Ecuador: The Logic of Development Clashes with Movements

President Rafael Correa

In spite of proclaiming himself socialist and a defender of the general "well being," President Rafael Correa has been promoting the open-pit mining industry, which has provoked serious environmental and social damage throughout the region.

Source: Americas Program

In spite of proclaiming himself socialist and a defender of the general "well being," President Rafael Correa has been promoting the open-pit mining industry, which has provoked serious environmental and social damage throughout the region.

"The nascent left, indigenous, and ecological movements are starting to rise, having meetings to promote an uprising against the mining companies." "With the law in hand we will not allow these abuses, we cannot allow uprisings, which block paths, threaten private property, and impede the development of a legal activity; mining."

It was not a political conservative who said these words, but Rafael Correa, the president of Ecuador, who proclaimed himself a member of "21st century socialism" and an enemy of neoliberalism. The first sentence he said in a speech before the Provisory Congress in early January and the second he gave in a speech on Jan. 12 on the balcony of the president’s house in Quito.1 In addition, he accused social movements that reject the Ley de Mineria (Mining Law) of being "allies of the right." The government minister, Fernando Bustamante, spoke of a potential insurgent link between indigenous organizations and the military.2

Tensions were already high at the beginning of January when the police brutally repressed community members protesting in the south of the country against the law. "We will not negotiate with criminals and thugs" was Minister Bustamante’s response to the indigenous leaders who defended themselves against repression by holding a police captain captive.3

Mobilization, Repression, and Beyond

On Jan. 20 two different worlds collided in Ecuador. Correa’s government, which had recently promoted and won a referendum for constitutional reform inspired by the logic of "healthy living" ("Sumak Kausay," in Quichua) and the abandonment of the neoliberal model, pressed Congress to approve the Mining Law. The Legislative Commission approved the law on Jan. 12. Social movements called for a national mobilization to oppose the transnational exploitation of mining. The forces which met on the street were far from equal: the results were injuries, detainees, tear gas, and violent attacks.

Since the beginning of January there have been protests throughout the entire nation, organized both by indigenous groups and urban, environmental, and humanitarian organizations, along with the federation of evangelical indigenous peoples. All have questioned the Mining Law, considering it unconstitutional and rushed through into law without ample national debate for such a serious issue. The protests were particularly large in the south, in the Andean and Amazonian regions, consisting of the blocking of highways, marches, and hunger strikes.

On Jan. 20, designated "Day of Mobilization for Life," thousands of indigenous people took to the highways as they had done previously in other protests. Some 4,000 indigenous people blocked the Latacunga-Ambato highway in the southern mountains, and tens of thousands of others engaged in similar acts throughout the country, including protests in Quito and Cuenca, the two principal Andean cities. There were also protests in the Amazon and along the coast. Multicolored marches animated with drums, flutes, horns, and whistles, in which families and entire communities took part.

Although CONAIE (Confederation of Indigenous Nationalities of Ecuador) made clear that the movement would be peaceful, repression was still a major component, with the use of tear gas and even bullets, resulting in dozens of injuries, many of the wounded requiring hospitalization. The repression was not much different from that which occurred when the right governed Ecuador.

When it came time to explain the government’s response, Humberto Cholango, president of Ecuaraunari, an indigenous organization of Quichuas from the Andes, said that the problem is that the right surrounds Correa. "The president needs only to look to his side if he wants to see the right," he said in relation to accusations directed by the president at indigenous movements.4 Nevertheless, CONAIE should recognize that the protests led to acts of violence against a diverse group of people and police, an act that was created by the presence of "infiltrators in a legal and legitimate movement."5

What is certain is that there was no national debate about the law, but there was violence in the streets, and a crisis of relations between the government and social movements that should have been the social base of a government that promotes a "citizens’ movement." The media played an important role in the growing division between the social movements and the government creating a confrontational climate.

In the attempt to strike a balance between the movements and the mining industry, Acción Ecológica demonstrated its satisfaction at the "new urban-rural alliance being born that embraces the principles of ecology." It pointed out that "the arguments to protect water, strengthen community food sovereignty, vindicate the right to consultation, and the general mistrust of transnational corporations, are now understood and adopted by many Ecuadorians." It lamented the government’s movement to the right in spite of sovereign positions such as the new constitution and the declaration of illegitimacy of foreign debt. "History shows when a government turns to the right it is very difficult for it to once again turn to the left," the organization concluded.6 

Days later, CONAIE sent an "Open Letter to the World Social Forum," in which it explained their "opposition and rejection" of Correa’s presence in "a space that has historically constructed alternatives and guarantees to the rights of the people and the right to life and cannot be a tribune for a president with impregnable discriminatory, sexist, and violent positions on racism, machismo, and paternalism." They alerted the Forum that behind the language of the "citizens’ revolution" was repression and attempts against dignity and human rights, assuring that "the long neoliberal night is present in Ecuador."7

Arguments in Dispute

The sociologist Alejandro Moreano attempts to analyze the Mining Law in terms of the contradictions of Correa’s government. At the beginning of his presidency Correa assured the people that when the privatized cellular telephone contracts (Spain’s Telefónica and Mexican entrepreneur Carlos Slim’s América Movil)expired, those services would return to the hands of the state. But he then renewed the concessions for 15 additional years. Something similar occurred with the audit of the public external debt: after it became apparent that there were illicit proceedings in its formation last November, Correa retracted his initial idea of not repaying it.

