Dozens of Ecuadorians recently burnt down a building owned by Ascendant Copper Corporation to protest its mining activities in the area. The Canadian mining company claimed in a press release (1) that the structure burnt down was a community health clinic located on an experimental farm, that supplies were stolen and that company employees were physically and verbally assaulted.
"The company is outraged by this assault against company personnel and assets that were dedicated to the assistance of the local community," stated Gary Davis, Ascendant’s President and CEO.
But Defensa y Conservacion Ecologica de Intag (DECOIN) (2), a local environmental group, rejected the company’s claims in a statement on its website.
"Somebody’s making something up," said Jamie Kneen, a spokesperson for MiningWatch Canada.
The Canadian mining industry’s atrocious track record regarding honesty, transparency, and legality with its ventures in Latin America, suggests Ascendant is at fault. According to Kneen, who has been monitoring the mining conflict in Ecuador, this was the first that he has heard of Ascendant’s "health clinic." In fact, this is the first time the company has mentioned its alleged clinic.
Carlos Zorilla, a member of DECOIN, said more than 300 local residents opposed to the mining project voted unanimously in a community assembly on Dec. 10 to take the action and immediately followed through with it.
"They burnt down the building because their voices weren’t being heard," said Zorrilla.
Ascendant’s local general manager filed a complaint with the local attorney general requesting an investigation. Zorrilla, who claims to have a copy of the legal document, pointed out that it never mentions that the structure burnt down was a medical clinic, referring to it only as a property. There was also no medical documentation of any injuries suffered by employees included in the complaint. He said that twelve people, mostly community leaders, have been summoned as part of the investigation thus far.
History Repeats Itself
Bishi Metals Exploration of Japan, a subsidiary of Mitsubishi Corporation, owned the mining concessions in Junin from 1993 to 1997. Like Ascendant, Bishi Metals faced widespread community opposition. Ascendant even references this in a historical timeline of mining in the area on its Junin Project Website (3):
"Bishi Metals finally left the area after a major revolt by the local communities."
What exactly did this revolt consist of?
About 200 members from local communities burnt down the company’s mining camp, but only after taking out and inventorying the supplies and equipment inside, which were returned to the company shortly thereafter.
Ascendant accurately depicts that one of the causes "for community anger was the closed-door policy that the Japanese managers had maintained for six years with the local community."
This is where Ascendant’s accuracy of the mining conflict in the area ends. The company fails to mention the communities’ resistance to mining is rooted in its opposition to the environmental devastation and negative social impacts that come with such projects, as well as the communities’ commitment to sustainable development projects such as eco-tourism, shade-grown coffee growing and fair trade worker cooperatives.
The company then goes on to describe that in 2003 local residents started changing their position about mining. Coincidentally, this was right before Ascendant started purchasing mining concessions in the area.
And although what happened eight years ago was a "major revolt", the company president said that the recent "attack" (which involved more people) was orchestrated by "a very small percentage" of residents in the area and "is not representative of the majority view."
But Ascendant, unlike the Japanese company, is committed to staying the course.
"We are going to rebuild the medical clinic as soon as possible so that the local communities have access to the much-needed health care provided by our medical personnel," said company president Davis.
This illustrates that the company is committed to continuing a path of misinformation, and like Bishi Metals will maintain a "closed-door policy" with anyone that doesn’t support their venture.
The company’s president is indignant over the "illegal activity" of the "mob" that "invaded" their property and allegedly "assaulted" company personnel.
Yet Ascendant’s Davis fails to recognize that it is his corporate mob that first invaded these Ecuadorians’ land and that the company’s operations are an assault on local residents’ human rights and the area’s pristine environment.
The action that burnt down the company building has been described as violent in press accounts. Yet there has been no discussion as to the violence of this mining operation, which has pitted some neighbors and communities against each other as well as caused confrontations between company employees and some mining supporters with the many opponents of the project in the area.
There is also the question of the violence against the local environment, in what is internationally recognized as one of the most biologically diverse areas in the world.
According to Bishi Metals’ Environmental Impact Assessment (EIA), a mining operation in the area can be expected to cause massive deforestation, climate change, contamination of the local water supply, as well as have a massive impact on the nearby Cotacachi-Cayapas Ecological Reserve.
Ascendant claims to have completed its EIA for the Junin project and plans to submit it to the government and local communities. But there have been questions raised locally as to whether the company has even been to the mining area to conduct the study, which is required by law.
One reason the conflict has escalated in this manner is that there are no legitimate legal or political avenues for residents to take to seek justice. The Ecuadorian state is still unsettled since the popular rebellion that ousted former president Lucio Gutierrez. Even if the political situation stabilizes under the current administration, there is nothing to suggest that the political system in Ecuador, which has historically discriminated against the poor, rural and indigenous (as in many other countries) will change.
Since the communities that will be affected by this mine are poor, isolated and lack resources, they are at a disadvantage. History tells us that corporations like Ascendant, with all of its wealth, can use and abuse judicial systems and the political process for its own benefit. They have the financial ability to hire teams of lawyers and influence courts and politicians.
DECOIN’s Zorrilla said that the root of the conflict lies in the imbalance of power that exists between people, corporations and governments.
"Until communities and indigenous people have some power to sit down and negotiate as equals with governments and corporations I’m afraid there will be more mining camps burnt down around the world," said Zorrilla.
Although Kneen doesn’t condone what the local residents did to the building he understands their motivations. "That’s what happens when the law isn’t working for people. They take it into their own hands," he said. "They did it before and it worked."
Cyril Mychalejko is the assistant editor of www.UpsideDownWorld.org, an online magazine uncovering activism and politics in Latin America.