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Large-Scale Mining to Test Rights of Nature

Ecuador is the only Andean nation without any large-scale metallic mines (such as gold and copper). This unique state of affairs is about to be tested in the next few weeks when the Correa government signs exploitation agreements with Chinese and Canadian transnational miners looking to exploit the country’s copper and gold reserves. More importantly, the legitimacy of the nation’s Constitution, which grants nature rights, will also be tested.

There is no other economic activity in the world that would so clearly violate the rights of nature as large-scale open-pit mining. Large-scale mining, unlike petroleum, creates environmental liabilities that can endure for thousands of years. The impacts are order of magnitude worse.

Bingham Canyon, an active open pit copper mine in Utah, can be seen from outer space. It is over a kilometer deep and four kilometers across. A similar gaping hole in Chile’s Atacama desert, the Chuquicamata copper mine, has eaten a good part of the town by the same name and can, likewise, be seen from outer space. The infamous Ok Tedi copper and gold mine in Papua New Guinea, on the other hand, has devastated a whole river’s ecosystem, impacted fisheries and, by the time the mine closes, it will have destroyed 3,000 square miles of tropical forests, as well as the livelihood of 30,000 local inhabitants. The still-active mine disgorges nearly 160,000 tons of spent ore and waste rock per day into nearby rivers.

Water is the resource most impacted by these mines. Many mines around the world, including some in the US and Canada, are leaching heavy metals into rivers and the ocean today, and will continue to do so for thousands of years. Millions of gallons per day may have to be used, transported- and contaminated- as part of a normal mining operation. A good deal of that water will be mixed with toxic chemicals like cyanide, in order to extract the few grams of gold that is usually found in a typical ton of gold-bearing ore. Some of the water draining from mines is as acidic as car battery fluid, and more toxic.

In fact, according to the US Environmental Protection Agency, mining in the US accounts for over one half of all toxic releases into the environment, and produces an unimaginable 8-9 times more solid waste, per weight, than that all its municipalities put together. The costs of stabilizing and treating some of these impacts are staggering. A mining project in Montana is the single biggest Superfund site in the US, with nearly one billion dollars earmarked to try to clean up the huge toxic mess left behind after decades of mining and milling.1 You’d think so much destruction would add greatly to a country’s economy. Yet, in the US, the economy of mining adds less than 1% to the nation’s Gross National Product.

Thus, it is clear that there is no way that large-scale mining can avoid serious, irreversible, and long-lasting environmental impacts. This is especially true in places like Ecuador’s Condor Range, in the south east of the country where the first large-scale copper and gold mining projects are slated to start. The Condor Range, along with the Toisan Range, in the northwest of the country, where Chile’s Codelco is looking for copper, are areas of exceptional biological diversity, and are extremely rich in water resources. They are also rich in primary and secondary cloud forests- one of the most threatened ecosystems in the world. Both sites also harbor dozens of species of animals threatened by extinction, including several species of monkeys, jaguars and spectacled bears. The very steep topography, heavy rains (3000 millimeters annually) which gives rise to copious underground water, and ore laced with heavy metals, will make mining’s impacts at these two sites especially destructive. In other words, they have the perfect combination of elements to ensure a very-long-lasting environmental nightmare.

In short, there is no way that large-scale mining in Ecuador can avoid grossly violating the rights of nature as guaranteed in the country’s Constitution. The 64 million dollar question is how will the Correa government justify approving these projects, and how will the country’s civil society, local governments, and judicial and legislative branches react.

There are indications of likely outcomes. To understand them, it’s necessary to take a quick look at the current situation.

Correa is strapped for cash. The Chinese have cash and need copper (and petroleum), and have been lending heavily to Correa’s government. Thus the government will bend over backwards to try supply the raw commodity to the Chinese, so they can add value to it and ship it back to Ecuador as finished products. Not much change there since the good ol’ colonial days. The main difference is that the Constitution forces the government to get more money from the extraction of the country’s mineral resources. The details are being worked on right now in the form of case-by-case exploitation agreements with each company. There is some wiggle room in the negotiations, but if the letter of the law is minimally respected, mining companies will have to pay a lot more for Ecuador’s minerals than anywhere else in Latin America and, possibly, the world. Thus, there is a real economic incentive for the Correa government to switch the green light on for mining. However, if that same respect for the law is upheld- and specially Constitution rights, there is no way that large-scale metallic mining can take place in this Andean nation.

We know what the Executive will try to do. The Legislative has shown as much back bone to stand up to executive demands as a Jellyfish. It’s turned into a rubber-stamp-anything-that-comes-from-the-executive kind of place. The country’s court system, including the constitutional court, has seldom, if ever, been impartial ; the less so now, after a recent populist referendum gave the executive constitutionally questionable rights to intervene in its makeup.

The Not-So-Wild Cards

We are then left with local governments and civil society. In Ecuador, local governments are autonomous. I’m referring to provincial, municipal and township governments (equivalent to small municipalities). Some of these have openly said that they will not allow large-scale mining in their territories. Especially troubling for the Executive will be the provinces where the executive-backed referendum lost by large margins, and where the biggest mining projects also happen to be located, such as the province of Zamora Chinchipe. In these cases, the executive will try to impose the rights of the national government over local government rights. It will not be easy ; even with cooped courts. The Constitution gives these governments firm rights, and they will fight hard to keep the national government from usurping them.

Civil Society

So, we can count on the Executive to approve, the Legislative and Judicial to go along, local governments to try to uphold their rights, but civil society will fight.

