Imposing mining projects on communities of resistance
From Z Magazine, June 2007 Vol. 20 No. -55
By Al Gedicks
Canadian mining companies, which constitute almost 60 percent of the world’s exploration and mining companies, have made
In their drive to realize the profits of speculation, however, junior companies frequently try to impose projects on communities that have said no to mining, creating serious conflicts in the process. Not so long ago, the most serious cases of human rights abuses and environmental degradation were associated with the giants of the mining industry. However, as they became the targets of international advocacy campaigns by environmental and human rights groups, they sought to minimize their exposure to politically risky investments. Thus, in recent years, allegations of forced dislocation, assaults and even killings by security forces, contamination of lands, support for repressive regimes, and violation of workers’ and indigenous rights are more often associated with junior explorers, many of them incorporated in
The Ugly Canadian Mining Company
A series of "roundtable" discussions took place in
Graham Saul, International Program Director for Friends of the Earth (
Ascendant acquired the Junin copper project in 2004. The rural Intag communities have been resisting the project since 1995. The previous owner of the project, Bishimetals Exploration of Japan, a subsidiary of Mitsubishi Corporation, had concluded in their environmental assessment that mining in Junin would result in massive deforestation, contamination of rivers with toxic metals, and the resettlement of more than 100 families from 4 communities. When Bishimetals refused to acknowledge widespread community opposition, local residents burned down the company’s mining camp. Mitsubishi pulled out of the project shortly thereafter. To protect the community against future mining threats, Carlos Zorrilla, the president of the Organization for the Defense and Conservation of Intag (DECOIN), helped raise funds for the purchase of 5,000 acres of land to set up an environmental preserve and pursue sustainable and community-based projects such as growing and processing organic coffee for export. Many of these projects provide income to village women and they have taken a prominent role in organizing against the proposed mine.
In response to widespread local opposition, Ascendant set up and funded the Corporation for the Development of the Communities of Garcia Moreno (Codegam), a front organization led by Ronald An- drade, an ex-congressperson previously investigated by the Ecuadorian congress for corruption. Codegam offered communities all kinds of public projects, such as roads, new schools, etc., on the condition they go along with mining. At other times Codegam resorted to more violent tactics. In April 2005 Codegam and a few dozen pro-mining people brought by Ascendant stormed the Cota- cachi Municipal building and held 19 community leaders, including township officials and representatives of grassroots organizations, inside the building, demanding to see the anti-mining indigenous Mayor Auki Tituana. He refused to meet with anyone until the place was vacated by the aggressors.
Codegam tried on various occasions to create a new county so Ascendant wouldn’t have to deal with the requirements of
At the same time, landowners in Intag reported that Ascendant had acquired title to land illegally. Some of the land in question was within Junin’s community reserve. Some individuals have never lived on the lands they claim to own, including an Ascendant employee who managed to get someone at Inda, the national land office, to issue a document stating that he has been a "homesteader" ("posesionario" in Spanish) for 15 years. Others who sold their possession rights to DECOIN are reselling them to the company for many times the original sale price. In still other cases the new illegal claimants are claiming land that belongs to legal owners of titles. DECOIN has hired a team of lawyers in
OECD Complaint in
Ascendant’s official support in Intag is limited to the single parish of Garcia Moreno. In a letter dated April 2005 Ronald Andrade of Codegam and the Garcia Moreno parish president asked the head of the armed forces in
In May 2005, with the help of
Zorrilla said that he and other mine critics have been threatened with guns and machetes after they started fighting the company’s exploration plans. "We’ve all received death threats," Zorrilla told a reporter for the Ottawa Citizen. All of the threats were allegedly carried out by members of Codegam, according to Zorrilla. Among the company’s high-profile leaders is Cesar Villacis Rueda, a former army general with close ties to
ACC’s CEO Gary Davis denied any firsthand knowledge of death threats, but admitted to a reporter for the Ottawa Citizen that Codegam had been "persecuting" its opponents. In June 2005 the company fired Villacis Rueda and told employees that such actions will not be tolerated in the future. Codegam employees, led by its president Ronald Andrade, later turned on their financial sponsor and criticized Ascendant for failing to live up to previous agreements with Codegam and the communities.
