Challenging Canadian Mining Companies

Canadian mining companies, which constitute almost 60 percent of the world’s
exploration and mining companies, have made Latin America the world’s most
popular resource frontier. The Toronto stock exchange is the world’s largest
single source of financing for the global mining industry. At the forefront
of Canadian mining investment in Latin America are the so-called “junior
explorers,” who are involved in speculative exploration projects in many
environmentally sensitive regions and/or lands inhabited by indigenous
communities. The juniors now account for more than half of this year’s
$7 billion worldwide exploration total. But the juniors rarely have the
expertise or capital to undertake mining themselves. Their properties are
seen as less politically risky and thus attractive acquisitions by the
mining giants like BHP Billiton, Rio Tinto, and Newmont if and when they
have obtained the necessary permits to begin mining. 

In their drive to realize the profits of speculation, however, junior companies
frequently try to impose projects on communities that have said no to mining,
creating serious conflicts in the process. Not so long ago, the most serious
cases of human rights abuses and environmental degradation were associated
with the giants of the mining industry. However, as they became the targets
of international advocacy campaigns by environmental and human rights groups,
they sought to minimize their exposure to politically risky investments.
Thus, in recent years, allegations of forced dislocation, assaults and
even killings by security forces, contamination of lands, support for repressive
regimes, and violation of workers’ and indigenous rights are more often
associated with junior explorers, many of them incorporated in Canada or
listed on a Canadian stock exchange. 

The Ugly Canadian Mining Company 

A series of “roundtable” discussions took place in Canada involving the
mining industry, the Canadian government, and civil society, about if and
how to regulate the global mining industry. One of the most compelling
arguments for holding mining companies criminally liable for their misdeeds
is the case of the Vancouver-based Ascendant Copper Corporation (ACC).
This junior mining company is trying to impose a large-scale open pit copper
mine known as the Junin project on communities in an 1,800- square-kilometer
rural area of northwestern Ecuador. Known as Intag and characterized by
cloud forests and family farms, most of the 15,000 residents have emphatically
said no to mining. Intag, located 50 miles northwest of Quito in Cotacachi
County in the province of Imbabura, is part of both the Choco and the Ecuadorian
Andes biodiversity hotspots and is exceptionally rich in water resources.

Graham Saul, International Program Director for Friends of the Earth (FOE)
Canada, called Ascendant’s Junin project “a poster child for the ‘ugly
Canadian’ mining company. Ascendant is fueling a local conflict and actively
undermining democratically elected officials in Ecuador.” Even before Ascendant
came to Intag, it had already been involved in conflicts with indigenous
peoples in the Napo province where it has concessions, according to the
coordinator of the Ecological Mining Action Campaign in Quito.     

Ascendant acquired the Junin copper project in 2004. The rural Intag communities
have been resisting the project since 1995. The previous owner of the project,
Bishimetals Exploration of Japan, a subsidiary of Mitsubishi Corporation,
had concluded in their environmental assessment that mining in Junin would
result in massive deforestation, contamination of rivers with toxic metals,
and the resettlement of more than 100 families from 4 communities. When
Bishimetals refused to acknowledge widespread community opposition, local
residents burned down the company’s mining camp. Mitsubishi pulled out
of the project shortly thereafter. To protect the community against future
mining threats, Carlos Zorrilla, the president of the Organization for
the Defense and Conservation of Intag (DECOIN), helped raise funds for
the purchase of 5,000 acres of land to set up an environmental preserve
and pursue sustainable and community-based projects such as growing and
processing organic coffee for export. Many of these projects provide income
to village women and they have taken a prominent role in organizing against
the proposed mine. 

In 2000 Cotacachi County, where the proposed mine is located, was recognized
as the first Ecological County in Ecuador. Parts of the 504,000 acre Cotacachi-Cayapas
Ecological Reserve are within Cotatcachi County. Cotacachi Caypas is arguably
the most biodiverse protected area in the world, home to over 3,000 plant
species and to a wide range of mammals, amphibians, and bird species severely
threatened by extinction. 