"From the beginning, the government has acclimated us to a policy in which reforms are implemented through a neoliberal method, or vice-versa. One from the right and another from the left. How can we understand such discrepancies? Are the leftist measures merely smokescreens for those of the right?" asks Moreano.8 At first glance, it seems only time can answer these questions. In any event, various analysts maintain that one of the central problems is that the government’s party, Acuerdo Pais, has at its core important divergences from the left and a sizeable right-wing voice.

The Mining Law was rigorously analyzed by the social movements. In the "antecedents" section of one of the bodies of work, we are reminded that foreign investment in Ecuador has always focused on extraction and agro-exports and that international division of labor condemns the country to be an exporter of primary goods and resources such as cacao, coffee, bananas, and others, without any industrialization. "For every dollar that stays in the country, four have been yielded for foreign investments."9

After the Second World War a process of import substitution industrialization (ISI) started. There were nationalizations and a Welfare State was established. But the country continued supporting itself based on exports of one or two primary products, making it very vulnerable to economic fluctuations. In the last few years Ecuador’s main export has been oil, which nevertheless has been unable to stimulate national production of capital goods or crude derivatives exports. "The exportation of oil has arrived as an inexhaustible source of social and environmental damage."10

Also in question is the fact that the law has been approved by the Legislative Commission or "Little Congress," a transitory organization put in place until the general elections take place in April under the banner of the new constitution. In the same vein, critics maintain that the Mining Law "does not correspond to the national vision that the constitution of October 2008 lays out," in large part because "it disrupts the balance among communities and thus impedes the free exercise of rights," and "corrupts the multi-ethnic character of the Ecuadorian state."11

In terms of the Mining Law articles, Article 2 (Applications) does not include community members as it does with public, mixed, or private figures. Article 3 (Supplementary Norms) incurs the omission of not pointing out "the supremacy of the political constitution and the international instruments of human and environmental rights."12 

Article 15 (Public Utility) is one of the most questioned articles. Acción Ecológica’s report points out that it is not explicitly established that the concessions "should never again compromise the right to water, community food sources, protected natural areas, indigenous territories, and lands dedicated to the production of food. Mario Melo, lawyer for the Pachamama Foundation, emphasizes that by declaring mining activity to be a "public utility," the constitution is authorizing the expropriation of lands in indigenous territories "by simply citing a supposed collective benefit."

At the same time Article 16 (State Dominion over Mines and Oil Fields) places "national interests" at the forefront. These national interests are of course defined by the government in power, and according to its critics, will respond to "the requirements of fiscal income, which will end up imposing permanent damage to the well-being of those who live in the country."13

Article 28 (Prospection Freedoms) states that any business "has authorization to liberally prospect to search for mineral substances," which allows them to do mining studies on community and indigenous lands (in Ecuador there are 14 nationalities and 18 indigenous peoples). Similarly, Article 90 (Special People’s Consultation Proceedings) makes references to said proceedings, which conform to article 398 of the constitution and not article 57. The difference is vast. "In the first it clearly states that if a community or indigenous people oppose prospecting, the issue "will be resolved with the decision of the higher administrative authority." In the second, the same conflict may be resolved "to conform to the applicable international instruments, among which is the UN’s Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples, signed by Ecuador. The mandatory result of the proceedings must be in accordance with those being consulted in order to undertake said activity."14

Ultimately, one of the most controversial aspects of the new law is related to respect for both the environment and indigenous territories. Both issues are established within the new constitution but are completely ignored in the Mining Law.

Acción Ecologista concludes that the law "is written in the neoliberal model," since it favors foreign investment, grants priority to income over social and environmental concerns, the extraction of minerals is put above human rights and affected communities, as well as the conservation of biodiversity and water sources. It also includes the potential opening of protected natural areas, while at the same time "criminalizing protest and the right to exercise resistance."

According to the report from Acción Ecológica, the state’s object is that mining activity be "an important source of fiscal incomes, which would complement and ultimately replace oil." Although the policy of increasing state income is defended, it is considered by many that the regressive aspects reinforce Ecuador’s neocolonial dependence. Lastly, and this is very serious, this extraction model further removes itself from the new constitution which claims to defend "a model of human, integral, and holistic development to achieve well-being, with the essential ingredient of nonviolence toward man or nature, with which a purely harmonious relationship should be maintained.

The defenders of the law assure that it will create 300,000 jobs, which is vital to the development of the country, and that there will be no pollution. This cannot be corroborated and differs from Ecudor’s oil-laden past. In either case, strengthening the role of the state seems to be one of the current government’s top priorities.

The total area destined for mining exploration are 5.6 million hectares, which equals roughly 20% of the country’s total area, including national parks and natural reserves granted since the 1980s.

