The Shuar people fighting on two fronts in the Amazon

Shuar means the people. Today, this indigenous people living in present-day Ecuador and Peru, are continuing their fight against the colonial state and the extractivist capitalism. Português Español

Inti Cartuche Vacacela
1 February 2017

Shuar group in the park of Logroño, Ecuador. Wikimedia Commons/Jlh249. Some rights reserved.

According to the Ecuadorian philosopher Bolívar Echeverría, modern life is based on an absurdity: "a way of life in which, amidst the possibility of abundance, reproducing is at the same time mutilating, sacrificing, oppressing and exploiting one another".

That is to say: the current technical and social possibilities would allow us to reach the Sumak Kawsay (the full life of all beings inhabiting this planet) that we have been waiting for so long, if it were not for "the curse of abundance" which, in spite of this, produces a society that generates, consumes and reproduces wealth by destroying its two main sources: humans and nature.

Historically, we have established ourselves as peoples and cultures, each with its own characteristics resulting from different ways of relating human toil to nature and of giving meaning to this experience - that is, of creating a certain type of society. In addition, as peoples and individuals, we possess a particular characteristic: the Ruray-ushay - that is, the capacity to do, to build and create, both individually and collectively. This is what many believe to be the capacity or characteristic that makes us human and distances us (but never completely) from animals. On the other hand, there is nature - Allpamama -, the material support for the reproduction of peoples and cultures, but also the source of meaning and knowledge that has accompanied the long historical process of building different human societies, which is now threatened by the effects of greed and selfishness.

These two sources of social wealth are destroyed under capitalism in order to accumulate value. The nature and cultures of the world are being destroyed to sustain the opulent life of a small group of people. It is this absurdity, as Echeverría’s puts it, which we are witnessing when we see the current offensive of transnational mining in several territories of the Shuar nation, the aggression against the peoples, their ways of life, and their means of social reproduction: the Amazon jungle.

But the history of the expansion of capitalism has never been exempt from resistance to it, since those who generate wealth and those who appropriate it are necessarily bound together. Echeverria says: "no capital, no accumulation is possible without human creators, doers."

The Shuar, a warrior people, have sovereignly inhabited the southern part of the Ecuadorian Amazon and northeastern Peru for centuries, long before national states throughout AbyaYala (the American continent) were built disregarding the presence of native nations. The role that the Ecuadorian government is playing today by seamlessly supporting the Chinese transnational mining corporations shows how racism and colonialism are still very much in force in a state that disdains the immemorial presence of indigenous peoples. When President Correa says that in these territories there were no ancestral peoples, he is merely expressing an old ideology, according to which the Amazon was a wasteland, and was thus available for exploitation. At the same time, Correa speaks of the alleged historical mission of the colonial states of America: the building of a single nation, setting aside the native peoples.

In this sense, the fight of the Shuar nation is a fight against the colonial state, against the structure of domination that has been used to subjugate the indigenous peoples for the sake of the good of a “nation” that has never recognized in practice the historical plurality of the country. Their fight highlights the violence that the colonial state exercises against the different peoples to try to consolidate and culminate the unfinished and unfeasible process of "one State, one Nation." At the same time, it shows the validity of plurinationality as a project aiming at overcoming the political structures that do not allow the territorial self-determination of indigenous nations and their own history. The plurinational state, as anthropologist Rita Segato suggests, must guarantee the restructuring and self-determination of the peoples, "the return of each people’s capacity to develop their own historical project." This is precisely what is at stake in the fight of the Shuar against the extractivist policy of the Ecuadorian government.

To this should be added the aggression of the Chinese mining corporations in Shuar territory, which shows another dimension of the fight, this time against savage capitalism. In the capitalist world, to keep on citing Bolívar Echeverría, the reproduction of social life is subordinated to the accumulation logic of capital. Human beings, as individuals and as peoples, cannot fully self-determine their own social reproduction, and are forced to do it in an alienated way: "their process of reproduction is not a function of their own telos, but of a foreign, reified one, which is the telos of capitalist accumulation."

In simpler terms: the logic of capital does not allow people to freely decide their collective way of life, but imposes a different one that serves mostly the accumulation of wealth by a few. In that logic, nature and human beings become things, goods to be bought, sold, consumed and exploited. The fight of the Shuar people against big mining is also a fight against this reification logic, a fight to keep open the possibility of being subjects of their lives, of being able to decide the terms of coexistence without the constraints of capital, of being able to continue building their history in the Sachamama (the jungle). The Shuar’s resistance to Chinese big mining is thus challenging the control by capital of the human being, the peoples and nature. And it shows that, in the long run, we the peoples are not only victims of capitalist aggression and colonialism, but that, in the end, despite the effects of domination, we are subjects who fight daily for building a path that will allow us to carry on our own projects of society. It is a bet for the possibility of being free.

This article was published previously by lalineadefuego.

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