In December 2005 representatives of 20 communities of the Intag area met in the community of Chalguayacu Bajo and decided to dismantle and set fire to the facilities of the mining company. The action was taken to protest the proposed Junin mine, Ascendant’s funding of Codegam, and their aggressive land buying in their communities. The facilities consisted of a building that was the company’s base of operations. To the people of Intag it was a potent reminder of the company’s unwanted presence in the community.
No one was hurt and company employees were allowed to take out valuables before the building was set on fire. While DECOIN did not participate in the action and does not condone the use of violence, they explain the reaction of the local people was caused by the "constant abuses" which preceded the protest. "The events are the product of 18 months of assaults, intimidations, death threats, highway closings, violent aggression against representatives of the county government of Cotatachi, and many other measures against opponents of the Junin mining project," according to a DECOIN press release. Ascendant’s Gary Davis claimed that, "This attack was perpetrated by a very small percentage of the regional community stakeholder population and is not representative of the majority view of the general communities."
The company immediately accused certain leaders of DECOIN as being responsible for the fire, even though no DECOIN members were present at the event. After the fire, Zorrilla had to testify before the district attorney in response to a new accusation by Ascendant claiming that he was behind the burning. Previously, the company had put in an official request asking the Ministry of Foreign Relations to investigate Zorrilla. Ascendant has also claimed that the opposition to their project comes from "foreigners."
The company has used the burning of their mining camp as a pretext for bringing in a private security firm called GOESIP. Company guards are now a constant public presence in the community, often at points far from Ascendant properties. International human rights observers who are part of the Intag Solidarity Network (ISN), and who have been present in the Intag region since February 2005, warned in a July 2006 report that, "A very dangerous situation is arising—community conflict may converge with Ascendant’s paramilitarization of the region, resulting in a Colombianization of the Intag region. Once this process starts, a vicious conflict cycle may result, one that could be very hard to stop…. It is clear that Ascendant seeks to rip communities apart in its strategy to defeat the resistance." Among the company’s activities denounced by the ISN were the following:
- The use of death threats against mining opponents
- Employing armed guards who don’t wear visible identification or uniforms when operating in public spaces
- The mis-representation of activities and local realities in Intag through misleading statements and press releases
- Trespassing on community property (in Junin, for example), despite signs stating that miners are not welcome
- The manipulation of resource scarcity within communities and offering services in exchange for declarations of support for the company
In addition to employing private security firms, ACC has contracted Daimi Services, a public relations company, to try to win the "hearts and minds" of local residents and provide the social impact component of their environmental impact statement (EIS), a prerequisite for obtaining a mining license. On several occasions community members from Junin and other communities adjacent to the project area have detained employees of Daimi Services and prevented them from entering communities to carry out the studies necessary for the EIS. They have vowed to keep ACC employees from going into the community-owned and managed ecological reserve where the community runs a successful ecological tourism project. The reserve sits atop the copper deposit claimed by the company. On one occasion the police sent their SWAT team to the rescue of the detained employees. However, once the communities explained why they had taken this measure, the police expressed support for their action. The employees were released unharmed and there were no arrests. There were lawsuits, however, for kidnapping against six community residents. Company employees, in their attempt to obtain a social license to operate, now have to be accompanied by fully-armed bodyguards whenever they go to communities to talk about the benefits of mining and Ascendant. All of this conflict stimulates the conditions for paramilitarization and the cycle of violence so clearly illustrated in neighboring
Ascendant’s website claims it "places high importance on working with local organizations." It also says that community consultation and engagement are "key elements" in the company’s approach in the region of its operations. In May 2006 the communities of Intag held the company to its word. The democratically elected parish presidents that represent the communities of Intag met in a provincial assembly and passed a declaration demanding that Ascendant leave
Paramilitaries attack with pepper spray and tear gas—photo from Intag Solidarity Network
In July 2006 approximately 400 men, women, and children came from Intag to the capital city of
The police apparently acted on a complaint by a
Based on these made-up charges,
The Ecumenical Human Rights Commission (CEDHU) of
After 30 days on the run while an international publicity campaign was organized on behalf of Zorrilla, the judge revoked the arrest warrant. No sooner had the warrant been revoked, than another one was issued for illegal possession of the gun the police planted in his home.
