An official government site reveals that the Correa government plans on investing $180,000 on “social and environmental studies” during 2010 to determine the feasibility of the Junin copper deposit. The study would be the first step for the newly-created national mining company to try to reactivate a mining project which has resulted in two transnational mining companies being defeated by Intag’s communities and organizations. Now the stage is being set for possible confrontations between communities and local governments pitted against the national government and its national mining company.
The Junin large-scale copper mining project, located in some of the world’s most threatened and biodiverse forests1, has also given rise to innumerable human rights violations and illegalities. These include; land invasions; severe social conflicts; violent confrontations; use of paramilitary forces against communities; criminalization of leaders of the opposition; and outrageous abuse of the nation’s judicial system. The net result, even though the mine was never opened, has been tragic social upheaval, deeply divided communities and families, and a sense of uncertainty and insecurity. The newly proposed government plan comes at a time when the divisions were starting to heal. It is worth highlighting that all the human rights abuses and social havoc and upheaval took place in spite of the fact that the mining company was unable to even access its concessions to finish exploratory activities due to widespread local opposition.
The threat of the mine also mobilized Intag’s communities and organizations to successfully- and peacefully- reject the presence of the mining companies and the model of development they stand for. The anti-mining movement in Intag is responsible for developing novel ways of opposing these kinds of extractive projects; including creating economic alternatives to mining, taking the company and the Toronto Stock Exchange to court in Canada, and having the company delisted from the stock exchange2. In the process, a saner community-based and sustainable model of livelihood for our area has emerged. That model is now, again, at risk.
In this context, it is imperative for the world to know a few more facts about the government’s plan to exploit Intag’s copper resources, which people in and out of Intag feel is unconstitutional, and what is at stake.
Democracy in Inaction
First, the communities and local governments of Intag and Cotacachi County (where the mine is located) have repeatedly expressed their rejection to the mining project. They have done so in legally recognized, democratic and participatory venues since 1996, such as the annual County Assembly for Unity, dozens of community assemblies, and yearly Township Government assemblies. The County Assemblies are spaces where hundreds of representatives from all of the County’s communities, local governments and organizations meet for several days to set policy for the local government. The annual Township Government assemblies have similar ends (these governments are similar to very small municipalities), and are attended by residents from the different communities within the Township (Junta Parroquiales). In addition, at the last Intag Assembly, held in May 2006, hundreds of representatives from Intag’s communities and organizations, alongside with the legally elected representatives from all of the seven Intag’s Township Governments soundly rejected the presence of mining companies, and demanded their expulsion from our territory.
In not a single one of these democratic settings has there been support for mining development.
And now, the Correa administration, which portrays itself as being on the vanguard of the Socialism of the 21st Century and spends millions on promoting itself as the government of the "Citizens' Revolution", plans to impose this very destructive project on Intag’s communities and local governments. If successful, the government’s plans could easily reactivate the social conflicts that have wreaked so much damage in our communities. In addition, the government’s plans expose its affinity for concentrating power at the executive branch, while illustrating an appalling lack of concern for the local development plans that have been years in the making, and which have been drawn up with widespread community participation.
There is a reason why Intag’s communities have been successful at defeating two transnational mining corporations. We know, based on the only environmental impact study3 prepared for the relatively small open-pit copper mine, that it would cause so many social and environmental impacts, as to render this spectacularly beautiful and biodiverse area unlivable - for generations.
Some of the social and environmental impacts identified in the environmental impact study include:
a) Impacts to the Cotacachi-Cayapas Wilderness Area (one of the world’s most biodiverse)
b) “Massive deforestation” (exact term used in the study)
c) Impacts to the local climate, leading to desertification (the term is used in the study)
d) Impacts to dozen of endangered species of mammals (brown-faced spider monkeys, spectacled bears, Jaguars) and many other endangered animals and plants
e) Contamination of rivers and streams with lead, arsenic, cadmium and chromium.
f) Relocation of 100 families from four communities
g) Increase in crime
After the Environmental Impact Study was published by Bishimetals, the Japanese company in charge of exploration during the 1990's, it discovered four times more copper than the amount used to base the impacts on. In other words, the real impacts will be much, much greater than previously estimated, and will affect several other communities.
The study did not delve into the social impacts associated with the forced relocation of communities, or its impacts on the social fiber of the whole region. Nor did it project what the impact of a dryer environment would have on the thousands of small farmers that depend on the rain to grow crops. It also did not asses the impacts the mine may have on women; nor on collective and individual human rights. Needless to say, the study also failed to analyze the Resource Curse, or the well-known negative impact large-scale mining has on a country’s economy when it depends on mineral exports.
Furthermore, given that the Japanese did not discuss or analyze the impacts arising from acid mine drainage, a natural and long-lasting environmental impact common to copper ore rich in sulfur- such as Junin’s- the probable impacts identified will pale to what they will actually be if the country allows this mine to open. Some mines leaking heavy metals into the environment as a consequence of acid-mine drainage are still contaminating rivers and streams thousands of years after closure of the mines. In fact, after more than 15 years of investigation on the social and environmental impacts of large-scale mining, I’ve come to the conclusion that the climatic, geological and ecological conditions in the Junín area are such that if this mining project is allowed to go ahead, it could be the most devastating of all the world’s mining projects.
Then why would the government permit this to happen? In the case of Ecuador, and in very general terms, it’s mainly because the government has been sold on the simplistic idea that copper equals money to spend on social programs. This is a nation that has lived off, and squandered, most of its petroleum riches for the past three and half decades. Thirty-five years later, Ecuadorians are not much better off economically, but many of its rivers on the Amazon are contaminated, many indigenous groups have been culturally devastated, and cancer is rampant. Petroleum is running out, and instead of developing and supporting economic sectors that will not sicken its population and degrade or destroy its ethnic richness and the environment, the present government is poised to repeat this mega tragedy with mining.
