Father Juan de la Cruz is a Salesiano priest who has worked among the Shuar indigenous people in Ecuador’s southern Amazon for the last twenty three years. Born in the area, De la Cruz accompanied the Shuar when they fought for Ecuador against Peru in a border war in the 1990s. Today, he says he “cannot remain silent” as they fight against oil and mining multinationals that would threaten the health of their natural environment and which has strained relations between the Shuar and the government of President Rafael Correa.
De la Cruz calls a recent decision by Ecuador’s Communications Commission to revoke a Shuar radio station’s frequency “a grave error” and an effort to undermine their struggle against oil and mining interests. He says the radio ‘Voice of Arutam’ is the only station in the area “where you can talk about the potential impacts of multinational companies and the plunder of our territories.”
On December 17th 2009, the National Communications Commission (CONATEL) emitted a resolution deciding to cancel the contract for the frequency belonging to the ‘Voice of Arutam’ station. Broadcasting from the town of Sucua in the southern Amazonian province of Morona Santiago where the Interprovincial Shuar Federation (FISCH) has their office, they first began broadcasting in 1972 with support from Salesiano priests and with a focus on bilingual education. The FISCH represents about 120,000 Shuar in the southern Amazon. Arutam is the name of their spiritual guide.
CONATEL based its decision on statements broadcast live during interviews with Shuar leaders in the context of mobilizations which took place late last September. According to CONATEL, remarks broadcast on Radio Arutam incited the Shuar people to violence and contravened an article in the Radio and Television Law which prohibits “the promotion of physical or psychological violence using children, women, youth or elderly people, or that provides incentive for, carries out or motivates racism, sale of sex, pornography, consumption of drugs, religious or political intolerance and other analogous acts that affect the dignity of human beings.”
Protests in September took place across the country in opposition to proposed water and education laws. The Shuar were also protesting proposed oil and mining projects in the province of Morona Santiago. The Shuar have long opposed the presence of US oil interests including ARCO and Burlington Resources, as well as mining companies such as Vancouver-based Corriente Resources which recently announced its sale to a Chinese joint venture between the Tongling Nonferrous Metals Group Holdings Co. Ltd. and the China Railway Construction Corporation. The Shuar propose that the province of Morona Santiago be declared “ecological” and that Corriente immediately leave the area, that all mining concessions be annulled, and that indigenous territorial circumscription be made effective.
During police attempts to dislodge Shuar road blockades near the city of Macas, one Shuar bilingual teacher, Bosco Wisum, was shot and killed and over twenty police reportedly wounded.
President Rafael Correa commended CONATEL’s decision during a national radio address in late December saying that “Radio Arutam called for violence during the latest indigenous uprising, telling people to come out with their lances laced with venom, and this cost us a death. How many more deaths have to take place before certain community media are held responsible?”
Lawyer Mario Melo, an advisor to the Pachamama Foundation in Quito which accompanies indigenous organizations in the Ecuadorian Amazon, challenges the legal basis of the decision to close Radio Arutam. He asks why the investigation targeted the radio station rather than the individuals who made the remarks. Furthermore, he questions the quality of the “extrajudicial” translation, which he says fails to consider how “the Shuar language, like many others, incorporates metaphoricial expressions in everyday speech and that has to be understood in context.” He draws a comparison with a soccer player being interviewed on a sports program who says their team will “play to the death” in an upcoming game being literally interpreted as inciting his team to violence.
On Monday, the commission established to investigate the circumstances leading to Bosco Wisum’s death also published a critical response to CONATEL’s decision. They observed that the recordings upon which CONATEL has based its decision were made by third parties, are of only a few minutes in length and that their authenticity cannot be verified. They add that two translations of the available tape differ significantly from each other and that based on the available information “it is not possible to determine whether or not the editorial line of the radio station has promoted violence.” The commission urges the ordinary justice system to consider the available evidence to see whether or not it might implicate those who made the remarks.
The Interprovincial Shuar Federation (FISCH) has appealed CONATEL’s decision. The results of its first appeal upheld the communication commission’s decision last week. Now, the FISCH await a further pronouncement from the Constitutional Court of Pichincha, anticipated this week. Should CONATEL’s decision not be overturned, the national indigenous movement led by the Confederation of Indigenous Nationalities of Ecuador (CONAIE) has threatened the government with further mobilizations. FISCH has said that they will make a decision about what to do during their annual assembly in coming days.
From the point of view of Father Juan de la Cruz, “The radio station has never been subversive.” He concurs that individuals who may have made inappropriate remarks be investigated, but that the entire station should not be held responsible.
Considering what other local radio stations were broadcasting in late September, he further recalls an “extraordinarily racist and violent radio program” intended “to denigrate the Shuar people.” He says a radio spot was produced to to pressure the Shuar to abandon their road blockades without consideration for what motivated their protests and was stunned by the manner in which they tried to “undermine, ridicule, and maliciously criticize” them.
Furthermore, for Father Juan, the radio station has become “part of the identity of the Shuar people” and an essential part of daily life as a means of transmitting messages between remote communities.
Challenging insinuations that the Shuar seek to undermine national interests, he believes, on the contrary, that “[Radio Arutam] has served to forge the Ecuadorian nationality and to help the voice of the Ecuadorian people be heard through the Shuar people, even beyond our borders.” In recent years, the radio station has amplified its signal through the installation of repeater towers that allow it to reach the entire southern Ecuadorian Amazon and parts of northern Peru. In the near future, it had plans to increase coverage toward the north as well.
“The radio station has always supported the spirit of our peoples and their organization, so to take the radio away from them is to take away their voice and a strength that they have,” concludes De la Cruz. For this reason and given their critical stance in the face of future oil and copper and gold mining, he sees multinationals at work behind CONATEL’s decision since they will be among the first to benefit.
The ‘Voice of Arutam’ continues to broadcast, pending implementation of a final decision.