The Struggle Between Sustainable Development in Agriculture and Large-Scale Mining
March 28, 2008 | No Comments
The following article was translated and written from an interview between Chris Allan, Director of Programs and Juan Pablo Munoz, our newest advisor in Ecuador.
One of my first concrete experiences of collaborating with Greengrants in Ecuador was the ending of Ascendant Copper mining concessions from the Intag mountain region. Click here for the full history of this struggle.
The organization I work with, Terra Nueva, and I personally, had been collaborating for a long time on the alternative management of the Cotacachi municipality. In many cases, we enter a situation from a sustainable agricultural position but this situation was also about local government. We had collaborated with the indigenous movement and the mayor of Cotacachi, who was elected to the local government in 1996, coming from the national indigenous peoples’ organizations, CONAIE. We had had long sessions of discussion and created a new proposal to democratize power in that area and to look for a different type of development. We had this relationship, and in the process of developing this alternative proposal for the town, emerged the specific problem of a mine operated by Bishi Metals, a subsidiary of Mitsubishi.
Since 1992, Bishi had carried out exploration and environmental impact studies—all very much in secret, but you could start to see that these people were invading the territory of the communities. Over time, of course, the public became aware of the mining activity.
A social dynamic emerged in the communities among people of the same area who were concerned with the impact that the mining would have, both socially and environmentally. So a process of assemblies and workshops began in the communities, and an alliance formed with Accion Ecologica, a national institution focused on defending the environment and ecology that was accompanying this dynamic that surfaced in the communities. Soon there was the need to convoke other allies, so that everyone could come together in the strategy of defense for the territory against the mining—but always with the communities as the main actors in the Intag area of Ecuador.
In Cotacachi, the town pushed for the creation of a popular assembly—the United District Assembly—where the different social sectors could network. One of the main themes the assembly was addressing was the issue of the environment, and within this environmental theme, the concrete problems taking place in Intag. The people of Intag organized to pressure the assembly so that they would back them up on this issue—the environment.
They created an environmental development committee within the assembly and this was one of the principal actors to push to fight against the mining. And this fight employed institutional strategies but also extra-institutional strategies. Institutionally, they demanded to see impact studies and to exercise legal mechanisms to recognize the right of prior consultation. Institutional mechanisms were necessary to defend the communities’ position against the mines.
The extra-institutional mechanisms refer to the mobilization, and at one point, the taking-over of the mining camp. At this time the miners had settled into the territory to start working and so the community, seeing that the initial consultation had not taken place and already knowing the impacts it would cause, decided to mobilize and take over the camp. There were fires, even the burning of some of the equipment that was there, all very intense, and it was a large protest to show that the people of the community did not want mining.
In all this process, support like that of Greengrants was critical. It was key to help share understanding of other mining experiences—that what was happening here was not isolated, it was also happening in Peru, and that there were expenses associated with these other experiences with open-pit mining.They helped us be realistic, suggesting we go see what’s happening over there—and they should come visit us too, so that we could build an alliance, to find the best strategies to confront Ascendant Copper of Canada.
So that networking/knowledge sharing was an important support that we had from Greengrants. But the environmental committee said, “This should not only be a resistance struggle against mining, but also the creation of an alternative proposal of sustainable development, of the defense of life, and for that reason it is important for us to focus on a plan for our vision.”
And again Greengrants gave support to develop that plan in a participatory manner. This plan was very important because it guided the development alternatives like agro-ecotourism, initiatives for the production of artisan crafts, the recovery of the local resources, and management in a sustainable way-all as an alternative to mining.
All these alternatives were due to the fact that there was, thankfully, a strategic plan designed by the committee. And what’s more, it also served to channel other resources, because with this new plan they could ask for assistance and begin to develop these economic alternatives in the area. We must say that for the resistance, for the mobilization, for the exchanges, very few institutions focus on that type of action—to support the social mobilization and the construction of proposals and to do it with agility. And one of those institutions is Greengrants.
So Greengrants’ support was very important. As a result of all this—the sustained struggle, the generation of proposals, the creation of a local association that backed the struggle of the communities in Intag—ultimately, the national government blocked mining exploration in Intag. Recognizing that people have a right to an initial consultation within a framework established by the local government, which Ascendant Mining had not done and then recognizing the position of the people, the presence of this company in Intag has been blocked. So this is a very important and concrete result of this struggle in Intag.
For the people in Cotacachi—what are the economic alternatives, in place of mining?
It must be said that the company campaigned hard to position people in favor of the mining. Its argument was, “Look, here we will multiply jobs in an incredible way. With the mining will come great infrastructure that will allow tourism to grow.” So they sold the idea that it would improve economic development in the area—very important.
That is also another great value of the local government—that it did not allow itself to succumb to this argument that it would generate income opportunities for the town. With the income that the mining could have provided, the town could have provided social projects for the community as well, right? So it could have easily let itself be contaminated by the mining discourse, but fortunately it did not do so and instead it defended more sustainable strategies.
It must be recognized that the community, because of the intervention of this mining company, became divided. And there were moments of conflict. At one point, armed people from the mining company were present, because in Ecuador you can have private guards. These armed people had to meet the certain requirements, but they were armed, and in the end would do what the company told them. So with the excuse that they were guarding their investment, the company brought in armed personnel. There came a moment when the people of the community also used arms—that they normally use for hunting animals in the woods—to show that they also were ready to respond. So there was a very very delicate moment, which fortunately did not come to an armed confrontation. There were, however, kidnappings from both sides, of leaders of the community who were kidnapped by the company, and people from the company that were kidnapped by the community.
The process was very long, and this is merely a synthesis, no more. But . . . there was a division in the community because part of them defended the company. But after this long stretch of several years, of more than 10 years of struggle, fortunately, the proposition of an alternative perspective. And at first, some would ask, “What viability do these proposals have?” They are not easy; they don’t create development that benefits our lives in a few months or even in a few years. But yes, it has been demonstrated that it is possible, it has shown that it is feasible to look for these paths, and, what’s more, it can be done in collaboration with the local government.
Sadly enough, returning to what we talked about before, the national government—the state was privatized. So there the state has not been present, encouraging sustainable development in the territories.
We would hope that now that Ecuador is experiencing an interesting process of political change even though it still leaves us with doubts about its aim, but it talks more about coming back to the community. It talks about sovereignty. So we would hope that this will also offer better opportunities for people who are looking for that distinct type of development, sustainable development.