Challenging Canadian Mining Companies

By , June 18, 2007

Imposing mining projects on communities of resistance

From Z Magazine, June 2007 Vol. 20 No. 6: 50-55

By Al Gedicks

Canadian mining companies, which constitute almost 60 percent of the world’s exploration and mining companies, have made Latin America the world’s most popular resource frontier. The Toronto stock exchange is the world’s largest single source of financing for the global mining industry. At the forefront of Canadian mining investment in Latin America are the so-called "junior explorers," who are involved in speculative exploration projects in many environmentally sensitive regions and/or lands inhabited by indigenous communities. The juniors now account for more than half of this year’s $7 billion worldwide exploration total. But the juniors rarely have the expertise or capital to undertake mining themselves. Their properties are seen as less politically risky and thus attractive acquisitions by the mining giants like BHP Billiton, Rio Tinto, and Newmont if and when they have obtained the necessary permits to begin mining.

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 Canada or listed on a Canadian stock exchange.

The Ugly Canadian Mining Company

A series of "roundtable" discussions took place in Canada involving the mining industry, the Canadian government, and civil society, about if and how to regulate the global mining industry. One of the most compelling arguments for holding mining companies criminally liable for their misdeeds is the case of the Vancouver-based Ascendant Copper Corporation (ACC). This junior mining company is trying to impose a large-scale open pit copper mine known as the Junin project on communities in an 1,800- square-kilometer rural area of northwestern Ecuador. Known as Intag and characterized by cloud forests and family farms, most of the 15,000 residents have emphatically said no to mining. Intag, located 50 miles northwest of Quito in Cotacachi County in the province of Imbabura, is part of both the Choco and the Ecuadorian Andes biodiversity hotspots and is exceptionally rich in water resources.

Graham Saul, International Program Director for Friends of the Earth (FOE) Canada, called Ascendant’s Junin project "a poster child for the ‘ugly Canadian’ mining company. Ascendant is fueling a local conflict and actively undermining democratically elected officials in Ecuador." Even before Ascendant came to Intag, it had already been involved in conflicts with indigenous peoples in the Napo province where it has concessions, according to the coordinator of the Ecological Mining Action Campaign in Quito.


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 2000 Cotacachi County, where the proposed mine is located, was recognized as the first Ecological County in Ecuador. Parts of the 504,000 acre Cotacachi-Cayapas Ecological Reserve are within Cotatcachi County. Cotacachi Caypas is arguably the most biodiverse protected area in the world, home to over 3,000 plant species and to a wide range of mammals, amphibians, and bird species severely threatened by extinction.

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 Cotacachi County‘s ecological ordinance. "To enforce this ordinance," said Beatrice Olivastri, CEO of FOE Canada, "they’re insisting that all mining and prospecting arrangements located in Intag be canceled and are proceeding with legal steps to accomplish this. It is the height of arrogance to think that Ascendant, a Canadian junior mining company, believes it can ignore or bypass this significant environmental law. What part of ‘no’ does Ascendant not understand?"

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 Quito to take the government officials involved in this scam to court. In the meantime, community members are blocking Ascendant’s attempts to gain entry to community lands.


OECD Complaint in Canada

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 Ecuador to militarize the Intag area due to the alleged high level of insecurity. DECOIN’s Carlos Zorrilla warns that if government troops are ever sent to put down local resistance to the Junin project there will be a "bloodbath."

In May 2005, with the help of FOE Canada and MiningWatch Canada, Zorrilla traveled to Ottawa to file a complaint with Canada‘s Department of International Trade against ACC for alleged violations of the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development’s (OECD) guidelines for multinational corporations. The complaint stated that ACC had not disclosed material information to the public and potential shareholders concerning its Junin project, including information on: local government actions challenging the legality of the Junin concessions; a land ownership dispute that could lead to militarization of the project area; and intense opposition from local representatives and government officials to the potential forced relocation of four communities. "I’m here because Canadians need to understand the real risk of violence that is emerging as a result of this company’s activities," said Zorrilla. "It is time for this country’s authorities to stop pretending they have no influence over this kind of corporate behavior. The Canadian government must take action to curb the excesses of Canadian mining companies operating and exploring overseas."

