Sunday, September 11, 2011
From my friend Fran Gilmore:
Ecuador: A Microcosm of Environmental Justice and Injustice
Report of a Global Exchange Environmental Justice Trip
In was entirely appropriate that we visited the tiny village of Junín on the 4th of July. Junín is located in the Intag River Valley, a lush cloud forest northwest of Quito, which is home to one of the world's most bio-diverse protected areas, the Cotacachi-Cayapas Ecological Reserve. Unfortunately it is also home to a number of minerals, known since the 1990s, including copper, which was discovered by Mitsubishi. Ever since, various mining enterprises have sought and are seeking digging rights.
Some towns in the valley have succumbed to the potential financial boost of mining, but not Junín. They saw the impacts of exploration from 1990 to 1996. Road building led to mud slides near their village; along the roads came trucks with machinery and chemicals which contaminated the Intag River. The river was used to dump sewage and garbage. Children began to show skin problems from contact with the river.
Residents of Junín joined with neighboring communities to oppose mining. With help from national and international organizations they went to work. They obtained the Environmental Impact Study (EIS) done by Bishi Metal, a Mitsubishi subsidiary, which said that the mining would result in removal of at least 100 families and creation of a mining town of 5,000 people, 10 times larger than the largest villages in Intag. In addition, the environment would suffer massive deforestation leading to desertification, contamination of water sources with lead and other heavy metals, and loss of dozens of mammals and bird species, as well as damage to the adjacent Ecological Reserve. Some residents visited a copper mining area in Chile, and indeed what they saw was desert--nothing else.
The corrupt local government not only didn't help them, but collaborated with the company to file legal cases against villagers for sabotage and terrorism. In response, the communities went in 1998 to the Interamerican Commission on Human Rights (of the OAS), saying their struggle was in defense of life and the environment. I have not been able to find out about the results of that case. In any event, calm prevailed until 2003, when the government gave rights to the same land to a Canadian copper mining company.
The company began buying land all over the area, and also buying off local leaders, which successfully divided communities and families. Resistance increased, including building a gate to bar entrance to the area. The company sent paramilitaries from the Ecuadorian Army to harass the villagers. When the paramilitaries couldn't get into the community, they climbed high into the mountains. The opposition, unarmed, climbed after them in the night, and conducted a people's arrest. They detained the paramilitaries for 9 days, and invited in the international and national media.
We saw a dramatic documentary of this incident, and were addressed by one of Junín's leaders, compañero Polivio Pérez.
This did finally get the attention of the Ecuadorian government. It was a partial victory, as the concession is no longer located on their land. But the communities still have not healed from the divisions created, and there is no guarantee that mining will not continue all around the area. Our guides told us that while the current president Rafael Correa is extremely progressive, and trying to help the poor in all ways he can, pave the roads and build up infrastructure, he needs funding. The only way to procure all this funding, he feels, is to develop oil and mining all over the country. He has thus lost the support of the very large and strong indigenous movement.
In the meantime, Junín is developing alternative sustainable projects, including production of shade-grown coffee, sugar, and ecotourism. We stayed at their lodge for a few days while we learned about their struggle and saw their enterprises. The lodge is very rustic and even primitive by tourist hotel standards. But it sufficed and was graced by the cooking, however basic, of compañeras in the struggle.
But Junin is not out of danger. The Ecuadorian government is partnering with the Chilean company, Codelco, the largest copper mining company in the world. While Codelco denied it is planning to explore Junin, one of its executives recently proclaimed, “We are going to start the most systematic exploration in Ecuador.” Several international mining companies are exploring gold and marble mining in other parts of Intag.
Some would say that the 4th of July represents a notable but now precarious victory for liberty in this United States, as we witness the takeover by corporations and their flunkies at all levels of government. That is why I say it was appropriate that we visited Junín on that day.