Temporary Relief from Mining Conflicts in Ecuador

Silence in Junín is the sound of rushing water. Rivers cut up and down the wide valleys, and waterfalls crash down the steep mountain faces that shelter the 300 strong community, located in the Intag valley in northwestern Ecuador. Silence in Junín is the sound of rushing water. Rivers cut up and down the wide valleys, and waterfalls crash down the steep mountain faces that shelter the 300 strong community, located in the Intag valley in northwestern Ecuador.

Though distant from commercial centers, the size of people’s farms and the fertility of the soil allow them to grow a wide variety of crops for subsistence and for sale to local and international markets.

“We are lucky that here in Intag we have very productive soils, and we won’t let anyone take that away from us,” states Hernando Pereira, a farmer from Intag and the President of the Toisan Consortium, a fair trade collective in the area.

Relative peace has returned to the area, where not long ago tension reigned, climaxing in a series of paramilitary incursions carried out by private security guards working for Ascendant Copper Corporation in late 2006.

Members of the communities that would be relocated – were Ascendant’s copper project to go forward – have disputed the legality of the concessions since they first found out about the presence of the company, which acquired 3 concessions in the area in 2004. The communities in the Intag valley have a long history of resistance to transnational mining companies, having forced out Japan’s Mitsubishi Metals 12 years ago.

Two of Ascendant’s concessions were withdrawn by President Rafael Correa’s government in early 2008, because of their unconstitutionality, among other reasons.

There are currently 2.8 million hectares concessioned to mining companies in Ecuador, mostly to Canadian “junior” exploration companies that are, like Ascendant Copper Corporation, listed on the Toronto Stock Exchange.

At the same time as the people in Junín and surrounding communities had their lands invaded by paramilitaries working on behalf of Ascendant, violent clashes between community members and pro-mining factions, backed by Corriente Resources, came to a head in Ecuador’s southern Zamora state.

Then-congressperson Salvador Quishpé was taken hostage during the clashes and allegedly tortured on the property of the mining company, sparking off national outrage and international press coverage. [1]

Resistance to Ascendant Copper in the Intag region, as well as the clashes in the south at the end of 2006 brought mining to the forefront as a national issue in Ecuador, a country where oil, remittances, bananas, and shrimp are the principal drivers of the economy, and modern, large scale mining has been, until recently, a remote prospect.

Correa: Ushering in a New Era in Ecuador?

Rafael Correa was elected president of Ecuador in September of 2006, and took office on January 15, 2007. After his election, Correa spoke of kicking off a “civilian revolution” in Ecuador. [2]

Correa’s government has certainly undertaken measures that differentiate it from previous administrations, perhaps most notably by strengthening relations with Venezuela’s Hugo Chavez, as well as by refusing to renew an agreement that would allow the US to keep a military base that they set up in the coastal city of Manta in 1999.

Less publicized was the Correa government’s violent repression against people from the Amazonian village of Dayuma, who erected road-blockades on Nov. 25, 2007, (and, according to police, intimidated employees of Petroproducción, the state owned oil exploration and production company) temporarily shutting down oil production. There are 53 oil wells and three processing plants near Dayuma, yet locals lack access to basic services.

People’s demands at the road blockades were for road paving to be completed, for access to electricity, and an end to the environmental contamination related to oil extraction.

On Nov. 30, locals in Dayuma were expecting the arrival of two federal Ministers for an agreed upon dialogue process. Instead, between five and seven hummers filled with dozens of soldiers arrived that morning, arresting 25 people, including people who had not participated in road blockades, as well as Provincial Prefect Guadalupe Llori.

On his weekly radio program the day after the military incursion, Correa referred to the residents of Dayuma as “terrorists, saboteurs and extortionists.” [3]

Correa and the Assembly on Mining: Big Bark, but is there Bite?

Following on his campaign promise to re-write the Constitution of the Republic, the process was kicked off in April 2007, when Ecuadorians voted by popular referendum in favor of dissolving Congress and electing a Constituent Assembly, charged with re-writing the Constitution.

Elections for the Constituent Assembly were held in September 2007, and work on the new Constitution -to be Ecuador’s 20th Carta Magna, the last having been approved in 1998- began in December 2007. Once the Assembly has finished re-writing the Constitution (their time-line has been extended until July) it will either be approved or rejected through a popular referendum.

On April 18, 2008, the so-called “Mining Mandate” was emitted by the Constituent Assembly, banning almost all large-scale exploration for metallic minerals for 180 days, or until a new Mining Law is approved, whichever comes first. [4]

Ian Harris, the Ecuador manager for Corriente Resources, stated in Focal Point magazine that “in the three-day period leading up to the mandate vote and its subsequent approval, Corriente Resources Inc. and Aurelian Resources Inc., two of the larger Canadian exploration companies with 100 per cent exposure in Ecuador, lost over $830 million in market capital.”[5]

Shortly after the Mining Mandate was emitted by the Assembly, President Correa announced that “the position of the government is yes to responsible mining… [if this sector is well managed] it can take us out of underdevelopment.” [6]

Correa met with representatives of Canadian companies on April 25. Also present at the meeting was Canadian ambassador Christian LaPointe, who, according to the CBC, “attended the meeting with the mining companies and presented the Canadian government’s concerns over the mining rules.” [7]

LaPointe, who was Canada’s ambassador to Haiti during the 2004 Canada-led coup d’état against President Aristide, has been “responsible for ensuring the high-level penetration of Canadian mining companies in the Ecuadorian government,” according to José Cueva, who is a coordinator for the Intag region before the district assembly.

