The Secret the Mine Swallowed

Jose Tendetza was a leader of the shuar people. He was an ardent opponent of mining in his land, located in the condor mountain range, south of Ecuador. Five years have passed since the assassination of this environmental leader, and the perpetrators and masterminds of the crime remain unknown.

Barefoot and leaning against one of the walls of his wooden house, Carlos Tendetza talks about Jose, his late brother. Through the cracks in the front planks, the afternoon sun enters and marks the sky blue and the border of drawings of little animals, numbers and childish scribbles on the wall in chiaroscuro. Carlos Tendetza – dark black hair, horizontally striped shirt, ochre pants- says that after his brother’s murder, he took ayahuasca, the sacred medicinal plant of the Amazonian peoples, and saw him again. Jose Tendetza pointed his finger at a man with yellow boots and told Carlos, “Look, brother, that’s the man who killed me.”

Five years later, in August 2019, Carlos Tendetza says he was unable to tell who the man in boots was. In Tundayme, a rural parish in the Condor Mountain Range, Southern Ecuador, where Shuar and mestizo indigenous people live together, yellow boots have multiplied: They are no longer worn only by the workers of the Ecuacorriente mining company, but also by the farmers. Tundayme belongs to the El Pangui canton, one of the nine cantons of the Zamora Chinchipe province, in the southern Ecuadorian Amazon. Furthermore, Tundayme also comprises administratively even smaller rural populations, such as the Numpaim San Carlos community, the Churuwia community and Yanua Kim, where Jose Tendetza was the administrative leader.

Photo: Diego Ayala León

Like Tundayme and its communities, dozens of other towns have a copper belt underneath that, according to ministers and presidents, businessmen and investors, is Ecuador’s new golden ticket to prosperity: Ecuador’s first mega-mining project ‒Mirador‒  is being exploited in the area. According to an informative note from the Mining Regulation and Control Agency (Arcom in Spanish), Ecuacorriente, the company in charge of the mega-mine, will deliver to the State  USD 30 million a year in royalties from the extraction of copper mainly, but also gold, silver and molybdenum.

Ecuacorriente’s operation ‒with Chinese capitals‒ began with a production test of three million tons per year. By 2020, it is supposed to produce 15 million. From next year on, production could reach 21 million tons of minerals annually.

Despite all the promises, poverty on the surface atop the mines has not changed much, and social conflicts have intensified.

Despite all the promises, poverty on the surface atop the mines has not changed much, and social conflicts have intensified. According to environmentalists and community leaders, the negative effects of mining could poison water sources, change river courses, deforest entire areas and even cause tragedies like those of Brumadinho and Mariana in Brazil, where mining dikes’ breaking has razed villages to the ground, killed hundreds of people and polluted rivers to death.

That is why Jose Tendetza, the Shuar whom his brother saw once again in a mystical vision, opposed the mine’s presence in his land, and  why, many believe, he was ultimately killed.

All day long, the mining company’s dump trucks and vans come in and out of Tundayme. Photography by Diego Ayala Leon.


The murder of Jose Tendetza remains unpunished. The mining to which he was so fervently opposed marches on in the region. Jose Tendetza’s family and the few people who remember him said that he was outspoken, very brave and able to persuade and raise awareness about the territory’s defense and the opposition to mining in those who listened to him. “He had no academic studies, but he was an innate leader,” says Manuel Sanchez, a mestizo who is a member of the Condor-Mirador Mountain Range Amazon Community of Social Action (Cascomi in Spanish).”

In the early 2000’s, Manuel Sanchez’s father gave him a farm he owned in Tundayme to sell so that he could pay the debts he was drowning in after his appliance store went bankrupt. It was the times of Ecuador’s greatest economic and social crisis, which ended up with millions of Ecuadorians migrating and left the country without its own currency and with its financial system almost extinct. “The only potential buyer was the mining industry,” recalls Sanchez.

“Neither I nor other owners were paid fair amounts for the land”

Manuel Sánchez.

