Can 'green mining’ boom save our planet? 

Military police assemble in the community of Buenos Aires, Ecuador. Image: Peter Shear

Military police assemble in the community of Buenos Aires, Ecuador. Image: Peter Shear

The push to extract raw materials for an urgent ‘clean energy’ transition is impacting on vulnerable frontlines in resource-rich areas.
 

An unquestioned narrative of economic growth has dominated the discourse around climate solutions, silencing  community voices and alternatives to extractivism.

 

Armed military officers stormed the small mountainous town of Buenos Aires in Ecuador in the early hours of Tuesday, 3 August 2021.

The 500 strong force used tear gas on farming families kneeling in prayer, who were peacefully protesting against an Australian-owned mining subsidiary company eager to start works and cash in on the clean energy mining boom.

The company, Hanrine Ecuadorian Explorations and Mining S.A., is a subsidiary of Hancock Prospecting, owned by Australia’s richest woman, Gina Rinehart. Hanrine is one of dozens of transnational miners fiercely competing for investments in copper-rich Ecuador.

Invested

Between 2017 and 2018, 2.9 million hectares of the country were sold for open-pit mining, covering towns, watersheds, biodiverse ecosystems and indigenous territories.

Ecuador's cash-strapped government is driving the land-grab to compete with neighbouring Peru and Chile, as copper prices rise in response to an escalating global demand for this important ‘transition mineral’.

Buenos Aires is situated in the northwestern province of Imbabura, which has a four-decade history of resistance to mining.

Not only human rights but threats to biodiversity and endangered species are of key concern for the communities here: a recent study found over 270 endangered species in the area.

Australian companies are heavily invested here. Hanrine owns five concessions covering 23,000 hectares, which overlap the land of the indigenous Awá people.

Intervention

Nearby, SolGold is developing a multi-million-dollar mine. BHP has been exploring without community consent since 2018.

And this year Hanrine bid for a $400 million stake in the open-pit Llurimagua project, recently at the centre of a landmark rights of nature case.           

In a plea to Australia, Peter Shear, a local human rights advocate living near Buenos Aires, calls for the concerns of farmers to be heard.

He says: “They’ve seen around the world how open-pit mining destroys the environment, contaminates the water. What these people are asking for is simply to be left alone and live in peace.”

Hanrine's presence has been fraught with intense local conflict since 2017. The discovery of gold in their concessions sparked a two-year illegal mining rush, which ended abruptly when the company forced the government to stage a military intervention.

An unquestioned narrative of economic growth has dominated the discourse around climate solutions, silencing  community voices and alternatives to extractivism.

 

Violation

Clashes between the company and residents escalated again in April this year when Hanrine vehicles blocked the only road into Buenos Aires for over 40 days, in an attempt to force access for exploration.

On 27 August, Hanrine, in contempt of a June court ruling, again attempted to push through. This sparked protests that resulted in the stabbing of a resident.

Three days later a judge ruled that the company be allowed to employ as much force as necessary to secure access.

The National Police since issued a statement declaring their intent to appeal the decision, saying they do not in future want to be put into positions where they have to commit violence against citizens.

The Human Rights Commission of Ecuador’s National Assembly argues that the violence constitutes a violation of residents’ rights to peaceful assembly and protest, and to prior and informed consent.

Emissions

However, situations where mining companies are influencing courts in order to force through operations are becoming all-too-common in Ecuador.

The copper boom is creating conflict frontlines all over the country, with dozens of transnational companies taking advantage of the investment opportunities and deregulations offered by the government’s sweeping new National Mining Plan.

Ecuador is one of the most biodiverse countries in the world and is home to a diversity of peoples and cultures, who value land as livelihood, not a commodity.

But it is at risk of becoming a ‘sacrifice zone’ for the growth-obsessed global north and the profits of big business.

