We Will Fight Day by Day: No to Mining in Intag, Ecuador

Oscar Cultid spoke into the walkie-talkie, "There’s about 50 of us gathered here in Junín ready to go down." They about to descend to the next village where Ascendant Copper has workers camped near the burned remains of a field office.

The office was destroyed in a previous excursion by locals fed up with its machinations. The Motorola walkie-talkie crackled in response. 

"First we should meet up so we’re really organized." It was Marcia, another young community leader. "But I’m worried they’re listening so we should change to our cell phones."

It sounded like direct action was imminent but Oscar was quite relaxed, ensconced on the top deck of Junin’s cloud forest cabaña. The radio communication was rehearsed and intended solely as a mind game.

"We’re not going to do anything," grinned Oscar. "We just want to see if the miners are listening and see what they do."

Later, there was a motorbike patrol by company guards that suggested someone may have been monitoring their conversation. There can be a touch of sport at times as the people of Junín struggle against Ascendant Copper, a junior mining company listed on the Toronto Stock Exchange that is trying to launch an exploratory driiling projectin their bush-clad mountains. But that said, they are tired of the need to fight and a daily struggle can take its toll on community life.

We arrived in early April in the rainy season, the two newest international human rights observers sent by the United-States based Intag Solidarity Network which aims to have a permanent presence on the ground. Since Ascendant arrived in 2004 in the Intag region, of which Junin is part, there has been an escalating conflict. Opponents to the project have received death threats, local government meetings have been derailed by the abusive behaviour of the company´s paid supporters and Ascendant purchased property from land traffickers which in reality belongs to the community-owned forest reserve in Junin.

Hence the observer programme aims to prevent an escalation of the conflict by making the company aware its tactics are being documented and that concerned foreigners like ourselves are present in the midst of this isolated corner of Ecuador.

While we spent most of our four months in Junin we also made visits to other communities on the front line – Barcelona, Cerro Pelado and Triunfo and we were told repeatedly how much people value their healthy environment: fresh water, clean air.

To say they lack complete information, as the Canadian trade commisioner to Ecuador insisted to us once, is to belittle their decade of struggle. In the mid 1990s, most locals initially supported the first arrival of a mining company, that time Japanese. They turned against Bishi Metals when the Junin river was polluted by its drilling rigs and when working conditions worsened for local labourers. It was the revelations of the company´s own enviornmental impact report that cemented their opposition. It described effects of a mine from desertification in this biological hotspot to increased crime. Bishi Metals said around 100 families would have to be relocated for a mine, a fact so boldly punctuating the report it is still quoted.

Ascendant Copper and its allies keep saying it is just an exploration company. But the people of these Intag communities see so clearly the bigger picture, that successful exploration would lead to immense commercial pressure to open a copper mine on their land.

Now a wider leadership is aware of the threat. In May 2006, all seven parish presidents of the Intag region called for the immediate departure of Ascendant Copper. Mayor of Cotacachi County, Auki Tituaña has made clear to the national government he wants to see the back of the company. The heavy drop in Ascendant stock prices suggests investors are aware of the level of resistance.

Successful relocation would be a fantasy, when up to four generations of each family call Junín home, where everyone knows each other by first name and never fails to shake hands in greeting.

By contrast, relationships with the company´s representatives have felt hostile and threatening. That day we arrived, the bus only went as far as Hotel Villa Dorita, a resented landmark: the local headquarters for the mining company and its contractors. We loitered briefly and an armed guard snapped our photo on the sly. "Smile," said Wayne, "Now they know we’re here."

It is nothing unusual for residents of Junín to be recorded. Any appearance in the local town of Garcia Moreno makes company guards reach for digital cameras or spy from rooftops with binoculars. Our friends retaliate with their own photographs and we shoot footage with our video camera–a digital showdown in the town square.