For the farm, Ecuacorriente paid Manuel Sanchez USD 1,000. Later on, Sanchez spoke to a friend of his who worked at the mine who told him that the company was going to start extracting copper, gold, silver and other minerals from the subsoil. He recommended him to read some documents from the Ministry of the Environment. When he read them, he felt mocked: “Neither I nor other owners were paid fair amounts for the land,” he says.

From that moment on, Sanchez began to defend the rights of Tundayme landowners more strongly. “Everybody told me I was right, but nobody gave me a solution,” he said. In 2015, Ecuacorriente tore down the school, chapel and houses of the San Marcos community to build a pool for mine waste.

There are no crops along the road leading to Tundayme. Photography by Diego Ayala Leon.A lo largo de la carretera que conduce a Tundayme no hay sembríos. Fotografía de Diego Ayala León.

In his struggle, Manuel met Jose Tendetza. In his speeches at meetings, Jose would let people know what could happen and what the company was doing in the community. Manuel said that after several discussions, Jose Tendetza understood that mestizos and Shuar had to fight together. “‘If you fight there, we will not achieve our objectives here;’ Jose understood and accepted that,” said Manuel.

—[Jose] was humble but brave,” says Sanchez one Saturday at the Gualaquiza fair.

Two men were prosecuted but later acquitted for his murder.

Two men were prosecuted but later acquitted for his murder. To this day, no one knows who strangled and killed the Shuar and Yanua Kim leader, vice president of the Zamora Shuar Federation, active militant of the Confederation of Indigenous Nationalities of the Ecuadorian Amazon and the Confederation of Indigenous Nationalities of Ecuador and speaker of the International Tribunal for the Rights of Nature, who never made it to Lima.

When he died, Jose Tendetza was 49 years old and had seven children with Carlota Maria Ushap. They separated in 2008: She started working at Ecuacorriente, which Tendetza did not approve. Jose Tendetza was born in Yanua Kim, another small town in the Condor Mountain Range, in the southern province of Zamora Chinchipe, more than 600 kilometers from Quito, capital of Ecuador. On the day he died, November 29, 2014, Tendetza was on his way back to Yanua Kim.

A few days later, he was scheduled to travel to Lima to attend the International Tribunal for the Rights of Nature, an event within the framework of the International Conference on Climate Change (COP20), held in the Peruvian capital on December 5 – 6, 2014. He was invited by nature rights organizations. However, Jose Tendetza would never get on that plane, or even reach Yanua Kim.

Photo: Diego Ayala León

His death would mark the beginning of the slow decline of the resistance to mining in the area. His brothers say that wherever anti-mining assemblies were held, Jose Tendetza was there. He was a though farmer with an even tougher temperament: His brother Alfonso recalls the time when Jose saw some employees of the Ecuacorriente mining company in front of his community taking measurements to start paving the road. Jose approached them and, without saying a word, he took off one of their helmets, threw it to the ground and beat it to pieces with a large stone. “He tore it to pieces,” says Alfonso Tendetza. Before becoming a leader, Jose Tendetza had worked in the mine from 2002 to 2006.

However, Jose Tendetza did not want to continue in the copper industry. He preferred to hunt and fish in the river, like all the elders in his family and, just like them, he only completed primary school. In order to travel to the anti-mining assemblies –in Quito, Puyo, Loja or Cuenca, all cities hundreds of miles away– he sold the bananas, corn and papayas he planted. With the little he collected, he traveled.

the information is uncertain because in the trial opened following his death, a witness declared that Tendentza was not at the meeting.

That day he was returning from Gualaquiza, a city in the province of Morona Santiago. He was coming back –his family supposes– from a meeting with the Shuar Association of the Bomboiza Parish and the Mining Regulation and Control Agency (Arcom). However, the information is uncertain because in the trial opened following his death, a witness declared that Tendentza was not at the meeting.

—“The day was sunny, and it suddenly rained”, Alfonso Tendetza recalls.

Two witnesses in the trial for his death said that they saw him leave on the road to the communities and that a man in yellow boots was following him, a mining company employee.

