MAC/20: Mines and Communities

Corruption allegations dog mining company

Published by MAC on 2007-07-15

Corruption allegations dog mining company

Kelly Patterson, CanWest News Service

27th July 2007 (Ottawa Citizen)

OTTAWA -- Opponents of a Canadian mining operation in Ecuador are "facing death threats and attacks," Amnesty International warned in a report released this week. It comes as Ascendant Copper Corp. responded to allegations of land-sale irregularities by Ecuador's anti-corruption watchdog, and an order by the Ministry of Energy and Mines to stop "dividing" the community.

Tensions over Ascendant's Junin project, a copper-molybdenum mine in an ecologically sensitive region of northwestern Ecuador, have been running high in recent months.

Now Polivio Perez, head of the Community Development Council in Garcia Moreno Parish, near the mine site, has been offered police protection after reporting a series of threats. Another mine opponent, Mercy Torres, says she was beaten at her home earlier this month. She reportedly received death threats two months earlier.

A team from Amnesty International who visited the area in November recorded reports of "intimidation, harassment and attacks" against opponents of the mine. But Francisco Ventimilla, general manger of the Junin project, says "there is no proof" to back the allegations.

Tension over the project exploded in December when a consulting firm hired by Ascendant broke through community roadblocks with the help of more than 20 paramilitaries. "We cut relations with that company in January ... (because) they didn't have the company's permission" to bring in armed guards, says Ventimilla. "We have a very strict policy about the use of weapons and aggression in the field."

The allegations are just the latest in a series of setbacks the project has suffered in recent days. Earlier this week, Ecuador's Ministry of Energy and Mines ordered Ascendant to stop its community-relations work, saying it was "intended to divide the community."

"The ministry doesn't have the right to control our corporate-social responsibility policies," says Ventimilla, arguing company policies are separate from formal community-relations programs, which are part of an official agreement through the environmental-assessment process. The company provides services such as medical, educational and agricultural-training programs -- all of them part of the company's internal policy, he says.

Ecuador's anti-corruption watchdog also urged the government to investigate alleged irregularities in the Ascendant's land deals, saying speculators snapped up 18 properties earmarked for use as farmland, and sold them within weeks to the mine at prices 40 to 50 times higher than they had paid.

Noting the "unusually speedy" transactions and inflated prices, the commission urged the government to reclaim the land to ensure it is used as farmland.

Ventimilla says the company bought the land so it could control access to its concessions. It intends to use the land for conservation programs to preserve biodiversity and offset deforestation, he says. As for the comparatively high sale prices, he puts that down to rampant tax evasion.

The Junin region in northwest Ecuador lies in one of the world's richest areas for biodiversity and is home to several endangered species, including jaguars and brown-headed spider monkeys.

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