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Water sources under threat from mining in Ecuador’s mountains

  • The Azuay páramos are restricted, alpine ecosystems that exist above the tree line but below the permanent snow line.
  • Those who live in southern Ecuador’s páramos oppose gold and copper mining planned for in the region.
  • Representatives from a mining company claim that the company won’t affect local communities and that they have permission to work.

AZUAY PROVINCE, EcuadorWhat happened on October 8 and 9 in Ecuador’s Río Blanco area was not entirely unexpected. On August 12, a group of inhabitants decided to take “de facto” measures — such as setting up a tent at the entrance of Junefield mining company’s camp — with the goal of stopping the beginning of the exploitation of copper and gold reserves in the mountains in southern Ecuador’s Azuay Province. For two months they occupied the area, despite the growing tension between them and the miners. It was a situation that could explode at any moment.

Residents of Río Blanco set up tents at the entrance to the mining camp in an attempt to stop mining activity. Photo by Marlon Puertas

During the cold night of October 8 and into October 9, this tension came to a head, with allegations from both sides of attacks. Members of the community say that for 24 hours, they were harassed by the mining company’s private guards, as well as the police, who were in the area with the goal of preventing clashes.

“They threw stones at our roofs; it was a permanent harassment,” said one of the protesters in a video posted to social media, showing images of the dwellings that were affected.

The mining company also claims its people were attacked with stones. The Secretary of the Interior, César Navas, posted photos on social media of two injured police officers. An operation to quell the violence began immediately, and two inhabitants of Río Blanco were arrested. The community members say that one of them is a minor.

The Public Ministry of Ecuador is currently investigating the incident.

All of this is occurring at a decisive moment for the Río Blanco mining project. A source of controversy for a decade due to its location in the páramos – restricted, alpine ecosystems that exist above the tree-line but below the permanent snowline – critics worry about the project’s potential effects on the water sources that supply rivers in the region. This controversy has grown in the past year, with the extraction of gold and silver reserves set to begin by the end of 2017.

 Divided opinions

Some adjacent communities support the project. “If you go towards Río Blanco, be careful. Those people are violent,” said a man who worked on the construction of a house in the middle of the páramos in the Cochapamba community, 3,200 meters above sea level. He interrupted his work to tell Mongabay Latam that “they are the people who don’t let us work. They make problems for mining. They’re hurting us.” In August, there was an alleged episode of violence around the mining camp, for which the Public Ministry received a complaint from the mining company’s representatives. After that, a woman from the community was injured near the mining camp.

For the most part, mining activity is supported by residents of the community of Cochapamba but rejected in Río Blanco. Photo by Marlon Puertas

The journey to the Río Blanco community —which belongs to the parish of Molleturo in the Cuenca administrative region — is reminiscent of times when mules were the only mode of transportation. There’s a narrow dirt road, which sits at the foot of a mountain on one side with a steep cliff on the other. The road is sprinkled with stones, natural obstacles which, combined with the fog, slow down the journey. On a detour that links the port city of Guayaquil to Cuenca, the journey is around 12 kilometers (7.5 miles).

On the way to Río Blanco, messages criticising the mining project are written on rocks in the mountains. Photo by Marlon Puertas

Cochapamba is both in the middle of this route and in the middle of the controversy. Here, community members largely support the Chinese-owned mining company. They have a striking difference in opinion with the community members of Río Blanco, who mostly oppose the company. During discussions between the mining company and area residents, a group of people from Río Blanco told Mongabay Latam that they received job offers, offers for public works, and offers for basic public services. The community members say that these offers never materialized, and they now demand that the company leave the area. According to Río Blanco resident Rubén Durazno, “they offered us health centers, services. Even the doctors didn’t show up.” Magdalena Fajardo adds that “they even painted the sky to convince us. Time passed, and nothing.”

The páramos of Río Blanco is more than 3,000 meters above sea level. Photo by Marlon Puerta

At least a dozen rural community members expressed their concerns to Mongabay Latam during a visit to the area. Among them was Rubén Cortés, who explained that they fundamentally depend on their crops in the area.