When these thugs sport weapons, the local face of Ascendant Copper turns really ugly. One morning in June we were driving out to a meeting when we went past three goons on foot patrol in the highway, kilometers from base. One had a shotgun, another radioed ahead to goodness knows whom as we passed. They wore dark glasses, low caps, a mixture of civilian clothing and security uniform. They were not guarding anything and had no clear identification.

For Polibio Pérez and his family, these men are a daily menace. A dedicated leader of the opposition to Ascendant’s presence, he lives in Chalguayaco Bajo in the thick of company activity.

"They are not guarding anyone. If nothing better, they are walking, spying, gathering information. It is worrying because before this was a peaceful area and now the family can not live in peace," he said.

That peace was shattered shortly before we left in July when Polibio was held up at gun point close to his home by a man who had previously claimed in front of observers to be a member of the Ecuadorian army. This man questioned Polibio about the gate that prohibits entry into Junin for mining supporters and warned that next time he would find Polibio in a quieter road and kill him.

Ascendant Copper would probably love to have such a threatening presence in Junín, the village right over a potential mine and bastion of determined opposition. The company does try to infiltrate, sending in a fake tourist guide, supposed researchers who arrive unannounced, supporters who say they are here to buy local produce and then drive by snapping photos.

To that end, there is a locked chain strung across the only road into this 40 family village. ‘The control’ it is called and by way of explanation a sign is hammered onto a nearby tree, saying: ‘Entry prohibited to mining companies. The lands will not be sold, the lands will be defended.’

Rosario Piedra and her family have the keys to the control. They also work in Junín’s community-owned cabaña. Tourists are warmly welcomed but sadly Ascendant’s attempts at infiltration breed suspicion of unexpected or unknown visitors at the gate.

But the company does enter Junín. Not with guards on motorbikes, or with work gangs dressed in company issue yellow boots and helmets as seen in Chalguayaco. Its presence is heard in rumors, felt in distrust, in the anger, frustration and tiredness of people who live a daily struggle.

We have heard some rumors which include one that money changed hands before the Sanchez brothers testified against Polibio Pérez over last December’s field office burning. The brothers were among the hundreds present, then ‘ecologistas’, as company supporters label those in opposition to the copper project. Now they work as laborers for Ascendant and the talk circulates that the family has tried to sell land to the company.

One Saturday afternoon, a copy of their signed testimony found its way down to the village square. Angry community members confronted one betrayer and a scuffle ensued. The next morning, mother Sanchez walked into town, sat and waited for the regular afternoon crowd with a heavy stick. "Look how the miners carry themselves, coming here with such a stick," commented one village stalwart. Men and women gossiped and watched volleyball with one eye on this woman as she threw insults and waved her stick.

"We could end up fighting within our own community while the company stays unruffled," said Rosario.

Everyone here understands division is the company’s game, or rather its strategy is to provoke such infighting to weaken and worry the community. When Señora Sanchez upgraded from stick to machete still no one took the bait.

Selling land to Ascendant is a major betrayal in local’s eyes. Last year, Cesar Calvachi was removed as community president as he negotiated to sell out. The deal fell through. He said the company did not respect him, but he is still just now being reintegrated into village life, taking his place in mingas (collective work-days) and appearing some Sundays in the square.

There remain whole families we as observers have never been introduced to because they sold land, which is needed by Ascendant to proceed with its first phase of drilling exploratory wells.They are still here, given a two-year grace period to stay on their land where they remain isolated from community events. The majority continues to fight and understand the harm to community spirit done by any such implicit support for the company. Víctor Calvachi has been a leader of the struggle since he went door to door explaining the case against Bishi Metals during the 1990s. Now he is fed up with seeing company laborers walking home in Junín wearing those brightly colored helmets and boots that the company issues so no one can ignore its presence.

"They don’t think of the long-term, these poor little innocents," said Víctor, sitting on his deck against a backdrop of the lush forest he values so dearly.

"The company has these pets. Still, if they want to go and work they are free to do so, but they should not be allowed to come back here wearing company clothing. They should not."