Jose Tendetza got off the station wagon, used as rudimentary bus without doors or windows, in Chuchumbletza, very close to Yanua Kim. Those who saw him get off said that he did not have money for the ticket and told the driver that he would pay it later. Yanua Kim is a 45-minute walk away, and two witnesses in the trial for his death said that they saw him leave on the road to the communities and that a man in yellow boots was following him, a mining company employee, but they did not know who he was. This was the last time anyone saw him alive. He never arrived.

In Yanua Kim, people began to say that maybe he got lost on the walk back, but his brother Alfonso did not believe it. “Only children get lost,” he recalls. His nephews were not too worried because his father Jose Tendetza had many friends in Gualaquiza, and sometimes he would stay and drink chicha with them. The truth is that the 45-minute wait had already turned into hours, which would become days. His family would learn that he was dead and buried, marked as an unidentified body, four days later.


On the road to Tundayme there are small mining operations, some with permits and others illegal. Photography by Diego Ayala Leon.


A man passing by the bridge over the Zamora River linking Tundayme and Chuchumbletza on the morning of December 2, 2014 saw something floating in the river and thought it was a dead pig. He called other neighbors to take it and roast it.

However, as they approached in a small wooden boat, they realized that it was not an animal they could cut up, but a person’s body. Jose Tendetza’s body. The bridge under which he was found was built by Ecuacorriente between 2014 and 2016. None who found him recognized him.

However, Alfonso does not believe them. He says they pretended not to know who he was. The body was taken to a nearby hospital, where it was marked as NN and buried that same day, in the cemetery of El Pangui, another small canton in the province. “They buried him as if he had no family,” says Alfonso, angrily.

“His struggle for the respect of the jungle’s territorial rights is not shared by all the local population”.

Roberto Narváez.

Roberto Narvaez, the expert who made a study of the cultural and social environment of the Yanua Kim community as part of the investigation of Jose Tendetza’s murder, says that the Shuar leader’s body was decomposed and therefore unrecognizable. He also says that, from the Shuar’s perspective, Jose Tendetza’s leadership was growing and was recognized not only in his community, but in the entire Condor Mountain Range region. “His struggle for the respect of the jungle’s territorial rights is not shared by all the local population,” Narvaez explains, because many area inhabitants work in the large mining company, Ecuacorriente, or in other smaller companies.


It is the first Monday of September 2019 and some young people walk around Tundayme with envelopes and folders in hand, hoping to get a job in the mine. Their accents say more than their words: They are from the coast and the mountains; they have come from far away. This is not the first time in the cyclical – or perhaps, recycled? – Ecuadorian history, where what lies beneath the surface drives internal migration.

In the early 1960’s, thousands of Lojanos moved north of the Ecuadorian Amazon to be part of the Ecuadorian oil boom. There were so many that the city they founded is called Nueva Loja -although its original name was Lago Agrio, in a homage to Sour Lake, the Texan city where the first Texaco oil well was exploited, at the beginning of the 20th century. Coincidentally, Texaco is also the company that came to operate in Ecuador.

In the beginning, the incentive was crude oil.

In the beginning, the incentive was crude oil. Nowadays, it is copper – once again, thousands of years later. Copper was the metal that humans first used, ten thousand years ago. At the beginning of copper exploitation, in the Hispanic mines of prehistoric times, miners used to extract copper mixed with arsenic. That copper was requested by the people of the Eastern Mediterranean.

In the 21st century, copper is god: It is everywhere. In the cell phones we talk through, the wires through which electricity runs (15% faster than aluminum), the pipes through which water flows, the copper IUDs for contraception, the coins that keep multiplying, the spoons we put in our mouths, the furniture where we nap, the makeup we use to hide imperfections, the paintings we cover our walls with and the fungicides we use to kill pests. Copper can be mixed with gold and bronze to make the jewels that hang from our ears, necks, wrists and fingers.

In the beginning, it was in the north. Today, it is in the south. The extraction of raw material runs through the country like a cross. The Condor Mountain Range is its Golgotha. This is where Ecuacorriente operates. Although it is the Ecuadorian subsidiary of Canadian company Corriente Resources Inc., it is controlled by China Railway Construction Corporation and the Chinese group Tongling Nonferrous Metals. Corriente Resources Inc. also has as subsidiaries ExplorCobres S.A-EXSA, Hidrocruz S.A, PuertoCobre S.A. in Ecuador.

