Ecuador

Intag, a biodiverse region 

The Intag Region is located in the Andes in the Imbabura province in northern Ecuador. It is home to two of the world’s 34 most important biological hotspots: the Tropical Andes hotspot and the Tumbes-Choco-Magdalena hotspot. The region has an area of 150,000 hectares, where 17,000 people live in 76 rural communities. Small-scale agriculture, eco-tourism and local handicraft provide the population with an income.[1] The region is mainly covered by cloud forests and farming land. Protection of cloud forests is vital since only 2.5 per cent of the world’s tropical forests consist of cloud forests.  Many species that inhabit the cloud forest can only be found in this region’s ecosystem. [2]

Mining in Ecuador 

Mining is a relatively recent phenomenon in Ecuador, unlike oil extraction, which started as early as 1921.[3] Mine exploitation by big multinationals did not start until the start of the 21st century after new mining legislation had been adopted in 2000. One reason for this is the declining oil production after the 2006 peak. In its search for alternative means to enhance future state revenues, the Correa Government turned its attention towards mining. As a result, by 2007 the Ecuadorian Ministry of Energy and Mining had offered concessions to over 4000 new mines.[4] A large number of them, however, were withdrawn in April 2008 by the Ministry of Non-renewable Natural Resources when a new mining decree was published by the National Legislative Assembly. The reasons  for  the withdrawal were mainly the failure of the companies to pay the annual fees to retain the concessions or the fact that concessions overlapped with nature areas or adversely affected water supplies.[5]

The situation changed once again when the Ecuadorian National Assembly adopted a new mining law in January 2009[6], which gave the state more power regarding the country’s mineral resources management. Since then, the government has strongly supported mining investments.[7] Consequently, a number of mining companies were allowed to start or resume their activities.[8] In December 2009, the first national mining company, ENAMI EP, was launched.[9] The Ecuadorian Mining Chamber of Commerce estimated the country’s gold ore reserves at 39 million ounces and its copper reserves at 8 million metric tonnes. The total value of mineral resources in Ecuador is estimated at 220 billion dollars. [10]

Three phases of mining and conflict in the Intag Region

In short, Intag mining and conflict is a three-phase history. First, the community opposed the Japanese Bishimetals company in the mid-1990s. A decade later, the Canadian company Ascendant and its successor Copper Mesa tried to develop mining sites. In 2012 the Chilean company Codelco arrived.[11] DECOIN (Defensa y Conservacion Ecologica de Intag) was established in January 1995. It is an environmental grassroots organization aiming to preserve the biodiversity of the Intag Region.[12] Consequently, they joined the protests against mining companies active in the region.[13]

The first attempt to set up a copper mine in the Intag region dates from the 1990s. The Japanese Bishimetals company, a subsidiary of Mitsubishi Corporation, has been exploiting the mine in the Junin-Cuellaje concession since 1991, without the necessary legal licences, however.[14]  The concession is located in the biodiverse Toisan Mountain Range in the Cotacachi department within the Imbabura Province.[15] Bishimetals estimated that approx. 2.26 million tonnes of copper, next to smaller quantities of molybdenum, gold and silver could be mined from the Toisan Mountain Range.[16] The Intag mining project was further facilitated by the Project for Mining Development and Environmental Control (PRODEMINCA, its Spanish acronym) thanks to a loan by the World Bank, and became operational from the second half of the 1990s. The project promoted industrial mining in Ecuador.[17] 

An environmental impact assessment study carried out by Bishimetals revealed that mining would have an adverse impact on forests and water supplies.[18] Massive deforestation would lead to the local climate becoming drier and could even lead to desertification. ater resources would also be polluted by various metals foundin copper ore, such as lead, arsenic, cadmium and chrome.[19] The Toison Range was declared an important bird area in South America by Bird International in 2005.[20] However, mining will affect the habitat of various bird and mammal species threatened with extinction as well as the Cotacachi-Cayapas ecological nature reserve.  Besides, a hundred families belonging to four communities will be expelled because they live in strategic locations needed for the construction of the mine and its related infrastructure.[21]

In 1997, Bishimetals transferred its Intag concession to the Canadian Ascendant mining company. In 2004, the Canadian company changed its name first into Ascendant Copper Corporation and from 2008 into Copper Mesa Mining Corporation. They confirmed that copper reserves in the Intag Region were three times as big, viz. 9 million tonnes. In 2008, however, they were forced to stop the mining project after the concession was withdrawn by the Ecuadorian National Assembly. The same happened to 88% of the country’s remaining mining concessions.[22]

In January 2012, the Chilean state mining company CODELCO started operations in the region but left as soon as August 2012 as the project was said to be unprofitable.[23] The Junin mining site, however,  was soon reopened in 2013 after an agreement between the Chilean and Ecuadorean governments. Chilean CODELCO and the Ecuadorian state company ENAMI intended to collaborate to develop the project.[24] In December 2015, both companies agreed on the mining project in Llurimagua within the Intag region.[25]

Local Protest 

The local population claimed not to have been informed by Bishimetals about the mining project. Besides, their land had been unlawfully expropriated. In order to avert the mining activities, they had the Cotacachi District declared as Ecuador’s first ecological district.[26] In contrast to mining, the local population have been trying for some ten years now to shape an alternative economy and put this into practice.[27] Both the Codelco and Enami mining projects have led to protests since – as the local environmental organization Decoin argues -  the project violates legally binding plans for land use rights and development in the region. In addition, the planned project is located in a protected zone. On top of this, the local community had not been consulted in advance as required by the Constitution.[28] Nevertheless, the local population appears to be divided on the mining project. Javier Ramírez, head of the Junin community, states that 70% of its 260 inhabitants are against the mining activities, whereas Anita Enríquez, backing Enami, claims 50% are in favour and 50% against. [29]

Also, local protesters are being oppressed. Like in 2006, when the national police carried out a raid on Carlos Zorrilla, the local leader’s home, who was accused of possessing weapons and drugs and had to defend himself in court. The judge considered the allegations unfounded. Similar allegations were made against other leaders. Yet the National Assembly decreed in 2008 that they should be granted amnesty.[30]

In  April 2014, Javier Ramírez, leader of the Junin community, was arrested by the government. The state-owned mining company accused him of terrorism, insurrection and sabotage. [31] He was found guilty of insurrection and sentenced to ten months’ imprisonment by the Imbabura Court.[32] Nevertheless, Pablo Jurado, the Imbabura Prefect, as well as Jomar Cevallos, mayor of Cotacachi, who both opposed the Intag mining projects, continued to give him their support.[33] He was released from prison in February 2015, after serving his sentence. [34] 


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