With the phase of land purchases apparently mostly completed, the hiring of workers has been the main way during our time that the company peels people out from the collective. And it costs just $10 a day per head in wages, cheap for a company flush with investors’ dollars.

Once one person takes a job, the loyalty of other family members can be questioned. "Don’t you trust her?" Ping asked Oscar as he was discussing one member of such a family.

"I don’t even trust my own boots. Sometimes they fail me and I fall," he said. It is so much harder in such a mood for families to unite, be open and trust one another.

The workers are ostensibly hired to do basic pick and shovel road maintenance in this district which is often cut off by landslides or they work on Ascendant’s so-called model farm, planting crops.

Don Bolívar Enriques took the money, transporting company workers in his pick-up, one of just two that serves Junín. He claimed it was just spite due to a dispute over the share of work between the truck owners. But his persistent refusal to back down made him a target for anger during a memorable confrontation with company staff and supporters on the banks of the Chalguayaco river.

"Daddy, daddy!" cried his daughter in surprise, seeing him on the wrong side of the river, touting a yellow helmet. Another person whacked him on the back of the head, enraged by the betrayal. There was anger that day and the people of Junín are learning from it. "The company is trying to provoke us with such confrontations so more charges can be brought against us," is a common way of stating the risk.

Wages are pocketed by around half a dozen men from Junín with more workers in Chalguayaco. The company delivers benefits, cash and a cleared road, to try to shift people’s attention to the short-term and away from the long-term picture of what a mining project would mean if fully realized.

"Last year, the company gave a talk at our high school saying they only want to drill exploratory holes and not make a mine," writes 14 year old Anabel in her letter to Canadian newspapers. "But we think this is a lie."

The trade commissioner at the Canadian embassy in Quito asked us to pass on the same "it’s just exploration" line, the day we handed over our denouncement of human rights violations, detailing matters from the paramilitary-style behaviour of company security personal through to company contractors colluding with local officials and police to attempt to arrest Polibio Perez with an invalid warrant.. Hopefully the contents of this report will make Canadian diplomats think twice before involving themselves in the organised PR the present the company as socially responsible.

It’s a campaign from the top filtering down in glossy brochures and paid spokesmen, accompanied by free doctor’s visits, high school scholarships and mother’s day parties for supporters It includes a map showing a list of social services the company claims to provide to Intag communities. However, when we interviewed presidents of communities within the concession they said almost all of these services were non existant. Don Mariano from the village of Barcelona described the company’s strategy by way of visual metaphor. He pointed at the bottle with a little sugared water at the bottom that catches flies in his kitchen. "They put down a little, just a little money to lure us in and make us fall."

He maintains another control gate on this other side of the hills, a day’s walk from Junín. A stroll from his house is the Aguagrum river where someone has carved "We do not permit mining" into the mossy clothing of a large boulder. Fresh cold mountain water streams past.

These people know what they have and what they want and do not want for their future.

So they continue to struggle. Hundreds of people leave home at 2am to join a large protest to Cotacachi and Quito on July 12 and 13. This saw Intag politicians pressing the case against Ascendant Copper in a two hour meeting with Ecuador´s minister of energy and mines while exuberant protesters waited in the streets of Quito. Víctor Hugo Ramírez reaches for his walkie-talkie when a group of unknown men is seen walking down the road into Junín. Women work long days cooking and cleaning in the tourist cabaña, pouring their energy into this alternative income. The Toucans, the local band born of the struggle, get together of an evening to play their songs to a new group of tourists. They pick out their rhythms on their guitars and give new energy to a tiresome battle. Oscar Cultid sings:

En unidad de comunidades

luchamos por nuestras vidas

defendemos nuestros derechos

y queremos la libertad.

In a unity of communities

we fight for our lives

we defend our rights

and we want freedom.

—Wayne Erb and Ping Sim recently completed four months as international human rights observers based in Junín as part of the Intag Solidarity Network. They now move on to new adventures in their home of New Zealand.