Ecuadorians Protest Mining Plans in the Amazon
President Correa Faces Criticism for Violating Rights of Nature Enshrined in Country’s New Constitution
This month, dozens of pro-government billboards began to dot the scenery off Ecuador’s Pan-American Highway. “The people are with you now more than ever,” read several signs that feature a beaming President Rafael Correa waving the Ecuadorean flag. As the highway winds closer to Quito, the country’s capital, so does the frequency of these billboards rising from the rolling Andean terrain. Last week, tens of thousands of Ecuadorians marched into Quito past these billboards of praise, protesting the Correa administration’s policies.
Dozens clutched at the corners and edges of a large, rainbow striped wipala flag — the Andean symbol that represents indigenous nationalities — as the demonstration approached Quito’s center. Thousands more followed bearing banners and flags that represented organizations as diverse as the colors of the wipala itself.
Photo by Lauren Johnson
The primary objective of the march was to protest a contract Ecuador signed with Ecuacorriente (ECSA), a Chinese-owned transnational mining company, to open the country’s first grand-scale, open pit copper mine in the Cordillera del Cóndor, in the Ecuadorian Amazon, near its border with Peru. Protestors also tagged on a list of other demands including redistribution of water to provide greater access for human consumption, agrarian reform, an end to extractive industries in Indigenous territories, no new taxes on small landholders and producers, and the decriminalization of social protests.
“The [new Ecuadorean Constitution of 2008] is being violated by the government of President Rafael Correa,” says Humberto Cholango, president of the Confederation of Indigenous Nationalities of Ecuador, CONAIE, which spearheaded the two-week long protest march supported by Ecuador’s Indigenous peoples, campesinos, workers, and environmental, and women’s organizations. “One of the victories of the march is that it was able to bring together distinct social sectors; it was not only an indigenous march,” says Soledad Vogliano, a CONAIE spokesperson.
The Plurinational March for Life, Water, and Dignity of the People began on March 8 in the Zamora Chinchipe province in southern Ecuador and arrived to Quito on March 22 — World Water Day. There were around 300 participants the day the march began, but when it arrived in Quito after journeying nearly 435 miles across Ecuador’s provinces, the number had swelled to 25,000, according to CONAIE. The protestors presented a 19-point proposal listing their demands before the National Assembly.
President Correa, who was present in the city’s historical center for counter-protests organized by government sympathizers, did not meet with the CONAIE on the grounds that the march had briefly turned violent after some of the demonstrators skirmished with the police while trying to get into the National Assembly.
In 2008, Ecuador rewrote its constitution and passed what is considered one of the world’s most progressive constitutions in terms of recognizing rights of Nature (Read our current cover story on the growing global movement seeking legal rights for Nature). Article 71 of the new constitution reads: “Nature, or Pacha Mama, where life is reproduced and occurs, has the right to integral respect for its existence and for the maintenance and regeneration of its life cycles, structure, functions and evolutionary processes.”
The mining contract, the protestors say, not only violates these rights of nature, but also the rights of the several Shuar and Saraguro Indigenous communities living in the Cordillera del Condor.
“Our worry is that the mining life has begun in Ecuador with the signing of the first contract [with Ecuacorriente]. We do not believe that a single millimeter more of forest should be destroyed anywhere in the world, ” says Luis Contento, vice president of the Kichwa Confederation of Ecuador, ECUARUNARI. “Furthermore, the mining contract is a complete violation of all of the rights of nature and legal norms [guaranteed by the new constitution].”
According to the mining agreement, Ecuacorriente will invest $1.4 billion over five years to extract copper found in Ecuador’s Mirador reserves, located in the Cordillera del Condor region. Production is estimated to last 25 years and Ecuador will get at least 52 percent of the revenue that the mines produce.
“The contract was signed without obtaining the free, prior, and informed consent of the nationalities and peoples who live in the affected area, nor was there a serious study on the environmental impacts of the mine,” says Contento. “[The government and mining corporations] know that whatever type of mining activity, no mater what technology is being used, will damage the environment.”
The Cordillera del Condor rich in biodiversity According to a 2010 report published in the Ecuadorean magazine Vistazo, researchers have identified 274 plant and 407 animal species in the Cordillera del Condor. They also found a healthy population of a frog species called jambatos, a crucial discovery since most of the 21 species recorded in Ecuador are now extinct.
CONAIE says the mining contract also violates people’s water rights.
“Over 200 water sources will be affected by this grand-scale mining project,” says spokesperson Vogliano. “In the constitution, water is prioritized first for human consumption, then local agricultural uses, and lastly for commercial uses. The signing of this contract shows that the priority has gone to mineral extraction.”
For many, the Mirador mining project represents an ideological shift from the environmentally friendly platform President Correa ran on before taking office in 2008.
According to a report published this month by the Quito-based Pachamama Foundation, “Rafael Correa, in the beginning of his presidency, upheld a very alternative discourse that proposed a new economic model based on the concept of “Sumak Kawsay”, or harmonic living and well being among people and their natural surroundings. “Yet, over the years this argument has changed, and rather than achieving well being through respect for nature and the plurinational character of the country as advocated in the 2008 Constitution, this ‘new’ development model is based on old paradigms, like intense extraction and exploitation of natural resources.”
The social sectors that participated in the demonstration will wait 45 days to evaluate the government’s response to the 19 points outlined in their proposal. (The National Assembly has already agreed to open dialogue on a water-usage law in the upcoming months, signaling a victory for the Plurinational march, says Vogliano) If the government shows no signs of considering these demands, there could be further demonstrations in the coming months.
“We are going to keep insisting ‘no’ to mining and other destructive projects,” says Contento. “The Ecuadorean people must participate in the decision making processes and this march was held to defend the dignity of the Ecuadorean people by providing us a space to defend our rights. One of these rights is to live in harmony and peace with a healthy environment that guarantees life.”
Lauren Johnson is a freelance writer and communications specialist living in Quito, Ecuador. She is particularly interested in issues facing the Amazon Rainforest. She graduated from Emerson College in 2007 with a degree in print journalism and is originally from Tampa, Fl.