Ecuador has never been a mining country, but the eruption of this activity can place it in the same category as its neighbors, particularly Peru. Throughout the entire Andean region mining has led to the pollution of water sources, threatening the existence of thousands of communities. This fact is at the root of the birth of a new generation of social movements.

Continental Uproar Against Mining

Mining activity is the main cause of environmental conflict in Latin America. Along the Andean mountain range, there are a number of social movements engaging in permanent actions against the savage exploitation of open-pit mining. Put in perspective, the movement against open-pit mining, in spite of its short life thus far, is growing exponentially.

In Argentina new gold, silver, and copper mines are now functioning. Five more are under construction, and another 140 are being explored. There are 70 towns in 13 provinces affected by large scale mining exploration. There are 5,000 kilometers of the Andean range where companies are setting up base: from the United States, South Africa, Great Britain, Switzerland, and above all Canada, the seat of the main multinationals in the sector.

In 2002, when the Vecinos Autoconvocados de Esquel (self-organized neighborhood group of Esquel) first started to meet, they were the only organization that fought against mining in Argentina. Today there are more than 100 assemblies of self-organized neighborhood groups that have mobilized to denounce the large mining projects undertaken by multinationals. Additionally, they have organized to denounce monoculture farming. These groups are linked through the Union of Citizen Assemblies (UAC).

In Chile there has been a prolonged movement against the Pascua Lama Mine. It is a binational project (in Argentina and Chile) of the Canadian company Barrick Gold that is extracting gold and silver. The process uses 370 liters of water per second, blasts 45,000 tons of dynamite into the mountain per day, and has reserves of roughly $20 billion dollars. Until now the project has been blocked by legal issues and the opposition of social movements. The resistance movement, consisting of farmers, indigenous people, and churches, denounced Barrick Gold’s hiding of the fact that the fields were located beneath three glaciers.

Yet it is in Peru where one of the fiercest battles against mining in Latin America is being fought by the largest social organization, CONACAMI (National Confederation of Peruvian Communities Affected by Mining). It is a young organization born in 1999 in response to the "mining boom" that took place in Peru beginning in 1993 under the authoritarian regime of Alberto Fujimori. It consists of 1,650 communities from the coast, mountains, and jungle, and has more than 1,000 leaders currently being pursued by the law.

Peru has become the world’s largest silver producer, third in tinand zinc, fourth in lead and copper, and fifth in molybdenum and gold. The minerals make up 45% of Peruvian exports, but mining activity accounts for merely 4% of the state’s income and 1% of the active population. Contamination costs the nation 4% of its annual GDP (Gross Domestic Product). It is estimated that nearly a quarter of the nation’s area, roughly 25 million hectares, has been granted to mining companies.

Ecuador can be seen in the same light. On the one hand, the social and environmental conflicts of the 90s may continue to grow, as CONAIE has already proclaimed. The violation of indigenous rights and their territories "will make the projects unviable," the organization warned mining companies, since the Mining Law violates article 169 of the International Labor Organization (ILO), which recognizes collective rights.15 But Correa has a 70% approval rating and will emerge victorious in the general elections due to take place at the end of April with the seal of the new constitution.

End Notes

  1. Kintto Lucas, ob. cit.
  2. Memorandum 3 of the CONAIE, 20 Jan. 2009, at
  3. From the Ecuadorian Newspaper Hoy, 7 January 2009, at
  4. Kintto Lucas, ob cit.
  5. "CONAIE to the national and international public opinion," 12 January 2009 at
  6. "The Plight of the Protests Against Mining," Acción Ecológica, Quito, 24 January 2009.
  7. "Open Letter to the World Social Forum, at
  8. Kintto Lucas, ob. cit.
  9. "Report of the Mining Law," ob. cit.
  10. Idem.
  11. Mario Melo ob cit.
  12. "Report of the Mining Law," ob. cit.
  13. Idem.
  14. Mario Melo, ob cit.
  15. "Mining and Attempts Against the Right to Education," CONAIE, 6 de marzo de 2009.


Translated for the Americas Program by Eliot Brockner.

Raúl Zibechi is an international analyst for Brecha of Montevideo, Uruguay, lecturer and researcher on social movements at the Multiversidad Franciscana de América Latina, and adviser to several social groups. He writes the monthly "Zibechi Report" for the Americas Program (

To reprint this article, please contact The opinions expressed here are the author’s and do not necessarily represent the views of the CIP Americas Program or the Center for International Policy.



CONAIE (Confederación de Nacionalidades Indígenas del Ecuador):

Conflictos y resistencia frente a la actividad minera," en Acción Ecológica,


"Informe sobre el proyecto de Ley de Minería," en Acción Ecológica,

Kintto Lucas, "El indigenismo en pie de lucha," semanario Brecha, 30 de enero de 2009.

Mario Melo, "Cinco razones jurídicas para oponerse a la nueva Ley Minera," en revista Petropress No. 13, enero 2009,

Movimientos sociales de Ecuador: