PHOTOGRAPHER’S JOURNAL - LIZ WEYDT
Many of the photos used in the film Under Rich Earth were taken by German photographer Liz Weydt. Liz was a journalism student who by chance was in the village of Junin during the most dramatic events of early December 2006. An excerpt from her journal is reproduced below along with some of her photos.
Photographer Liz Weydt in Junin, December 2006. Photo: Robinson Guachagmira
I just called Germany. Ascendant Copper lost its satellite phone and somebody found it stuck in the ground near the church.
“Hey Mum, you know what’s funny? I am somewhere in the rainforest… with some paramilitaries.”
I guess this was not the best idea. She didn’t get the fun part: The phone call probably costs about $100 per minute. The company is paying for it.
I feel totally safe in this totally surreal situation. Surreal - at least that’s how it feels to me. It is just as surreal that it feels like I’m in a story that someone is making up as we go along. Make believe stories almost always have a happy ending. And I think I know which side is the good side— I am with the people from the good side, so I will be fine. But I am not really on the good side. I am just spending this dramatic week with them. I am watching them like a casual bystander; and admiring them too. People here are so strong of spirit. Some are idiots, sure: they just want to fight and have some action. But there are always going to be some idiots.
The last few days were too confusing and too much was going on. Now I can write some things down…
I’m here at “el control” (the checkpoint set up by the community at the entrance to the village) waiting for the electric current to come back so we can recharge batteries for the cameras.
I jot down some notes, so I won’t get confused with the tide of events…
Saturday: Helen and I want to leave Junin. We want to go back to Apuela and to our kids in school. It’s very early in the morning and still dark because we have to walk quite a while to reach the bus stop. Olga, the woman who runs the eco-lodge, tells us not to leave.
“Problemas! La mineria!” she tells us.
It turns out that during the night they caught twenty-five men with machetes in the woods and there might be more roaming around. Down at the village church, the villagers are questioning the intruders. The atmosphere is tense. The strange men say that they thought they were going to take a course in environmental education near Quito in preparation for a job. Now they are here in Junin and don’t know anything about what’s going on. Oh yeah, sure. How cynical—an ‘environmental course!’ Meanwhile, they are actually here to make the people in Junin lose their nerves.
Bolivio almost has. He is furious about the men’s outrageous lies and has to be kept from possibly hurting them. He has been fighting for years to save his native soil from being torn open and contaminated—fighting against misinformation and false promises. He must be so exhausted. And now the seemingly omnipotent company people have found yet another filthy method to undermine his and his people’s good humour: they sent twenty-five strangers to be dealt with. Maybe the mining company (“la mineria”) hoped somebody in Junin would loose his temper and harm the strangers. This fight is so unfair.
A rumour is spreading about more armed men arriving in pick-ups. We hurry up to “el control,” the checkpoint where Junin defends its land, honour and livelihood. Nothing less. A very symbolic chain is suspended across the dirt road.
“We will fight till death!” I hear some say. I don’t know whether I should laugh or not as I can’t really take it seriously. “Till death!” What solemn words! Along this ridge, standing in front of this very symbolic chain, I sense that something’s about to happen, something serious. I see people hiding… guns, machetes. I am looking for a good position to take pictures for evidence. Helen is perched on the top of the hill with the camcorder. I am further down by the road, almost standing at the chain. Pick-up trucks are coming ascending the winding road. There are men with guns. I hold my breath. I can’t remember what was on my mind. I make eye contact with one of the men, the big dark one. I think to myself, they won’t do anything with the camera aimed at them. But suddenly I hear shouting, screaming, gunshots, gas. I don’t really see what’s happening. I just think in pictures. It doesn’t take long. Some minutes? Seconds?
After the tumult has subsided, I hear more screaming and accusations. After a time, the men and their pick-ups turn around. Three idiots from down in Junin come running up the road and want to throw themselves into the already settled situation (one of these men changed sides afterwards, I heard later). The wise women hold back the young men. I call them the wise women. Women here are the strong characters—they fight with their heart, soul and mind. You can feel that the women are the foundation of the group’s power. Marcia is the young lady in rubber boots. Sure, everybody is wearing rubber boots, but Marcia looks like she is supposed to wear high heels in an important office. She is very smart and brave. She has loud arguments with the armed men, with the police and with anybody who still thinks that the mining company will bring them wealth. Right now, she looks like a warrior defending her country against barbarians.
Los mineros disappear down the road. I don’t really understand what just has happened. Why does it take so long for the police to arrive?
Now, along comes Padre Julian with his fancy shoes for the Saturday church service. But the church has been taken over by the twenty-five detained strangers. So Padre Julian is holding the most bizarre and beautiful affair I ever attended: an open air mass, on the hill in front of the control post, surrounded by the rich green rainforest. There’s a table, a shining white cloth, a candle and his crucifix. In this authentic and quiet moment, Junin was rebuilding its spirit. It was as if they knew there was a lot more to be prepared for in the following days.
I stopped writing at that point. I can’t remember why. Now, almost two years later, I remember pictures, glimpses, quotations and machetes. I remember big pots of beans and yuca, the slaughter of a pig to feed all the people that came from the surrounding villages to support Junin.
I remember hiking up the mountain with hundred men who disarmed the paramilitaries. I remember the witty and smart people.
“Stick to the plan! We are not guerillas here!”
I remember guitar music and dancing at night while another forty newly arrived and really sour looking men were kept in the church. I remember hostages, pictures smuggled to a newspaper, people talking on cell phones and walkie-talkies.
“¿Junin, me escucha?”
I remember a sense of extreme agitation. There were more rumours about high-level government officials and ministers coming to Junin; and a rumour that the Mayor and his entourage were attacked while trying to come to Junin. And there was always the question: How can this be? Why are they allowed to do that? How can they send paramilitaries? Lay siege to Junin? Take hostages? Attack important politicians and in the end: obtain land by fraud? Why isn’t anybody doing anything? Where are the police? Where is the government? The international organisations? Hello? Is there anybody out there?
And then there was the other question that came up every morning: Will it be over today? Can we go home? When can I put on clean clothes?
I felt so secure amongst those people – and at the same time, so alien. They fought for their freedom to live their lives the way they wanted; whereas I wanted a shower. Overstrain syndrome. As a matter of fact, being German I am suspicious of collective fighting spirits equal for what. But most of the ecologistas—especially those who had something to say—were pleasingly reflective. There was no ideology here except for the love of their green homeland.
“We didn’t bring our machetes to start a fight…” I remember Bolivios saying up on the mountain in his speech before the encounter with the paramilitaries. “We are here to defend our land and our values.“
Perhaps in a country like Ecuador, you need machetes to do so.
Looking back, I admire them even more: their energy, their heart and soul. Being there as an observer, I tried not to take sides. I guess that in the end, I did anyway. A week after all the drama in Junin, my four month stay in Ecuador was over.
The first night in Germany I woke up lying next to my boyfriend. Who is that? What does he want? Minero o ecologista? Minero o ecologista…?
A resident of Intag, Liz Weydt (middle), and Helen Wefers (right) resting near Junin’s civilian “control post,” December 2006. Helen shot the dramatic footage of the confrontation with paramilitaries at El Copo in the mountains near Junin.