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Large-scale copper mine project in Ecuador mired in allegations of abuse

  • Families from San Marcos began to be pressured to sell their lands and farms by company representatives in 2006, after the mine plan was developed.
  • The strategies of the government, supporting the company by force, arrests, lawsuits and harassment, and lack of prior informed consent, have also been used before in conflicts with other multi-national mining projects.
  • Local residents and international scientists alike are concerned about the possible contamination of water resources by the Mirador Mine.
A woman who was evicted from her home in San Marcos on September 30, 2015, searches the location where her house was for belongings. The location for the Mirador Mine pit is just beyond the nearest ridge in the distance. Photo by Beth Wald.

The evictions

On the edge of a large clearing below the steep forested ridges of Ecuador’s Cordillera del Condor, in the province of Zamora Chinchipe, Luis Arévalo holds a mud-stained remnant of a curtain as he stands in the ruins of what had been his home for 40 years. “The wall was here,” he said, “and the door over there.” A few hundred yards away, Heydi Alvarez and her young daughter walk under a large orange sign that states “Propiedad en Servidumbre Minería en Favor de Ecuacorriente SA.” In the distance, a dozen other men, women and children search bulldozed piles of mud and debris of what had been the community of San Marcos for personal belongings.

“They came at 4 AM,” Alvarez told a human rights commission investigating the forced eviction of sixteen families that took place on September 30: “There were engineers from the company, someone from the government and lots of police. They took out all of our things, piled them in a truck, then tore down the house.” On the slopes above, an orange scar shows where forest has been cleared for roads; just out of sight, the Chinese mining company, EcuaCorriente SA is beginning to excavate a massive open pit for what will be Ecuador’s first large scale metal mine, the Mirador Copper Mine. In a few years, the site where Alvarez now stands will be covered by a 200-hectare, 65-meter-high impoundment that will contain the toxic, semi-liquid waste that will be generated from concentrating the copper ore extracted from the mine.

San Marcos was a small community founded in 1983 by colonos or colonist farmers, on what was historically territory of several Shuar clans — the original indigenous inhabitants of the Condor. To make way for the tailings impoundment for the Mirador Mine, San Marcos has been leveled in a series of voluntary and forced removals of its residents, homes and community buildings that began in 2009. Its very existence is now disputed. Federico Auquilla, the ex-vice minister of Mines who now is an advisor for EcuaCorriente, says that San Marcos never existed, that it was just a neighborhood of nearby Tundayme. Alvarez and her sister, Jeny, say that they lived in San Marcos for many years, that their parents were from the village.

The Mirador copper deposits were first identified in the mid-1990s by the Canadian-based company Billiton Ecuador VA, during a series of explorations carried out along the narrow spine of the Cordillera del Condor, from Zamora Chinchipe into Morona Santiago. In 2003, the mineral rights and mining concessions for the Mirador deposit were transferred to EcuaCorriente SA, an Ecuadorean subsidiary of Corriente Resources that was bought in 2010 by the Chinese consortium CRCC-Tongguan Investment.

Families from San Marcos began to be pressured to sell their lands and farms by company representatives in 2006, after the mine plan was developed. Although newly-elected President Correa suspended mining exploration and development of the Mirador Project and other concessions throughout the country in 2007, EcuaCorriente continued to acquire land in the San Marcos area, often using threats and pressure, despite the legal suspension of their concessions, according to local inhabitants as well as the human rights organizations Comisión Ecuménica de Derechos Humanos del Ecuador or CEDHU and the Federación Internacional de Derechos Humanos, or FIDH. 

The approval of the New Mining Law in 2009 was followed quickly by the approval of a revised environmental impact assessment (EIA) for the Mirador Project, and acquisition of land in the community of San Marcos ramped up. According to CEDHU there were many problems with the way EcuaCorriente purchased land during this period, including the absence of the government as a mediator between the company and citizens, the purchase of land below market price, and the displacement of families who did not have titles to their land, including several indigenous Shuar families. 

By March 2012, when President Correa signed the mining contract with EcuaCorriente, many San Marcos families had either sold their land or been removed by force. But between 2013 and 2014, some of the displaced families who had not had their disputes resolved decided to move back, re-building wooden homes, planting gardens and creating a community nursery for native trees. Despite these efforts, EcuaCorriente’s private security force and the local police tore down the church and school in San Marcos in May 2014. They have continued with forced removals of families. Sixteen families where forced out on September 30, 2015, and most recently one of the last homes, where Julia Ordoñez had lived for over 40 years, was torn down before dawn on December 16.  Several individuals have been arrested, and charged with trespassing and sabotage.   

Although Mirador is the first large scale mine to be built in Ecuador, the strategies of the government, supporting the company by force, arrests, lawsuits and harassment, and lack of prior informed consent, have also been used before in conflicts with other multi-national mining projects. One of the longest running conflicts has been the struggle of campesino communities in the Valley of Intag against a series of corporations intent on mining for copper in the cloud forest surrounding the valley. Well-organized efforts successfully stopped a Japanese, then a Canadian company from developing a mine, but now the Ecuadorean government has created a collaboration with Chilean giant Codelco and has moved a large number of police into the tiny community of Junín.

Map showing locations of mine elements-pit, waste rock pile, and tailings impoundment, along with rivers and San Marcos. Map courtesy of Beth Wald.

