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ECUADOR
Communities clash with mining
7/1/2004
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Government hands over concessi

Mining in Ecuador has received a strong boost in the last three years, to the point that more than 20 percent of Ecuadoran territory has been given in concession to diverse international mining companies. This has provoked numerous clashes between indigenous communities and miners.

Gloria Chicaiza, activist of Ecological Action, said that since 2001 5.5 million hectares (13.6 million acres) has been given in concession for mining prospecting. Two million hectares (4.9 million acres) of this land corresponds to protective forests (which attract rains), ecological reserves, water sources, agricultural areas and zones with high levels of biodiversity.

Nevertheless, despite government guarantees, the companies cannot easily mine the concessions granted, since the local communities have decided to impede their activities.

History of clashes

The first clashes occurred at the end of the 1990s in the zone of Intag in the western province of Imbabura, where the Japanese company Bishimetals, a subsidiary of Mitsubishi Corporation, was authorized through an accord between Ecuador and Japan, to carry out from 1995 activities to mine a large copper deposit.

The population of Intag, after exhausting a series of mechanisms to solve the conflict, occupied the mining camp in 1998, confiscated the machinery, handed it over to the mayor’s office and then set the buildings on fire. The company filed a criminal lawsuit that the local communities won. Finally, the mining activities stopped and the company withdrew from the sector in 1999.

Years later, in 2002, residents of the town Los Encuentros in the Amazonian province of Zamora Chinchipe clashed with Llanos UNO, a company made up of Italian and Brazilian capital that had obtained the concession for 2,500 hectares (6,175 acres) in Zamora River. The population of the area mobilized and in one of the community meetings the campesinos won the pledge of the Director of National Mining.

"The director came to a meeting in the school of Los Encuentros and assured the population that if the community did not want mining, it would not happen. The residents closed the school until he put the verbal commitment on paper," Chicaiza said.

Nevertheless, the company failed to leave and on the contrary, the leaders of the community were accused of terrorism and kidnapping by the ministerial representative. In light of this action, the community went down to the river, cut down the trees and the moorings that held up the machines working in the current of water. The machines were washed away down the river. The company sued the leaders, accusing them of kidnapping and attempted murder. Finally, the company did not manage to prove the accusations and it was forced to leave the zone.

The indigenous people and campesinos have also been defeated in these clashes as in the case of Zurmi as well as Zamora Chinchipe where residents managed to stop, for two years, the production of silica. But at the end of 2003, the community lost a lawsuit and the miners took possession of some of their lands — among them the community cemetery — in exchange for a tiny economic compensation.

The most recent case

This year, another case in the northwestern province Pichincha, two hours from the Ecuadoran capital, became public. On May 11, 23 campesino communities from Pacto began a peaceful revolt with the goal of expelling the miners. This town is part of one of the 25 zones richest in biodiversity and besides is a zone of agricultural and dairy livestock production and has a lot of tourist potential. The zone produce molasses for export and has seen one of the country’s few successful experiences of rural sustainable development. It is also an area that contains pre-Colombian ruins, recognized by National Institute of Cultural Patrimony and the Fund of Salvation of Cultural Patrimony (FONSAL), organizations that have also asked for a halt to mining activities in the zone.

In the face of pressure by the populations, the miners notified their decision to temporarily suspend their activities in order to take part in a dialogue organized among authorities, campesinos and representatives of divers social organizations. The conversations were unsuccessful because the community was not willing to negotiate its decision to halt the mining activity. In exchange, the government authorities offered the installation of a mining technical school and the design of a plan of adequate management. The Secretary of Energy and Mines, Carlos Arboleda Heredia, who had traveled to Pacto, was expelled by the population amid a heavy police escort.

Lawyer Gina Benavides of the Regional Foundation of Human Rights Advice (INREDH), in representation of the community residents, said that dialogue should take place prior to the mining activity because the Ecuadorean Constitution orders the realization of prior consultation with the communities.

"It is the communities that have the authority to decide if they accept or do not accept this type of activities in their lands," she said.

Meanwhile, the residents of Pacto face 44 charges, including sabotage, insults, aggression, terrorism and attempted kidnapping.

"It appears that these clashes will take place throughout Ecuador, since the communities now are fully aware of their rights," Chicaiza said.


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Residents of Pacto march again
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