Zorrilla is not alone in being victimized by lawsuits. Ascendant tried to shut down the Intag community newspaper and filed ten criminal lawsuits against approximately 40 people of Junin and nearby communities in an attempt to silence the opposition. Instead of silencing the opposition ACC has inspired more resistance. In September 2006 the Imbabura Provincial Government where the Junin mining project is located asked the Ministry of Energy and Mines to suspend ACC’s exploration license. The rejection of the Junin mining project by local governments was now unanimous.
Ascendant Invades Junin
In the pre-dawn hours of December 1, a group of about 50 heavily armed persons attacked a road control post set up by the community of Junin to limit access to their community and forest reserve. When community members gathered at the control post to nonviolently resist the entrance of the armed group, they were hit with tear gas as the armed group tried to force its way through the post. When the community members refused to retreat the armed group fired hundreds of rounds from their hand and machine guns indiscriminately, wounding one of the community members. The invaders were forced to retreat after their ammunition ran out. The communities had won the first battle.
The attempted invasion resumed at the next day. According to the account provided by the Ecumenical Human Rights Commission (CEDHU) in Quito: "…a group of persons—some dressed as civilians, others from Otavalo and Intag, but associated with the Ascendant Copper Corporation—used tear gas, automatic weapons and handguns in the area of Chalguayacu Alto (Garcia Moreno Parish: Cotacachi County, Imbabura province) injuring some members of the local population. As a consequence of this confrontation, the campesino Israel Perez suffered a bullet wound. The community captured 25 of these invaders, with the aim of turning them over to the police."
CEDHU reported the attempted invasions to General Luis Garzon (First Army Division, in Quito), who confirmed that an Army helicopter had been hired for delivering provisions, but assured the human rights organization that no active Army personnel had taken part in the operation. CEDHU reports that the paramilitary forces are the employees of an agricultural company, Empresa Faleircorp. ACC has contracted Empresa Falericorp to develop the land in Junin which Ascendant claims to own. CEDHU asked the Ministry of Defense to fully investigate the paramilitary groups used by ACC. "We hold the Minister of Energy and Mines and Ascendant Copper Corporation responsible for these new measures which threaten the human rights of Intag’s communities, and for all the other consequences resulting from these premeditated armed incursions" said Sister Elsie Monge, executive director of CEDHU.
On December 6, 4 people were wounded, one seriously, when a pro-mining crowd of about 100 in the area of Garcia Moreno stopped approximately 400 people from all over Intag and other parts of Cotacachi County, along with the governor of Imbabura and Cotacachi County, who were headed to Junin to witness the transfer of the 57 security guards who were captured by the communities previously, to government authorities. The pro-mining crowd threw rocks and tires that had been set on fire, fired shots, and threw Molotov cocktails at the group.
Following these incidents, the Undersecretary for Environmental Protection of the Ministry of Energy and Mines ordered ACC’s general manager in Ecuador to stop all activities at its Junin mining project: "As is publicly known, in the last few days grave confrontations have taken place in the communities within the area of influence of the Junin Mining project, which is under the responsibility of the company you represent, putting at risk the security and integrity of the inhabitants of the area…. Therefore, as the environmental authority in charge in the mining sector, this Subsecretary requires that the company you represent refrain from carrying out activities until this requirement [approval of Environmental Impact Study] is fulfilled." The subsecretary later rejected ACC’s EIS because of insufficient consultation with the affected communities. This effectively stops the project. At the same time as ACC’s permit was suspended the Minister of Energy and Mines suspended all mining activities in the south of the country due to the unusual levels of violence surrounding the Ecaucorrientes mining projects, owned by another Canadian mining company, in the Condor Range.
After hearing testimony that Canadian mining companies are leaving a path of destruction in countries all over the world, the Canadian government rejected the recommendations of the Standing Committee on Foreign Affairs and International Trade for tighter regulations on Canadian mining companies abroad. Instead, it continues to rely on voluntary codes of conduct that don’t work.
Al Gedicks teaches sociology at the