Ecuador's 'progressive' extractivism - mining, ecocide and the silencing of dissent

Roadside banner opposing mining in Intag, Ecuador. Photo: dawn paley via Flickr (CC BY-NC-SA).
Roadside banner opposing mining in Intag, Ecuador. Photo: dawn paley via Flickr (CC BY-NC-SA).
Ecuador's 'socialist' President Correa has unleashed a wave of repression at Andean communities seeking to protect their lands, forests and nature from open pit mining, writes Carlos Zorrilla. With most of biodiversity-rich Intag region conceded to international mining companies, the mood is one of rising fear and desperation in the countdown to next month's election.
Dozens of mammals, birds, plants and other species facing extinction also benefit from these community and local forest reserves. Yet most of the collectively protected areas are now in danger of being transformed into open-pit mines.

Ecuador's policy of silencing non-governmental organisations that question its policies and programmes has recently attracted the world's attention lately.

This includes criticisms by human rights experts from the United Nations, who issued the following statement in January 2017:

"It seems Ecuador's government is systematically dissolving organisations when they become too vocal or challenge official orthodoxy", the UN experts claim.

"This strategy to asphyxiate civil society has been implemented through two decrees - 16 and 739 - that give the authorities power to unilaterally dissolve any kind of organisation."

This exceptionally harsh criticism was triggered by the Ecuadorian government's attempt to shut down the country's oldest environmental organisation; Acción Ecológica.

The organisation was falsely charged with using social networking sites to espouse support for violent tactics supposedly used by the Shuar Indigenous People's revolt against a large-scale copper mining project in the south of the country.

The revolt took place in December 2016 and led to the death of a police officer, a crime which is still unresolved. The Shuar were trying to reclaim part of their ancestral land from a Chinese mining company, which had led to violent evictions of local residents by the government to make room for the company's infrastructure.

The Empire strikes back

The government's response was to suspended civil rights in the entire Morona Santiago Province, site of the confrontations.

Thousands of elite police forces as well as military personnel were sent to the region, and several homes were searched and indigenous and campesino leaders have been arrested without legal warrants. A massive manhunt is currently underway to arrest others linked to the rebellion. A severe news blackout was imposed, making it all but impossible to find out what is really taking place. The news that does manage to filter out is alarming.

Due to national and international rejection of the government's authoritarianism, and support for Acción Ecológica, in early January 2017 the government stopped the organisation's dissolution. However, as of February 2017 the the siege-like conditions in Morona Santiago are still in place.

Quito based Acción Ecologica isn't the only environmental organisation targeted by the current government for challenging its extractive policies. In December 2013, the Pachamama Foundation was shut down for its support of the indigenous people's rejection of opening up new regions of the Amazon to oil exploration. The same Executive Decrees used against Acción Ecológica were used against Pachamama.

Dozens of mammals, birds, plants and other species facing extinction also benefit from these community and local forest reserves. Yet most of the collectively protected areas are now in danger of being transformed into open-pit mines.

What these NGO's have in common is their active support of the right of communities and indigenous people's to peacefully oppose the government's aggressive oil and mining development that would impact their lands and rights. And the kind of opposition that may scare away investors is simply not allowed in an administration that at one time labelled as 'terrorist' anyone who opposed development.

Acción Ecológica and Pachamama are not the only organisations that have, so far, fallen victim to the Presidential decrees. The decrees, seen by most legal experts are unconstitutional, were also used to shut down UNE (Union Nacional de Educadores), Ecuador's oldest and most prestigious teachers union.

Bringing down the full weight of oppressive law

And, in 2015, the government tried but failed to close down Fundamedios, a non-govermental organisation dedicated to promoting and protecting free speech. The principal accusation for starting dissolution proceedings against Fundamedios was that "it allegedly disseminates messages with political undertones."

