MAC: Mines and Communities

Bullets and assaults: Canadian miners in Ecuador

Published by MAC on 2009-11-30
Source: Toronto Star (2009-11-23)

Copper Mesa sued for alleged assault

Company says it has done everything possible to ensure the highest standards of ethical behaviour

Brett Popplewell.

Staff Reporter, Toronto Star

22 November 2009

JUNIN, ECUADOR - There's copper in these here hills.

Nineteen billion pounds of it, according to Vancouver's Copper Mesa Mining Corp.

The rich deposits buried beneath the tropical cloud forest canopy that covers the Andean foothills in this isolated chunk of northern Ecuador have attracted miners for years. The Japanese came in 1993 and began exploration. But they packed up and left in 1997 amid increasing tension with the locals.

Then came the Canadians, who were immediately opposed by members of the community who say they felt a mine here would jeopardize their way of life and endanger the unique biodiversity of their cloud forest.

Three Ecuadoreans are now suing the Vancouver company in Ontario court, alleging they were threatened and assaulted for their opposition to the mine.

Executives with Copper Mesa refused to discuss the allegations with the Star, but John Keefe, counsel to the company, said in an email that the company "takes allegations of misconduct with respect (to) its ethical conduct very seriously.

"At all times, Copper Mesa has done everything possible to ensure that its business practices meet the highest standards of ethical behaviour and corporate social responsibility."

But the mine's opponents talk of death threats and eviction notices. They show visitors video evidence from the time that, according to allegations in the lawsuit, armed "security forces" working for the company first pepper sprayed them, then "began shooting wildly."

Israel Perez, one of the plaintiffs in the case, rolls up his pant leg and shows visitors the wound he says he received from a ricocheting bullet fired by one of those armed men.

Allegations in the lawsuit, filed in Ontario last March, have not been tested in court.

This type of case is difficult for the legal system. As part of ongoing international research, Canadian Supreme Court Justice Ian Binnie has found Canadian courts lack the power to deal with claims by people living in the developing world who allege Canadian companies have violated their human rights.

Binnie has found that, as a result, foreigners with legitimate claims may be left with no effective recourse or remedy, while companies that are facing bad publicity in Canada may lack a forum here to legally clear their names.

Copper Mesa (formerly Ascendant Copper) was incorporated in British Columbia in May 2004.

It obtained the rights to build a mine in Junin in July 2004. In March 2005 a local mayor in Junin wrote a letter addressed to the Finance and Audit Committee of the Toronto Stock Exchange (TSX) asking that the company not be authorized to list its shares on the index.

"It is very clear that Ascendant Exploration's presence (in) our canton has caused serious internal conflicts, divisions and confrontations among the people, generating serious and irreparable problems," Mayor Auki Tituana Males alleged.

Despite the warnings, the company was listed on the TSX on Nov. 21, 2005, and raised $10,893,800 in its initial stock offering.

Some of that money made it back to Ecuador, where it was used to establish the Intag Development Organization (ODI) - a local face for the company's developmental initiatives.

But that organization quickly clashed with the Defence and Conservation of Ecology in the Intag (DECOIN) - a grassroots environmental organization.

Hostilities between the pro- and anti-mining camps escalated in 2006 until community members put a chain across the only access road to the proposed mining site and alerted the company that they were no longer welcome in Junin.

It was on that lonely road into the lush, foggy jungles that surround the mining site that a group of armed men in flak jackets and dark green army-style uniforms arrived in trucks on Dec. 2, 2006. Carrying pepper spray, pistols and shotguns, the men confronted the protesters, according to the lawsuit's allegations.

Carmen Piedra, 46, remembers waiting near the community's makeshift checkpoint for the armed men to arrive.

She says she left her post and eight of her 12 children to fetch coffee from her nearby home when she saw two pickup trucks driving toward the protesters, their cabs overloaded with more than a dozen armed men.

"I remember running through the grass, trying to get back to where we had set up a checkpoint to keep the miners from getting into our community," she says.

"That's when I heard the shots coming from where I had left my family. I hit the ground and started crawling to the scene."

Two German journalism students captured it on film.

In it, unarmed villagers (two have small sticks) from Junin are seen confronting armed men they claim were ex-soldiers working for the company's security forces. The armed men fire pepper spray "point-blank into the face and eyes" of some of the protesters, the lawsuit claims. When the villagers refuse to leave, guns are pulled and shots are fired in the air. The statement of claim says villagers were blocking "what they thought to be illegal and dangerous intruders."

