Ecuadorians defend their land against mining, 1995-2007

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Timing
Time Period:  
1995
to
September
2007
Location and Goals
Country: 
Ecuador
Location Description: 
Junina mountainous community in the Intag region of northern Ecuador
Goals: 
The community’s goal was to protect its land from the construction of mines.
 

Residents of Junin faced the first assault on their land in the early 1990s, after the Ecuadorian government signed a contract with Bishi Metals, a subsidiary of Mitsubishi. The contract allowed the mining company to prospect in and around Junin, a community in the mountainous region of northern Ecuador. Junin and its surrounding region, Intag, have exceptional biodiversity and rich water resources. Junin also happens to be rich in metals—copper in particular. The arrival of Bishi Metals raised immediate concern among Intag residents. Bishi Metals planned to make use of Junin’s resources by installing an open-air copper mine in the area. Community members began researching the impacts of mining, and, in 1995, they formed the Organization for the Defense and Conservation of Intag (DECOIN). Opposition to mining was already growing fast, and members of DECOIN were determined to protect their land from invasion.

Directly after its formation, DECOIN contacted other, larger environmental groups. The links that they made with larger groups provided the campaign with money, training, and publicity within Ecuador and worldwide. Accion Ecologica, an environmental group from Quito, was especially instrumental in training DECOIN members and providing resources needed for their campaign.

Beginning in 1994, Bishi Metals began exploring the area and distributing propaganda in an attempt to convince locals of the benefits of their project. DECOIN countered by organizing intense educational campaigns, warning community members of the environmental and social impacts of the mine. One of the campaign’s allies founded a newspaper, Periodico Intag, which allowed for improved communication between distant communities. Although DECOIN’s educational campaign was very successful, a portion of community members were still drawn to the mine because of the benefits promised by Bishi Metals. Exploration continued and Bishi Metals began to set up camp in Junin.

A turning point in DECOIN’s campaign came when, in 1997, the group uncovered an impact study conducted by Bishi Metals that detailed the extensive deforestation, deposits of polluting waste minerals, and contamination of rivers and drinking water the mine would cause. In addition, the mine’s waste disposal would flood a valley, causing 100 families to be displaced. Community members were enraged at this news, and demanded meetings with the provincial government and with the mining company. After several weeks and countless ignored pleas for meetings, campaigners decided to take dramatic action.

On May 12, 1997, 87 community members from Junin hiked the several miles up the mountainside to Bishi Metal’s base camp. They took hold of all of the camp’s property—everything from plates and cups to geological equipment—and brought it back down the mountain. They had the camp’s caretaker warn the government and the mining company of their action, and waited for a response. Two days later, when no response was forthcoming, campaigners marched back up the mountain and took a bold move: they burned the camp to the ground and planted a sign that read, “Not Another Step Forward for the Mining Companies.” A few weeks later, Bishi Metals packed up and abandoned plans for the mine.

Despite the fact that there was no immediate threat to their land, DECOIN continued its education campaign over the next five years, raising even greater opposition to mining. The campaign also gained an ally in Auki Tituana, the leader of the indigenous political party. He helped the campaign gain more exposure nationwide, and helped push their agenda forward in government. A new law was passed that required mining companies to gain the approval of local residents before they began a project. The county board also passed an ordinance declaring the region an “ecological county” where mining was forbidden. In 2002, the Ecuadorian government reached a new deal with a mining company, Ascendant Copper Corporation, which allowed the company to build a copper mine in Junin. The community members’ fight to protect their land was not over.

Ascendant, a Vancouver-based company, blatantly ignored the ordinance that declared the Junin region to be an ecological reserve, and chose instead to go forward with the mine. Because Ascendant needed to gain approval of local residents before constructing the mine, the company spent the next few years trying to gain support from community members through promises of health programs and infrastructure, and through giving handouts to people who pledged support. Many sources say that the company deliberately created tension between Junin and a nearby pro-mining town, pitting the residents against each other. Despite Ascendant’s handouts and promises, opposition to the mine remained high in Junin, and all other regions of Intag besides the one pro-mining town. In 2004, Ascendant attempted to establish a base camp, but was forced to leave because of the continual roadblock of a women’s group on the road leading up to the mine. Residents did their best to ensure, through roadblocks, that the company had a hard time even accessing the area to do survey work. They made their opposition clear to Ascendant and asked the company to leave.

