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Defending "Life and Sovereignty"

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Issue: 47 Section: Features Geography: Canada, Latin America Ecuador Topics: Mining, social movements, corporate

July 5, 2007

Defending "Life and Sovereignty"

Ecuador’s mining prospects, Canadian companies, and the conflict with affected communities

by Jennifer Moore

The National Coordinating Committee for the Defense of Life and Sovereignty wants Ecuador to declare itself “a country free of large-scale mining.” Photo: Ecuador IndyMedia

“…what has happened to all of the oil extracted since March 22, 1967? Ecuador has produced 4.035 million barrels of oil since that time which valued at nominal historic international prices represents a sum total of $82 billion. Where is this money? And I’m not speaking about riches, because the true riches are what have been destroyed, that weren’t in the ground, but rather in the biodiversity, in the life and in the cultures that have been lost.”

– Former Minister of Energy & Mines, Alberto Acosta, speaking on the 40th anniversary of oil extraction in the Ecuadorian Amazon

Following attempts in recent months to obtain concrete responses from the government of President Rafael Correa regarding its plans for large-scale mining in Ecuador, the National Co-ordinating Committee in Defence of Life and Sovereignty -- an inter-provincial coalition of organizations and communities -- called for a national uprising, which is ongoing. Highway blockades taking place across South and Central Ecuador between June 26 and 29 faced stern repression from police and armed forces under direct orders from the government. Recent statements by the government are also worrying to those involved.

A banner at a blockade illustrates the anger protesters are feeling with Canadian corporations.

Photo: Ecuador IndyMedia

While 2007 marks 40 years for Ecuador as an oil producing nation, it has never been a major mineral producer and current large-scale mining projects have yet to enter into production. In some situations, this is largely due to tenacious community resistance, such as in the case of Intag in the northern province of Imbabura, where struggles have been ongoing for 10 years. Legal reforms by past governments favouring private investment and internationally funded studies revealing rich mineral deposits throughout the central Andes and the southern Amazonian region of Ecuador are making the country’s mining sector attractive to foreign investors. A recent industry report by Madison Avenue Research entitled “Ecuador, Number One in Potential for Pipeline Ounces of Gold,” highlights Ecuador’s appeal to Canadian corporations in particular. To date, the Ministry of Energy and Mines has granted licenses for over 4,000 mining concessions that cover roughly 20 per cent of the surface of Ecuador, including many ecologically and culturally diverse areas, according to Acción Ecológica, an environmental organization based in Quito.

In opposition to efforts to make Ecuador a major mineral producer, the National Co-ordinating Committee in Defence of Life and Sovereignty and the thousands mobilized by its call are convinced that there are better alternatives for the future of their communities and the country. Considering that communities are already experiencing tremendous “social contamination,” even before mining begins in Ecuador, and considering the health and environmental deterioration faced in other countries where large-scale mineral mining is already happening, the National Co-ordinating Committee wants Ecuador to cut its losses before production gets underway and for Ecuador to declare itself “a country free of large-scale mining.”

The National Co-ordinating Committee in Defence of Life and Sovereignty

The National Co-ordinating Committee in Defence of Life and Sovereignty was established on January 26, 2007. It brings communities in resistance from more than eight provinces across Ecuador together and includes numerous environmental and human rights organizations, urban associations and student groups. Lina Solano from the National Co-ordinating Committee says that the “social and environmental impacts of large-scale mining are too great to justify this as a major source of income for the country.”

From Ecuador’s experience as an oil producer, “we already know where the profits will be spent,” she says. “A large percentage will be used to pay off the external debt, that is to say it will also leave the country, while another large percentage will go toward the bureaucracy and the armed forces, with a minimum percentage remaining for education and healthcare, likely not even fulfilling the 30 per cent established in our constitution,” she adds. Even such minor gains are unlikely unless the government amends the Mining Law, which requires foreign investors to pay a minimum per-hectare conservation patent and zero per cent in royalties.

Subsecretary of Mining, Jorge Jurado, indicated in an interview with Reuters on June 22 that the government plans to present reforms to Ecuador’s Mining Law to congress this month. These would reintroduce royalties, limit exploration concessions currently good for 30 years, and strengthen environmental regulations, amongst other things. The government has also said it will create an independent Ministry of Mines and a state-owned mining company.

In contrast, the National Co-ordinating Committee would like the government to suspend current projects and place a moratorium on new concessions. Following investigations, they ultimately demand that current concessions be annulled. Their demands are premised on Ecuador’s constitution which guarantees communities the right to fair and informed consultation with regard to state decisions that might affect the environment. Both the President and the former minister of energy and mines -- who stepped down on June 14 in order to announce his candidacy for upcoming elections of a new National Constituent Assembly -- have previously agreed that these demands are just and that the overwhelming majority of current concessions are unconstitutional.

As several mining projects near production, the National Co-ordinating Committee has been urgently seeking government support. However, after numerous delays following four months of marches, meetings and correspondence, the Committee declared an indefinite national uprising on June 5. Demonstrations at the end of June elicited a definitive response, but not one that protesters had been hoping for.

Police Repression

Blockades that began on June 26 shut down three major arteries around Cuenca, the third largest city in the country and capital of the province of Azuay. Other main routes were also closed in the Southern Amazonian provinces of Morona Santiago and Zamora Chinchipe, with additional demonstrations taking place in the central province of Chimborazo.