In response to widespread local opposition, Ascendant set up and funded
the Corporation for the Development of the Communities of Garcia Moreno
(Codegam), a front organization led by Ronald An- drade, an ex-congressperson
previously investigated by the Ecuadorian congress for corruption. Codegam
offered communities all kinds of public projects, such as roads, new schools,
etc., on the condition they go along with mining. At other times Codegam
resorted to more violent tactics. In April 2005 Codegam and a few dozen
pro-mining people brought by Ascendant stormed the Cota- cachi Municipal
building and held 19 community leaders, including township officials and
representatives of grassroots organizations, inside the building, demanding
to see the anti-mining indigenous Mayor Auki Tituana. He refused to meet
with anyone until the place was vacated by the aggressors. 

Codegam tried on various occasions to create a new county so Ascendant
wouldn’t have to deal with the requirements of Cotacachi County’s ecological
ordinance. “To enforce this ordinance,” said Beatrice Olivastri, CEO of
FOE Canada, “they’re insisting that all mining and prospecting arrangements
located in Intag be canceled and are proceeding with legal steps to accomplish
this. It is the height of arrogance to think that Ascendant, a Canadian
junior mining company, believes it can ignore or bypass this significant
environmental law. What part of ‘no’ does Ascendant not understand?” 

At the same time, landowners in Intag reported that Ascendant had acquired
title to land illegally. Some of the land in question was within Junin’s
community reserve. Some individuals have never lived on the lands they
claim to own, including an Ascendant employee who managed to get someone
at Inda, the national land office, to issue a document stating that he
has been a “homesteader” (“posesionario” in Spanish) for 15 years. Others
who sold their possession rights to DECOIN are reselling them to the company
for many times the original sale price. In still other cases the new illegal
claimants are claiming land that belongs to legal owners of titles. DECOIN
has hired a team of lawyers in Quito to take the government officials involved
in this scam to court. In the meantime, community members are blocking
Ascendant’s attempts to gain entry to community lands. 

OECD Complaint in Canada 

Ascendant’s official support in Intag is limited to the single parish of
Garcia Moreno. In a letter dated April 2005 Ronald Andrade of Codegam and
the Garcia Moreno parish president asked the head of the armed forces in
Ecuador to militarize the Intag area due to the alleged high level of insecurity.
DECOIN’s Carlos Zorrilla warns that if government troops are ever sent
to put down local resistance to the Junin project there will be a “bloodbath.”

In May 2005, with the help of FOE Canada and MiningWatch Canada, Zorrilla
traveled to Ottawa to file a complaint with Canada’s Department of International
Trade against ACC for alleged violations of the Organization for Economic
Cooperation and Development’s (OECD) guidelines for multinational corporations.
The complaint stated that ACC had not disclosed material information to
the public and potential shareholders concerning its Junin project, including
information on: local government actions challenging the legality of the
Junin concessions; a land ownership dispute that could lead to militarization
of the project area; and intense opposition from local representatives
and government officials to the potential forced relocation of four communities.
“I’m here because Canadians need to understand the real risk of violence
that is emerging as a result of this company’s activities,” said Zorrilla.
“It is time for this country’s authorities to stop pretending they have
no influence over this kind of corporate behavior. The Canadian government
must take action to curb the excesses of Canadian mining companies operating
and exploring overseas.” 

FOE Canada and MiningWatch Canada organized the “No Means No to Ascendant
in Ecuador” campaign. They initiated the campaign by releasing a documentary
film about the Junin conflict the day before Ascendant’s annual meeting
in Vancouver. (The film is The Curse of Copper and can be viewed at 

Zorrilla said that he and other mine critics have been threatened with
guns and machetes after they started fighting the company’s exploration
plans. “We’ve all received death threats,” Zorrilla told a reporter for
the Ottawa Citizen. All of the threats were allegedly carried out by members
of Codegam, according to Zorrilla. Among the company’s high-profile leaders
is Cesar Villacis Rueda, a former army general with close ties to Ecuador’s
military intelligence and a graduate of the infamous School of the Americas
in Fort Benning, Georgia. The general has said that he believes that people
who work for human rights, indigenous rights, and workers’ rights are part
of a “triangle of subversion.”      

