Shedding light on the threat of large-scale mining in the Ecuadorian Amazon

Reading Time: 7 minutes

“In my youth, I had a significant dream about the area of the Alta Amazonia, the place where I later based my project,” the Italian photographer Nicola Ókin Frioli tells BJP. “One day I met someone who confirmed I had a kind of calling to this area and advised me to go.”  

Ókin took his first trip to the Ecuadorian Amazon in January 2015, which coincided with the 20th anniversary of the Alto Cenepa War, a conflict that broke out between Ecuador and Peru over disputed territory from 26 January to 28 February 1995.

“It was a war of the governments, not of the natives. Yet they participated anyway as civilians in support of the inexperienced military,” explains Ókin. “For the indigenous people, particularly the Shuar and Achuar, it was a resistance because their territory was in danger.”

The house of Rosario Ware, 108 years old, is at the Wamutey zone in Tundayme, Cordillera del Condor, Province of Zamora-Chinchipe, in the southeast of Ecuador. Her house is inside the zone of the “Mirador Project”, executed by the Chinese owned company Ecuacorriente S.A. Upon orders of that company and the Ecuadorian authorities, Doña Rosario has been evicted by force two times in the last 13 years. The mining concession consists of 4738 million pounds of copper. © Nicola Ókin Frioli

Now, the indigenous communities are facing another imminent threat – that of large-scale mining. Rich in copper and gold, the Shuar and Achuar territories are in danger of being exploited and its inhabitants risk being forcibly removed; in the province of Pastaza y Orellana, where Sáparas Kichwas, Saraguros and Cofanes live, the threat comes from the mining of oil. “The extraction activities would not only destroy the jungle, but they would also deprive the natives of their lands as well as their identities and traditions,” says Ókin. “We cannot forget that for the Amazonian Indians the jungle protects the spirits of their ancestors, and that the Indians proclaim themselves as guardians of them.”

“For years I searched for books, read the chronicles of explorers, and studied texts with an anthropological focus,” says Ókin. But the majority of the research for this project had to be done in the field, he says, there with the Amazonian settlers.

Despite their remoteness, these communities do have frequent contact with the outside world. The Rute Transamazonicaan asphalt road that crosses the Amazonis their sole communication link. “In reality it’s a small world; everyone knows each other and I only had to make contact,” says Ókin.

However, it wasn’t always straightforward. “It is a world that is wary of outsiders for fear that they might belong to a mining or oil company [depending on the area]; therefore to have access, permission is required from the community leaders,” he says.

Although he sometimes had friends to accompany him, Ókin admits he occasionally took risks without being totally prepared to navigate alone in the Amazon – following long paths through the jungle, relying only on the directions given to him, and sometimes having to enter communities without permission. Yet he says the biggest challenge was the jungle itself: “Most insects and animals are dangerous to humans. The most common you can find are the smallest – ants that can give you seizures, tarantulas, various types of snakes, and anacondas.” But, he adds, these are difficulties that can be overcome once you begin to understand the jungle.

A food transport offered to the community members of Tsumtsuim is on its way to the Community. San Carlos Panantza, Morona-Santiago Province, Ecuador. July 3, 2017. After an attack on the territory in December 2016, the army occupied their houses for 5 months approximately. When the families returned to their community, they found their homes empty. The military stole pots and working tools, finished with their farms products and ate all the chickens they breeded in the comunity. A year of labour will be needed to reestablish the productive pace of their crops and regain independence. © Nicola Ókin Frioli

Ókin returned to the region three times and, in total, spent around six months there. This allowed him to develop trust with the communities. “Over time, I made the genuine friendship with [Vicente Numi Tsakimp] the president of the PSHA [Shuar Arutam People’s Federation], thanks to a friend [Tania Laurini],” he says. “He supported me a lot and in a short time I was accepted. I managed to get written permission for free transit, introducing me as a photographer interested in telling the story of the resistance against large-scale mining.”

Ultimately Ókin hopes that through his images their struggle will become known outside Ecuador, in addition to raising awareness about the importance of preserving the jungle; a vital source of oxygen and water, both essential for our survival.

