When the residents of Junín, Ecuador declare that copper mining will begin only "over my dead body", I get the sense they mean it. Never have I personally known a more determined and dedicated group of people. Aside from everyday acts of resistance to Ascendant Copper Corporation and its locally hired cronies, the people of Junín and surrounding communities of Intag imperiled by the proposed mine repeatedly use formidable acts to demonstrate their discontent and opposition to mining projects.
The first act, directed against the company Bishi Metals, occurred on May 15, 1997 when almost 300 people burned down the mining camp located in the Junín community reserve. More recently, on December 10, 2005, roughly 250-300 people engaged in a similar act when they burned down one of Ascendant’s buildings located at the company’s experimental farm. This act of resistance was the result of a unanimous vote held at a community meeting prior to the action. Having been in the community less than four months before the occurrence, the news surprised me. I knew the potential for dramatic action existed, but what happened since I left Junín in early September to necessitate it?
After some initial reflection, I realized I was hardly surprised by the magnitude of the communities’ response to the repeated unwelcome incursions, threats and intimidations of Ascendant. My feelings suddenly changed from shock and confusion to fear and concern. While the two isolated incidents seemed fairly similar superficially, there are two important elements that change the nature and the impact of the act. First, the property burned on December 10 was more publicly noticeable than the Bishi mining camp. Ascendant has toted the farm as a pillar of community development, allegedly offering education, day care, and health services. Additionally, unlike the Bishi camp, it resided in the nearby town of Chalguayaco Bajo rather than on Junín community property. This time, the authorities were much more likely to be involved. Furthermore, Ascendant as a corporation routinely engages in coercion, intimidation and dirty politics in the area. From experience, I knew Ascendant would not allow this act of resistance to go unchecked.
I spent almost a month living in Junín during the months of August and September of 2005 as part of the fourth round of international human rights observers invited to the area. At the end of 2004, the residents of Junín requested the presence of human rights observers to document the repeated acts of assault and intimidation as well as the unethical practices Ascendant Copper Corporation routinely uses to generate "support" for mining and discredit the resistance. At a community meeting, the residents voted to construct a blockade of the only road in and out of town, allowing them the ability to determine access to Junín. El control, as it is called, is situated at the house of one of Junín’s most respected residents and steadfast mining opponents, Rosario Piedra. After the construction of el control, numerous confrontations occurred between mining vehicles and community members, where the miners demanded passage and the people steadfastly refused, using antagonizing language such as ni un paso más a los mineros (not another step for the miners), la minería no se permitirá (mining will not be permitted), and sobre mi cadáver (over my dead body). When these confrontations continued with repeating escalation, the people of Junín decided to utilize the international network of people in solidarity with the anti-mining struggle to their advantage. The first observers arrived in February 2005.
By the time I arrived in August, the presence of international observers had effected the environment; everyone knew there were gringos and internacionales living in Junín. This presence benefited the community in several ways. First, there were no more attempted incursions on the part of the miners. Second, an international presence in the community expanded an already international movement—for years national and international attention came to Junín in the form of journalists, tourists, and filmmakers. Third, the escalating violence of the conflict between the pro- and anti-mining forces had tapered off, at least superficially. Unfortunately, tensions now manifested in more covert ways, akin to the low-intensity warfare found in other regions of Latin America (for instance in Chiapas). The mining company began using police officers as vehicles for intimidation—Ecuador is a notoriously corrupt country where most officials can be bought through money or promises. After the first set of observers left the area, the police came on a "routine inspection" (laughable given the geography of the area and the veritable absence of any police presence) and asked for the two observers by name. Apparently, the mining officials asked the authorities to inspect their visas and possibly arrest them; fortunately they had already left. In a second example, one of the leading anti-mining community activists, Polibio Perez, was stopped on his motorbike, detained for a period of time, questioned thoroughly, then told his bike was not legally registered and he was subsequently unable to use it until further notice. This transportation embargo had a significant impact on a person who lives in a very rural, hard to reach area and constantly travels to meetings and organizing activities. There was no doubt about the intention of the sudden illegality of his transportation and complication of his mobility.
However, things were relatively quiet once I arrived in Junín. My confrontations with the miners and the underlying tensions were almost never direct, but always provocative. On two occasions I was called to el control by motorola (walkie talkies, the primary means of communication) when a truckload full of miners was spotted ascending the road. Part of my job as an observer was to visually document any confrontation that may occur. On these two occasions I loaded the video camera and made the 20-minute trek to el control to discover the miners stopped at a lower location. The miners had been listening to the motorola conversations as a way of discovering the movements of key community players and observers, therefore we had no way of knowing whether the miners intended to come to the checkpoint or they were merely gauging our response time. However, rather than allowing the unintended eavesdropping to discourage the use of the motorolas as means of communicating, organizing, and mobilizing (as it was surely intended), the community members began using hourly check-ins to trash talk. The material they produced was actually quite comical, at least to us. Eventually, the miners began to penetrate the community reserve through other, less noticeable passageways. We concluded the trucks just mentioned could have been diversionary tactics to allow other groups of miners to enter the reserve unnoticed.
