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.

Tuesday, May 05, 2009

Locals fight mining in Ecuador’s cloudforest

Christian Tym
Green Left Weekly, 2 May 2009

Many people still speak sincerely about the existence of “corporate responsibility”. While doing volunteer work in the Ecuadorian community of Junin, I got a different picture.

The story of the efforts of Copper Mesa Mining, one of Rio Tinto’s collaborators in gold and copper exploration in Ecuador, to overcome community resistance is an example of what modern “corporate responsibility” looks like.

The mining concession Copper Mesa bought from the Ecuadorian government is centered on the community of Junin and the Intag River.

The proposal was to evict four entire communities, 100 families in all. These people live off their land and depend on the outside world for only electricity and medical supplies.

Mining would destroy their entire way of life.

The proposed open-cut mine would erase immense ecological wealth. The Intag region is “cloud-forest”: tropical forest sitting about 2200 metres up in the Andes.

It is home to monkeys, bears and thousands of endemic plant species. The area’s hummingbirds are sacred and magical for Andean indigenous people.

Outside the home of Rosario Piedra, the cliff-hugging winding gravel road to Junín is blocked by chains. Piedra has a walkie-talkie so she can immediately contact the community if any mining staff try to gain access to the area.

In 1997, her husband was shot dead by a paramilitary squad presumably sent by the mining concession’s previous owner, Bishimetals, to intimidate opposition. He had refused them entry to survey his land.

As a result of initial copper exploration, the Intag River had become a milky-white stream at the point where it passes Junín. Children who swam in it later suffered from rashes and sores. The ponds nearby had dried up.

The community sent Piedra to visit an open-cut copper mine in Peru. Her reports on the environmental and social degradation unified the community.

Bishimetals’s office outside Junín was burned down. The road-block was established.

Ascendant Copper (now Copper Mesa Mining) bought the Junín concession in 2004, intending to succeed where Bishimetals had failed. By 2004, the community was well organised and denying entry to Ascendant Copper staff.

Ascendant set out to sow division, in the colonial tradition of divide-and-conquer.

Community spokesperson Polivio Perez was approached one night by two men: “They told me that the bag they were carrying contained [US]$100,000. They told me to take it, sell my land and move to whichever country I liked.”

Another community leader, Hugo Ramirez, was walking along one of the area’s isolated, gravel roads: “Suddenly, a man rode around the corner on a motorbike. He was wearing a balaclava. He pulled up with a pistol drawn.

“He put it to my head and held it there for what felt like a very, very long time before letting me go.”

Neither of these men was cowed. Many of the community declared themselves willing to sacrifice their own lives to protect Junin.

In December, 2006, Ascendant decided to increase the pressure.

A band of 56 paramilitary soldiers arrived at the community’s road-block. Denied entry, they fired bullets into the air and tear gas into the crowd.

After the arrival of more and more locals from surrounding areas, the band was forced to retreat and set up camp outside the town.

That night, around 200 men and women, almost all unarmed, swarmed the paramilitary camp. They took all 56 men prisoner and locked them in Junín’s chapel.

Having defeated physical intimidation, the struggle is continuing in other forms.

Ascendant launched a libel suit against a local newspaper for reporting what was said at a meeting between community organisations and Ecuador’s national director of Mines (see ).

The company is seeking $1 million from a publisher that sells its paper for $0.25.

Ascendent’s actions compare unfavourably with the claims of its “public-relations” department.

The company claims as one of its values, “develop[ing] transparent relationships with the communities directly affected by our operations”.

The company is also a signatory to the UN Global Compact, a lauded example of corporate self-governance and responsibility. The compact’s principles include, “work[ing] against corruption of all its forms, including extortion and bribery”.

Also to “make sure that they are not complicit in human rights abuses”.

The company also disregards Ecuadorian law. Ecuador’s constitution states that in matters affecting the environment, “the local communities must be consulted”.

It also enshrines the right “to live in a healthy environment and to choose our own means of development”.

The community of Junin produces what it needs from its own land. It exports coffee, fruit and flowers, and runs an eco-tourism project ().

The actions of Copper Mesa Mining is modern colonialism, pure and simple.

Copper Mesa Mining, collaborators such as Rio Tinto and colleagues such as BHP Billiton, are appropriating resources and repatriating profits every single day from some of the world’s poorest places.

It is dirty money and Australia is flushed with it.

One of the company’s main arguments in support of the mine was the supposed economic benefits it would bring to an area in which, officially, more than 90% of people live in poverty.

Yet one local woman said: “I don’t believe that poverty exists in the community. We have what we need, because the land produces it.”

These people are not demanding cars or plasma-screen televisions. They simply expect their rights to their own land to be recognised.

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