Indigenous anti-mining protests hit Ecuador

  Source: Indian Country Today

On Dec. 21, more than a thousand indigenous and campesino activists marched to the Ecuadorian National Assembly in opposition to President Rafael Correa’s proposed mining law. In the Southern Province of Azuay, campesinos blocked a number of highways, resisting police efforts to dislodge them. Protesters said that large-scale mining would damage Ecuador’s environment and pollute rural communities’ water.

The Mining Law, currently under debate in the provisional National Assembly, or Congresillo, would replace the Mining Mandate passed in May of this year. The Mandate froze mining operations and revoked a number of concessions to foreign corporations. The law would create a National Mining Company and increase state control over foreign corporations, which are largely Canadian. But the law would also allow mining to take place anywhere, including in protected areas and sharply limit community input.

In Quito, buses arrived from throughout the country to protest the mining law. Marching to the National Assembly, protesters clashed with police, who used pepper spray to push back activists intent on meeting with legislators. A small delegation was allowed to enter in the afternoon. The protests were organized by the Confederation of Indigenous Nationalities of Ecuador (CONAIE) and the Coordinator for the Unity of the Left and for Life, a new organization dedicated to regrouping social movements to confront Correa.

The march is possibly a prelude to a nation-wide uprising. While the protest was not large by Ecuadorian standards, representatives from many communities were present. Earlier this month, more than 30 organizations gathered in the Amazonian city of Coca and agreed to oppose Correa’s business friendly policies. Former Correa spokesperson and Assembly Member Monica Chuji said, “Today is a first step in a broader process of unifying social movements. Today we don’t have quantity, but we have unity.” Chuji, an Amazonian Kichwa, broke with Correa’s Alianza País Party in September, accusing the president of opposing indigenous rights.

Correa insists that responsible mining is necessary for Ecuador’s development. In November, Correa accused the indigenous movement of “losing their compass and playing into the hands of sectors that they have historically criticized, such as the Right, which the current administration is combating.” Correa has threatened to send the Mining Law to a national referendum if the indigenous movement alters it or blocks its approval, accusing the CONAIE of being anti-democratic.

But Dr. Byron Real López, an expert in environmental law, wrote in a recent report that the Mandate “is concerned with solving important issues. … such as the corruption surrounding the indiscriminate granting of concessions. But the proposed law ignores the ecological and social conflicts that mining activity causes. … and thus would tend to aggravate them.” López argues that the proposed law would violate a number of provisions in the new constitution, such as those protecting the rights of nature and indigenous communities.

Juan Francisco, a young Kichwa, traveled from the Southern province of Cañar. “We will never let them into our territory, which provides our water. Responsible mining is a miserable lie that the government wants to sell to us.” Juan Francisco said that the government should instead support sustainable and organic farming.

Despite Correa’s dismissive comments, it appears that the government is taking the movement seriously. Two days after the protests Ecuador’s interim legislature, the Congresillo, announced that they were considering extending discussion on the law by seven days – potentially pushing back a vote until Jan. 12. On Dec. 26, Congresillo President Francisco Cordero began a series of meetings with social movement leaders opposed to the project. The stated objective is to incorporate critics’ perspectives before the proposal undergoes a second debate, the last step before a vote.

But the CONAIE demands that the law be shelved so that a national debate on mining can take place. And protesters were adamant in their opposition to large-scale mining.

Carmen, a Saraguro Kichwa woman from the Southern province of Loja, said, “We oppose the Mining Law because we love nature. Mining will kill us, it will poison the water with chemicals. We all drink this water and we all will die. Water doesn’t belong to anyone. It belongs to us all.”

Campesino Jorge Marin traveled hours by bus from the Southern Amazonian province of Morona Santiago. “We’re here to stop the Mining Law, a law that will make it impossible for us to be owners of our land. We are here to defend nature and let the Congress know that we depend on the Amazon for life.”

Leaders of the CONAIE were scheduled to meet in a special assembly the first week of January to discuss a possible national uprising.

Salvador Quishpe, a Kichwa leader from the Southern Amazonian province of Zamora Chinchipe, told the crowd that mass mobilization would be necessary to stop the Mining Law. “If we have to celebrate Christmas in the streets to stop this law, we will!” Quishpe said that while it was impossible to bring thousands of people from Zamora Chinchipe to Quito, 1,500 delegates met in his province earlier this month and declared their support for nation-wide mass mobilizations.