Ascendant Copper Threatens Ecuador’s Toisan Range

A Canadian mining company project violates human rights, threatens four communities with forced relocation, and endangers thousands of hectares of primary cloud forests, pristine rivers and streams and dozens of species facing extinction.

The Junín mining concession, situated in the biodiverse Toisan Range of northwest Ecuador, contains hundreds of millions of tons of copper ore lying beneath some of the most biodiverse and endangered forests on Earth. The distinguished biologist E.O. Wilson says of these forests:

"The extraordinary value of the Ecuadorian western forests, including the larges remaining remnants that include Intag, is well known to biologist around the world and often cited in the scientific literature… I am personally even more impressed by the uniqueness and the rich biodiversity in the remnant forests, and the potential value of their flora and fauna to Ecuador and the rest of the world. I have believed in the past, and am more convinced now, that these endangered habitats should be given the very high priority in conservation worldwide…"(personal letter to DECOIN 10/10/1997)

In the 1990’s Bishi Metals, a subsidiary of Mistsubishi, tried exactly what Ascendant Copper is trying to do—build an open-pit copper mine in an area where a majority of residents are opposed to mining. The company refused to honor the wished of local Ecuadorians, while a corrupt and inept Ecuadorian government prioritized the interests of a foreign corporation over its own citizens. After what proved to be fruitless legal and political lobbying, local community members decided to demand that their human rights be recognized as they burnt down the company’s mining camp. (No one was injured and all property was returned to the company.) Unfortunately it took this kind of measure for Bishi’s executives to recognize that their proposed mining project was not only unwanted but not viable.

Since then resistance to mining has dramatically increased. Today, the opposition is supported by all the communities potentially impacted by the proposed mine, most neighboring communities and NGO’s, as well as nine local governments. Local community members have organized many initiatives to prevent the mine from going ahead, including legal remedies to uphold their constitutional rights, such as their right to prior consultation.

The opposition is based not only on the social and environmental impacts outlined below, but also on the violence unleashed by the mining company, the numerous documented human rights violations and the deep divisions created since Canada’s Ascendant Copper arrived in Intag.

A 1996 preliminary Environmental Impact Assessment prepared by two Japanese organizations for the Junín copper-molybdenum mine revealed the following devastating impacts:

§ Relocation of hundreds of families from four communities

§ Massive deforestation, which would dry up the local climate (almost literal citation from EIA)

§ Impacts to the Cotacachi-Cayapas Ecological Reserve, one of the world’s most diverse

§ Damage to the habitat of dozens of threatened mammals and birds, including: jaguars, ocelots, spectacled bears, pumas, brown-headed spider monkey, and the plate-billed mountain toucan

§ Contamination of rivers and streams with toxic elements including lead, arsenic, chrome and cadmium

Since these impacts were based on a much lower estimate of the copper ore discovered by Mitsubishi, the impacts for Ascendat’s project can be expected to be much greater and more widespread. For example, as many as seven communities may have to be relocated and thousands of additional hectares deforested if mining was to go ahead.

In May of 2004 Ascendant Exploration (now Ascendant Copper) bought the Junín mining concession. Ever since, anti-mining activists have had to endure numerous (documented) human rights violations, including death threats, physical assaults, trumped-up criminal lawsuits, and have twice repelled paramilitary personnel trying to enter their communities. As part of a smear campaign, several web sites have been created exclusively to try to defame local organizations, but especially targeting Defensa y Conservacion Ecologica de Intag (DECOIN), a local grass-roots organization supporting Intag’s communities. In the meantime, the company has relentlessly and aggressively tried to secure the area’s "social license" by offering communities anything from roads, bridges, clinics, and computers, to medical services and high-paying jobs. And when local government opposition seemed insurmountable, it even funded initiatives supporting the creation of a new Municipal government! Their divide-and-conquer strategies have also included purchasing thousands of hectares of agricultural and forested land, provoking land grabs in primary forests and severe conflicts between neighbors. These tactics have tragically succeeded in creating deep divisions between families and communities, and in creating a toxic atmosphere of insecurity and hostility in an area previously known as being exceptionally peaceful. That division in no small way helped spark the communal action resulting in the burning of Ascendant’s mining camp in December 2005. (Sound familiar?)

Most communities and all of the region’s local governments continue to overwhelmingly oppose the project, in spite of Ascendant’s unrelenting execution of underhanded and divisive tactics. Those tactics include the use of local courts to criminally charge dozens of community members in relation to the burning and other collective actions taken to stop the unwanted mining project.

In October 2006 Carlos Zorrilla, a leading anti-mining activist, was falsely charged of robbery by someone believed to be employed by Ascendant. In addition to the testimony of dozens of witnesses, there is video footage showing that absolutely nothing happened to the accuser. As a result of this frame-up, Zorrilla’s house was violently raided and searched by a squad of 19 policemen, one of whom planted drugs and a gun inside his home. As he was never notified of the accusation, he was unable to defend himself and had to go into hiding over a month until the arrest warrant was revoked. As of April 2007, all charges have been dropped against Zorrilla, but there’s a possibility of a third lawsuit (for the planted drugs).

Several human rights groups, including Amnesty International, Global Witness as well as the office of the UN Commission on Human Rights have requested information from Ecuador’s government and expressed concerned with the government’s actions regarding the court’s actions against. Zorrilla.

The company has also been responsible for provoking several very violent confrontations, including the use of dozens of heavily armed "private security guards", or paramilitaries as a leading human-rights organization labeled them, who tried to shoot and tear-gas their way into the company’s mining concessions in December 2006. Armed with only sticks, the community successfully repelled the violent incursion. Later, it was confirmed that the all of so-called private security guards were ex-military personnel (the confrontation was filmed).

From the start, Ascendant has been involved with the military. For example, in a November 2006 violent confrontation which left several children tear-gassed, a high-ranking Ecuadorian ex-military officer led Ascendant’s workers against the local communities. Likewise, Ascendant’s first community-relations employee was a retired army general with connections to military intelligence, and the company used an army helicopter in the events of December.

These are only a few of the dozens of grave human-rights violations associated with the presence of Ascendant Copper Corporation.

It’s also important to point out that in addition to the social upheaval outlined above, the mining project also threatens a number of sustainable economic initiatives just starting to flourish in the area, such as shade-grown coffee production, agro-forestry, community ecological tourism, and several women’s artisan projects.

We sincerely hope the Canadian people will actively participate in putting an end to this ill-conceived and destructive project, which, even without mining a single ounce of copper has already trampled human rights, and caused so much heartache and social upheaval.

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