Canadian Mining Company Preaches
Development, Reaps Division in Ecuador
by Stuart Schussler
Junín, a small town in the mountainous Intag
region of northwestern Ecuador, is home for about 500 Ecuadorians. The community
is rich in many ways for local residents. Fertile land produces organic
coffee, sugar cane, and oranges for export. The town is located next to
the Cotacachi-Cayapas Ecological Reserve and the people of Junín
created their own community ecological reserve 8 years ago. These protected
areas cover a large expanse of cloud forest and protect one of the world’s
most biologically diverse ecosystems.
The social fabric is also rich. Public works projects
like road maintenance or repairs on the school house are done with the traditional
minga system, where members from each family volunteer to do a couple days
of work for the common good.
However, in the eyes of Ascendant Copper Corporation,
a Canadian mining
company, Junín’s wealth isn’t in its people or its diverse
ecosystem—it’s in its rocks.
Junín’s community reserve contains an
estimated 2.26 million tons of copper. But this isn’t a recent discovery.
Bishimetals, a subsidiary of the Japanese-based Mitsubishi Corporation,
tried in the mid-1990s to mine the area. The company even got as far as
building a provisional mining camp. But local community members learned
of the estimated environmental and social impacts of the proposed open pit
mine, which included potential cyanide contamination of the local water
supply, increase in crime, and the forced relocation of the area’s
The community organized and educated each other in
order to protect their community and their health. They tried to contact
Bishimetals and express their lack of support for the project. But after
being ignored repeatedly in their requests, the people of Junín burned
down the provisional mining camp in May of 1997. The company got the message
Today Ascendant Copper is trying to lay the groundwork
for a mine and do what Bishimetals couldn’t. Community support and
preliminary exploration are needed before mining can occur. To win this
support, Ascendant says they are “developing a strategic development
plan for the communities in the area.” They see Junín and its
neighboring communities as poor, backwards areas whose only hope for salvation
lies in the charity of foreign investors.
Olga Cultid disagrees.
“They say we’re in extreme poverty,”
said Olga, as she sat in Junin’s ecotourism cabañas. “But
it’s a lie. I’m not rich, but I’m not lacking either.”
One of the company’s “development strategies”
has been to buy people off—giving them jobs and handouts if they support
the mine. Olga, whose son goes to school in the neighboring community of
Garcia Moreno, was offered a bribe in exchange for her support of the mine.
“They offered to pay for transportation, lodging,
everything for my son. They offered me a job as protector of the environment,”
But she refused. In her eyes it is more important
that the community own its land and remain contamination-free for future
generations. Those who support mining “don’t think about our
children,” she says.
Ascendant’s proposed mine, and the company’s
unscrupulous actions to gain “support” for it has been a very
divisive force in the community, more so than any other local development
While Junín is steadfast in its opposition,
Garcia Moreno (a neighboring town) by-and-large supports mining. Since Ascendant
began working in the area, the relationship between the two communities
has progressively worsened.
“We used to be like one big family, but now
everything has changed,” said Olga. “Now you can’t go
and have friendly conversation. It’s not the same.”
Yet, the tensions have grown more hostile than just
cold receptions. On April 11 a mob of unruly pro-miners led by Ascendant’s
general manager stormed into the municipality’s meeting hall, breaking
windows and demanding an audience with the mayor.
Auki Tituaña, the mayor of Cotacachi County
where Junín and Ascendant’s mining concession lie, has come
out publicly against the project. He said that Ascendant “is implementing
policies designed to divide communities, through questionable promises [housing,
roads, jobs, bridges, classrooms, etc.] intended to break the spirit of
the courageous residents of Intag.”
He also promised to “exhaust all avenues, regardless
of the consequences, in the defense of our rights, which take precedence
over the private interests of others [whose activities would lead] to the
destruction of our natural wealth.”
Residents of Garcia Moreno, who support such private
interests, have also threatened to forcefully occupy Junín’s
community ecological reserve so that the company can do preliminary exploration
and testing. Many anti-mining activists have also received death threats.
In addition, Ascendant hired Cesar Villacís
Rueda, a former army general with deep ties to Ecuador’s military
intelligence who also studied at the School of the Americas. The ex-general,
who travels with an intimidating entourage of armed bodyguards, is handling
“public relations” for the company.
While advocating development, Ascendant Copper’s
actions have left painful divisions between communities, friends, and even
families. This is a far cry from the company’s most esteemed corporate
value: to “maintain the human factor as the most important issue in
the development of any mining project.”
Examples of divisive and destructive mining projects
by transnational companies can be found all over Latin America. Unfortunately,
more can be expected. Due to all the metal needed to support China’s
rapid industrial expansion, in addition to the ravenous consumption needs
of the United States and Europe, the value of resources such as copper has
gone through the roof. As the history of mining in Latin America suggests,
companies like Ascendant will stop at nothing to capitalize on such an opportunity,
even if it means tearing apart communities, contaminating the environment
with poisonous chemicals and violating human rights.
But the presence of various mining companies hasn’t
been completely negative. It has spurned an organized and motivated resistance
to mining, which is committed to finding alternative and sustainable economic
development models for the area.
“If these companies had not come to take away
our peace and tranquility, we’d never have organized ourselves,”
said Rosario Piedra.
Piedra helps administer the community eco-tourism
project created to provide a sustainable and equitable alternative to mining.
The eco-tourism program has been successful and benefits the entire community.
Many people are involved with the regional ecological organization Defense
and Conservation of Intag (DECOIN). DECOIN has been very active in its resistance
to this unpopular and possibly illegal mining project and has been successful
in fostering some international awareness and support. A program of international
human rights observers has also been created to document events when things
While Ascendant Copper benefits from a divide-and-conquer
strategy, most in Junín understand that community is the real wealth
in life. Or as Rosario said, “my friendships come first, so I’ll
never sell out.”