Photo: Diego Ayala León

The problem with tailing ponds, according to experts, is that the question is not of whether or not they will break, as in Mariana or Brumadinho, but rather when.

Mining at Mirador will last 30 years, and the contract guarantees its renewal. Production activities began in July 2019, seven years after the concession was signed. It will be done in the open air, a type of large-scale mining where exploitation is done top-down: Excavations of between 300 and 500 meters deep are done to extract minerals. For every ton of copper obtained, two tons of debris are removed, such as stones and sand, which end up in a tailings pond. Adan Guzman, professor of Mining at the Central University, in his tiny office full of mountains of thesis and books, explains that a tailings pond is a pool with drains at its base and which is waterproofed so that the substances it contains do not spill out. Mirador receives ground up debris to be reused in case it contains copper. The liquid waste from the water that comes from the soil, called leachates, also arrives there. A tailings pond grows gradually and can reach a height of 170 or 200 meters. The problem with tailing ponds, according to experts, is that the question is not of whether or not they will break, as in Mariana or Brumadinho, but rather when.


A series of phone calls was the only clue the Prosecutor’s Office had to point to Guido Yankur and Carlos Benito Unup as the possible culprits in Jose Tendetza’s death. In May 2016, both were acquitted for the murder.

When they were arrested, both were Ecuacorriente field workers. “Both are still working in the mining company,” says Alfonso Tendetza. On some occasions, when Alfonso has gone to Gualaquiza to sell ayampaco – a typical dish of river fish wrapped in bijao leaves and chopped onions, cooked on wood – he has seen Yankur and Unup, but knows nothing more about them. “Despite the fact that I looked for them insistently – in Tundayme, by phone, through their acquaintances – it was impossible to reach them.”

Vicente Romero, an inhabitant of Tundayme, testified in the criminal investigation and said that Yankur called him on November 29, 2014 to warn him that Jose Tendetza had been killed, although the news of Tendetza’s death did not break until three days later, when his body was found in the Zamora River. According to a report by the telephone operator, the call was made from Guido Yankur’s cellphone. Another witness, Angel Tsukanka, stated that Unup told him that Jose was tortured and killed by five people.

But Guido Yankur and Carlos Benito Unup defended themselves by saying that from November 21 to December 5, 2014, they were both at home on vacation for 15 days. Yankur in the community of Campana Etnsa; Unup in the Shuar community Jaime Narvaez. Yankur said that on the day of Jose Tendetza’s death, his wife was sick and a healer was caring for her. Unup said that during those 15 days of vacation, he was with his family, devoted to agriculture on his land.

The head, face, mouth, ears, nose, arms, legs, chest, abdomen and pelvis were all in a state of decay. The day before, Jorge –Jose Tendetza’s eldest son– arrived in Yantzaza to recognize the body. His other sons, the brothers and the Shuar leader’s mother also arrived. The result of the autopsy was asphyxiation by strangulation. The report also says that Jose’s body was introduced into the water when he was already dead. According to the expert study on his body, Tendetza was tied at the waist and neck to a tree or something large with a blue rope. Alfonso says that you could tell the rope was new.

The judge who resolved the court proceeding said that the investigation conducted by the Prosecutor’s Office into Jose Tendetza’s death had no direction and was ultimately inefficient.

Yankur said he did call Romero, but he did so on December 1, 2014. He did not warn him but asked him if it was true that the body found in the river was Jose Tendetza’s. According to the investigation of the Prosecutor’s Office, the chip from Carlos Benito Unup’s phone was inserted into Tendetza’s cellphone. From that same cellphone, Carlos Benito Unup allegedly called Fernando Israel Abad, Maximo Alcivar Tinitana Benitez and Guido Yankur on November 29. The judge who resolved the court proceeding said that the investigation conducted by the Prosecutor’s Office into Jose Tendetza’s death had no direction and was ultimately inefficient. As a result, both men’s innocence was reiterated.

