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Ecuador: Small-Scale Miners Questioning Large-Scale Interests in Southern Amazon PDF Print E-mail
Written by Jennifer Moore   
Wednesday, 22 September 2010 15:38
Only days after small-scale and artisanal miners pronounced themselves in favor of land use planning and against large scale mining in Ecuador's southern Amazon, a heavy deployment of police and military was ordered to evict a group of these miners for alleged environmental damages. Approximately 1,500 police and military officers took part in the September 15 operation, or roughly one officer for every resident of the small county of Paquisha in the province of Zamora Chinchipe, where confrontations took place.  

 

The province of Zamora Chinchipe is the focal point for development of major large scale gold and copper mining operations controlled by Canadian and Chinese interests, including Kinross Gold, Dynasty Metals & Mining and CRCC-Tongguan, which the Ecuadorian government has made a priority.

Provincial prefect Salvador Quishpe, however, says that evictions forewarn of increasing tension as national and foreign-backed projects enter into conflict with local development priorities. Quishpe is an indigenous leader who has been actively leading resistance to large scale metallic mining in Ecuador during recent years, and who has been building support among small-scale and artisanal miners in his home province.

Forceful eviction

Last Wednesday, four hundred indigenous and non-indigenous small-scale and artisanal miners and farmers were blocking the main road to Paquisha when five hundred police arrived with orders to evict the protestors from the area of Congüime.

Midday reinforcements brought the number of police and military to about 1,500.

Protesters fought against police with sticks and stones to which state forces responded with tear gas. Confrontations left five people injured, two reportedly from shotgun wounds. Two people were also detained for allegedly carrying explosives and firearms.

Later, armed forces searched private property to seize over a dozen backhoes that small-scale miners in the area use to look for gold along the Nangaritza River.

The Secretary for Peoples, Social Movements and Citizen Participation, Alexandra Ocles, defended the government's actions against “illegal mining” on national radio and stated that the measure was taken “in order to guarantee discontamination (sic) of the area and to enter into a process of regularizing mining activities.”

Evictions and concerns among some miners that they will not be relocated seems to be contributing to growing alliances between this sector and resistance to large scale mining in the province. Another eviction took place in early August when fifty-six miners were expelled from the area of San Luis in Podocarpus National Park, while at least one other investigation in the county of Paquisha is also underway.

Segundo Salinas, a local miner from Paquisha, told Ecuador's Daily Express that “The government is attacking workers who defended the Condor mountain range during the war of Paquisha, with the aim of handing over the country's mineral wealth to foreign companies.” The Condor mountain range has been much fought over with neighbouring Peru during several armed conflicts in past decades.

Small-scale and artisanal miners side with provincial government

In the days and weeks prior to the recent operation, provincial leaders from Zamora Chinchipe had been meeting with groups of miners to reach agreement over a proposed land use planning project, rights for local workers and joint opposition to large scale mining. Three days prior to last week's police operation, a provincial assembly was held at which those present “petitioned the government of President Rafael Correa to order the departure of multinational companies from the region and the recognition of the right to work for local miners,” reported BBC World.

According to a press bulletin issued by the province, leaders of small-scale and artisanal mining operations were asking, “How is it possible that we are treated as illegal on our own land while multinational companies get all the support?” The same bulletin cited provincial leaders who acknowledged that the “environmental impacts of small-scale mining are worrying, however, we will not allow evictions to take place that will give way to multinational interests.”

Until recently, small scale and artisanal gold mining were the principal metallic mining activities in Ecuador. Important -enters of this type of mining are situated within the country's south and over the last three decades have led to serious environmental damages with repercussions for both miners and local communities. However precarious, it remains a source of income for tens of thousands of families.

Following a decade of World Bank-backed legal reforms and promotion of Ecuador's mining potential in the 1990s, multinational mining companies started to invest in developing the country's untapped mineral riches. Initially led by Canadian-financed junior mining companies, areas such as the Condor mountain range, which borders the province of Zamora Chinchipe to the east and separates it from Peru's northern Amazon, were staked out for large scale gold and copper developments. Senior companies, such as Toronto-based Kinross Gold, began buying up the biggest holdings in the province during a process of mining law reforms from 2008 to 2009, which strengthened state participation and control over the sector.

As part of these same legal reforms, Ecuadorian legislators set a timeline of 180 days for the government to carry out a census of informal mining operations in the country and to begin a process of regularization. Political representatives from the province of Zamora Chinchipe claim that this process has not been carried through and area miners express fear that more evictions will be forthcoming.

Representatives of a subsidiary belonging to Vancouver-based Dynasty Metals & Mining, which holds one mineral concession in the county of Paquisha, has filed a complaint against artisanal miners that is under investigation. Under new mining rules, companies can solicit protection from authorities against informal mining taking place on their concessions.

A representative of Kinross told BBC World, however, that the erradication of small-scale mining is not their aim. “Our commitment,” he said, “is simply to inform authorties about the extent of informal mining taking place in the sector for authorities to take the appropriate decision.”

The Prefect's land use planning project

Resource conflicts in the southern Amazon have emerged over the last decade between companies and indigenous and non-indigenous communities concerned about the potential impacts of large scale operations on their lands and lives. But only since former national congressman Salvador Quishpe was elected as prefect of the province in 2009 have agreements been forged with small-scale and artisanal mining groups to join the resistance.

Quishpe is in open dispute with the government of President Rafael Correa. Correa strongly supports multinational mining companies that have invested in Ecuador, saying that their top-of-the-line technology and Ecuador's strengthened regulations will help avoid serious impacts from future large scale operations. The President also personally intervened during the country's 2009 general elections when he visited Zamora Chinchipe and publicly insulted Quishpe, encouraging voters not to support him.

Quishpe, however, calls the most recent eviction “an abuse of power” and says that he is not just confronting multinational operations, “but also those from here.” Current agreements between the province and small-scale and artisanal miners include commitments to establish a “Provincial Organization of Artisanal and Scmall Scale Miners” that will be coordinated by the National Assembly representative for Zamora Chinchipe Clever Jimenez. This incudes an agreement to participate in a land use planning process that would exclude large scale mining and explicitly define areas in which other mining activities may take place, giving priority to agriculture, livestock husbandry, water, biodiversity and tourism. Quishpe has also asked for dialogue with the government to talk about legalization for small-scale and artisanal mining, about programs to reduce environmental contamination, and how to coordinate with his land use planning project.

Constructive dialogue could be hard to come by as long as opposition to large scale mining remains a central tenet of provincial organizing in Zamora Chinchipe. The Interior Minister Gustavo Jalkh has said attempts at dialogue have been obstructed by “political manipulation” and informed the press that operations will continue to control informal mining activities.
 
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