|Ecuador Anti-Mining Blockades Met With Repression, National Mobilization Called for January 20|
|Written by Daniel Denvir, Photographs by Ximena Warnaars|
|Friday, 09 January 2009 06:34|
The ongoing conflict over mining in Ecuador escalated this week as blockades shut down highways throughout the country's Southern Andean highlands and Amazon rainforest, while nationwide protests have been called for January 20.
The government of President Rafael Correa has assumed an aggressive posture, insulting indigenous and environmental activists and pledging to secure approval for a controversial new Mining Law. Canadian companies hold the majority of mining concessions in Ecuador and are pressing for a new law that would allow for large-scale, open pit metal mining.
A number of leaders have been arrested and other protesters were beaten and shot at by police. Campesino and indigenous protesters, who depend on clean water to farm and for drinking water, are demanding that the government shelve President Rafael Correa's proposed Mining Law, saying that it would be a social and environmental disaster. The rural blockades follow months of regular protests in Quito and other parts of the country.
Protesters also argue that the law contradicts important provisions of the new constitution protecting water, the environment and indigenous peoples' rights. The document drew international attention for awarding legal rights to nature. The new constitution, approved by popular referendum in September, is the centerpiece of Correa's first term.
After emergency meetings on January 7, the Confederation of Indigenous Nationalities of Ecuador (CONAIE) called for a national mobilization on January 20, calling the government "dictatorial." It is unclear whether the January 20 mobilization will spread road blockades to other provinces in central and northern Ecuador. Protesters are demanding a dialogue with central government leaders and for a broad national discussion on mining before any legislation is passed.
Some protesters in the Southern provinces of Zamora Chinchipe and Morona Santiago suspended their blockades for 24 hours in response to the provincial governor's promise to reach out to Francisco Cordero, the President of the Congresillo, Ecuador's interim legislature. Other blockades were suspended in anticipation of the nationwide actions.
The blockades began on Monday January 5 in the Southern province of Azuay, cutting off much of the traffic into and out of Cuenca, Ecuador's third largest city. Over the next few days, the protests spread to the neighboring Andean province of Loja and to the Amazonian provinces of Zamora Chinchipe and Morona Santiago.
In Giron, Molleturo, Tarqui (Azuay), Limon Indanza (Morona Santiago) and in El Pangui (Zamora Chinchipe) protestors have been beaten or shot by police. Police officials and journalists were released after being briefly detained by campesinos.
On January 6, campesino leader Vicente Zhunio Samaniego was arrested in the Southern province of Morona Santiago, showing up 16 hours later in a hospital with bullet wounds to the head. On January 7, protest leader Miguel Ángel Criollo and his son Orlando were arrested in an early morning raid on the village of Pueblo Nuevo in Azuay province. The newspaper El Universo reports that over fifty police officers from the Special Operations Group (GOE) took part in the raid. When villagers tried to defend the Criollos from arrest, police fired tear gas, forcing the evacuation of a local school.
In the city of Cuenca, police violently repressed protests at the Court of Justice. As six leaders began a hunger strike inside the building, the police attacked a press conference taking place outside the building, arresting Water Board leader Carlos Pérez Guartambel. Police used tear gas to disperse protesters attempting to defend Pérez. Police then forced hunger strikers and four women supporting them out of the Court building, dragging them by their necks. The governor of Azuay denied that Pérez was arrested, and he was freed later that day. The six hunger strikers are now in Cuenca's San Roque Church.
According to the newspaper El Comercio, Minister of Mines and Petroleum Derlis Palacios said that the government would push forward with the Mining Law. Palacios said that Ecuador "was a poor country that could not afford to just sit on these large resources." He added that protests were the result of manipulation by indigenous leaders who mislead community members by claiming that mining would harm their access to clean water. Palacios said that the new law would ensure that water sources are protected. Congresillo President Cordero told El Comercio that protesters were using the demonstrations to advance electoral ambitions.
The CONAIE condemned the government's description of protesters as "criminals and subversive terrorists," saying that "the only thing we are fighting for is life and dignity for all of Ecuador's citizens." The CONAIE that such comments are aimed "to stigmatize [protesters] and prepare public opinion for even more severe repression."
Correa is coming into increasing conflict with social and indigenous movement activists. On Thursday January 8, the United Labor Front (FUT), Ecuador's largest labor federation, announced mass protests for a higher minimum wage increase for January 15. They say that Correa's proposed increase of $18 a month, to $218, is a step back and fails to meet provisions in the new constitution ensuring that all Ecuadorians are paid a living wage.
Ximena Warnaars is an anthropologist and PhD student from the University of Manchester, UK living in Cuenca, Ecuador. Daniel Denvir is a Quito, Ecuador based journalist in the process of moving to Philadelphia, and a 2008 recipient of NACLA's Samuel Chavkin Investigative Journalism Grant. He is an editor at www.caterwaulqu