The crime of Jose Tendentza’s murder remains unsolved. The Ecumenical Commission on Human Rights (CEDHU in Spanish), together with Tendetza’s family, presented a report on his case in July 2017 to the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights. In it, they explain the irregularities of the murder investigation. They say that the investigation by the Prosecutor’s Office was “deficient and rushed,” that what was being investigated was a crime of passion. Because Tendetza was separated from his wife and did not live with her. That report has yet to be read or analyzed by the IACHR, says Patricia Carrion, a lawyer with CEDHU.

What CEDHU’s lawyers also question is that during the investigations, neither the house nor the company’s camp where the suspects lived were raided.

What CEDHU’s lawyers also question is that during the investigations, neither the house nor the company’s camp where the suspects lived were raided. On the contrary, the authorities searched Jose Tendetza’s house in search of evidence. The case is also in the hands of the Truth and Justice Commission, which prepared the “Political Persecution, Never Again” report. This report was published in 2018 and analyzes all the cases of political persecution in Rafael Correa’s government against defenders of nature, human rights, freedom of expression and the people involved in the police revolt of September 30, 2019. However, the formal investigation into the murder of Jose Tendetza was closed: No one knows who killed him, and no one seems to want to find out.


Jose Tendetza was aware of his death. “Once, while drinking aguardiente, he said: ‘Someone is going to kill me,’” says Alfonso Tendetza, “but he said he was not afraid. He also said that he would go to another country to report the mining company’s activities. Jose was a dreamer.”

His disappearance and death prevented him from reaching the International Tribunal for the Rights of Nature in Lima, where he was to report the Mirador project. “Unfortunately, he got killed,” said Alfonso. The presentation Jose Tendetza was going to make was made by Luis Coral, another rights defender. Attorney Patricia Carrion from CEDHU said that Mirador is an emblematic case of environmental defense: It is the first large-scale mining project, “the largest, the one with the greatest impact and the greatest pollution and violation of nature’s rights,” she said. In the investigation of the murder of Jose Tendetza, the expert Roberto Narvaez ratified that the social conflict in the Condor Mountain Range is high due to the lack of recognition of the Shuar population’s rights over their ancestral territory.


Since the arrival of Ecuacorriente in Tundayme, chinese, shuar and mestizos live together in the region. Photography by Diego Ayala Leon..

The dump trucks pass quickly and disappear into the dust they raise. In the center of Tundayme, there are two- and three-story cement houses, freshly painted, some are advertised for sale in both Spanish and Chinese.

On the only main street, there are two chifas (restaurants serving Ecuadorian-Oriental gastronomy) and other restaurants. It is 11:00 AM on September 2, 2019. Delfa Placencia is mopping the entrance floor of one of the chifas. He has been working there for a year, he is paid his basic salary, and he says he has learned to prepare chaulafan and other Asian dishes.

“Our demands are in limbo, just like those Cascomi made”.

Manuel Sánchez.

Another resident of Tundayme, Maria, says that mining company Ecuacorriente gave her a scholarship to study business administration at a university in Cuenca, the largest city in Southern Ecuador. Maria says that she disagrees with the mining exploitation, but since she got the scholarship she has not attended the meetings against mining activities organized by Cascomi. Maria says her stepfather was one of those evicted from the San Marcos community, and who disappeared. That land is where the tailing pool is now, according to the Mirador project plan. “Our demands are in limbo, just like those Cascomi made,” says Manuel Sanchez.

For the razing of San Marcos, there was a protest march, which Maria attended. When company officials found it out, her scholarship was taken away. They gave it back to her with a warning: She had to support the mining activities.

—“I’m holding off on protests until I finish studying,” she says.

The mining company has more approval from the people when they secured the authorities as its allies.

Meanwhile, Cascomi continues to fight for the rights over its territory. The mining company has more approval from the people when they secured the authorities as its allies. Luis Urdiales is the new president of the Tundayme Parish Council since March 2019 and works very closely with the company. He has projects of public lighting for the parish, the renovation of the main park, the delivery of school kits and the promotion of enterprises for the people who support the mining. Urdiales said that the mining project has already been greenlit and very difficult to oppose.

