Ecuador is the latest country to use the referendum to stop mining development.
Canadian mining company Iamgold’s Quimsacocha gold mining project, high in the Andes of southern Ecuador is going nowhere fast. On October 2, the mining project was the latest one to fall victim to the community referendums that have defeated mining projects in Peru, Guatemala and Argentina.
It doesn’t matter that the government, predictably, said that the referendum, which overwhelmingly rejected mining by a more than 20 to 1 margin (92% vs. 4%), is invalid because it was not “authorized” by its institutions. However, it is legitimate in the eyes of most of the public and, more importantly, in the eyes of community members from the two communities where the project is located, and who stood the most to suffer from the proposed gold mine. In light of governmental failure to uphold community and human rights over business interests, local referendums are emerging into a powerful tool to address the unbalance of power.
The fact is that the government, according to the Constitution, should have done years ago what the people of Tarqui and Victoria del Portete did on their own: carry out an open and fair consultation on the possibility of allowing mining activities that will very likely impact the area’s water resources, farming and ranching, the Paramo ecosystem, in addition to the communities’ well-being and the livelihood of thousands of families.
CONAIE, Ecuador’s most powerful indigenous umbrella organization, not only actively supported the referendum, but made it clear that it should be replicated wherever communities are affected by mining. This could be the start of a grass-roots movement to use Constitution guarantees directly by communities to protect their basic rights.
The twin highland communities are not the only ones pushing back against large-scale mining. Responding to the aggressive intervention by government and mining companies pushing the mining agenda, the Provincial and County governments of the Azuay Province, home to Quimsacocha, Rio Blanco and several other mining projects, recently called for a total ban of mining activities within their jurisdictions. Two themes stand out in this unusual and strong anti-mining stance by local governments: the threat that mining poses to Cuenca’s water supply, the Province’s largest town, but it also entails basic Constitutional questions regarding the rights of local governments to control land use, regulate industries, and protect citizen’s health.
The referendum, the first of its kind in Ecuador, will very likely provoke IAMGOLD, and other transnationals, to increase their green-washing campaign. Since it fears that the strategy will spread to other mining areas, the referendum will also undoubtedly motivate the national government to conduct its own “legitimate” one. They will risk doing so only after a large-scale green-washing propaganda campaign aimed at convincing most of the voters of mining’s economic benefits, its safety, and its low environmental impact. The promise of new infrastructure projects- such as roads- and more rents for local governments will undoubtedly play a big part in the campaign. However, it shouldn’t alter the grass-roots opposition, which is well aware of mining impacts on their lives, their environment and their communities, and who has received major support from Ecuador’s civil society as well as international groups. Thus, trying to undo the October 2nd outcome, while a central focus of both the government and the company, is likely to fail.
The government was obviously caught off-guard by the referendum and the crushing setback for its mining program. Right now they are spending all their energy in damage control, but it’s too late. The opposition to mining has never been so publicly and clearly stated, and the little referendum in the highlands of Ecuador has seriously upset the government’s mining plans, and sent a very clear message to all of Ecuador’s mining companies.