“We sow, we eat it ourselves, and we can’t sell it because it’s difficult to transport,” Cortés said. “The water comes from the mountain, and right now it’s drying out. Seventy percent is already dry, the roads already opened up, we closed our eyes to the water, and then the animals drank the water from the natural springs; before, there was a single pocket of water, about four years ago, now it’s still there but it’s still only a little. Eight months ago, the situation became more intense. The mine entrance is already open; the tunnel is already made.”

Cortés said that for a time, Río Blanco community members worked for the mining project. “Now we don’t want anything,” he said. “The community already woke up, and the resistance will continue because they lied to us. They said there wouldn’t be contamination and there is, and now we’ve realized it. We went to other mines to see how they are, and there isn’t any mine that isn’t harmful.”

The Río Blanco community is about 3,555 meters above sea level and lacks some basic services. The water consumed there comes from natural sources. Photo by Marlon Puertas

Several rural community members, including Tomás Guamán, say that mining has divided the people in the area.

“I have seen so many injustices, many conflicts between families. Instead of socializing, they come to make everybody fight,” Guamán said.

Juan Criollo said they will continue with their cause: “Mining isn’t convenient. Where are future generations going to live? Because of this, we ask for support. Not all is well. They offer work, money, gold; but we want our freedom, our nature.”

The community members claim that the fighting isn’t just between them, but also includes other Ecuadorians, especially those who live on the coast and receive water from the páramos. “We’re fighting for everyone,” said local resident Mónica Durango.

The Vice Governor of Azuay, Cecilia Alvarado, claimed that what is occurring in Río Blanco isn’t an isolated incident, but rather an international strategy that mining companies use wherever they operate. “The companies harass the villages, and then they end up saying that the community is the criminal,” Alvarado said during the Public Hearing of the Páramos, a meeting promoted by the organization Ecological Action. The meeting was held on October 12 in Cuenca, and included representatives from communities, civil organizations, and authorities to try to solve the problems in Azuay Province.

While the central government granted the concessions, local and regional governments like the municipality of Cuenca and the province of Azuay have issued resolutions against the mining. This was because they said that mining in the páramos would imply the contamination of the water sources that supply water to the nearby cities. The province of Azuay banned metalic mining in the páramos in October 2016, and the municipality of Cuenca did the same in January 2017 during a political campaign. For Rafael Correa’s administration — which lasted until May 24 — and for that of current president Lenin Moreno, these bans don’t come with any legal obligation.

“[The mayor of Cuenca, Marcelo Cabrera] knows that he doesn’t have constitutional abilities and that mining is already prohibited near water sources,” Correa said shortly after the municipal resolution.

A history of exploitation

Mining in Río Blanco is not a new problem. In 1998, the International Minerals Corporation (IMC) began feasibility studies that were concluded in 2006 and later updated in 2009. According government figures from August 2016, the project would generate about $200 million for the State.

Exploration and mining studies in Río Blanco began in 1998. Exploitation has not yet begun, but critics of the project worry it will soon. Photo by Marlon Puertas

 In December 2012, IMC announced its exit from Ecuador and the sale of its Río Blanco project due to unfavorable conditions for project development, according to Ecuadorian newspaper El Comercio.

The multinational company’s complaint was amplified with what it described as the state’s excessive expectation of gross profits, as well as the unhappiness of the area’s inhabitants due to governmental absence and the lack of basic services.

A new company stepped up: Junefield, established in Ecuador as Ecuagoldmining. But the new investors found themselves in the same situation as their predecessors, with opposition from local residents who disagreed with the mining projects. They spoke of how the streams from which they got water began to dry up, and their pastures disappeared.

That same year, two technicians from the French Public Institute for Water and Earth Studies (BRGM), hired by the municipality of Cuenca, completed a six-day inspection of the páramos and the areas earmarked for mining concessions. The report concluded that “the presence of groundwater wasn’t clearly identified” in the conceded areas. It recommended more thorough studies be conducted to determine the possible environmental impact of the mining. The government pointed to these ambiguous results to sustain its position that there are no natural water sources that could be affected, but area residents and ecological organizations used the report to demand more detailed studies.