On the other hand, this folly reflects the folly of other governments, such as allowing destructive off-shore oil platforms to bore holes into the ocean floor. Ecuador’s policies, like most of the world’s nations, are a product of the enormous pressures from very powerful mining, petroleum and gas industries, and the rich governments they are based in. It is, at heart, a failure of the ability to envision another type of development, as well as the lack of political will to stand up to the pressures. In the case of Ecuador, a mega diverse country in terms of cultures and biodiversity, it is madness to insist on opening up the country to large-scale mining development.
Ecuador is the only Andean nation free of large-scale metallic mines. The country has other, much better alternatives based on the sustainable use of renewable resources, such as rural and ecological tourism. This tiny country produces some of the best cacao and coffee in the world, and has more orchids and hummingbird species than even Brazil, a country 32 times Ecuador’s size. This nation simply does not need mining to sustain its economy.
If the government chooses to impose mining on Intag, it may very well become the third time Intag’s communities stop mining interests from devastating their social and environmental well-being (a right, by the way, guaranteed under the present “progressive” Constitution). But one wonders at the social and political costs it might entail. The costs of the last two victories, but specially the more recent one against Copper Mesa Mining Corporation in 2008, were very steep. These externalities- or social and environmental factors normally not taken into consideration at the time of figuring out the cost-benefits of these kinds of projects- can no longer be ignored.
Based on disastrous environmental impacts and human rights abuses associated with partnerships between private and state-owned mining companies in large-scale mining projects overseas- such as the gold and copper mines of Papua New Guinea and Indonesia- combined with Correa’s autocratic top-down governance, it is very difficult to see how Ecuador’s new era of state-owned mining will calm the fears that campesinos and indigenous communities harbor. It doesn’t help that Ecuador’s state-owned petroleum company has an appalling environmental record. But more troubling is the fact that given that mineral resources enjoy the category of strategic importance in Ecuador’s progressive Constitution, there is a much greater chance that the nation’s armed forces will be used to defend the mines.
There are many questions surrounding the presence of the national mining company in projects such as Junin’s. For example, will the government choose to uphold human and collective rights over the need to fund its budget from mining rents? How will the state regulate itself? How will the so-called progressive Ecuadorian government fix a price on the disruption of communities; violation of human rights; the costs of abandoned farms and reduction of food production? Can affected individuals ever be compensated for the psychological impacts of losing the social support of one’s community?
Will the Correa government objectively asses the implications of the destruction of a sustainable, community-based development emerging in Intag? Or, will the government of the "Citizens' Revolution" be able to correctly value the millions of dollars worth of ecosystem services annually produced by our primary cloud forests, paramos, rivers and streams? How will they compute the costs of degrading the habitat of Jaguars, the critically endangered Brown-headed spider monkey, or that of the Plate-billed Mountain Toucan? How will they figure out the long-term economic impacts of disrupting Intag’s very fragile climatic equilibrium? Will they be able to- or want to- set a realistic value on the health and other impacts of heavy metal contamination downstream from the mine? Is it even possible to seriously talk about restoration of habitats that will continue to be contaminated thousands of years after the mines are shut down? How about the costs associated with the environmental refugees fleeing a drier Intag? And then, what economic formula will they use to assign a dollar value to the destruction of an area’s enormous ecotourism potential, or the real costs of destroying watersheds and therefore voiding the possibility of using the rivers to generate hydroelectricity in perpetuity?
These are some of the uncomfortable subjects (the externalities) that mining companies hate to talk about, and go out of their way to ignore or only pay lip-service to; whether they are private corporations or national mining companies. They have to. Otherwise in such biodiverse areas, rich in pristine rivers, blessed by high rainfall, and having the resources to support other sustainable economic alternatives, these projects make no sense whatsoever. Not environmentally, socially, nor economically.
Based on past public statements made by Ecuador’s president in support of large-scale mining, as well as the aggressive way it dealt with the recent nation-wide strike organized by the indigenous and campesinos sectors in rejection of the proposed Water Law (which, in its current form does not prohibit heavy metal contamination by mines), there is every indication that the government will emphasize the short-term economic benefit of mining over all other aspects of development. Exactly like private mining corporations.
The indigenous have taken a more radical approach to President Correa’s plan to impose laws and extractive projects that may impact their territories and rights. For example, on May 17, Ecuador’s most important indigenous groups issued a clear message warning to Correa’s government that they will keep and protect the renewable and non-renewable resources4 inside their territories. The news release goes on to accuse Correa of racial discrimination and of the use of excessive force by the police during the May 2010 nation-wide demonstrations that saw thousands of indigenous people take to the streets to protest the approval of the Water Law.
The government has given ample signs that it won’t let such things as the Constitutional rights to Sumak Kawsay5 (“a good life”) and the rights of nature get in the way of its mining agenda. Especially because according to the Constitution, mineral resources are of strategic importance. How far the government is willing to go to pursue its plan to impose mining development on communities and local governments like those of Intag, remains to be seen. Junin may very well turn out to be the first proving ground.
1. The area of where the mine would be located is in northwestern Ecuador, within primary cloud forests, which are the home of dozens of endangered species of animals and plants, and which also protect the headwaters of dozens of pristine rivers and streams. The site is within the Tropical Andes Biological Hotspot, the most biodiverse of the world’s 34 Hotspots.
2. See www.decoin.org for more details
3. The study was done by the Metal Mining Agency of Japan and the Japan International Cooperation Agency, and published in 1996.
5. Sumak Kawsay is a Kichwa term denoting spiritual, cultural, environmental as well as material well-being