On June 27, the president ordered the police to bring an end to the blockades and stated to the press that the “elimination of mining concessions is inconceivable” given the costs that the state would incur. He refused to speak with protesters and police enforcement of his orders resulted in brutal repression against demonstrators, particularly in the vicinity of Cuenca.

Lina Solano describes how, blockade by blockade, hundreds of police used overwhelming amounts of tear gas and anti-riot vehicles to dislodge protesters of all ages from the highways violently. Dozens of people were taken into detention and injuries were sustained by a number of demonstrators, as well as several police officers. In the area of Tarqui, southwest of Cuenca, police exhausted their supply of tear gas while taking control of the demonstration and reportedly sprayed tear gas inside of several homes, nearly asphyxiating several children.

Others on site were also threatened by police, including attempts to confiscate the camera of one Indymedia journalist.

Late on June 29, in the area of Molleturo where campesinos were maintaining the last remaining blockage of the main highway connecting Cuenca with the port city of Guayaquil, protesters reported the arrival of over 400 soldiers and 150 police officers, at which point they decided to retreat from the roadway.

Detentions Target National Co-ordinating Committee Leadership

Roughly 30 people were taken into detention between June 27 and 28, many even after road blocks had been cleared. Solano and two other organizers from the National Co-ordinating Committee were amongst those held overnight on June 27.

Solano says that five police officers aggressively detained her and Nidia Soliz, also from the Committee, late in the afternoon. For roughly three hours, they were held together in a locked car without windows and driven around the countryside before being taken to provincial police headquarters. Solano says the officers were driving “at top speed, braking abruptly, presumably so that we would bang ourselves against the inside walls of the car.” Earlier in the day, Fernando Mejia of the National Co-ordinating Committee was also detained.

Solano believes that their leadership was clearly targeted. Other demonstrators also reported being interrogated by police about the homes and whereabouts of leaders from the National Co-ordinating Committee. Early on June 28, student supporters, in particular from the University of Cuenca, along with many others, held demonstrations in front of government and judicial offices and the three were granted Habeas Corpus by midday. Others held in detention were also freed, although at least 11 still have charges filed against them.

“We are incredibly surprised,” says Solano, “because we didn’t think that a government based upon the defence of our country and our sovereignty [would allow such repression to take place.]” She quotes former Minister of Energy and Mines Alberto Acosta as having said that “not one drop of blood will be shed, no matter how profitable a project might be.”

“There’s an effort to minimize participation in our movement, to say that there are only a few hundred people in opposition and that in reality the rest of the population is in favour of these mining projects.” However, says Solano, the reality is otherwise. “In all this time that [the Co-ordinating Committee] has been organizing since the 26th of January of this year, there are thousands of people mobilizing, as much women, men, elderly, children and youth -- whole families in fact -- that are demonstrating in defence of our water more than anything, since this is the resource that is most put at risk by large-scale metal extraction.”

Communities from the provinces of Imbabura, Pichincha, Bolivar and Cotopaxi have participated in previous demonstrations and the two largest indigenous organizations in Ecuador, the CONAIE and ECUARUNARI, have also released public statements expressing solidarity with the struggle.

Government Priorities Conflict with Community Interests

President Correa’s statements last week are also “incredibly worrying,” says Solano. “To give a completely negative response and to say that the government is not going to support the communities’ petitions is a marked change.”

“In the beginning,” she recalls, “the government maintained that communities’ interests would be put first, before those of private corporations, and that what the communities are asking for is just and that the government would see how to deal with the issues. But now the government seems to be planning to make mining a main source of sustenance for the country, following the depletion of oil, and to be arranging for the state to earn a percentage of mining profits to put toward areas such as education and health.”

“This is horrible from our perspective because it’s like negotiating with our lives, and in particular with the lives of thousands of rural families who are most directly affected by these mining projects,” says Solano.

The subsecretary of mining, Jorge Jurado, made a further announcement last week stating that a High Level Commission would be commissioned to produce a report within 30 days concerning Project Quimsacocha. Project Quimsacocha is a large gold mining initiative led by Canadian company IAMGOLD in the high plateau (páramos) surrounding the communities of Tarqui and Victoria del Portete, where local resistance has been vehement.

Solano says that this announcement is a “step backward” from what the government previously promised. “When we spoke with the president on March 26, he gave the green light for then-minister of energy and mines, Alberto Acosta, to initiate a series of exhaustive audits concerning current projects. However, time has passed and they had to wait for people to protest so that they can now talk about striking this high level commission. We don’t know what it will mean, who will participate and if it will entail the suspension of this project.” Above all, Solano is concerned that people will put their hope in this commission and that it will be another waste of time while mining projects proceed toward production.

The Ongoing Struggle

Solano says that looking back over the last five months, the National Co-ordinating Committee has been successful in generating national debate on the issues. However, she says, “unless other organized sectors and the rest of Ecuador respond to what is happening, regrettably we will not be able to put up a sufficient front.”

She notes that Ecuador is unique in Latin America for not having an industrial mining sector and emphasizes the country’s right to make its own decisions. “We ask everyone who understands what is taking place here to support this struggle. This is really about our national sovereignty and our right to say 'no'.”

She adds, “Within the system that we are living in, decisions are being made not even by a small group of countries anymore, but rather by a small group of transnational corporations. And these decisions are being imposed all around the world, often by blood and fire. In this regard, all international solidarity is important to us in order to reclaim our right to self-determination.

This article was originally published in America Latino Em Movimento and a shorter version is available in Spanish

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