Though the camera stopped, the violence did not.

In July 2007, Polivio Perez - one of the most vocal opponents of the mine - was shopping in a nearby village when he alleges he received death threats and was attacked with sticks and rocks by what he describes in the lawsuit as "employees, agents or affiliates" of the company.

According to the statement of claim, police broke up the assault and placed Perez under police protection. Amnesty International issued an urgent alert about the assault on its website.

Polivio and Israel Perez, along with Marcia Ramirez, filed their lawsuit against Copper Mesa and the TSX in the Ontario Superior Court of Justice earlier this year. In it they demand social and environmental accountability from the company and the TSX for the alleged assaults.

They allege that money raised on the TSX was used to finance paramilitaries in Ecuador, resulting in the December 2006 assault. They allege that the TSX should not have listed the company because it was warned that such conflicts were likely to occur.

"The plaintiffs assert that the defendants TSX Inc. and TSX Group were aware or ought to have been aware of all or many of these instances, and ought to have taken them into consideration prior to listing Ascendant," the statement of claim reads.

The mining company has not issued a statement of defence.

A statement from the TSX in the court file says: "The TSX defendants intend to bring motions to strike the statements of claim as they disclose no reasonable cause of action against them."

On Friday, a lawyer for the TSX parent company said the lawsuit will be "vigorously" defended.

Toronto lawyer Murray Klippenstein has taken on the Ecuadoreans' case and says it is illustrative of a larger problem.

"Canadian mining companies are not being held responsible for the harms that they create abroad," he says.

"Do Canadians know or care what their companies are doing in the Third World? I don't know. But we want to know if Canadian law can even handle these kind of allegations."

The company is adamant that it is innocent of the allegations.

"Copper Mesa believes that there is no merit to the allegations made against Copper Mesa and its directors," says Keefe, company counsel. "Copper Mesa has attempted to work cooperatively with members of the community in Ecuador."

The Ecuadorean government nullified the company's rights to mine in Junin in January 2008. However, the company still claims ownership over the copper deposits that lie beneath this land and remains actively trying to sell those rights.

Star reporter Brett Popplewell recently travelled to Ecuador on a fellowship awarded by the Canadian Newspaper Association and funded by the Canadian International Development Agency.

Bullets fly over Canadian-owned mine

Proposed open pit has two neighbouring towns on 'brink of civil war'

Brett Popplewell Staff Reporter, Toronto Star

23 November 2009

MIRADOR, ECUADOR-The hills that surround what Vancouver-based Corriente Resources calls "one of the few new sizable copper projects in the world" are riddled with land mines, the remnants of a 14-year war with nearby Peru.

But Peru isn't the only potentially hostile neighbour in the area.

"This community is on the brink of civil war," says Rodrigo Aucay, a 48-year-old farmer from the nearby town of El Pangui. Aucay and others fear the proposed open pit mine will tear a jagged hole in the earth and the community.

"I'm really worried that if the Canadians actually build that mine here the streets will be filled with blood. Our blood."

The company says allegations that it has divided the town are unfairly damaging its reputation.

Local leaders in Ecuador have called on the Canadian government to regulate the way mining companies operate in their country.

In Ottawa on Tuesday, a Commons committee will debate a Liberal private member's bill to strengthen the government's investigative powers and put controls on mining companies overseas.

In Ecuador, Ian Harris, senior vice-president of EcuaCorriente, a subsidiary of Corriente, expects drilling on the 92-square-kilometre chunk of rainforest to begin within a year.

Ecuador's ministry of mines is on side, saying Corriente brings money into a depressed region.

But the populations of two neighbouring towns have turned against each other - divided by their sentiments toward the mine. The people of El Pangui overwhelmingly oppose the Canadians' presence, saying it threatens their traditional livelihoods as small-scale farmers. The people of Tundayme, however, are, according to Corriente, 95 per cent in favour of the mine because it will bring money into the region.

"There's a lack of work in this area," says Tundayme farmer Angel Marka, 33. "A lot of people have moved away. Those who are left have become informal miners. Which is good. It brings us money."