Natural streams and rivers are abundant on the way to the mining concessions. Communities depend on these water sources and fear they will be affected by mining activity. However, the State contends they will not be affected. Photo by Marlon Puertas

In June 2016, American mining engineer James Kuipers conducted a study in the area of the páramos at the request of MiningWatch Canada and the Environmental Defender Law Center, as well as social and community organizations in Azuay Province. Kuipers concluded that there is a risk of acid drainage and the leaching of heavy metals from the mine. According to Kuipers’ assessment, mining could result in arsenic contamination, degradation of water quality and abundance and habitat destruction.

“The proposed Río Blanco project is a relatively small underground mining project with a highly sensitive economy and a short mine life,” Kuipers wrote in his assessment. “The economic and environmental information provided is not up-to-date. The impacts, particularly in relation to the acid rock drainage, arsenic discharge from the mining, and the characteristics of the mine after recuperation, have been underestimated and have not been identified or treated adequately.

“We recommend that this project be submitted to additional economic and environmental analyses, and if it’s appropriate, someone should establish an adequate financial guarantee for the closure of these less-than-ideal conditions.”

Mining in the páramos

The páramos are geological structures that have been conditioned for millions of years to become a place of storage for water released during the dry season. Klever Calle, a member of the Yasunidos Guapondeligm environmental group, explained that this is why it’s important to conserve them. Calle also discussed the páramos’ ability to capture carbon, and emphatically said their destruction will contribute to global warming. The ecosystem is also host to high biodiversity and home to endemic species found nowhere else in the world, according to Calle.

The Río Blanco mining consession is inside Molleturo Mollepungo Protective Forest, which itself is inside the buffer zone of Cajas National Park – one of the last remaining large tracts of undisturbed forest in the western Andes mountain range.

“Río Blanco is a bridgehead for the mining industry in our páramos,” said Calle, and in the last few months new mining concessions have been granted in the area.

On August 11, 2016, Ecuador Vice President Jorge Glas —who is currently in pre-trial detention in Quito — began the construction phase of the mine in Río Blanco.

“Today is a historic day because we’re beginning the first medium-scale mining project,” he said, claiming that there would be no effect on water sources in the area. “There have been 400 perforations with high-level techniques, with international laboratories specializing in water resource control. There are no aquifers; that is the truth,” he said. It was expected at the time that construction of the mine would be completed within a year.

The residents of Río Blanco show their displeasure with the mining project. Photo by Marlon Puertas

It was estimated that the mine would be in full production by October 2017. But conflict with the community has impeded mine construction and operations, according to Junefield camp manager Iván Castro. He insists the violence is coming from the community.

“We want to work and generate resources also for the State,” Castro said. “This is a company that has foreign capitals, but a significant percentage belongs to the State also.” Specifically, he put domestic ownership of the company at 49 percent. Also, Castro refutes the fears of the Río Blanco inhabitants about mining creating possible shortage of water. “The reality is that mining isn’t affecting anybody; they have their water, and we have our water. If we even have trout, we’re conserving the environment; we’re not hurting anyone. The people are arguing about something that isn’t going to happen,” said Castro, who added that the company has its rights and permissions settled.

President Lenin Moreno’s administration hasn’t changed the mining exploitation plans it inherited from Rafael Correa. In fact, the Minister of Mining, Javier Córdova, holds the same position in the administration as he did during the previous presidency. Córdova was recently in Cuenca to turn in 84 work contracts to community members in the area. He said that as soon as the mine is constructed, production will begin. This is set to take place during the first quarter of 2018.

The community of Río Blanco is composed of 80 families that depend on subsistence agriculture. Photo by Marlon Puertas

Mongabay Latam requested interviews with Córdova and the Ministry of the Environment but had received no responses by press time.

This story was reported by Mongabay Latam and was initially published in Spanish on October 24, 2017.

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