigenous Amazonian provinces to the north–and across all indigenous regions in the Andes, where most indigenous Ecuadorians live–President Correa has far more support than Pachakutik. Indeed, Andean indigenous people are Correa’s strongest bastion of support.
Amongst Ecuadorians as a whole, Pachakutik presidential candidate Alberto Acosta won just 3 percent of the vote in 2013. In other words, The Guardian’s most reasonable source for the 7 December story is representative neither of Ecuador’s indigenous population nor Ecuadorians as a whole.
The “Yasuní Mortgaged to China” Story
In a story published on 19 February 2013, The Guardian pushed the same anti-Ecuador agenda with the same disregard for journalistic ethics.
“The Ecuadorian government,” the piece alleged, “was negotiating a secret $1 [billion] deal with a Chinese bank to drill for oil under the Yasuni Amazon reserve while pursuing a high-profile scheme to keep the oil under the ground in return for international donations.” The deal supposedly “traded drilling access in exchange for Chinese lending.”
The “high-profile scheme” refers to the Yasuní-ITT Initiative, in which Ecuador sought payments from the international community commensurate with net avoided carbon emissions in exchange for not extracting Yasuní’s oil.
The Guardian provided a contentious supporting document detailing loan negotiations between Ecuador and China. The 14-page document’s single mention of Yasuní read, “The Ecuadorian party has expressed that it will make every effort to support Petrochina and Andes Petroleum in the exploration of ITT and Block 31.”
However, Ecuador responded with a video that seemed to show that the downloaded file was edited just weeks before The Guardian’s scoop was published in 2013, some four years after the negotiations it detailed. The edit was, moreover, registered to a user named Fernando Villavicencio, an opposition politician in coalition with Pachakutik.
Villavicencio allegedly removed reference to the Ecuadorians’ rejection of the Chinese proposal to explore for Yasuní oil deposits. Note that in either case, the document made no mention of selling rights to extract Yasuní oil.
What particularly lends credence to the theory that The Guardian knowingly published doctored evidence is the fact that the file was then removed from The Guardian’s website for two weeks. The file that is currently available has the “author” field wiped.
Just as in the 7 December 2014 story, The Guardian seized on the allegations to trash Ecuador’s environmental record and blame China for deforestation in the Amazon. It suggested that despite Correa’s claim that the Yasuní-ITT Initiative was abandoned due to having raised only $12 million, one could also “have pointed the finger at Ecuador’s oil sector and the country’s relationship with China.”
And again, as in the 2014 article, it relied on Amazon Watch and Acción Ecológica as supporting sources.
What if Sources for Ecuadorian News Were Actually Representative Ecuadorians?
Since the 2006 revolution Ecuadorians have backed President Correa in overwhelming numbers. In the February 2013 presidential elections, Correa won 57 percent of the vote in the first round, dominating elections between eight candidates. He superseded his nearest rival by 35 percentage points.
What accounts for such support? One could point to the 2.2 million people (14 percent of the population) who have escaped poverty during Correa’s government, with levels of urban poverty in Ecuador now down to the same levels as in the United States.
You could consider the inhabitants of Guayaquil slums who enjoy access to running water and a sewerage system for the first time. Or look to the people who have been saved by the construction of Ecuador’s first ever nationwide 911 emergency response service.
Then there is the fact that since 2006, Ecuador has ascended 61 places in the World Economic Forum’s Gender Gap Report and is now ranked 21st in the world. Correa’s governing party pursues an affirmative action policy in which half of its candidates must be women.
Many of Correa’s supporters are Afro-Ecuadorians. Access to education for this once marginalized group has improved to such an extent that their children now attend schools at slightly above the national average, surely a world first for a non-African nation. Schooling is completely free, as is tertiary education and healthcare.
Then there are the crackdowns on corporate tax evasion. Surely many people appreciate a constitution that forbids bank bailouts with taxpayer money.