In December 2005, Ascendant was continuing to forge ahead, ignoring opposition from local residents. Community members in Junin decided that, again, it was time to take dramatic action. Three hundred community members voted to burn down one of Ascendant’s facilities. This began a period of high tension between Ascendant and community members. In 2006, over 100 Ascendant paramilitary guards tried to forcibly remove community members from their roadblock posts, using tear gas to disperse them. A guard who fired his handgun injured one community member. In the violent standoff that followed, Ascendant guards kidnapped several activists and journalists. Community members responded by taking several Ascendant staff hostage. The standoff ended after a week, and hostages were returned on both sides, but the violence continued. Many activists told of death threats that they received from Ascendant guards.

During these years of struggle between Ascendant and community members, the campaign was slowly gaining international support. Several Canadian environmental groups, such as Friends of the Earth Canada, Mining Watch Canada, and Rainforest Concert, pressured the Canadian government to sanction Ascendant. They also brought international pressure on the Ecuadorian government, which was having a hard time ignoring the continued disputes in the Intag region. After continued roadblocks and protest by residents, the government finally responded.

In March 2006, President Correa condemned the chaos caused by the mining project, and stated that the government was reviewing its contract with Ascendant. In May 2006, the provincial assembly signed an agreement with Ascendant that forced them to reduce their company’s work force by 70 percent and to curtail activities until a further decision was made by the national government.

Yet residents of Intag were not yet satisfied. In June, 400 people from Intag, joined by 300 people from Quito, marched on the capital. They demonstrated in front of the Ministry of Energy and Mines until the minister agreed to meet with the campaigners.

Finally, on September 25, 2007, the Ecuadorian government rescinded its contract with Ascendant and ordered the company to leave. The government also announced that it was reviewing its policy towards mining contracts, and would rescind all other contracts where disputes took place. After sixteen years, community members in Junin were victorious. Their passion and persistence helped them succeed in defending their land from destruction.

Research Notes
Sources: 
"A Brief History of Resistance to Mining in Intag, Ecuador." MiningWatch Canada. N.p., 12 Feb. 2005. Web. 4 Apr 2010.

"Ascendant Copper Agrees to Curtail Activities in Ecuador." MiningWatch Canada. N.p., 30 March 2007. Web. 4 Apr 2010.

Brieger, Peter. "Activists Sue Firm's Directors; Ascendant duo and TSX named in ongoing feud." National Post 26 Nov. 2007, Print.

Denvir, Daniel, Jennifer Moore, and Teresa Velasquez. "In Ecuador, Mass Mobilizations against Mining Confront President Correa." Upside Down World. N.p., 18 Nov. 2008. Web. 4 Apr 2010.

"Ecuador Halts Ascendants Junin Project." Metals Week 01 Oct. 2001: 15. Print.

Kintto, Lucas. "Ecuador: Indigenous Groups Protest Nation's Mining Policies." Global Information Network 23 Jan. 2009, Print.

Kuecker, Glen David. "Fighting for the Forests Revisited: Grassroots Resistance to Mining in Northern Ecuador." Latin American Social Movements in the Twenty-First Century. Lanham, Maryland: Rowman & Littlefield Publishers, 2008. Print.

Mychalejko, Cyril. "Ascendant Copper Risks Losing Mining Project in Ecuador." Upside Down World. N.p., 27 September 2007. Web. 4 Apr 2010.

Patterson, Kelly. "Canadian mining firm sent troops to quell dissent: report: Indigenous locals block access to land in Ecuador owned by Ascendant Copper Corp.: Hostages taken, released." National Post 15 Dec. 2006, Print.

Patterson, Kelly. "Ecuador Accuses Canadian Miner; Amnesty warned of death threats." The Gazette 27 July 2007, Print.

"Resistance to Ascendant Copper's Junin Project continues in Ecuador." MiningWatch Canada. N.p., 14 Jun. 2007. Web. 4 Apr 2010.

Schussler, Stuart. "Copper vs. Ecology in Junin." The Dominion: news from the grassroots. N.p., 29 Aug. 2005. Web. 4 Apr 2010.

Tym, Christian. "Locals fight mining in Ecuador's cloud forest." Green Left. N.p., 2 May 2009. Web. 4 Apr 2010.

Weydt, Lizzy. "Ecuador: Escalation in the Junin Copper Conflict." Upside Down World. N.p., 20 Dec. 2006. Web. 4 Apr 2010.

Zorrilla, Carlos. "Accomplishments." Defensa y Conservacion Ecologica de Intag (DECOIN). N.p., 12 Jan. 2010. Web. 4 Apr 2010.

Additional Notes: 
Edited by Max Rennebohm (16/06/2011)
Name of researcher, and date dd/mm/yyyy: 
Arielle Bernhardt, 01/04/2010