"Welcome to Ascendant Copper, a socially responsible corporate citizen," states the Canadian mining company’s website. Ascendant also boasts of being a member of the UN Global Compact. Ironically it was officially accepted into the group on July 12, the same day that several hundred Intag residents marched in Quito to protest the company’s mining project.
The Global Compact is a voluntary initiative developed by the UN to streamline the human rights agenda into the day-to-day practices of global corporations. There is no monitoring or enforcement of declared standards, which relegates the compact to nothing more than a public relations tool for corporations, helping to put a human face on often inhumane business practices, such as those carried out by Ascendant.
Now welcome to Intag , Ecuador , home to Ascendant’s Junin Project, where one sign (among many) posted on a local road reads: "The Communities of Junin, Cerro Pelado, Barcelona, El Triunfo and Villaflora do not permit mining." The company is awaiting confirmation from the Ecuadorian government to begin the exploration phase for a potential open-pit copper mine in these areas.
According to human rights organizations and lawyers representing many residents of the region, the company’s activities in the area are anything but socially responsible and even amount to complicity in human rights abuses with the Ecuadorian government.
The company’s most recent press release on Sept. 19 described opponents of its project as "eco-terrorists", "extremists" and "radicals." This accusation is a reaction to a conflict in which company employees, one armed with a pistol, trespassed in Junin’s Community Reserve to conduct tests that the company alleges were meant to support its Environmental Impact Study (EIS), which is complete and awaiting approval by Ecuador’s Ministry of Energy and Mines. However, the approval can only be granted if a local court doesn’t rule in favor of local communities (a decision is expected on Friday) who filed a suit arguing that the company didn’t follow Ecuadorian law when it created its EIS.
Two of the employees were detained by local residents after they were discovered trespassing. The employees were fed and treated well—they testified as such to the police. Subsequently, without a warrant or evidence, the police arrested two individuals on charges of kidnapping. The local campesinos arrested weren’t even present when the company workers were detained. The men were held in jail for eight days before being released last Thursday. The judge released them without requiring bail, which suggests a lack of evidence for their arrest.
"It [the arrest] was completely unlawful," said Isabella Figueroa, a human rights lawyer who represents residents of the region affected by the company’s activities.
Ascendant, however, stated in its press release that "two of the kidnappers have been arrested, arraigned, and are in prison awaiting sentencing." Company president, Gary E. Davis, is apparently unaware that, as in the United States (where the company’s headquarters are located), accused people are innocent until proven guilty in a court of law. By stating that these individuals are not only kidnappers but terrorists, he potentially violated Ecuadorian law protecting citzens from slander. The law, called Injuria Calumniosa, protects citizens from slanderous claims, such as being condemned for committing a crime before being convicted by a judge or jury.
According to David Cordero Heredia of the Ecumenical Comission of Human Rights (CEDHU), Davis’s remarks might put him in front of a judge, even though he is a foreign national and didn’t issue the statement here. "The consequences of Davis’ words are present here in Ecuador," said Heredia. "The people whose reputations were injured are here."
In addition, the company’s press release is in violation of Article 12 of the UN Declaration of Human Rights. It states that "No one shall be subjected to arbitrary interference with his privacy, family, home or correspondence, nor to attacks upon his honour and reputation. Everyone has the right to the protection of the law against such interference or attacks." Furthermore, the police violated Article 9 which prohibits arbitrary arrests and detention.
Opponents of the mine believe that the company is using this rhetoric to persuade the government to crack-down on any mining opponents, through the use of potentially lethal force and mass arrests.
Subsequent events turned ugly when the company sent several truckloads of workers to block the road to Junin, thus preventing food trucks from entering the community. Local residents from all over the region walked or drove to Junin to support the community in its struggle against the company, with numbers reaching close to 200. Residents of Junin were worried about being able to feed themselves and supporters. The police were no help in diffusing the standoff, allowing company workers (some with family members) to continue the road blockade. In addition, two truckloads of Ascendant workers drove into the community of Junin —where they are unwelcome—and started a fight with community members. No serious injuries have been reported.
The failure of the police to respond appropriately has created the perception among many area residents that police are working with the company.
Human Rights Dismissed
The UN Declaration of Human Rights embodies the principals of the UN Global Compact which the company professes to follow. The Compact also uses other international human rights treaties as a guide for companies on how they should behave as global "corporate citizens."
According to a legal suit filed in the Eight Civil-Law Court of Imbabura, the company is in violation of the Protocol of San Salvador, the International Covenant of Civil and Political Rights, the American Convention on Human Rights, The Declaration of Rio on Environment and Development, the Inter-American Democratic Charter and Convention 177 of the International Labor Organization. Ecuador is a signatory to these treaties and the country’s constitution guarantees that these international laws will be recognized and enforced. Furthermore, all of these problems concerning the company and Ecuadorian government only address the way Ascendant carried out its environmental study.
In June the Intag Solidarity Network (ISN) presented a 12-page denouncement of the company’s activities in the region to the Canadian Embassy. ISN is a grassroots organization which maintains an international human rights observer program in the region at the request of the community of Junin. Its human rights program is recognized and endorsed by Alexis Ponce, director of Asamblea Permanente de Derechos Humanos, as well as Pablo de la Vega, director of Centro de Documentación en Derechos Humanos "Segundo Montes Mozo S. J."
ISN denounced company activities, which include:
· The use of death threats against mining opponents.
· Employing armed guards who don’t wear visible identification or uniforms when operating in public spaces.
· The misprepresentation of activities and local realities in Intag through misleading statements and press releases.
· The use of children in its propaganda and "socialization" campaign.
· Trespassing on community property (like in Junin), despite the presence of signs explicitly stating miners are not welcome.
· The refusal to honor the demands of local communities that the company leave.
Had the Canadian Embassy and the Ecuadorian government acted on ISN’s report, the most recent events in Intag could have been avoided.
In addition, the company is a past employer of 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 former general is known to have said that he believes that people who work for human rights, indigenous rights and workers’ rights are part of a "triangle of subversion." The company also sent employee Betty Sevilla into Junin, posing as a "freelance journalist," to gather information on mining opponents.
According to CEDHU’s Heredia, investors, if they have morals, should be concerned because it’s their money that is enabling and encouraging the abuse against the communities of Intag and the threat against the region’s pristine environment.
"If they want to have a clear conscience they will not invest in this company," he added.
Cyril Mychalejko is assistant editor of www.UpsideDownWorld.org and is currently based in Ecuador. He was recently questioned by the police and warned to stay out of the politics of the country.