The Awá people are an indigenous group native to the mountainous regions of northern Ecuador and southern Colombia. Theirs is one of the closest indigenous territories to the threatened Los Cedros Protected Forest. Since their official recognition by the Ecuadorian government in the 1980s, the Awá have been outspoken and politically engaged. Their position on the Colombian border, however, has put them in harm’s way: in 2009, more than two dozen Awá, including women and children, were massacred in the conflict between FARC and the Colombian army in the southern Colombian province of Nariño. And more recently, an oil spill in Colombian Awá territory destroyed an entire community.
When the Ecuadorian government decided to push for mining expansion, the Awá saw 70% of their lands included in mining concessions. Though many of these concessions have been “unofficially” relinquished, mining companies are still visiting and trying to influence smaller villages, and prospecting has begun in the bordering protected forest of Cerro Golondrinas Reserve, within which are the headwater of major rivers upon which the Awá rely. This protected forest is run collectively by the surrounding communities, and the majority of the Reserve is currently under mining concession.
Awá people have publicly and repeatedly voiced that they are against mining in their territory. However, because of the lack of economic opportunities, some in the community seek work in the nearby illegal mines of Buenos Aires, one of the most heavily contested mining sites in Ecuador. Widespread corruption, lack of oversight, and the involvement of organized crime makes this an extremely dangerous place to work, forcing many Awá to choose between their own safety and the ability to feed their families.