…he and other mine critics
have been threatened with
guns and machetes after
they started fighting the
company’s exploration
plans “We’ve all received
death threats”…

ACC’s CEO Gary Davis denied any firsthand knowledge of death threats, but
admitted to a reporter for the Ottawa Citizen that Codegam had been “persecuting”
its opponents. In June 2005 the company fired Villacis Rueda and told employees
that such actions will not be tolerated in the future. Codegam employees,
led by its president Ronald Andrade, later turned on their financial sponsor
and criticized Ascendant for failing to live up to previous agreements
with Codegam and the communities. 

In December 2005 representatives of 20 communities of the Intag area met
in the community of Chalguayacu Bajo and decided to dismantle and set fire
to the facilities of the mining company. The action was taken to protest
the proposed Junin mine, Ascendant’s funding of Codegam, and their aggressive
land buying in their communities. The facilities consisted of a building
that was the company’s base of operations. To the people of Intag it was
a potent reminder of the company’s unwanted presence in the community. 

No one was hurt and company employees were allowed to take out valuables
before the building was set on fire. While DECOIN did not participate in
the action and does not condone the use of violence, they explain the reaction
of the local people was caused by the “constant abuses” which preceded
the protest. “The events are the product of 18 months of assaults, intimidations,
death threats, highway closings, violent aggression against representatives
of the county government of Cotatachi, and many other measures against
opponents of the Junin mining project,” according to a DECOIN press release.
Ascendant’s Gary Davis claimed that, “This attack was perpetrated by a
very small percentage of the regional community stakeholder population
and is not representative of the majority view of the general communities.” 

The company immediately accused certain leaders of DECOIN as being responsible
for the fire, even though no DECOIN members were present at the event.
After the fire, Zorrilla had to testify before the district attorney in
response to a new accusation by Ascendant claiming that he was behind the
burning. Previously, the company had put in an official request asking
the Ministry of Foreign Relations to investigate Zorrilla. Ascendant has
also claimed that the opposition to their project comes from “foreigners.” 

The company has used the burning of their mining camp as a pretext for
bringing in a private security firm called GOESIP. Company guards are now
a constant public presence in the community, often at points far from Ascendant
properties. International human rights observers who are part of the Intag
Solidarity Network (ISN), and who have been present in the Intag region
since February 2005, warned in a July 2006 report that, “A very dangerous
situation is arising—community conflict may converge with Ascendant’s paramilitarization
of the region, resulting in a Colombianization of the Intag region. Once
this process starts, a vicious conflict cycle may result, one that could
be very hard to stop…. It is clear that Ascendant seeks to rip communities
apart in its strategy to defeat the resistance.” Among the company’s activities
denounced by the ISN were the following: 

  • The use of death threats against mining opponents 

  •     Employing armed guards who don’t wear visible identification or uniforms
    when operating in public spaces 

  •     The mis-representation of activities and local realities in Intag through
    misleading statements and press releases 

  •     Trespassing on community property (in Junin, for example), despite signs
    stating that miners are not welcome 

  •     The manipulation of resource scarcity within communities and offering services
    in exchange for declarations of support for the company 

In addition to employing private security firms, ACC has contracted Daimi
Services, a public relations company, to try to win the “hearts and minds”
of local residents and provide the social impact component of their environmental
impact statement (EIS), a prerequisite for obtaining a mining license.
On several occasions community members from Junin and other communities
adjacent to the project area have detained employees of Daimi Services
and prevented them from entering communities to carry out the studies necessary
for the EIS. They have vowed to keep ACC employees from going into the
community-owned and managed ecological reserve where the community runs
a successful ecological tourism project. The reserve sits atop the copper
deposit claimed by the company. On one occasion the police sent their SWAT
team to the rescue of the detained employees. However, once the communities
explained why they had taken this measure, the police expressed support
for their action. The employees were released unharmed and there were no
arrests. There were lawsuits, however, for kidnapping against six community
residents. Company employees, in their attempt to obtain a social license
to operate, now have to be accompanied by fully-armed bodyguards whenever
they go to communities to talk about the benefits of mining and Ascendant.
All of this conflict stimulates the conditions for paramilitarization and
the cycle of violence so clearly illustrated in neighboring Colombia. 

