On October 30, 2006, and in spite of numerous reports linking the presence of Ascendant Copper Corporation to serious human rights violations in the Intag area of Ecuador, Rio Tinto Zinc signed an exploratory/profit-sharing agreement with Ascendant. The agreement, which included turning over to Ascendant many years worth of exploratory information gathered in Western Ecuador by Rio Tinto, also gives Rio the right to invest in future mining projects developed by Ascendant.
Ascendant Copper since May of 2004 has unsuccessfully tried to develop its Junin copper mining project, situated in the biodiverse Toisan Range, Northwestern Ecuador. The opposition to mining in the Intag area- which includes all local governments, and most of the communities and NGO’s, has stopped Ascendant’s attempts to access land the company considers theirs and carry out exploration. The company has also been singularly unsuccessful at getting the environmental impact statement approved by government to begin exploration. This has caused nearly $20 million in losses and several millions worth of "exploration investments" in its Junin mining project.
Rio Tinto likes to portray itself as a model corporate citizen, yet the agreement with Ascendant was signed just 2 weeks after police illegally raided the home of a well-known anti- mining activist opposed to Ascendant’s Junin project. The illegal action was linked to Ascendant Copper Corporation by a prestigious human rights organization.
The day following the signing of the agreement, approximately 50 persons, hired by a company contracted by Ascendant Copper Corporation, tried to violently enter some of Ascendant’s concessions using tear gas and attack dogs. Community members stopped the incursion, but not before several local residents- including a 6 year-old boy- was tear-gassed, and another community member was allegedly run over by a company car.
But then things got much worse.
On December 2, 2006, exactly 30 days after the first failed incursion, the same company tried again to force their way into community areas. This time the confrontation, which was filmed and photographed in high-definition digital cameras, showed how about 20 heavily armed individuals pretending to be security guards (and paid for by Ascendant) without any provocation started pepper-spraying and shooting their 38 caliber hand guns and shotguns at unarmed community members. One community member received a gunshot wound in the leg. As in the previous attempt, the community stopped the aggression, and the guards had to turn back. The company even hired an army helicopter to supply the "troops" with supplies. Later that night, over 100 more so-called security guards arrived in the town of García Moreno. Two days later, the communities captured and held 56 of them in the village of Junin. On being interviewed, it was discovered that every one of them were ex-military personnel, and some indicated they had been hired to do work for the mining company and that they were to build a mining camp. Several of them admitted having participated in the November incursion.
Based mostly on the violent incident of December, which was featured in several national newspapers and shown on prime-time Ecuadorian TV, in addition to international electronic magazines and Canadian newspapers, the government of Ecuador immediately suspended all of Ascendant’s activities in the area. The government also rejected the company’s environmental impact study based on fundamental flaws. To date (September 2007), the company has not resubmitted another one.
The persecution and harassment against anti-mining activist in the Intag area of Ecuador, however, did not stop with the use of armed ex-military groups. It deteriorated to the point where, in July of 2007, Amnesty International Amnesty International issued an urgent action, alerting the world of the threats and danger faced by Polivio Pérez, Mercy Catalina Torres, and "others opposed to the Intag copper mining project."
Another alert was issued on August 2007 as a consequence of a near lynching of Mr. Perez, in an incident involving company employees, according to a report by CEDHU– a respected Ecuadorian human rights organization
All the above events were widely publicized, so there was no way Rio Tinto Zinc would not have known of them. But even prior to these specific events, there were already many other documented instances of human rights violations taking place in Intag, and several voices had alerted the world to the violent conflicts arising from Ascendant’s presence in the area. The confrontations included the burning down of the company’s mining camp in December of 2005 by local residents (see www.decoin.org, www.intagnewspaper.org, www.intagsolidarity.org, www.ascendantalert.ca or http://zmagsite.zmag.org/Mar2005/gedicks0305.html)
The involvement of Rio Tinto Zinc with Ascendant Copper Corporation points to a worrisome and disturbing trend behind the so-called "social-responsabilization" of large mining companies. Besides using similar publicity tactics utilized in the "greenwashing" of many of these same companies’ projects, a more worrisome pattern is emerging: the strategy of the big companies (with a reputation at stake) relying on aggressive cowboy junior companies to "clear the way for them" in troubled areas. In the case of the Junin copper-mining project, the "clearing of the way" has turned into a human-rights nightmare for the people on the ground opposed to the mining project.
By attracting fresh capital from new investors, the signing of exploration or exploitation agreements between aggressive or violent junior mining companies and large, "reputable" and well established ones, can greatly exacerbate the sort of human-rights abuses briefly pointed out above.
If responsible corporate-citizenry has any meaning whatsoever, and if corporations like Rio Tinto are serious about respecting human rights, the company would have never signed on to this very troubled project.