MAC: Mines and Communities

Ecuador's indigenous anti-mining marchers reach the capital

Published by MAC on 2012-03-27
Source: Reuters

More than 1,000 indigenous protesters reached Ecuador's capital last week after a  700-kilometre march from the Amazon to oppose plans for large-scale mining projects on their lands.

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Ecuador's indigenous anti-mining protests target future plans

By Eduardo Garcia


22 March 2012

QUITO - An anti-mining indigenous march neared Ecuador's capital Quito on Wednesday, underlining the threat protests could pose to President Rafael Correa's plans to develop large-scale mining with foreign investors.

Pprotest against the El Mirador copper mining project
March for Life in Ecuador, by Luis Herrera.
Organizers say thousands of protesters have joined the march on-and-off - some wearing feathered headpieces, others carrying wooden spears - since it began from the Amazon region two weeks.

"Is not that we don't want development ... what we don't want is a new colonization that will harm indigenous communities," said Humberto Cholango, the head of the CONAIE umbrella indigenous group.

The government says numbers are paltry, and it has threatened anyway to block marchers from entering the highland capital of Quito as planned on Thursday.

High spending on roads, hospitals and schools have made Correa very popular in the Andean country of 14 million people, and he is well positioned to win an election in February 2013 if he decides to run for another term.

But indigenous peoples, who account for 7 percent of the population, often complain not enough welfare spending reaches their communities and that Correa's plans to sign mining contracts with foreign companies represent a shift to the right.

Ecuador currently has no mining industry to speak of and Correa, a U.S.-trained economist, is eager to attract investment to tap the country's big copper, gold and silver deposits and diversify the economy from its dependency on oil exports.

Earlier this month he signed the country's first ever large-scale mining contract, which calls for Chinese-owned Ecuacorriente to invest $1.4 billion in El Mirador, an open-pit copper project in the southern Zamora Chinchipe region.

Ecuador aims to sign four more contracts this year with Canadian gold miner Kinross, with International Minerals, with IAMGOLD, and a second deal with Ecuacorriente.

"We are ruining harmony with life ... Mr President we want you to show respect (for the environment)," Cholango told reporters on Wednesday, wearing a fedora hat typical in northern Andean regions.

Given Correa's robust popularity, such protests do not pose a threat to the stability of his government, but could snowball against large-scale mining and hinder projects, analysts say.

"They have the potential to harm investor confidence which is already pretty shaky, threatening projects in the country with serious operational disruption and the suspension of operations that can prove extremely costly," said James Lockhart-Smith an analyst with Maplecroft.

Correa Concerned

Indigenous protesters played a key role in popular uprisings that forced two presidents to step down in 1997 and 2000 - and Correa is clearly annoyed at their latest march.

"They say they'll reach Quito on March 22. They won't be able to come in," Correa said when the march started two weeks ago as he urged his supporters to stage a counter protest.

Correa has accused Indian leaders of being in cohorts with his political rivals to destabilize his government ahead of the election, but they reject that and call for negotiations.

"Correa's government does not like talking, neither when things are quiet nor when there are protests," said protest leader and governor of Zamora Chinchipe region Salvador Quishpe.

Critics of Correa, 48, accuse him of undermining Congress and the judiciary to concentrate power.

In office since 2007, he has picked fights with the Catholic Church, the banks and the media, cementing his reputation as a feisty leader determined to forge ahead with his "Citizens Revolution" in spite of criticisms from allies and rivals alike.

Despite organizer claims of big support, government officials said the march, which started in the Amazon village of Pangui, some 435 miles (700 km) from Quito, has been a failure, gathering just a few dozen people.

Opposition TV images show hundreds marching.

"It's not about how many people ... This is about the reasons to protest, and our reasons are much more important than how many people we can assemble," Cholango said. 

Ecuador Indians march against mining on their lands

Gonzalo Solano

The Associated Press

22 March 2012

The lands of the Shuar Indians in the Ecuadoran Amazon are rich in wildlife such as tapirs, toucans and red howler monkeys. They also hold treasures more coveted by outsiders: rich deposits of copper and other minerals that the government is eager to cash in on.

Projects to build open-pit mines that would rip into their forest-covered hills have spawned a protest movement that sets leaders of the ethnic group against the country's popular president, Rafael Correa, who says development is essential to the future of this nation's 14 million people.

More than 1,000 indigenous protesters reached Ecuador's capital on Thursday after a two-week, 700-kilometre march from the Amazon to oppose plans for large-scale mining projects on their lands.

The protesters were joined by thousands of anti-government protesters in Quito, and some of the demonstrators clashed with police outside the National Assembly. Police repelled rock-throwing young men using tear gas and charging at the demonstrators on horseback.

Police said at least four officers suffered minor injuries in the violence.

Thousands of Mr. Correa's supporters gathered in parks and plazas for a counter-demonstration to show their support for the government's policies, some of them in front of the president's palace. The leftist President addressed a crowd of supporters at a park, saying the government is willing to talk with indigenous leaders despite the disagreements.