March on Quito 

Ascendant’s website claims it “places high importance on working with local
organizations.” It also says that community consultation and engagement
are “key elements” in the company’s approach in the region of its operations.
In May 2006 the communities of Intag held the company to its word. The
democratically elected parish presidents that represent the communities
of Intag met in a provincial assembly and passed a declaration demanding
that Ascendant leave Ecuador. The company was given 15 days to leave. This
is the first time so many local governments have publicly called for the
immediate expulsion of a mining company in Ecuador. ACC refused the demand
and after the 15 days, the communities reassembled and called for a protest
march on Quito. 

In July 2006 approximately 400 men, women, and children came from Intag
to the capital city of Quito to march against the Junin mining project.
They were joined by another 300 from Quito and filled one of the capital’s
main streets with colorful signs (“Get out, Ascendant”) and anti-mining
chants. The crowd demonstrated in front of the Ministry of Energy and Mines
until the minister agreed to meet with a delegation composed of the Cotacachi’s
mayor, presidents of the local parish governments of Intag, and community
activist Pobilio Perez. The minister promised that he would strictly abide
by the law and, if there were any illegalities, the company’s concession
would be revoked. 

Early on October 17, 2006 about 19 persons identifying themselves as police,
some in uniform, 2 with black ski masks, all armed with handguns or automatic
weapons arrived at the home of DECOIN’s Carlos Zorrilla. He was not there.
They arrived in five unmarked cars without license plates; at least one
of the cars is said to belong to Ascendant. The police did not display
name tags and when asked by a man working for Zorrilla, they refused to
identify themselves. The police failed to produce a search warrant, but
nonetheless proceeded to ransack Zorrilla’s home in front of his wife and
son. Some time later, another individual, who claimed to be the prosecutor
from the city of Cayambe, appeared with warrants that he briefly showed
Zorrilla’s wife. At the end of the search, when the family was outside
the house and no witnesses were present, police claim to have discovered
a hand gun and a paper bag allegedly containing drugs. Neither the drugs
nor the weapon had been in the house prior to the arrival of the police,
according to members of the Zorrilla family. 

The police apparently acted on a complaint by a U.S. citizen, Leslie Brook
Chaplin, filed July 23 regarding an assault and robbery that had supposedly
taken place during the peaceful rally against Ascendant’s Junin project
in Quito in July. Eyewitnesses have reported that there was no violence
at any point during the rally and that the complainant had been distributing
leaflets on behalf of Ascendant in the midst of the rally. A few days later,
Chaplin went to the police and accused Zorrilla of stealing a $1,200 video
camera and $500 in cash. The entire exchange between Zorrilla and Chaplin
was filmed by at least one person. 

Based on these made-up charges, Ecuador’s legal system initiated a criminal
lawsuit against Zorrilla, but never bothered to notify him of the charges.
The court appointed a public defender who also failed to notify Zorrilla
that he was charged and could present evidence during the 90-day period
assigned to prove he was innocent. When the 90-day period expired, the
district attorney asked the judge to issue the warrants. All of a sudden,
the authorities discovered where Zorrilla lived and raided his home. 

The Ecumenical Human Rights Commission (CEDHU) of Ecuador immediately condemned
the police action “as part of the campaign of persecution, intimidation,
and aggression waged since 2004 by the Canadian Ascendant Copper Corporation
mining company against the leaders and residents opposing mining activity
in the Intag region since 1995.” They criticized Chaplin for “accusing
a leader with a spotless background of dedication to serving the communities
of the Intag area.” But CEDHU reserved its strongest condemnation “for
our judicial and police institutions, involved in such crooked moves against
Intag residents, acting as eager pawns for the Ascendant Copper Corporation….
This lawsuit, presented by Ascendant as ‘theft and injury,’ is actually
just another attack against the collective cause of defending the villages
of Intag.” Ascendant denies any responsibility for, or involvement in,
the warrant or the government’s actions against Carlos Zorrilla. 

After 30 days on the run while an international publicity campaign was
organized on behalf of Zorrilla, the judge revoked the arrest warrant.
No sooner had the warrant been revoked, than another one was issued for
illegal possession of the gun the police planted in his home. 

