The people of Ecuador are rising up to refound their country as a pluri-national homeland for all. This inspiring movement, with Ecuador's indigenous peoples at its heart, is part of the revolution spreading across the Americas, laying the groundwork for a new, fairer, world. Ecuador Rising aims to bring news and analysis of events unfolding in Ecuador to english speakers.

Saturday, September 01, 2007

ECUADOR: Constituent Assembly to Deal with Mining Conflicts

By Kintto Lucas

QUITO, Aug 31 (IPS) - A solution to the ongoing confrontations between mining companies and rural communities in Ecuador is likely to be left up to the constituent assembly that will begin to rewrite the country’s constitution in October.

Ecuadorean President Rafael Correa told IPS that he is afraid that violent incidents could break out if the country’s mining laws are not modified.

There have already been problems in the past. In December 2006, violent clashes broke out between residents of the village of Intag, 200 km from Quito, and security guards hired by the Ascendant Copper Corporation, when the locals were protesting the company’s activities.

The government of Alfredo Palacio (2005 - January 2007) ordered the Canadian company to suspend its mining exploration activities, and the order has been upheld by the Correa administration, which took office Jan. 15.

Correa said the concessions for large-scale mining operations in the country have had extremely negative effects on local communities, which were not previously consulted as established by the constitution, and on the state, which receives no royalties in most cases.

Ecuador’s mining industry produces copper, gold, lead, silver, zinc, common clay, kaolin, feldspar, crude gypsum and silica.

Although mining activities have been, or are about to be, brought to a halt in the most conflict-ridden areas, most of the concessions have not yet been reviewed by the government due to legal obstacles.

The National Coordinator for the Defence of Life and Sovereignty, which groups social organisations formed by local residents in communities affected by mining, is calling for all foreign mining corporations to pull out of the country.

"The struggle against the mining companies is above all a fight in defence of water, which is why it is in defence of life itself," Lina Solano, one of the leaders of the National Coordinator, told IPS.

Local community spokespersons recently complained that the Canadian company has not heeded the government’s order to stop work, and has also continued its "campaign of harassment of the local population," which is opposed to the company’s activities in Intag.

They also reported threats to burn down the Intag community radio station, attacks on a local reporter and the home of activist José Cueva, and death threats against activist Polibio Pérez and other local residents opposed to the company’s activities.

On Aug. 13, five armed men burst into Cueva’s home in the small, quiet village of Cotacachi, near Intag, intimidated his family and stole his computer.

The National Coordinator said in a statement that "We are demanding that the national government investigate all of the incidents we have reported, particularly the last one, to clarify whether it was a common crime or was related to the campaign to intimidate community leaders, activists and the population at large in Intag."

The communiqué added that "the social unrest in all of the areas where transnational mining corporations are operating will only cease once the companies leave the country."

Correa said that a few mining concessions have already been cancelled, but that it has not been possible to cancel most of them because the state would risk being sued by the companies for millions of dollars.

He said the question should be resolved by the constituent assembly, whose 136 members are to be elected on Sept. 30.

The president explained that he has not submitted a draft law to Congress to replace the current mining law because it might not be approved, or might be modified beyond recognition, as occurred with financial reforms that he introduced in parliament.

The original draft containing the proposed reforms, which were aimed at lowering interest rates and giving the state tighter control over private institutions, ran into staunch opposition from Ecuador’s Private Banking Association.

After heavy lobbying by the Association, the reforms were modified so much that they completely lost their original intent.

The left-wing Correa does not have legislators of his own, because his Alianza País party did not present legislative candidates in the October 2006 elections, and his initiatives have so far gained only weak support in Congress.

Because of what happened with the proposed financial reforms, the government prefers to leave the mining question to the constituent assembly.

According to the statute creating the constituent assembly, which was approved by nearly 82 percent of voters in a referendum, the members of the assembly will have the authority to set up a commission to replace Congress while the new constitution is in the process of being drafted, in order to legislate on the most pressing issues.

The government hopes to win a comfortable majority in the constituent assembly, between the Alianza País members and representatives of allied leftist parties and movements, which would enable it to secure approval for its proposals, given that only a majority of 50 percent plus one vote will be needed to adopt resolutions.

Although opinion polls have not been carried out to indicate what the future make-up of the constituent assembly could look like, Correa’s supporters hope to win a majority of seats, reflecting the president’s popularity ratings of over 65 percent.

He will also benefit from the lack of popular right-wing political leaders.

Mining conflicts in Ecuador have dragged on for several years. Ascendant Copper has had problems not only in Intag but in other areas, and other companies have run into stiff opposition and protests in the communities of Molleturo and Victoria de Portete, 350 and 400 km southwest of Quito, and in the southeastern provinces of Zamora Chinchipe and Morona Santiago.

The protests by local residents are over the pollution caused by the mines and the companies’ heavy use of local water sources. The National Coordinator that brings the local movements together held demonstrations in June, blocking highways in mountainous regions for several days.

Ecuador’s Mining Chamber has repeatedly stated that its member companies seek to carry out "sustainable mining" that does not "hurt the environment," and has accused the government of failing to provide guarantees to allow them to operate.

It has also denied that the companies are behind any harassment campaigns or attacks on local communities, while arguing that the corporations have been seeking agreements through dialogue in which the Mining Chamber, the local communities, and the authorities are all represented.

The president of the Mining Chamber, Cesar Espinosa, complained about the protests and said the business association would take legal action against the activists, who he accused of "criminal behaviour that undermines juridical security and law and order," through occupations, for example, of areas that have been granted to companies through concessions.

He added that the trials should be backed by the state, whose duty it is to "maintain order."

According to the business chamber, nearly 1.8 million hectares have been granted to mining companies through 1,200 mining concessions, and contracts for another 1.6 million hectares are in the pipeline.

The National Coordinator for the Defence of Life and Sovereignty wants Ecuador to be declared, in the new constitution, a "country free of large-scale mining," which would imply the cancellation of all of the contracts with foreign mining companies and a halt to their operations. (END/2007)

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