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Indigenous communities resist Chinese mining in Amazonian Ecuador

  • Last weekend, a tribunal held by indigenous communities in Gualaquiza, in the Amazon headwaters region of Ecuador, accused the nation’s first large scale mining operation of major human and environmental abuses.
  • The Mirador and Panantza-San Carlos open-pit copper mines are run by Ecuacorriente S.A. (ECSA) and owned by the Chinese consortium CRCC-Tongguan. The two mines are located in the Cordillera del Cóndor region and within the Shuar indigenous territory.
  • Charges lodged against the government and Chinese consortium include displacement of 116 indigenous people, the razing of the town of San Marcos de Tundayme, escalating violence including the death of Shuar leader José Tendetza, discrimination, intimidation, threats, and worsening environmental degradation.
  • President Lenin Moreno’s administration has so far made no response to the Gualaquiza accusations or the demand for redress of grievances filed by the tribunal’s leaders.
Indigenous community speakers during a ceremony at last weekend’s tribunal which accused the Ecuadorian government and a Chinese mining consortium of human rights and environmental abuses. Photo by Max Nathanson

Tensions between indigenous populations, the state, and a Chinese mining company continue to rise in Ecuador’s Cordillera del Cóndor, part of the mountainous Amazon headwaters area. This past weekend, a tribunal was held in the regional hub of Gualaquiza in a show of resistance to mining abuses. Attending were communities in the Morona-Santiago, Azuay and Zamora Chinchipe regions, with NGO support from Acción Ecológica, Minka Urbana, YASunidos and others.

The principal points of grievance revolve around two government mining concessions that lie within indigenous Shuar territory: the Mirador and Panantza-San Carlos open-pit copper mines run by Ecuacorriente S.A. (ECSA), owned by the Chinese consortium CRCC-Tongguan.

If fully constructed, Mirador would become the first large-scale mining operation in Ecuador’s history. The Mirador mine’s pit will be about a mile across and half a mile deep, and generate 600 million tons of potentially toxic waste to be stored on nearby steep slopes and in tailings impoundments next to the Quimi River.

The tribunal featured a lineup of Shuar leaders, local politicians, academics and activists. Notables present included Diana Atamaint, former Shuar National Assemblywoman for Morona Santiago; Zoila Castillo, Vice President of the Indigenous Confederation of the Ecuadorian Amazon (CONFENIAE); Carlos Tendetza, brother of slain Shuar leader José Tendetza; and Salvador Quishpe, governor of Zamora Chinchipe province, who gave concluding remarks.

Tribunal participants meet in solidarity in the streets of Gualaquiza. Photo by Max Nathanson

The tribunal occurred as part of a series of resistance movements around Ecuador, termed “Verdad para la Vida” or “Truth for Life.” All are related to community displacement or encroachment brought by the state or large Ecuadorian and foreign development companies.

The Mirador and Panantza-San Carlos mines have emerged as a flashpoint for a complex set of competing interests. Chinese capital estimated at US $17.4 billion, flowing to Ecuador over the past decade, has been the main source of borrowing and investment for the Ecuadorian government since the election of Rafael Correa in 2007 — a statistic obtained from the Inter-American Dialogue’s China-Latin American Finance Database

Since then, many key development projects financed and managed by Chinese companies, have been initiated, including eight hydroelectric dams, oil concessions in the ITT region of Yasuní National Park, and the Mirador, Panantza-San Carlos, and Río Blanco mining complexes.

All of these projects have met with stiff resistance from local communities and activists. Opponents claim flagrant violations of the 2008 Constitution’s protections for indigenous lands and nature, which in particular recognize the Amazon as the lifeblood of the global ecological system.

A protest march through the streets of Gualaquiza. Photo by Max Nathanson

In contrast, “responsible mining” has been hailed by the government as the future of Ecuadorian industrial policy, with the earnings raised from mining tied into larger regional development via construction of transportation infrastructure and schools. Mining presents an appealing alternative for a government seeking to diversify away from a petro economy, and feeling an austerity squeeze from a decade’s worth of high interest rates and oil-backed loan repayments to China.

Former president Correa’s slogan reflects the government’s reasoning: Ecuadorians “can’t be beggars sitting on a sack of gold,” he said repeatedly. Today, the Ministry of Mining touts the gold and copper-rich Cordillera del Cóndor’s investment potential as equal to that of neighbors and mining powerhouses Perú and Chile, even though only 10 percent of Ecuador’s mineral potential has been surveyed.

