Ecuador: Escalation in the Junín Copper Conflict

The Ecuadorian government announced that a Canadian mining company failed to properly consult local communities and ordered it to stop all mining activities. Ecuador‘s Ministry of Energy and Mines rejected Ascendant Copper’s Environmental Impact Study (EIS) and ordered the company to stop all activities for its Junin Project. Ascendant president Gary E. Davis told CanWest News Service that the Ministry’s decision is "asinine." 

"It’s not true that we didn’t consult these communities," said Davis.

But lawyers representing these communities had previously filed lawsuits arguing what the Ministry finally decided to acknowledge—the company did not follow Ecuadorian law by failing to consult local residents. This isn’t the first time the company failed to follow legal guidelines regarding its EIS. But Ascendant’s activities are now turning violent.  

Ascendant employees, heavily armed "paramiltaries" and pro-mining Ecuadorians clashed with anti-mining community members in the first week of December. The recent conflict left one mining opponent with a gunshot wound to the leg, while pro-mining forces detaining journalists and a local politicians and anti-mining community members capturing and detaining over 50 of the "paramilitaries"—many of whom were former military personnel and who were armed with machine guns, pistols and pepper spray. All those detained were subsequently released unharmed.

This led Sister Elsie Monge, executive director of the Ecuadorian Ecumenical Human Rights Comisión (CEDHU), a human rights organization based in Quito, to write a letter denouncing the Canadian mining company’s violent tactics.  

"We hold the Minister of Energy and Mines and Ascendant Copper Corporation responsible for these new measures which threaten human rights of Intag’s communities…[and] ask the local, provincial, national and international media to report on these new abuses, which pose a risk to life, the physical integrity of individuals, and the peaceful tradition of the Ecuadorian people," wrote CEDHU’s Sister Monge.

When local mining opponents confronted the "paramilitaries" to disarm them, local leader Polivio Perez, who in July had his life threatened at gunpoint for his anti-mining work, urged calm. "We are here to defend ourselves and our land. We are not here to attack those people," said Perez. "We shall use violence only to defend ourselves if we will be attacked."  

Edwin Navarette, an ex-lieutenant of the Ecuadorian army and leader of the companys security force prevented his men (many who are former soldiers in the military) from using violence. They handed over their arms which included bullets, machetes, teargas and 17 revolvers. The anti-mining-people escort them down to Junín where they detained them in the local church.

Davis called the mining opponents involved in the detainment "ecoterrorists", "extremists" and a "terrorist group", labels he has used in the past in a vile attempt to discredit the families who oppose his mine.  

Luis Guerra, a human rights observer, who is watching the conflict for the Ecuadorian organisation COSDHI believes that Ascendant won’t give up on its potentially lucrative project.

"It’s not over yet. Ascendant Copper, who is forcing this conflict with war strategies, will keep attacking – in a legal way," said Guerra. "They will put up lawsuits against the activists and try to convince the population of their aim with gifts and money."  

But the company has other problems in addition to a unified majority opposition. The Ecuadorian government announced that it would reform its mining laws. And then there’s Ecuador‘s incoming President Rafael Correa.

The leftist Correa, an opponent of free trade, has said he plans to change the way the government foes business with mining and oil companies.

"Obviously it is a concern when we see someone getting elected who is a friend of left leaning politicians," Jim Mustard, a mining analyst with Haywood Securities in Vancouver told the The Northern Miner. 

When Correa takes office Jan. 15 his new Minister of Government will be Gustavo Larrea, a former human rights activist. Larrea’s position will include heading the state police.

Correa’s selection for mining minister, Alberto Acosta, should cause concern for Ascendant’s Davis, as well as the company’s investors. Acosta is an economist who is known for his opposition to free trade policies, which essentially seek to deregulate business sectors such as mining. He is also a former consultant for Acción Ecologica, an environmental NGO that has supported the mining opposition in Intag.  

Ascendant’s Davis stated in a press release that the company "will not ignore the will of the people."

The people of Intag have been waiting for this since the company arrived. They have expressed their will when all seven parish presidents of the region signed a declaration demanding the company leave.  They have expressed their will at protests in the town of Garcia Moreno in May and again in July in Quito. 

By January, Correa’s human rights and environmental-friendly ministers may see to it that Davis finally lives up to his word.