“Until recently, there was very little information on this situation although it is not new. I believe the most well-known incident was the toxic damage left behind from the Texaco oil company, which entered Ecuador in 1964 with an extraction concession from the government,” says Ókin. “According to environmentalists, Texaco produced in a decade the most serious environmental disaster caused by oil in history. In Ecuador, there may be NGOs and environmental groups operating on the ground, but there is relatively little exposure about it abroad.”

“I hope that this project will also make people aware that these communities are the guardians of the Amazon,” adds Ókin. “Though they defend their territory and nature, they also defend it for a collective future.”

For more of Nicola Ókin Frioli’s work, see and his Instagram @nicolaokin

A boat travels through the Bobonaza River near the Sarayaku community, inside the Amazonian jungle in the province of Pastaza. The Bobonaza River is the only access to enter the zone by land. The road to get to Canelo, where the boat leaves, is complicated, with roughly 50 kilometres of dirt road from Puyo, where some 4×4 trucks drive; when the river allows it, from here another four hours by boat is required. Sarayaku was always opposed to a land road, in order to avoid deforestation and to maintain control of the land against the arrival of intruders such as oil companies and armies. Kichwa Community of Sarayaku, Pastaza Province, Ecuador. © Nicola Ókin Frioli
A woman of the Sápara people looks through the window of a small plane that has just landed in the Morete community, on the Sapara territory of the Ecuadorian Amazon. This territory is surrounded by thousands of acres of primary jungle, and is therefore only reachable through the air. There is no road, and it would take a person almost a week to get there by foot through muddy lands. The absence of a road is a blessing for the local people, as it enables them to control and preserve the territory, thus preventing its deforestation. The arrival of an airplane is a special happening, as it is the only contact with the “modern world”. Morete Community, Province of Pastaza, Ecuador. © Nicola Ókin Frioli
Sight of Coangos River, one the conflict zones. During the war of Alto Cenepa against Peru in 1995, inhabitants close to Coangos had to be evacuated to the northern riverbanks of the Santiago River. The zone was sown with landmines. © Nicola Ókin Frioli
Carlos Wilson Tendetza, brother of José Tendetza who was murdered two years ago for being a defender and activist against the mining company Ecuacorriente S.A. Carlos decided to continue the fight of his murdered brother. Shuar community of Yanua, Ecuadorian Amazon. In the last eight years, the bodies of three indigenous Shuar were found; they were defenders of the Amazon and of their territory in particular, and against the activities of mining extraction on a large scale. Their murders have remained unpunished. Shuar community of Yanua, El Pangui, Zamora-Chinchipe Province, Ecuador. November 22, 2016. © Nicola Ókin Frioli
Guard man in the Community of Tsumtsuim, Province of Morona-Santiago. © Nicola Ókin Frioli
Grandmother Mukutsawa is the President of the Community of Llanchama Cocha, in Sápara territory. All of the community’s decisions are subject to her approval. She is one of the few people in the community that possesses a Motorola radio so she can communicate in the territory that the Saparas have under their control and consider as theirs, for being guardians of the spirits that live in the jungle. No strangers are allowed on their territory, because they fear that they could belong to an oil company interested in the extraction and destruction of the place which is considered to be sacred. Nowadays the Saparas community consists of 573 individuals who keep fighting against oil extraction and control the access of unknown people to their ancestral territory. © Nicola Ókin Frioli
A family from the Sarayaku Community returns by boat after a Minga. Kichwa. Minga is the highest act of solidarity in a communal society, a tradition of the indigenous nationalities of the Amazon, consisting of community work in which everyone participates in order to support each other. In exchange, they will be offered food and chicha. In this case, a young couple seeks to get the material to put a straw roof on their new home. Pastaza Province, Ecuador. © Nicola Ókin Frioli
Burning of gas to process the oil extracted in Dureno, in the Province of Sucumbió. In 1964, the oil company Texaco (now Chevron) arrives in Ecuador with a concession for 1.5 million hectares in the Amazon jungle, in the province of Sucumbio and Orellana. Between 1972 and 1992, the company extracted 1.5 million oil barrels while 19 billion of waste barrels were intentionally spoiled in the region, mainly in rivers. According to environmental associations, this has been the worst oil disaster in the world. The company argued that in the area where they worked there was no human presence, disqualifying the presence of the indigenous people in the area. © Nicola Ókin Frioli
Image © Nicola Ókin Frioli