But, using this weekend’s tribunal as an indicator, it is clear that many local community members and experts in various related fields believe the Mirador and Pantanza-San Carlos mining operations have thus far been managed irresponsibly.

Documents published by Acción Ecológica state that 116 people were forcibly displaced by a combination of ECSA private security and government forces, and that the entire town of San Marcos de Tundayme was subsequently razed to the ground.

Simón Espinoza, member of the National Anticorruption Commission, spoke at the tribunal of blatant aggression by the government against indigenous communities that were by his definition “genocide.”

The Mirador and Panantza-San Carlos open-pit copper mines run by Ecuacorriente S.A. (ECSA) and owned by the Chinese consortium CRCC-Tongguan are being constructed within the
Shuar indigenous territory in the Ecuadoran Amazon headwaters region. Photo by Max Nathanson

Michelle Báez, professor at the Pontifical Catholic University of Ecuador, detailed systematic discrimination, intimidation and threats utilized by the government against local populations in defense of ECSA activities. Carlos Tendetza brought a bottle of water supposedly drawn from the Zamora River directly downstream from the Mirador mine; he poured out a murky brown liquid to horrified gasps.

Esperanza Martínez, President of Acción Ecológica, lamented that instead of attending in person, multiple Shuar leaders had to record video messages for the tribunal due to security risks, blasting human rights violations as “nightmares” and the consequences of “colonialism.”

Dr. Steven H. Emerman, hydrology professor at Utah Valley University, decried the fact that the environmental risk assessment required by Ecuadorian law was conducted by contractors paid by ECSA. That report found that the mining plan as formulated was likely to result in unit failure while the likelihood of the collapse of the waste impoundment was “very high.” Despite that, ECSA’s subsequent decision was to double the scale of production, a decision meeting with no consequences from the government. The result, according to Dr. Emerman, were structures built to contain mine tailings and waste whose likelihood of bursting is “inevitable.”

“The true cost of building a sufficiently safe disposal system would be over 100 times what was actually paid,” he said.

Graffiti against the Chinese mining operation inscribed on a wall in Gualaquiza. Photo by Max Nathanson

The mineral-rich Cordillera del Cóndor is a global biodiversity hotspot. Dr. Alfredo Luna, a biologist at the Ecuadorian Association for Social-Environmental Law, described the Cordillera as a site of “mega-biodiversity,” saying that its climate and high altitude makes it a unique place within the entire continental reaches of the Amazon. Dr. Luna spoke of “micro-habitats” housing countless specialized species endemic to the Cordillera.

Numerous Shuar and other indigenous leaders, male and female, spoke of targeted manipulations by ECSA and government forces specifically affecting women in local communities. Company and government threats to nature, female empowerment, and indigenous livelihoods were strongly condemned. A written statement following the tribunal stated that “extractivism strengthens the patriarchy in these territories.”

Meanwhile, Ecuador’s Ministry of Mining has labeled conflicts in the Cordillera del Cóndor as the result of misunderstandings. These include cultural differences between ECSA and local populations, as well as a lack of comprehension by communities about the positive, well-rounded developmental model enabled by mining. ECSA did not respond to requests for comment for this story.

At the tribunal’s conclusion, a commission of local leaders produced a written verdict compiling the testimonies given throughout the day, ending with a series of resolutions. Among these was a demand for an end to persecution of community members by state police forces, the pursuit of a fair and complete investigation into the death of José Tendetza, the suspension of the Mirador and Panantza-San Carlos mining projects until proper environmental and social prior consultation processes are implemented, reparations paid by the state to local communities for harm caused over the last decade, the restitution of rights to nature granted by the Constitution, and responsibility taken by the state for violence and human rights violations committed against local communities.

The tribunal was followed by community celebrations and a march through Gualaquiza led by Shuar community leaders, activities closely watched by local police and military forces. The following day, a large group of activists, many wearing animal masks, blocked the entrance to the Mirador mine site in protest.

These actions took place far from Quito, where President Lenin Moreno’s approval rating has ticked up to the mid-eighties amidst anti-corruption efforts that have divided the governing Alianza País party. Five months into his first term, Moreno has distanced himself from his predecessor Correa. But only time will tell if last weekend’s tribunal, or continued community solidarity against perceived mining company and government abuses, will bring positive change from Ecuadorian institutions of power; or whether for the Cordillera del Cóndor the next four years will see a continuation of the problematic social and environmental trends of the past decade.

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With indigenous resistance to mining growing in the Amazon’s headwaters region, the Ecuadorian government in Quito has yet to provide an acceptable response to grievances. Photo by Max Nathanson
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