QUITO, Ecuador – In January, this country was shaken by mass protests against large-scale mining.
Indigenous people and campesinos–or peasant farmers – in Ecuador have long called for nationalization of natural resources. These days, many are demanding that they not be exploited at all and are blockading highways to make their point.
President Rafael Correa responded by calling the protesters “nobodies” and “extremists.” The government detained a number of protest leaders, charging some of them with terrorism. One leader in the Amazon was briefly disappeared only to show up in a hospital in the Amazonian city of Macas with a gunshot wound to the head. Police officers were also injured in attempting to clear blockades.
In September, Ecuadorian voters approved a new constitution backed by Correa’s political movement, Alianza Pa’s. Among other gains, the document awards rights to the natural environment and declares access to water to be a human right.
But Correa is now pushing for the expansion of large-scale metal mining in Ecuador, winning congressional approval in January for a law that would open the country to mineral exploitation by Canadian companies, including Kinross, Iamgold Inc., and Corriente Resources Inc.
Local and regional campesino movements, joined by the Confederation of Indigenous Nationalities of Ecuador (CONAIE), cite the new constitution in arguing that the mining law is illegal. CONAIE, which represents indigenous people in Ecuador’s Amazon, highlands and coast, is one of Latin America’s most powerful social movements.
In an interview before the new law’s passage, CONAIE President Marlon Santi accused Correa of being under the influence of foreign mining companies. “We wonder what interests are at work here when there are other important laws to work on. We reject the current mining law,” says Santi.
Natural resource exploitation has long been a source of conflict in Ecuador, from the oil boom that began in the late 1960s to the proposed mining of copper, gold and silver reserves of today.
In the southern Amazonian province of Zamora Chinchipe, the EcuaCorriente mining company – a subsidiary of Corriente Resources Inc. – has allegedly cultivated a pro-mining front group of Shuar indigenous people. Corriente has not responded to the allegations, first reported in Canada’s Dominion newspaper.
The Amazon Defense Front, which represents indigenous groups and campesinos, is waging a multibillion-dollar lawsuit against Texaco, charging that the oil giant’s practices caused widespread environmental destruction and illness among local residents. A 2008 report by a court-appointed expert found that crude spills and the abandonment of huge quantities of toxic fluid byproducts in hundreds of unlined pits led to high rates of cancer among residents and the disappearance of an entire indigenous nationality, the Tetete.
Oil exploitation’s legacy of pollution and disease spurs much of the contemporary opposition to large-scale mining. The experiences of anti-mining activists in other Latin American countries, such as Peru and Guatemala, have further given Ecuadorians the inspiration to resist.
Gonzalo Esp’n, an indigenous leader participating in January’s highway blockades in the central highlands province of Cotopaxi, says the government should regulate the small-scale mining and invest in sustainable, small-scale agriculture.
“Large-scale mining just leads to our natural resources being exported to other countries and then being sent back to us as manufactured goods,” Esp’n says.
The northern highlands community of Intag and the Amazonian community of Sarayaku have provided models for resistance. Both have kept mining and oil companies, respectively, out of their territories since the early ’90s. They have built alliances with urban environmentalists and supporters in Europe and North America to put pressure on foreign companies and the Ecuadorian government.
In his Jan. 24 weekly radio address just days after major protests, Correa pledged to press on with large-scale mining. “It is absurd that some want to force us to remain like beggars sitting atop a bag of gold,” he said.
Indigenous and campesino leaders are discussing an alliance to challenge Correa in April elections. While it is nearly certain that the president will be re-elected, activists say they hope to win a number of seats in the National Assembly, increasing the movement’s visibility.
“The CONAIE will continue to struggle for territorial rights and against environmental pollution,” said a recent statement from the indigenous federation. “We will closely monitor mining concessions and will condemn the lack of prior, free and informed consent by any means, including international mechanisms.”
In Ecuador, and in countries throughout the Global South, it is often the most oppressed people who are resisting mineral exploitation and articulating a new vision of sustainable development.
For Susan, a teenage Kichwa activist, Ecuador’s indigenous people are uniting to defend access to clean water, without which their communities would be unable to survive.
“We are demonstrating that we are not just nobodies,” she says. “We are an entire people in struggle.”