Twelve buses carrying hundreds of people from Ecuador’s Intag region arrived in Quito on July 12 for a two-day gathering and march to celebrate "life, dignity, rights and the defense of nature" and to unequivocally express their opposition to Canada’s Ascendant Copper Corporation.
The more than 500 people from dozens of communities, parishes, local governments and organizations (as well as indigenous people from the highlands of Cotacachi) made this the largest showing of people from Intag in the capital in recent history.
The first night was a celebration of solidarity and resistance filled with music, dancing and street theater to complement the many speeches and denouncements aimed at the junior mining company’s divisive and damaging activities and intentions.
Ascendant would like to begin the exploration phase of its "Junin Project" this summer to begin to prove the feasibility of commercializing a massive open pit copper mine in a region covered with primary forests, organic agriculture and containing internationally recognized ecological diversity.
Luis Robalino, a councilman of the municipality of Cotacachi helped organize the rally and march. For him, opposition to the company is very simple: mining is not compatible with small scale tourism, agriculture, artisanry and the environment.
"We are here by our own will, and we our fighting over a just cause," said Robalino.
March for Justice
Thursday began with an early-morning press conference to help raise awareness about what many people involved in the conflict believe is a national issue and to kick off the march.
Auki Tituaña, the popular indigenous mayor of Cotacachi, was one of the speakers at the event. He compared Intag’s resistance against transnational mining companies and "corrupted politicians" to Rumiñahui’s (an Inca general from the 1500′s) resistance against the Conquistadors. He said he came to march with the people to show his support in this struggle to "defend life, human rights and the Ecuadorian Constitution."
"My role as mayor and as an individual is to keep defending our communities, natural resources and to say ‘no’ to the mine," said Tituaña. "We hope that the government, the Ministry of Energy and Mines and all of their bureaucrats can be part of our echo and respect the constitution so that we can assure normal social, economic and environmental development in Canton Cotacachi."
Immediately following the press conference people marched through the streets of Quito to the Ministry building. Ines Piedra Mendez, one of the marchers from the community of Peñaherrera, has a small farm to feed her family. She believes it is important to hold the State responsible.
"The government is the one who sold our land without our consent," said Mendez.
Silvia Betancourt, president of the women’s coordinating group in Intag (which has about 200 members), came from her home in Plaza Guitierrez to have her voice heard.
"Women are affected, we are affected by the social destruction, the broken links inside the families," said Betancourt. "As a woman I need to fight for the rights of the kids I’ll have one day, and for other women’s children."
She also mentioned that there are numerous examples of violence and environmental destruction associated with South American mining projects and worries that the people of Intag could become another example on that list.
After arriving at the Ministry spokespeople for the protestors demanded an audience with Energy Minister Iván Rodríguez to present him with a letter and to discuss the various problems with Ascendant’s mining project.
The letter sited numerous legal problems with the project and listed the environmental and social consequences. It demanded the government defend its citizens.
"The mining project threatens human rights such as integrity, housing, water, food and health, as well as the safety of those who defend those rights," the letter stated.
The Minister accepted a delegation which included Robalino, Tituaña, human rights lawyer Isabella Figueroa, Polibio Perez, the outspoken President of the Council of Communities, and four parish presidents. They met for about two hours while the rest of the marchers stood outside the Ministry building eagerly awaiting an update under the hot summer sun.
When the delegation returned the people erupted in applause. Tituaña addressed the crowd and was optimistic about the outcome. The Minister committed to giving an answer in one month regarding the legality and future of the mining project.
"We’ll wait the month delay given to the company to receive the good news of the exit of the company," said Tituaña. "Our purpose was fulfilled even though we can not claim victory yet."
Robalino, inspired by the numbers, the meeting and "success" of the march shared Tituaña’s optimism.
"The days of Ascendant are counted and we hope that this corrupted and ungrateful company leaves not only the Intag region, but the country as well," said the councilman.
Marcia Ramirez, an organizer and leader from Chalguayaco Alto, said the march was necessary in order to make the federal government take action. Much of her life has involved community resistance to mining. She was 14-years-old when Bishi Metals, the last company that tried to mine in Intag, was chased out. Local residents burnt down the mining camp after the government and company refused to act in respect of their wishes and rights.
"It’s important that we put pressure on the authorities and spread the story through the media so it’s not seen just as a problem for Intag but a problem for the whole country of Ecuador," said Ramirez. "Normally governments in Ecuador haven’t helped us out. When the government feels social pressure, that is when it’s going to act, not because it wants to."
An Escalating Conflict
The relationship between the Ecuadorian government and the company has been hard to gauge. On June 6 the Ministry sent a letter to the Ascendant castigating the company for the problems it has caused in the region. It stated:
"The Ministry of Energy and Mines is worried for escalating conflicts in the areas and denies any responsibility to all the series of social problems that the activities developed in the Intag region has caused."
The letter went on to urge the company to take responsibility for the problems it has caused and demanded that it respect and follow Ecuadorian law. But less than two weeks later the Ministry approved the company’s Terms of Reference (ToR) for its Environmental Impact Study even though lawyers claim Ascendant failed to consult communities in accordance with Ecuadorian law.
"There are many irregularities coming from the company but also from the Ministry of Energy and Mines," said lawyer Figueroa. "The ToR were approved but the information of those ToR was manipulated."
In addition, there are concerns that a string of recent cabinet resignations at the request of President Alfredo Palacio could hit the Energy Ministry. This could leave the people of Intag with someone that either knows nothing of the situation or who placates to transnational corporations.
The conflict in the region is also seen as very volatile — one of the reasons why people thought it was time to march in the capital.
In a videotaped testimony with human rights observers from the Intag Solidarity Network, Polibio Perez recounted getting threatened on July 8 at gunpoint by two men concealing their identities with motorcycle masks. Just days before he received death threats over the phone.
These same observers recently wrote a report titled "Warning of Paramilitarization" citing the threats against Perez and an incident with a man claiming to be from the military (accompanied by a known company employee) trying to enter Junin as among reasons they "think there is the possibility for dangerous encounters with the potential for violence or death."
Ramirez, who often works with Perez, agreed with the observers’ assessment.
"People in the communities think the zone is being militarized," she said. "If in reality they did come to militarize the area and we opposed them there would be deaths on both sides, more on ours. But I don’t think it would be that easy for them to militarize the area because we have many grassroots organizations and we write denouncements and reports on such matters."
Tituaña’s analogy between the current conflict with the Canadian company and the Incas’ bloody and unsuccessful fight against the foreign invaders from Spain may be accurate on several fronts. But the people in Intag are hoping the endings will differ.
Cyril Mychalejko is the assistant editor of www.UpsideDownWorld.org and is currently based in Ecuador. Patricia Simon contributed reporting to this article.