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Mining territory in dispute
Luis Ángel Saavedra*
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Revision of mining concessions seems to favor communities over mineral companies.

In a historic decision, Ecuadorian President Rafael Correa Sept. 25 suspended the activities of Canadian mining company Ascendant Copper in the northern town of Cotacachi, home to the ecological Intag reserve. Correa said the company lacked the town’s approval, a requirement according to the country’s Mining law.

The measures took even the community leaders in Intag by surprise, since they were trying themselves to kick out Ascendant Copper, which was planning a 30-year project to extract copper and molybdenum, worth some US$73 billion. But community leaders felt this was not enough.

“We had hoped that the government would revoke the concession because there’s a community here that doesn’t want mining on its lands. The prohibition of activities only gives the company time,” said Polibio Pérez, an Intag leader.

Pérez says that communities here are totally unprotected and have suffered from the presence of transnational mining companies that are operating under the 2002 Mining law approved under the government of then-President Gustavo Noboa (2000-2003), that gave companies access to 5.5 million hectares (13.6 million acres), equivalent to 20 percent of the country’s territory.

During the International Mining Forum in Quito Sept. 18, Mining and Oil Minister Galo Chiriboga had announced that all mining concessions in Ecuador would be revised.

The announcement sparked a debate highlighting the fight between indigenous and campesino communities and big mining companies.
Transnationals have never hesitated to use the Ecuadorian army to put down community protests against their projects, which is what happened in the southern province of Zamora Chinchipe in December 2006, when even indigenous lawmaker Salvador Quishpe was detained and beaten.

Protests put down
The protests here were the result of Canadian mining company Ecuacorrientes’ insistence to continue operating despite the fact that President Alfredo Palacio (2005-2007) had agreed to the immediate suspension of mining activity in this area.

Soldiers from the Gualaquiza Battalion and the company’s employees put down a protest of 2,000 townspeople. Thirteen people were arrested — including Quishpe — and taken to company headquarters.

In the most extreme cases, the mining companies contracted private armed groups to push out communities, such as the case with Intag, where in December of last year, a 56-member, armed squadron from a private security company arrived to the site, among them 14 soldiers still on active duty. The population succeeded in stopping and disarming the squadron, which was handed over to national police.

Mining companies also use legal actions as a method of putting down resistance. In Intag, Ascendant Copper, through front people, opened 13 criminal court cases against community leaders. The emblematic case is that of Carlos Zorrilla, executive director of the organization Ecological Defense and Conservation of Intag.

Zorrilla was accused of stealing a video camera in 2006 by a US citizen indentified as Leslie Brooke Chaplin, who was tied to the mining company. After submitting her testimony, Chaplin left the country for South Korea, but her signature has appeared in posterior statements.

In October 2006, a judge put an arrest warrant out for Zorrilla, and 20 officers from a special police unit were sent after him. They were unable to capture him but they raided his home and stole anything with a reference to the community. In addition, they supposedly found drugs and a revolver, which opened new cases.

Confrontations with the communities puts the name of mines at risk, sometimes lowering their stock values, says Canadian Steve Vaughan, an expert in natural resources and mining law. To reduce the risk, Vaughan says, Canadian mines have implemented a kind of “divine pyramid of mining.”

According to Vaughan, four or five big mining companies operate at the top of the pyramid, followed by medium-sized firms, which have a series of small companies with national alliances which are in charge of conducting the processes before operations begin and of “clearing the path for when the big ones come,” meaning that no mining suit can touch the industry giants.

A legal battle expected
The revision of the mining concessions is likely to create a fierce standoff in the courts between the companies and government in the case that concessions are revoked, while communities will continue defending their land in the case that concessions are maintained.

“In the coming months, the concessions will constitute a territory in dispute, and that dispute can involve even confrontations between those who oppose mining and those community members who have been contracted by the mine,” said David Cordero, a lawyer for the Regional Foundation of Human Rights Consultancy, which is defending Zorrilla.

Latinamerica Press / Noticias Aliadas
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