Mining companies mobilized their supporters in a May 6 rally in Independence Square in Quito, where an estimated 500 people gathered to protest against the Mining Mandate.

For members of communities who could be affected by large-scale mining, the lack of enforcement of the Mandate (and in Junín, the lack of enforcement of the withdrawal of Ascendant’s mining concessions) has led locals to feel uneasy, because there are still company people working in the area.

ImageAccording to Rosario Piedra, a lifetime resident of Junín, “the company still has workers working on two farms. They are paying them $600 a month, and they’re growing tomatoes. This violates the agreement that we made with the company. We agreed to take down the chains blocking access to the community if the company would withdraw all of their workers from the area. The fact that the company still has workers here is illegal.”

Legally speaking: Ministry, Industry and the new Mining Law

The Mining Mandate also leads to a potential legal conundrum.

“We were expecting the Mining Mandate [officially, the 6th Decree of the Constituent Assembly] to be valid for 180 days after the new Constitution is voted upon,” explains Omar Burneo, who was part of the advisory group on mining in the Assembly, “but what we ended up with is a Mandate that means that a new mining law can be written and approved before the new Constitution is adopted.”

The Ministry of Mines and Petroleum is charged with re-writing the new Mining Law, a draft of which is publicly available on their website. Among other changes in the draft, “environmentally sustainable” mining will be declared to be in the public interest, royalties on production will be set between 3 percent and 5 percent and the state will set up a National Mining Company, as well as intervening in the purchase of land “in cases where the concessionaire has not been successful in buying lands that will be used for [open pit] exploitation.” [8]

According to Lucia Ruiz, environmental sub-secretary for the Ministry of Mines and Petroleum, the new Mining Law “will ensure sure that in the future, the people that benefit most from mining projects are local communities and regions.”

However, the proposed changes in the Mining Law are distant from community demands.

In contrast to the Ministry’s draft, the Intag based conservation organization DECOIN is demanding the inclusion of such elements as: community consent before the granting of mining licenses or concessions, independent cost-benefit Environmental Impact Assessments weighed with view to the next 50-100 years, a precautionary principle banning mining in high biodiversity zones, cloud forests and wetlands, and the creation of reclamation bonds, among other elements.

According to Harris, “[Corriente Resources, Aurelian inc.] and others are lobbying to protect their investments and to make their voices heard in the new law. The industry… is hopeful that an acceptable agreement can be reached.”

It remains to be seen how much input from the Constituent Assembly and citizenry will be included in the new Mining Law, which some analysts speculate could be approved within the next month.

Community Consent: The Breaking Point

On May 13, 2008, CONAIE, Ecuador’s largest Indigenous organization, broke off informal talks that they were engaged in with President Correa. The right to consent and mining issues are high on their list of complaints about the President’s behavior towards Indigenous people. [9]

Regardless of the demands of CONAIE, which reverberate through a wide cross section of Ecuadorian civil society, Correa is pushing for the new Constitution to include a non-binding “consultation process” with local communities before mega-projects happen on their land (this exists in the current Constitution).

Pachakutik, the political arm of CONAIE, and an important minority within the Assembly process, is instead in favor of the new Constitution containing wording around “prior consent,” authorizing communities with the right to say no to mega-projects, including large scale mines, in their lands.

The issue of whether to vest communities with the Constitutional right to consent is the “breaking point in the Constitutional process,” according to Cueva. “It’s complicated,” he adds thoughtfully, stating: “this is an issue that will be decided in the streets if it is not dealt with by the Constituent Assembly.”

Dawn Paley is an independent journalist from Vancouver, Canada.


[1] Patterson, K. (January 18, 2007). Canadian CEO denies abuses at mine protest. Ottawa Citizen. Retrieved May 31, 2008 from http://www.canada.com/ottawacitizen/news/story.html?id=0da6a0b0-09df-4e33-b398-6f8d91e87f08&p=1 

[2] BBC News. (November 27, 2006). Profile: Ecuador’s Rafael Correa. BBC News. Retrieved May 31, 2008 from http://news.bbc.co.uk/2/hi/americas/6187364.stm

[3] Aguirre, Milagros. (March, 2008). Dayuma: ¡Nunca Más! Cicame, Quito, Ecuador.

[4] Asamblea Constituyente. (April 18, 2008). Mandato Constituyente #6. Retrieved May 31, 2008 from http://www.asambleaconstituyente.gov.ec/documentos/mandato_minero_definitivo.pdf

[5] Harris, Ian. (June, 2008). Ecuador’s Mineral Crossroads: Canada’s Commitment? Focal Point. Retrieved June 3, 2008 from http://www.focal.ca/publications/focalpoint/fp0608/?article=article2&lang=e

[6] Hoy Noticias. (April 26, 2008). Correa decidido a permitir minería responsable pese a protestas sociales 14:00. Hoy Online. Retrievecd May 31, 2008 from http://www.hoy.com.ec/NoticiaNue.asp?row_id=294095

[7] CBC News. (April 25, 2007). Ecuadorian president reassures mining firms. CBC News. Retrieved May 31 from http://www.cbc.ca/money/story/2008/04/25/ecuadormining.html?ref=rss

[8] Ministerio de Minas y Petroleo. (April, 2008). Borrador de la Nueva Ley Minera. Retrieved May 31, 2008 from http://www.mineriaecuador.com/bor_doc_tra_pro__nue_ley_minera.pdf

[9] Denvir, D., Riofrancos, T. (May 16, 2008). CONAIE Indigenous Movement Condemns President Correa. Retrieved May 31, 2008 from http://alainet.org/active/24062&lang=en