Ascendant developed a fairly sophisticated method of gaining respect and leverage in the communities by offering to buy land from people for astronomical sums, especially for poor farmers in a rural area. Company representatives utilized a divide and conquer strategy, and approached people known to be only moderately or indirectly associated with the mining resistance. Aside from offering to purchase land, they paid people to speak to other community members about the benefits of mining and economic development, the advantages of selling land to Ascendant, and to discredit the resistance and community leaders. At one point it was rumored that Polibio was selling his land to Ascendant, and company representatives used this opportunity to convince people of the futility of continuing the struggle since the leader abandoned it. Additionally, Ascendant chose its lands to purchase rather strategically; they were using acquired lands to enter the reserve illegally and undetected. Daily patrols through the reserve saw footprints and other signs of miner’s work. This illegal entrance—the reserve is legally Junín community property—occurred at least four times during the month I was there.
The most direct confrontation I witnessed as an observer exemplifies the underhanded and covert nature of Ascendant operations in Junín. One night, an unknown woman arrived at the community and asked to stay in the tourist cabañas where the observers and other tourists stayed. Usually, people who stay in Junín are either invited guests or registered tour groups—their arrival is typically prefaced by a phone call, written note or oral message. Olga, the caretaker of the cabañas, was immediately suspicious and warned me not to say too much. I, however, was quite taken aback. The journey to Junín is neither short not easy, and it was hard for me to imagine that someone would come who didn’t want to be there for the scenery or remote atmosphere. Additionally, since very few people came to Junín, it was always nice to chat with someone new. The woman introduced herself as Betty Sevilla, a freelance journalist from Quito, and we began a warm conversation about traveling, culture, and ecotourism. Eventually, her questions became more direct; she wanted to know about Junín, specifically the anti-mining movements, levels of organization, and the role of women in the community, as well as actions of Ascendant, and the place of the observers. As these questions made me uncomfortable, I offered only vague, nonspecific answers combined with many "I don’t knows" until eventually enough people were around and she ceased probing me. The next day I was on my way to a neighboring community— Chalguayaco Bajo, where the Ascendant building was burned—to see Polibio, and I accepted a ride from Betty since it was on her way back to Quito. As I left the car and thanked her for the ride, she asked me for my last name.
When I arrived at Polibio’s house I promptly told him of the entire experience. He became agitated, made several phone calls, and assured me that she was an Ascendant spy sent to gather information about the community and the international observers. Olga’s suspicions were right. I later learned she traveled to several communities resisting the mining project, asking similar questions. Additionally, a friend and anti-mining activist who runs the local newspaper encountered her and confronted her, at which point she left the area. These actions typify the involvement of Ascendant in dividing communities and intimidating leaders, and are only the tip of the iceberg.
Just prior to my arrival in Junín, Ascendant president Gary Davis was in Intag. He sought a private meeting with Polibio Perez, but Polibio refused to meet unless all community presidents were present. He had enough experience with Ascendant to know that if he met one on one with Davis with no witnesses, the paid community informants would claim he had sold out. Davis declined to meet on Polibio’s terms. However, he arrived unexpectedly at Polibio’s house the next day while a British documentary crew was interviewing Polibio, and when Polibio invited him in for a conversation in front of the film crew he could hardly decline. Therefore, the entire discussion was filmed. Polibio asked Davis very direct and specific questions about Ascendant’s intentions in Intag, their commitment to the environment and the people of the affected communities, economic and structural development, job expectations, and the law. For the most part, Davis avoided very confrontational questions and dictated the strict company line—the company will bring jobs, education, infrastructure, medicine and wealth to an impoverished and rural area. Polibio asked him if the company will respect the wishes of the communities, to which Davis replied yes. Polibio then stated that the communities are staunchly against the mining project, therefore the company should leave.
Understandably, the anti-mining movement was pleased; Davis was recorded explicitly saying he would respect the wishes of the communities. Many felt this recording would positively impact the mining resistance, necessitating that Davis and Ascendant discontinue their intimidation campaign. Others, however, were not so optimistic. The promise of triumph was overshadowed by the following discourse. After Polibio’s challenge, Davis responded that another company will develop the mine if Ascendant leaves, and therefore the company and communities should work together to create a symbiotic relationship. For Davis this was business as usual. His promise of respect became another in a long line of broken promises and unsubstantiated claims of progress and ethics. This sort of uncompromising and pejorative stance by Ascendant fostered the events of December 10. The people of Junín want Ascendant to know the mining project will not succeed without community support, and the people are organized and ready to defend their community, environment, and way of life by whatever means necessary.
Nicole Pacino is a graduate student at the University of California Santa Barbara’s Latin American and Iberian Studies Program. She was a human rights observer in Ecuador with the Intag Solidarity Network and will be traveling back to Intag this summer. Nicole can be reached at npacino(at)backpacker.com.
For more information about the mining conflict in Ecuador:
DECOIN (defensa y conservacion ecologica de intag)
Intag Solidarity Network: www.intagsolidarity.org
Friends of the Earth Canada: www.foecanada.org
Mining Watch Canada: www.miningwatch.ca/index.php?/Ecuador_en
Ascendant Copper: www.ascendantcopper.com