One wonders what organisation in the world whose main goal is to promote and protect the right to free speech doesn't disseminate information with "political undertones". And, this is just one of several tools used by the authorities in Ecuador to criminalize the social protest.

When presidential decrees are insufficient the president, Mr Correa, has used the courts to silence journalists and researchers who have denounced unsavory aspects of his administration.

The most renowned case is that of journalist and ex member of the National Assembly, Fernando Villavicencio, whom the courts sentenced to jail and to pay the President $141,000.00 for slander Mr Correa. It is no coincidence that Mr. Villavicencio is one of harshest and most effective critics of not only Mr Correa's administration, but specifically of the handling of the country's petroleum's policies.

His book Ecuador: Made in China laid bare trade deals with China centred on the pre-sale of petroleum to Chinese companies and linked to multi-billion dollar Chinese loans with extravagantly high interest rates. In 2011, two other journalists were sued by Correa for $10 million for moral damage caused by the content of their book linking the President to unlawful business deals with his brother.

Again, the courts agreed with the government and ruled against the journalists. One of the ironies of this case was that the government itself ordered the investigation the journalists reported on. Correa also sued and won a $40 million claim against journalists and directors of the opposition newspaper El Universo.

Chilling dissent

After strong international outcry, Mr Correa gave up his right to the money, but not before the lawsuit and court sentence had the intended effect of chilling dissent. One of the journalist found guilty sought and was granted asylum in the United States.

As in the case of Acción Ecológica, national and international pressure worked to dissuade the government from closing down Fundamedios. Meanwhile Pachamama has not been allowed to reopen.

DECOIN is another organization targeted by the government for opposing mining development. Defensa y Conservación Ecológica de Intag is a very small grass-roots environmental organization working in the Intag area of the extremely biodiverse north western Ecuadorian forests since 1995.

One of our main activities is working closely with local governments and communities to protect the region's embattled cloud forests and to protect the source of water for communities. To do so we've worked with seven local governments and 35 communities to conserve more than 12,000 hectares of Intag's forests, and provide safe drinking water to thousands of residents.

Dozens of species of mammals, birds, plants and other species facing extinction also benefit from these community and local government owned forest reserves. Yet most of the collectively protected areas are now in danger of being transformed into open-pit mines as a consequence of the government's extractive agenda.

Peaceful resistance meets slander, intimidation, unlawful arrest

Although the decrees denounced by the UN have not been used against DECOIN, we've felt the government's displeasure in other ways. The President of Ecuador has publicly slandered DECOIN's leadership on several occasions. In late 2013 and early 2014, and on nationally televised presidential addresses to the nation, President Correa spread damaging misinformation about several activists involved in the resistance to mining.

However the president specifically targeted me. I happen to be one of DECOIN's founders and actively inform the world on the happenings related to the mining project in Intag. My real crime, from the perspective of the government, apparently was writing a manual educating communities of what to expect when multinational mining companies show up unannounced at their door.

The manual also contains advice on peaceful tactics for communities to defend themselves from the often destructive practices of corporations. The accusations by Rafael Correa were so egregious that it motivated Amnesty to issue an worldwide Urgent Action aimed at guaranteeing my safety.

This was not the first time I've been targeted by extractive interests. In late 2006 a Canadian mining company tried to have me arrested on trumped-up charges and very nearly succeeded.

While the other organisations targeted by the Ecuadorian government are large urban-based and relatively well funded, DECOIN is very small, and our work is limited to just one part of one county among 221 counties within Ecuador's 24 provinces.

Why, you might wonder, should a sovereign nation through its Executive Branch, go out of its way to silence us?

The answer lies in the extractive industries. The government in intent on pushing large-scale open-pit mining project in the Intag region. Given the well-known environmental impacts of this kind of mining on the fragile, and extremely biodiverse ecosystem, it is obvious that we oppose mining.

And we are very vocal about our opposition. We also very actively support the Constitutional rights of communities to oppose this kind of development.