If you asked Shuar residents along the upper Nangaritza River, they might mention that they are paid some $13,000 annually by the Ecuadorian government in exchange for maintaining a hunting and fishing reserve where logging and agriculture is prohibited. This program, known as Socio-Bosque, protected 1.1 million hectares of Ecuadorian forest as of 2012.
These are the stories Guardian journalists could hear from ordinary Ecuadorians, if they only thought to ask. Many of these stories would involve government action and spending funded by the massive increases on mineral rents that Correa’s government has forced on the international mining companies that The Guardian presents as his allies.
Claiming the Rainforest
In the media framing of Ecuador, it appears less as a place where people live and more as an environment. The considerations that would apply in coverage of a Western country – first and foremost, what is in the public interest – do not apply in the same way. Their environment becomes our interest, but conversely, their public interest is not of our concern.
This is best illustrated in the way The Guardian describes the setting of the Mirador mine: “an area of important biodiversity that is also home to the Shuar, Ecuador’s second-biggest indigenous group.” Yes, indeed. There are many plants and animals there. Oh yeah, and also people. Environmentalists are never given such a platform in the Anglophone media, it seems, as when they criticize Third World revolutionary leaders.
A Continent of Caudillos?
Correa’s government is not one of the continent’s old-style military juntas renowned for disappearances and death-squads. In fact, having emerged out of a massive people power uprising dubbed the “Citizens’ Revolution”, and having pursued an assertive foreign policy against the West, Ecuador is the antithesis of such regimes. They have no documented history of political violence.
On the contrary, it is formation of alliances with the West that has been shown to correlate with human rights abuses in Latin American countries. In Colombia, the region’s key Western ally, half of all military officers who received training in the US were subsequently implicated in extrajudicial executions. The proportion is higher than the figure for a random sample of Colombian officers.
Similarly, military units with the least US involvement committed the least human rights abuses. In the past decade an estimated 6,000 Colombian civilians have been killed by their country’s own military, armed and trained by the West. Colombia receives almost US $200 million in military aid from the United States annually.
Countless North American and European corporations operate in Colombia. By contrast, the oil and mining companies in Ecuador are predominately Chinese, Indian, Chilean, and Argentinian, or owned by the Ecuadorian state itself.
So it is not coincidental that The Guardian and the rest of the Anglophone press goes to great lengths to avoid reporting on Colombia, even when hundreds of thousands of Colombians take to the streets and shut down the country, and many are shot by security forces, all we hear from the media are crickets.
How to Break a Scandal
The case of Colombia is also indicative because its recent history is dotted with well-documented conspiracies. In the “parapolítica” scandal, the intimate links between the Western-backed Colombian government and the paramilitaries responsible for massacres and land seizures in rural Colombia were documented.
The scandal broke when a laptop belonging to paramilitary leader and druglord “Jorge 40” was captured, leading to the arrest of numerous politicians. A document also surfaced detailing a signed agreement between politicians and paramilitary leaders. Then there were the receipts found during a raid on a Cali drug cartel’s accountant that matched payments to parliamentarians for campaign expenses. During the subsequent prosecutions, the Colombian magazine Semana titled its report, “The Evidence Speaks for Itself.”
Likewise, in neighboring Peru in 2008, recordings released by Wikileaks showed Peruvian politicians discussing bribes in exchange for granting oil concessions to a Norwegian and a Peruvian oil company.
There’s no need to stretch for a story: it has never been easier to access and distribute hard evidence of violence, conspiracy, avarice, and imperialism. What is difficult is finding evidence against arbitrary targets. It’s hard to discover what isn’t there.
Instead, it’s time for Western progressives and leftists to learn a few lessons from Third World leaders and liberation struggles. New democratic models are being built and wages and living standards are rising across the world. We canlook at why that has stopped happening at home, but only once we stop believing that the entire Third World is a den of poverty of repression.
To walk that path, we need real, uncompromised journalism. You can become a patron of ImportantCool for as little as $5 per month, exercise your vote in the organization and help us produce people-powered news.