Chinese Mining Interests in Ecuador Are Forcing Farmers Out of Their Communities

“Where is that “good living” land everyone is talking about?” asked one local farmer of Tundayme, Ecuador, after being evicted to facilitate the settlement of the Chinese mining company ‘Ecuacorriente’.

Mirador is the biggest mining project in Ecuador. Initially owned by the Australian company BHP Billiton (1994), it was acquired by the Canadian company Corriente Resources (2004) and handed to the Chinese consortium CRCC Tongguan, through its local subsidiary Ecuacorriente (2010). On 2012, the Ecuadorian government signed a 25-year contract with the latter and projected to receive up to US$ 280 billions back then when copper prize was almost double in the international markets.
Geographically, Mirador is located in the South of the country, between the provinces of Zamora-Chinchipe and Morona Santiago. Most landholders in the region are farmers and/or members of the Shuar community — an Amazonian tribe that has resisted mining projects since their first encounter with members of the Spanish crown. Land ownership is precarious in this area, and a foreign concept for the Shuar culture. Farmers have found difficulties legalizing the land they have lived and worked for years.

Green: Protected forests. Red: Mining concessions. Dots: Hidroelectric projects. Credit: Acción Ecológica

Currently, the project is in an early development phase, i.e., they are preparing the infrastructure to extract and process copper in the near future: roads for heavy vehicles, industrial plants, mining camps and access to both electricity and water are built during this phase. Due to the amount of material that Ecuacorriente expects to extract, the company needs big portions of land, which lead to conflict with the landowners. The State, which managed to get wide benefits from its contract, “bigger than any other in history” as they have stated, has now to play a role where they have to decide whether to support the rights of indigenous people, protected in both the Law and the National Constitution or to ease the settlement process while facing a negative economic forecast after the price of oil — its main export — drastically felt in the last few months.

“They came at five in the morning. First, they told us that they will provide a new house for us. Then, that we should go to the local medical center. A little bit later, that we should go with our relatives. But I have no where to go. I am on my own. I have nothing left.”

Two months after the subscription of the contract between the government and Ecuacorriente, several social organizations decided to interpose two actions alleging unconstitutionality against the law of non-renewable resources. The Constitution guarantees the right to prior consultation before any prospective, exploratory or extractive activity. While the Constitutional Court deliberated about this, the National Agency of Mining Control and Regulation initiated several “mining servitude” processes against landholders in the zone who refused to sell their lands. This legal figure allows temporal occupation of land by Ecuacorriente. In this case, by 25 years only. In this scenario, farmers are not able to perform their agricultural activities nor they will be after the company transform the land into infrastructure for mining activities. These costs are not contemplated in the amount to be paid as compensation to landholders. As a result, most of them have decided to stay even when some have already been paid.

Map of the Mirador Project. In orange, part the land required to achieve the extraction of 30,000 tpd (current tailing). According to company documents “For Stage 2 or 60,000 tpd capacity, additional access, milling and tailings management facilities and Mirador Norte minesite infrastructure would be required.”

On May 2014, the first forced evictions occurred with the participation of military and police forces. The communitary school and the church of San Marcos village were destroyed. On August, several families returned to rebuild their houses. On September 2015, during the dawn of the day, thirteen families watched their homes being destroyed with their properties still within the houses, their animals escaped into the wild and there were no plans for resettlements. The eviction was made by police officers, military personnel, security employees of Ecuacorriente and representatives of the regulatory agency. Ten new families were evicted on December 2015.

Mirador would generate 400–2800 new jobs. The 6.5 billion pounds of copper, 26000 ounces of silver; and 3.2 million ounces of gold are paramount for the future National Budget as most strategies to diversify the economy in the country will meet its goals in fifteen to twenty years. The government has stated that the project is in the best interest of the country. “We can not be beggars sitting on a sack of gold,” said president Rafael Correa in 2012. On August 2015, when a national protest was held by the indigenous movement, he declared “we can not surrender to the abuse of an absolute minority.” The Mining Regulatory Agency framed the evictions as legal actions against illegal land invaders and every other legal action to protect the landholders has been, so far, rejected. On July 2014, Luis Pasara, Senior Fellow of the Due Process of Law Foundation, along with the Center for Law, Justice and Society of Colombia, and the Legal Defense Institute of Peru, published a report about the lack of independence of the Ecuadorian Justice System. “In practice, there is direction from the office of the executive aimed at interfering in the decisions of the judges on matters of political importance, which severely weakens the division of powers of any democratic regime,” concluded the report.

Two members of the Shuar indigenous communities had been murdered in the last years as result of these conflicts: Bosco Wisuma and Freddy Taish. Jose Tendetza, a leader of the community, was found assassinated on 2014. Carlos Alfonso Tendetza, Jose’s brother, addressed the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights and told them how the company is “changing the name of the rivers, because they can not pronounce them,” this is a political aggression, he said. “Our land has been fenced and destroyed and they are accusing us of being foreigners. They, who are foreigners, are telling us this is not our land (…) The rivers are polluted and we can not fish from them.” On March 2015, this Commission asked the Ecuadorian government to answer about these deaths and showed concern about complaints of a “structural pattern of violence,’ the ‘harassment’ to indigenous leaders and the criminalization of protest.

It is estimated that 10,000 shuar community members would be affected by this mining project in an area which includes 1447 hectares of protected forests. Luis Corral, an environmental economist working with the local community, has even suggested that this project, along with the expansion of oil field concessions in the North of the province, could cause an ethnocide of the Shuar people.

Written By: Andrés Delgado-Ron (@AndresDelgadoEC)

After graduating as a Medical Doctor, Andrés became involved in leading participatory processes for public policy. He worked at the National Secretariat for Higher Education, Science, Technology and Innovation in Ecuador, where he was responsible for advising the ministry on internet governance, technology, and human rights. Andrés also worked at the National Institute of Advanced Studies, was the representative of several civil society organizations, including Creative Commons Ecuador, and coordinated a sustainability advocacy group that promoted the use of scientific method for solving social concerns. He hopes the MPPGA program will help him advance towards his goal of creating a more interconnected and emphatic civilization.

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