Regardless of whether the local governments are victorious in affirming their rights or give in to the Executive, or of whether the courts try to reign in the power of the transnationals or not, civil society will fight for their rights, with constitution in hand. For, besides giving nature rights, Ecuador’s Constitution gives its people the right to resist activities or processes that threaten Constitutional rights. Two of those rights are the right to a safe environment, and the right to Sumak Kawsay- equivalent to a “good life”, or well-being. In the minds of most campesinos and indigenous peoples, peace within the communities and a healthy environment are very much part of that vision. And, judging by the past, communities and civil society groups will use the Constitutional right to resist in order to stop mining from creating social strife in their communities and contaminating their environment.

The rural activists will not be alone. A coalition made up of urban activists and academics, supported by a few anti-Correa Assembly members- all from the left- will also resist the government’s extractive plans, which will keep Ecuador’s economy tied to exporting commodities, as it has for decades. In a exceptionally biologically and culturally diverse country as Ecuador, their arguments goes, the extractive model not only no longer makes any sense, but threatens the country’s potential to develop a truly sustainable economy. The social strife, environmental impacts and cultural havoc, added to the usual economic boom-and-bust nature of resource dependency that the extractive model delivers cannot be justified, and is just not needed in countries like Ecuador.

Thus, we can be absolutely sure that the extractive agenda imposed by the Executive will provoke wide-spread social protests. Among other things, the conflicts will strain the popularity of a government already strained and weakened by serious internal dissent and a drop in popularity. It will also inevitably lead to an increase in the criminalization of the social protest and human rights violations. After all, we are talking of a president who, in 2007, publicly said that anyone opposed to development is a terrorist, and who’s government legally classifies as terrorism the blocking of roads in protests ; one of the most popular forms of public protest in the country. And, if in spite of all the social and legal mayhem the mines are allowed to open, and given the clear Constitutional violations the action implies, it will undoubtedly lead to human rights and environmental justice challenges, which will likely end up being resolved in international tribunals, putting billion of dollars of mining investment at risk.

One of the more serious consequences of the insistence on the mining agenda will be a lethal weakening of the faith in the country’s legal system and, especially of the idea of the importance of fundamental rights, Constitutional guarantees, and the rule of law. These are cardinal principles not to be trifled with. Ecuador’s people already don’t think much of their judicial system ; it can ill afford further deterioration.

If civil society succeeds in stopping Correa’s mining agenda, the first clear proof of its intention will have come from the regional meeting that took place in Cuenca, Ecuador in June of 2011. Here, representatives from local governments, indigenous people, NGO’s and communities affected by mining from all over Ecuador and Latin America, came together for three days of discussions, and debated the mining issues and the deeply flawed development model it offers. The results put into evidence the growing, and fierce, resistance taking hold all over the continent to the extractive model of development. The costs are not worth it, the consequences too great, and the people have had enough, are some of the messages that came out of the event. And, perhaps the most important message, that THEY WILL RESIST the imposition of that model.

The successful grass-roots resistance to two large scale copper mining projects in the 1990s in the Intag area of northwest Ecuador has shown the rest of country that resistance is not only possible, but can lead to positive developments. Part of the success of Intag’s struggle was due to the support the communities received from local governments, but there’s no doubt that the resilience of the people and communities and their ability to organize proved essential.

Because of this union of forces, Intag’s communities and organizations were able to not only stop a large copper mining project- twice- but also to develop their own alternatives to mining ; from a successful shade-grown coffee coop and community ecological tourism, to the creation of dozens of community-owned forest and watershed reserves, and are proposing small-scale hydroelectricity production, to mention just a few of the alternatives. All these not only benefit and strengthen local economies and communities, but also maintain social peace and conserve Intag’s cloud forests and its threatened wildlife and water resources. What this sustainable model doesn’t do is violate Constitutional rights.

Intag’s example is a real effort at attaining sustainability ; social, economic and environmental. Ironically, attaining sustainability is a primordial responsibility Ecuador’s Constitution demands of its people and governments. By its insistence on opening up this mega-diverse country to large-scale mining, the government, environment, and most of the people of Ecuador, only stand to lose. And lose big time. The winners, as always, will be the transnational corporations, Ecuador’s elite, and the citizens of the rich countries who consume most of the world’s resources. Left behind will be desecrated landscapes, contaminated waters, human rights violations and trampled constitutions.

Sources :

1. Breaking New Ground ; The Mining, Minerals and Sustainable Development Project (MMSD) Project, Published by Earthscan for RED AND WBCSD . 2002

Rights of Nature in the Constitution :

The right to fully respect its existence and to maintain and regenerate its vital cycles, structure, functions and evolutionary processes.

2. The right to restoration.

3. The responsibility of the state to :

*Encourage individuals, corporations, and groups, to protect nature and to promote respect for all the elements that form an ecosystem.

*In cases of severe or permanent environmental impact, including those linked to the exploitation of nonrenewable natural resources, establish the most effective mechanisms to achieve the restoration, and take the appropriate measures to eliminate or mitigate adverse environmental consequences.

*Apply precautions and restrictions for activities that may lead to the extinction of species, destruction of ecosystems or the permanent alteration of natural cycles.

For more information on mining’s near-perpetuity impacts : http://www.earthworksaction.org/amd.cfm
For more information on the impacts of the OK Tedi mine : http://www.oktedi.com/community-and-environment/the-environment/impacts-of-mining

Les opinions exprimées et les arguments avancés dans cet article demeurent l'entière responsabilité de l'auteur-e et ne reflètent pas nécessairement ceux du CETRI.