Human rights and environmental concerns

Human rights issues surrounding the Mirador project are closely linked to environmental issues. The Ecuadorean constitution states that access to clean water is a fundamental human right, but local residents and international scientists alike are concerned about the possible contamination of water resources by the Mirador Mine. According to the EIA for the Mirador Project and EcuaCorriente’s own assessment, the mine is likely to generate acid in the waste rock, pit and tailings, via a process called acid mine drainage. 

According to E-Tech International, a technical nonprofit organization based in the USA who did an independent analysis of the EIA for the Mirador Mine, there are no plans to mitigate the risk of acid formation and potential rupture of the tailings impoundment dam. “The mine plans that we have seen for the Mirador mine include leaving the waste on the surface of the ground. We have to assume that these materials will be left on the surface forever and that contaminants will be leaching from them at least for centuries.” E-Tech’s chief scientist, Dr. Ann Maest, said that she saw “no plans for construction of a treatment plant, and it is not included in the financial assurance (for mine closure). This is essential at a mine like this, with the high potential for contaminated water and high rainfall.”

Of even greater environmental concern is the 200-hectare tailings impoundment slated to be built over the site of San Marcos and its surrounding fields and homesteads, directly above the Rio Quimi. According to E-Tech International, EcuaCorriente itself gave the tailings impoundment a Very High risk rating, with potential for “adverse environmental impacts and loss of life” if the dams holding back the waste fail. EcuaCorriente’s studies state that, in the case of a dam rupture, the tailings would only spill into the Rio Quimi, and would not enter the Rio Zamora at its confluence only several kilometers downstream. But independent models show that the toxic waste would definitely enter the Zamora and travel quickly to the Rio Santiago, some 80 kilometers downstream.

The environmental and human disaster that left 12 people dead and 19 missing after a tailings dam at the Samarco iron ore mine in Brazil collapsed last month, provides a tragic example of the risks presented by these impoundments, such as the one planned for the Mirador Mine.

In a recent interview, Federico Auquilla, an advisor to EcuaCorriente SA who had served as Vice Minister of Mines, said that both EcuaCorriente and the government are taking the recent failure in Brazil seriously. He also added that Ecuador’s Ministry of Environment had sent a team to Brazil to learn about the cause of the dam failure. “I don’t know if they [Brazil] will be able to recover the environment after the failure of the dam, but I feel OK because everything that escaped, all of the liquids [from the tailings] had been neutralized, without chemicals.” Experts in Brazil would dispute that statement, however, having found elevated levels of iron, aluminum, mercury, arsenic and chromium in the Doce River.  

Biologist Dr. Juan Guayasamin of the Universidad Tecnológica Indoamerica in Ambato has participated in scientific expeditions into the Cordillera del Condor, and has a different vision for the Condor. With much of primary forest still largely intact, he thinks that the whole area should be declared a national park. Guayasamin says the the Condor most likely contains the highest number of endemic species in the country, with much left to discover. “We don’t even know what we have, what riches are hiding in there [the Condor], how many species there are in this region.”

Geologist Pablo Duque from the Escuela Politecnica Nacional, a prestigious university in Quito, says because of the low percentage of copper in the Mirador deposit “they will have to remove a very large amount of rock to obtain a very small amount of mineral.  Obviously the environmental damage that will result will be enormous,” he argues.

The Rio Wawayme , choked with sediment from construction of roads and infrastructure for the Mirador Mine, flows past a camp being built for mine workers, December 8, 2015. Photo by Beth Wald.

The legacy of José Tendetza 

Just a bumpy ten minute ride from Tundayme and a few miles downstream from where the large tailings impoundment will be located, brothers Carlos and Alfonso Tendetza stand outside their wooden homes in the Shuar community of Yanua (previously named Etsa). “We have always lived here, this is the territory of our grandfathers and our grandfathers’ grandfathers.”  This Shuar family says they will never give in to the mining compañía, even while admitting that the project was advancing and they didn’t see how they could stop it. 

In November of 2014, their brother José, an outspoken opponent of the Mirador Project, disappeared. His body, with hands bound, was found floating in the Zamora River by mine workers and then buried in an unmarked grave without alerting his family. An independent autopsy revealed that he had been beaten and the cause of death was strangulation, not drowning. A year later, little progress has been made on the case, and the named suspects have not been arrested. Alfonso Tendetza says he is losing patience and blames EcuaCorriente for his brother’s death. “They know who did it,” argues Tendetza, “that is why now they don’t want to proceed.”  Both he and his brother Carlos say they will continue to oppose the mine, although several family members work for the company. Alfonso fears for his own safety after what happened to his brother and says he now rarely leaves the community. 

Although the Mirador Mine is slated to begin processing copper ore in 2018, other local Shuar communities continue to insist that the company leave what they say is their territory. Tomás Jimpikit, the president of the Shuar Association of Bomboiza just to the north, was arrested along with five other Shuar activists during an August blockage of the main road near the Mirador project. “The government says these minerals will produce riches, that they will bring development. But the consequences will be terrible — there will be contamination of the rivers, there will be no fish, we will see social problems like crime,” said Jimpikit.

A Shuar man works on a bridge near the proposed Mirador Mine. Photo by Beth Wald.
Carlos Tendetza outside of the Shuar Centro of Yanua (Etsa), along the Rio Quimi, just downstream from Tundayme and the Mirador Mine, December 8, 2015. Photo by Beth Wald.