Zorrilla is not alone in being victimized by lawsuits. Ascendant tried
to shut down the Intag community newspaper and filed ten criminal lawsuits
against approximately 40 people of Junin and nearby communities in an attempt
to silence the opposition. Instead of silencing the opposition ACC has
inspired more resistance. In September 2006 the Imbabura Provincial Government
where the Junin mining project is located asked the Ministry of Energy
and Mines to suspend ACC’s exploration license. The rejection of the Junin
mining project by local governments was now unanimous. 

Ascendant Invades Junin 

In the pre-dawn hours of December 1, a group of about 50 heavily armed
persons attacked a road control post set up by the community of Junin to
limit access to their community and forest reserve. When community members
gathered at the control post to nonviolently resist the entrance of the
armed group, they were hit with tear gas as the armed group tried to force
its way through the post. When the community members refused to retreat
the armed group fired hundreds of rounds from their hand and machine guns
indiscriminately, wounding one of the community members. The invaders were
forced to retreat after their ammunition ran out. The communities had won
the first battle. 

The attempted invasion resumed at 4:00 AM the next day. According to the
account provided by the Ecumenical Human Rights Commission (CEDHU) in Quito:
“…a group of persons—some dressed as civilians, others from Otavalo and
Intag, but associated with the Ascendant Copper Corporation—used tear gas,
automatic weapons and handguns in the area of Chalguayacu Alto (Garcia
Moreno Parish: Cotacachi County, Imbabura province) injuring some members
of the local population. As a consequence of this confrontation, the campesino
Israel Perez suffered a bullet wound. The community captured 25 of these
invaders, with the aim of turning them over to the police.” 

CEDHU reported the attempted invasions to General Luis Garzon (First Army
Division, in Quito), who confirmed that an Army helicopter had been hired
for delivering provisions, but assured the human rights organization that
no active Army personnel had taken part in the operation. CEDHU reports
that the paramilitary forces are the employees of an agricultural company,
Empresa Faleircorp. ACC has contracted Empresa Falericorp to develop the
land in Junin which Ascendant claims to own. CEDHU asked the Ministry of
Defense to fully investigate the paramilitary groups used by ACC. “We hold
the Minister of Energy and Mines and Ascendant Copper Corporation responsible
for these new measures which threaten the human rights of Intag’s communities,
and for all the other consequences resulting from these premeditated armed
incursions” said Sister Elsie Monge, executive director of CEDHU. 

On December 6, 4 people were wounded, one seriously, when a pro-mining
crowd of about 100 in the area of Garcia Moreno stopped approximately 400
people from all over Intag and other parts of Cotacachi County, along with
the governor of Imbabura and Cotacachi County, who were headed to Junin
to witness the transfer of the 57 security guards who were captured by
the communities previously, to government authorities. The pro-mining crowd
threw rocks and tires that had been set on fire, fired shots, and threw
Molotov cocktails at the group. 

Following these incidents, the Undersecretary for Environmental Protection
of the Ministry of Energy and Mines ordered ACC’s general manager in Ecuador
to stop all activities at its Junin mining project: “As is publicly known,
in the last few days grave confrontations have taken place in the communities
within the area of influence of the Junin Mining project, which is under
the responsibility of the company you represent, putting at risk the security
and integrity of the inhabitants of the area…. Therefore, as the environmental
authority in charge in the mining sector, this Subsecretary requires that
the company you represent refrain from carrying out activities until this
requirement [approval of Environmental Impact Study] is fulfilled.” The
subsecretary later rejected ACC’s EIS because of insufficient consultation
with the affected communities. This effectively stops the project. At the
same time as ACC’s permit was suspended the Minister of Energy and Mines
suspended all mining activities in the south of the country due to the
unusual levels of violence surrounding the Ecaucorrientes mining projects,
owned by another Canadian mining company, in the Condor Range. 

After hearing testimony that Canadian mining companies are leaving a path
of destruction in countries all over the world, the Canadian government
rejected the recommendations of the Standing Committee on Foreign Affairs
and International Trade for tighter regulations on Canadian mining companies
abroad. Instead, it continues to rely on voluntary codes of conduct that
don’t work. 


Al Gedicks teaches sociology at the University of Wisconsin-La Crosse and
is the author of
Resource Rebels: Native Challenges to Mining and Oil Corporations
(South End Press, 2001). The author has relied heavily upon reporting from
the Intag Solidarity Network (www.intag