FOE Canada and MiningWatch Canada organized the "No Means No to Ascendant in Ecuador" campaign. They initiated the campaign by releasing a documentary film about the Junin conflict the day before Ascendant’s annual meeting in Vancouver. (The film is The Curse of Copper and can be viewed at

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 Ecuador‘s military intelligence and a graduate of the infamous School of the Americas in Fort Benning, Georgia. The general has said that he believes that people who work for human rights, indigenous rights, and workers’ rights are part of a "triangle of subversion."

…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"…

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 Colombia.

March on Quito

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 Ecuador. The company was given 15 days to leave. This is the first time so many local governments have publicly called for the immediate expulsion of a mining company in Ecuador. ACC refused the demand and after the 15 days, the communities reassembled and called for a protest march on Quito.


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 Quito to march against the Junin mining project. They were joined by another 300 from Quito and filled one of the capital’s main streets with colorful signs ("Get out, Ascendant") and anti-mining chants. The crowd demonstrated in front of the Ministry of Energy and Mines until the minister agreed to meet with a delegation composed of the Cotacachi’s mayor, presidents of the local parish governments of Intag, and community activist Pobilio Perez. The minister promised that he would strictly abide by the law and, if there were any illegalities, the company’s concession would be revoked.

Early on October 17, 2006 about 19 persons identifying themselves as police, some in uniform, 2 with black ski masks, all armed with handguns or automatic weapons arrived at the home of DECOIN’s Carlos Zorrilla. He was not there. They arrived in five unmarked cars without license plates; at least one of the cars is said to belong to Ascendant. The police did not display name tags and when asked by a man working for Zorrilla, they refused to identify themselves. The police failed to produce a search warrant, but nonetheless proceeded to ransack Zorrilla’s home in front of his wife and son. Some time later, another individual, who claimed to be the prosecutor from the city of Cayambe, appeared with warrants that he briefly showed Zorrilla’s wife. At the end of the search, when the family was outside the house and no witnesses were present, police claim to have discovered a hand gun and a paper bag allegedly containing drugs. Neither the drugs nor the weapon had been in the house prior to the arrival of the police, according to members of the Zorrilla family.

The police apparently acted on a complaint by a U.S. citizen, Leslie Brook Chaplin, filed July 23 regarding an assault and robbery that had supposedly taken place during the peaceful rally against Ascendant’s Junin project in Quito in July. Eyewitnesses have reported that there was no violence at any point during the rally and that the complainant had been distributing leaflets on behalf of Ascendant in the midst of the rally. A few days later, Chaplin went to the police and accused Zorrilla of stealing a $1,200 video camera and $500 in cash. The entire exchange between Zorrilla and Chaplin was filmed by at least one person.

Based on these made-up charges, Ecuador‘s legal system initiated a criminal lawsuit against Zorrilla, but never bothered to notify him of the charges. The court appointed a public defender who also failed to notify Zorrilla that he was charged and could present evidence during the 90-day period assigned to prove he was innocent. When the 90-day period expired, the district attorney asked the judge to issue the warrants. All of a sudden, the authorities discovered where Zorrilla lived and raided his home.

The Ecumenical Human Rights Commission (CEDHU) of Ecuador immediately condemned the police action "as part of the campaign of persecution, intimidation, and aggression waged since 2004 by the Canadian Ascendant Copper Corporation mining company against the leaders and residents opposing mining activity in the Intag region since 1995." They criticized Chaplin for "accusing a leader with a spotless background of dedication to serving the communities of the Intag area." But CEDHU reserved its strongest condemnation "for our judicial and police institutions, involved in such crooked moves against Intag residents, acting as eager pawns for the Ascendant Copper Corporation…. This lawsuit, presented by Ascendant as ‘theft and injury,’ is actually just another attack against the collective cause of defending the villages of Intag." Ascendant denies any responsibility for, or involvement in, the warrant or the government’s actions against Carlos Zorrilla.

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 4:00 AM 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 University of Wisconsin-La Crosse and is the author of Resource Rebels: Native Challenges to Mining and Oil Corporations (South End Press, 2001). The author has relied heavily upon reporting from the Intag Solidarity Network (www.intag


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