Extractivism above nature and communities

According to experts who carried out a preliminary environmental impact study based on a small copper deposit, the mining operations would lead to the relocation of at least four communities, contaminate rivers and streams with heavy metals such as lead, arsenic, cadmium and chromium, cause "massive deforestation" leading to local desertification. It would also impact of one of the world's most biologically important protected area the Cotacachi Cayapas Ecological Reserve.

The massive deforestation predicted would impact the critically endangered Brown-Faced Spider Monkey, the Spectacled Bear and dozens of other mammals, amphibians, plants and species of birds facing extinction. After these impacts were identified, five times more copper was discovered.

In the past twelve months, the Ecuadorian government has accepted requests for hundreds of new mining concessions, expanding the area set aside for the industry. The expansion is being carried out without consultation with local governments or communities, in violation of Constitutional Rights. For the first time, dozens of concessions overlay protected areas.

The concessions, moreover, cover most of the upper watersheds of the nation's Andean range and include within their borders primary forests, prime agricultural lands and hundreds of towns and villages. In this context, the repression experienced by the Shuar in the south of Ecuador needs to be interpreted as an attempt to intimidate and silence future protests.

About 85% of Intag's area is currently overlaid by mining concessions being requested by transnational mining companies. Currently CODELCO, the world's largest copper producer, is exploring for copper deep inside primary forests formerly used by communities for ecological tourism.

And in early 2017 we read reports that BHP Billiton, the world's largest mining company, had expressed interest in joining the partnership to develop the copper and molybdenum deposits lying beneath this biodiversity wonderland.

No matter what the election outcome, expect serious social unrest ...

Given Intag's 22 year history of resisting mining development, this will not be a straightforward development. The uprising in the south of the country must also be making many oil and mining companies uneasy.

However the strong-arm response shown by the government in silencing dissent in the communities, coupled with the intimidation of NGO's that support the communities opposing these industries, must go a long way to quell mining companies' disquiet.

On April 2nd, Ecuador will choose a new president. The two run-off candidates that made it through the first presidential voting round have different public positions on large-scale mining. Lenin Moreno, of the ruling Alianza País party, is perceived as having only cosmetic differences to Correa's aggressive extractivism.

Curiously enough, the centrist-rightist candidate opposing Moreno is Guillermo Lasso, is a banker who has expressed support for the right of communities to reject extractive development on their lands, and does not support open-pit mining in certain areas.

Given that the Correa's regime opened the door to hundreds of new mining concessions which overly hundreds of communities, protected areas and the upper watersheds of many of the country's rivers, the results of the election could very well trigger a flood of social unrest and, if recent history is any guide, a new wave of state-sponsored repression.

On April 2nd, a lot of Ecuadorians will be holding their breath.



Carlos Zorrilla is co-founder and Executive Director of DECOIN (Defensa y Conservación Ecológica de Intag).

Edited by Sarah Fraser (Rainforest Concern).

Decoin (Defensa y Conservación Ecológica de Intag) works in the cloud forests of northwest Ecuador, which form part of the most biodiverse of all the world's 36 Biological Hotspots. Executive director, is the author of several papers on development, large-scale mining and its impacts on communities and the environment and was principal author of the guide Protecting your Communities Against Large Scale Mining and Other Extractive Industries. DECOIN works with Rainforest Concern on cloud forest conservation projects in Ecuador.

Rainforest Concern is a UK Registered Charity established to protect threatened natural forest habitats and the biodiversity they contain, together with the indigenous people who still depend on them for survival. In its 24 year history the charity has successfully legally protected over 1.4 m ha's of threatened forest habitats, always engaging the local communities to protect their interests, and working closely with local conservation NGOs. Rainforest Concern has worked with 21 partner organisations in 12 countries: Ecuador, Peru, Chile, Colombia, Brazil, Romania, Costa Rica, Panama, India, Sri Lanka, Uganda and Suriname.

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