The 6th International Panel on Climate Change report, released on 9 August 2021, was unequivocal: we are running out of time and we have to act. For the world’s biggest contributers to climate change (the richest countries), this means transition to net zero carbon emissions as soon as possible.

Defenders

The World Bank estimated in 2020 that the extraction of 3 billion tonnes of minerals is necessary to transition to so-called ‘green’ or ‘clean’ energies and technologies.

One of the highest-priority minerals is copper, which is used in wind, solar, electric vehicles, and infrastructure. According to an industry report, copper demand is predicted to average 13 percent annual growth over the next ten years.

Climate commodities stock prices have steadily increased in response to demand over the past couple of years, with recent major spikes corresponding to events such as U.S President Joe Biden recommitting to international climate targets.

Despite the mining industry’s destructive practices, proponents of a corporate-led energy transition are encouraging mining companies to invest intensively in resource-rich areas of the global south.

This is increasingly raising concerns from human rights advocates, environmental defenders, academics and journalists.

Uprising

In another mountainous region, a civil war is intensifying in the wake of the rush to secure access to rare earth minerals (REMs).

According to a recent investigation, illegal REM mining has ramped up in the north east Myanmar conflict zone of Kachin, leading to land sieges, human rights violations and environmental destruction.

The profits are propping up a military-controlled Border Guard Force who secures access to Indigenous lands for Chinese companies.

Reports suggest that illegal mining has ramped up since the Myanmar military launched a Coup d'état on 1 February 2021.

Kidnapping hundreds of members of the democratically-elected government, crimes against humanity committed by the military often against civilians during the mass uprising, have culminated in the deaths of 900 people, including 75 children, and scores of people tortured, raped and held in custody.

Landscapes

Myanmar’s ambassador to the United Nations has called for urgent humanitarian intervention from the international community, to no avail.

Rare earth minerals have long been dominated by Chinese state-owned companies who own 80% control of the world's supply of REMs.

The shift to sourcing from Myanmar coincides with the Communist Party of China's attempts to "green" their image. Instead, they are outsourcing the troubling environmental and social costs to vulnerable conflict-ridden areas.

Deemed 'critical' by the International Energy Association (IEA) in the production of wind turbines and electric vehicles, REMs are pegged to increase in demand by 1000 percent to meet ‘clean energy’ transition requirements by 2050, according to the World Bank Group.

The extraction process of rare earths is also extremely environmentally damaging, involving wastewater and tailing ponds that risk leaking acids, heavy metals, and radioactive elements. In China, the large-scale devastation of RE mining has resulted in polluted communities and destroyed landscapes.

Extractivism

There is growing concern that the increase in resource extraction exacerbated by demand for transition minerals is contributing to violence against Indigenous groups and subsistence farmers in resource-rich countries of the global south.

There are also increased environmental threats including degradation of vulnerable ecosystems and impacts on endangered species.

Globally, laws pertaining to transnational mining companies provide limited oversight about supply chain due diligence.

Communities who are negatively impacted often have few available options for legal redress, especially when governments prioritise economic investment over environmental protection and human rights.

The unquestioned narrative of economic growth on planet of finite resources has dominated the discourse around solutions, often rendering community voices regarding alternatives to extractivism silent.

Growth

Regardless of this, groups on the frontlines are getting on with protecting the remaining carbon dense forests and precious water supplies.

An emblematic case is the Salween Peace Park, a region declared as protected from mega-hydro and mining activities to be governed by the earth centred practices of the Indigenous Karen People of Burma.

The potential for devastating social, environmental and conflict-related implications of mining transition minerals, deemed necessary by industry and economic growth proponents, must be urgently acknowledged and addressed in the climate modelling and at the policy levels with degrowth and localised alternatives to extractivism considered more seriously.

These Authors

Claire Burgess is a PhD candidate at the University of Tasmania looking at resource-related conflicts in the clean energy sector.

Liz Downes is a researcher and campaigner for the Rainforest Action Group, who support frontline communities in Ecuador impacted by Australian mining companies.

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