CORRIENTE'S PROPOSED mine site lies at the end of a dirt road that disappears into the banks of an Amazonian tributary, then reappears a short distance from a military checkpoint on the other side. Past the checkpoint is a chain-link fence, guarded by watchmen marking the company's territory.

Corriente CEO Ken Shannon says the company needs the armed guards, given the sometimes violent opposition to the mine. But he's quick to add Corriente is not an enemy to the locals. It has invested in what it calls "an extensive development program that focuses on sustainable projects in the area."

Though the Ecuadorean government favours the project, Salvador Quishpe, a senator turned prefect (similar to a premier) for the Amazonian province of Zamora, says the company's activities have done nothing but split the community.

Mass protests over the proposed mine have resulted in gunshots, bloodshed and the arrest and alleged assault of Quishpe himself.

Corriente began buying the rights to explore and develop mining properties in South America in 1992. The company purchased the rights to the minerals beneath its Mirador property in 2000.

In 2006, Corriente presented its first environmental impact assessment to Ecuador's government, outlining its plans to dig an open pit mine in the rainforest, extract 5 billion kilos of copper and then, after the mine's 19-year lifespan, fill in the pit and replant the forest.

The Ecuadorean government approved the assessment in May 2006 and the company began raising the $125 million (Canadian) needed to begin digging.

That's when the violence began.

IN SEPTEMBER 2006, locals asked what would happen to their farms, rivers and forests once drilling started. Unhappy with the company's responses, they took to the streets in open protest.

The government responded to the protests by suspending Corriente's right to develop the proposed mine. On Dec. 1, 2006, 500 opponents of the mine marched from El Pangui to the Corriente camp to "verify" whether the company had indeed suspended work at the site.

Harris, head of the company's Ecuadorean operations, says the protesters actually intended to burn down the project site and came armed with explosives to do so.

This much is clear: Protesters, led by senator Quishpe, made it as far as the Rio Zamora crossing, where they found both the suspension bridge and ferry guarded by soldiers and people from Tundayme, who feared the protesters were out to burn down both their town and the mining camp.

Violence erupted the next day as citizens of Tundayme and El Pangui fired shots from both sides of the river.

Several people on either side were injured - some shot, some beaten.

By Dec. 3, the protesters overwhelmed the mine's supporters and crossed the river. The only thing between them and the mine site was the military checkpoint.

"We crossed the checkpoint, then they jumped out from the brush, 200 soldiers armed with tear gas and rubber bullets," recalls Quishpe. "They started shooting. I hid in the forest. When I came out of the woods hours later, I was arrested and charged with invading military territory."

The soldiers took Quishpe to the mine site, where a helicopter waited to fly him away.

"I grabbed onto a tree and wouldn't let go," he says. "They tore me from it. They tied my hands. My nose and mouth were bound up in tape. My feet too. They put me on the helicopter and took me away to the town of Zamora (a 15-minute ride by chopper). I think the only reason they didn't kill me there was because people saw them put me on the helicopter.

"When I arrived I had a lot of bruises. I was punched, kicked and dominated."

Harris tells a different story.

"The biggest human rights violation was done by the protesters," he says. "The protesters violated the citizens of Tundayme. They injured five people. One person was even shot."

The conflicts over the Mirador project made the national news in Ecuador, where the vice-president of the Chamber of Mines said the protests were directed by international opponents to mining.

Corriente's permission to mine was suspended again in April 2008 as the Ecuadorean government sought to rewrite its mining laws. Despite the possibility of further conflict, the company was given back its rights in March 2009.

For its part, El Pangui remains united in its opposition to the mine, united around Rosa Vintimilla, a 39-year-old mother who lives with her blind husband and seven of her eight children in a shack on company-owned farmland intended for a copper-processing plant.

It was on that farm on Oct. 24, 2007 that Vintimilla's eldest son, Carlos, took two machete chops to the head while gathering cattle.

In written statements given to the local police, Carlos named a watchman for Corriente as the attacker. The company disputes the claim. No one has been tried for the alleged assault.

"A law in Canada would go a long way to regulate how much (Canadian mining companies) can get away with down here," says Quishpe.

CEO Shannon says Corriente's reputation has been damaged by false claims of human rights abuses, but with little oversight in place to investigate the claims, there's nothing much he can do about it.

Star reporter Brett Popplewell travelled to Ecuador on a fellowship awarded by the Canadian Newspaper Association and funded by the Canadian International Development Agency.

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