In Ecuacorriente’s community relations offices in Tundayme, communicators Juan Ignacio Eguiguren and Hugo Jumbo responded that they cannot give interviews about Jose Tendetza’s case. By email, Dunia Armijos, community relations coordinator, responded that they cannot comment on Tendetza’s death because it has no bearing on their activities or responsibilities.


“It is time to say ‘enough’”.

José Tendetza.

One of Jose Tendetza’s latest graphic records is a video from December 2013. In the middle of an assembly, he tells the audience “It is time to say ‘enough’”, referring to Ecuacorriente’s mining activities in Tundayme. After his death, the national and international media showed a photo of his with a wide smile, which he probably never showed neither to Ecuacorriente employees nor to officials of the mining control agency.

Alfonso Tendetza says that after Jose’s death, nothing changed in Yanua Kim. Jorge –Jose’s son– left the community before his father died. Another of his sons would die months later. Maribel and Rosa Tendetza –Jose’s daughters– still live in their father’s block and tile roof house.

Photo: Diego Ayala León

Carlos Tendetza maintains that he is the new community and anti-mining leader, taking his murdered brother’s place after learning with him about laws and rights over their territory. “Carlos is not the leader of the community. All he does it’s for his personal interest, and that’s not a leader,” says his brother Alfonso. “Carlos travels to Quito and other places to ask for economic help for our mother, but he has not given her anything. He keeps everything in her name,” says the eldest of the Tendetza brothers.

Rosa Antun is sitting on her wooden house’s small balcony, the only ones that make a noise are two small, emaciated dogs that keep her company, some chickens eating corn under her house and a couple of ducks swimming around in a dirty lagoon with a rusty iron bridge over it, which is impossible to cross when it rains, and the lagoon grows. Rosa Antun is the mother of the Tendetza, with wrinkles on her forehead and around her mouth. She speaks in an almost incomprehensible mix of Shuar and Spanish. She has the geometrical traces of her nationality’s facial paintings on her cheekbones.

— “How can we forget,?” she says.

When her son told her that he would go to the meeting in Bomboiza, Antun told him not to go because he had no money. She always thought that on November 29, Jose was working the land. She asked for him at 4:00 PM and was told that he had not returned. At 6:00 PM, her son Alfonso came to ask about him. He had not returned still. People began to say that he was lost.

Rosa Antun, Jose Tendetza’s mother, lives alone in a wooden house. Photography by Diego Ayala Leon..


“And they still want me to support mining”.

Alfonso Tendetza.

Alfonso, the eldest Tendetza brother, walks with a machete in hand, wearing a blue shirt stained with mud and sweat. He says he has not taken ayahuasca in a long time, but in his dreams, he has also seen his murdered brother. “He doesn’t say anything to me, he is calm but sometimes he is in pain, because he didn’t die from an illness, his life was taken away.” He says that, although he has gone to the company to ask for work, they always refuse him. They tell him that they only give work to people who studied. But those people are from other provinces. “And they still want me to support mining,” says Alfonso.

At his house’s door, he has a wooden bench with a zinc roof burning under the Amazon sun. On the bench he has four heads of green bananas, each sold for one dollar. Alfonso says he tries to help his mother, but the money is not enough. When he was alive, Jose Tendetza would bring food or firewood to his mother.

Alfonso Tendetza points the private property signs the mining company put up around Yanua Kim. Photography by Diego Ayala Leon.

The mine destroys a community. Ultimately, the mine destroys a country. 

Carlos Tendetza says that it has been a long time since he has traveled to Quito or other places to meetings against mining, because he has no money. He says that even so, he remains firm in the struggle for his territory. He says the company offers progress, but only gives away matches, chickens, guinea pigs and candy bags. “That is a mockery for people who don’t know anything better,” he says. He says he will not be bought, no matter what they offer. According to Ecuacorriente, seven of Jose Tendetza’s relatives work for the company. In late September 2019, Ecuacorriente officials visited Yanua Kim to deliver cows. In a video, Alfonso Tendetza appears thanking the company for always supporting the community and says that the Shuar are the mining’s owners. The mine destroys the land. The mine destroys a family. The mine destroys a community. Ultimately, the mine destroys a country.

Tierra de Resistentes

Base de datos de Tierra de Resistentes

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