MAC: Mines and Communities

Are Canadian Investors Funding Terror Tactics in Ecuador?

Published by MAC on 2007-09-07

Are Canadian Investors Funding Terror Tactics in Ecuador?

Ascendant Copper in Junin threatening species and livelihoods

by Carlos Zorilla, The Dominion

7th September 2007

I live in one of the most biodiverse places on earth: A land rich in primary cloud forests, exotic and endangered wildlife, and countless pristine rivers and streams. The region is also filled with small villages and farms, and good people. And the area has also been very peaceful; that is until a Canadian mining copper appeared on the scene.

Ecuador's Intag region, where Ascendant Copper Corporation's mining project is situated, lies within two of the world's 34 biological hotspots. In fact, scientists consider the Tropical Andes Biological Hotspot (nicknamed the "global center of biodiversity"), where Ascendant's Junin Project is located, as the most biodiverse of the 34. Intag, and especially the Toisan Range, where copper was discovered, is exceptionally rich in water resources. Its cloud forests are the home to dozens of threatened species of animals--including jaguars, spectacled bears, the critically endangered brown-headed spider monkey, and the spectacular plate-billed mountain toucan. The Junin mining project, in fact, could end up setting a record as far as the number of threatened species impacted by a single mining project.

Intag's magic doesn't stop at its exceptional biodiversity. It is also dotted with dozens of small villages and hundreds of small farms where, due to the area's great altitudinal range (from 600 to 5000 meters), small-scale farmers produce and sell a dizzying variety of agricultural products.

Before Ascendant showed up on the scene, this was also an extraordinarily peaceful area. It was because of the combination of the peaceful, vibrant community life and great natural beauty, which led me to settle here in 1978 and raise my family.

Then, in the 1990s, copper was found and life for local residents was turned upside down.

In 1996, after years of exploration, Mitsubishi subsidiary Bishimetals discovered deposits of copper and molybdenum. In 1997, however, the communities rose in opposition and forced the company to abandon the project. The opposition movement was sufficiently fierce and widespread enough to prevent other responsible companies from continuing the project. It stayed that way until May of 2004, when Canada's Ascendant Copper decided that widespread local opposition to mining was not a good enough reason to pass on what could be a very lucrative project for a few greedy executives and investors.

Ever since, Intag has turned into a nasty battleground over mining. The company's presence has created indescribable social chaos in this once-peaceful valley. Community life has been severely disrupted, and several opposition members have received death threats while others have nearly been lynched by ex-employees of the company. In addition, others have been shot, and more than 10 criminal lawsuits have been filed against more than 70 locals opposing the project. The violence directed against anti-mining activists was enough for Amnesty International to issue an immediate action alert in July of this year. The mid-day assault of a young anti-mining activist mother at her home by someone wearing a ski mask was one of the motivating factors for Amnesty's call to action.

Ecuadorian and international organizations have denounced and documented many instances of human rights violations perpetrated against opposition to the mining company's project. For instance, last December a paramilitary-like-force paid for by Ascendant Copper and supported by an army-hired helicopter, tried to tear gas and shoot their way past a community barricade. One of the community members was shot, but the communities were able to turn back the brutal attack. (A short video of the confrontation is posted online) A few days later, 57 members of the paramilitary force was captured by the communities, and many confessed to being hired by Ascendant or its contractor to build a mining camp.

Early one morning six months ago I got a taste of that chaos and violence when 19 heavily armed police burst into my house looking for me. They came wielding a search and arrest warrant based on trumped-up charges made by someone I believe was working for the mining company. On not finding what they came for, they took numerous personal items, and left; but not before one of the police planted a gun and a substance we believe to be drugs in my home. Another, and similarly flawed, criminal lawsuit resulted from the gun charges, but after six months all charges were dropped due to lack of evidence. In the meantime, I had to hide from the police for the 30 days that it took my lawyer to annul the arrest warrant. From evidence we've recently received, the main objective was to not only silence me, but to have me killed in jail. A fortunate call, minutes before the police burst into my home, spoiled the plan.

In spite of all the fear, violence and accompanying social upheaval, or perhaps because of it, all of the area's local governments--including the provincial, county and all seven Parish-township governments, as well as the majority of communities and organizations in the area--continue to oppose Ascendant's ill-conceived project. This is not to say that the climate of fear and even terror now in place in Intag, coupled with the company's divide-and-conquer tactics has not, in part, succeeded in winning some support for the company. To some degree they have, but they have also created an even more determined and outraged resistance.

The role that the Canadian stock exchanges are playing as the most important venues for companies like Ascendant to fund the type operations highlighted above is deeply troublesome. In another setting, the tactics and effect they are having on the populace might be classified as terrorism. The reason this is possible seems to be due to the lack of regulations by the Canadian government to control who trades on the exchanges, and under what conditions. Nor does there seem to be effective monitoring of the information the companies publish on public sites.

For example, Ascendant, just this last March, published their 2006 reports, in which they affirm having spent $3.4 million in exploration costs for the Junin site. This, in spite of the fact that no exploration has taken place there during the past 10 years. In another part of the report, the company acknowledges that it has been unable to access their concessions! No exploration can legally move forward without the environmental impact statement being approved by the government--something which has eluded the company. One not familiar with the way Canadian cowboy companies operate overseas might wonder where the $3.4 million (today closer to 5), has really gone. Those of us who have had to withstand the brutal campaign to destroy the opposition to the mining project no longer need to ask such questions.

It would be wrong to infer that Intag is the exception when it comes to Canadian mining companies operating overseas. Just within Ecuador, the presence of another Canadian company, Corrientes Resources, also generated exceptionally violent confrontations involving the army, and which resulted in an Ecuadorian congressman almost dying in the hands of the military.

The violence, in fact, led the Ecuadorian government to suspend all mining activities for these two Canadian operations in December. In the case of Ascendant Copper, the suspension has been repeatedly made in light of the company's refusal to abide by the terms of the suspension.

The Canadian Parliament will hopefully soon begin debating whether to adopt the recommendations coming out of the Round Table on Social Responsibility meant to regulate Canadian extractive industries overseas. As our experience shows, effective regulations are urgently needed. I also believe that the regulations will fall short unless they are also accompanied by effective oversight at the stock exchanges. In order for these controls to work, they must also count with strong criminal sanctions to assure that abuses like the ones in Intag never happen again--anywhere.

Carlos Zorrilla is founding member of the grass-roots environmental organization DECOIN. He is a coffee farmer and has lived with his family in the Intag region since 1978.

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