"We've told them: They want to talk, perfect, but with the good-intentioned, good people. For that, they don't need marches. We're always open to dialogue," Mr. Correa said.

Earlier protests, including road blockades, have led to conflicts with police and with government prosecutors, who have been quick to issue criminal charges.

Pepe Acacho, who wore a yellow-and-red feathered headdress during the long days of the hike, said he was undeterred by criminal sabotage charges that he faces from leading a 2009 protest.

"A lot of my friends have said, ‘Don't get mixed up in more fights with the government. Think of your family,' " says Mr. Acacho, whose Shuar ethnic group is the largest in southeastern Ecuador's Amazon with more than 100,000 members. "But I can't abandon a cause that is an entire people's struggle."

He is among at least 205 activists who have been criminally charged, mostly with sabotage and terrorism, during Mr. Correa's tenure, according to a study by two human-rights groups and an environmental group.

Typically jailed for a week or so, the activists then face lengthy legal battles. All but 16 have been cleared, the study found, and none has yet been convicted.

The aim, says Cecilia Cherrez, spokeswoman for the environmental group Accion Ecologica, is to "intimidate those most critical of what the current regime considers to be priority projects."

Mr. Acacho was president of Ecuador's powerful Shuar federation in October, 2009, when he led a bridge blockade in his home city of Macas to protest Mr. Correa's refusal to grant Ecuador's native peoples the right to veto mining projects on their lands. While the Shuar are recognized as owners of the land, the government owns the mineral rights.

A teacher was shot and killed during the protest. It is not clear by whom, though authorities blamed the Indians, and Mr. Acacho and two other indigenous leaders were arrested.

He was jailed for eight days for terrorism and sabotage and then released pending trial. The terrorism charge was dropped.

The latest protest march began on March 8 in the Amazon town of El Pangui, about 350 kilometres south of Quito. The marchers took a winding route, hiking about 700 kilometres to reach the capital. The protest was organized by the Confederation of Indigenous Nationalities, the country's indigenous umbrella group, of which Mr. Acacho is vice-president.

While contracts specify that 10 per cent of the royalties should benefit local communities, activists say that can't compensate for harm to Amazon forests and important watersheds. The activists point to the damage oil drilling has done to Ecuador's northern jungles, resulting in last year's $18-billion (U.S.) judgment against Chevron Corp.

"After 40 years of oil drilling, the only things it has left are destruction of the forest and pollution. That's why we don't want large-scale mining," said Humberto Cholango, the indigenous organization's president.

In Bolivia, the country's first indigenous President, Evo Morales, also has clashed with lowlands Indians over the President's insistence on building a road across a jungle preserve and for forging ahead with natural-gas projects on their ancestral lands.

For Mr. Correa, whose social-welfare spending has helped boost his approval rating to more than 70 per cent, mining on a grand scale is of paramount national interest, even if it angers those who live nearby.

"We can't be beggars sitting on a sack of gold," the President said this month when he signed the first major contract. Under that, Chinese-owned Ecuacorriente will begin stripping copper as early as next year from a hillside in Shuar country whose reserves are estimated at 2.1 billion kilograms.

The government says Ecuador will reap 52 per cent of the venture's profits, or at least $4.5-billion over its 25-year life.

Another proposed mining project in the Amazon aims at an estimated 6.4 million ounces of recoverable gold reserves, currently worth $10.6-billion.

In all, the government hopes to attract $3-billion in investment in big mining projects by next year when Mr. Correa, who first won office in 2006, seeks a second re-election. Ecuador's leading export is oil and Mr. Correa is seeking bids to rejuvenate old petroleum fields and open up new ones.

The protesters are using road blockades and peaceful occupations of state or private property, the same tactics that in the past helped contribute to the toppling of two presidents: Abdala Bucaram in 1997 and Jamil Mahuad three years later.

Mr. Correa has expressed impatience at such tactics.

"If they want to impose an agenda on the government, let them first win elections," he has said repeatedly.

Mr. Correa's deputy secretary for social dialogue, Marco Troya, defends the tough line on protesters.

"If a crime is committed it should be sanctioned, although it must be recognized that the state has shown a wide margin of tolerance," he told The Associated Press.

New mining deals that give the state a generous cut of profits will permit "a revolution in education, health care and infrastructure of those very people" who are protesting, Mr. Troya said.

Ecuador has vast untapped mineral reserves easily worth more than $200-billion, according to its Chamber of Mining, including large deposits of gold, silver and copper.

Most indigenous groups backed the election of Mr. Correa, who worked as a Roman Catholic missionary as a teenager in a highlands community where he learned the basics of the Quechua language spoken by about half a million Ecuadoreans.

But that support has been eroded by his refusal to grant native groups prior consent over any mineral extraction, and Mr. Cholango says Mr. Correa has put himself on a collision course with Ecuador's indigenous people.

"We don't want to destabilize the government, never," Mr. Cholango said. "What we want is for the government to hear our voice of protest against large-scale mining and in defence of our water."

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