Tensions rise as Ecuador’s environmental consultation process is put to the test

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  • In July, farmers in Ecuador’s Las Naves province engaged in violent clashes with police to protest a new environmental consultation process and a large open-pit mine that was soon to open in the province.
  • The environmental consultations are part of a controversial new Decree 754 passed in May by outgoing President Guillermo Lasso, accelerating environmental permits for infrastructure projects, including mines, amid a weak oil economy. there’s a possibility that.
  • The dispute highlights a key tension at the heart of all mining projects in Ecuador: the consultation process. The Constitutional Court has intervened in the review of the Decree, amid much controversy between environmental lawyers and the ministry over its legality.
  • Such tensions would be in the position of newly elected President Daniel Novoa, who promises to reform the country’s economy.

Las Naves, Ecuador — The small farming community of Las Naves in central Ecuador is surrounded by a wide variety of crops creeping up the hillsides next to vast rainforest. Everything from sweet to sweet grows in this tropical climate. pitahayas At least 5 different types of oranges. Locals proudly speak of his nine waterfalls in an area rarely visited by tourists, making this place feel like a hidden gem.

But Las Naves isn’t always a quiet town. Earlier this year, violent clashes erupted between police and local residents protesting plans for a copper-gold mine after outgoing President Guillermo Lasso passed a controversial decree governing how environmental consultations would be conducted. The decree could speed up talks to approve large infrastructure projects, including the El Domo Curipamba mine, which is expected to be the country’s third largest mine and where protests are taking place.

The town is now awaiting review of the ordinance by the Constitutional Court.

Farmers argue that the mine will deplete and pollute local water sources on which crops and livelihoods depend. Other locals say the mine is already creating much-needed jobs for the community, while the Ecuadorian government claims Curipamba will generate more than $3.6 billion in mine exports in its first year of operation alone. .

Protests against the project, owned by Ecuadorian company Crimining (organized by Canadian companies Adventus Mining and Salazar Resources), have often turned violent over the years with clashes with police. Las Naves is not the only place.

“They asked us if we wanted to carry out mineral exploration upstream for mining development in the area,” Ernesto said at his farm in Las Naves, surrounded by mandarin trees. “They never informed the people who were residents.” He asked that his real name not be used for fear of criminal charges related to frequent protests against the mine. “Where are our rights under the Constitution itself?”

Farmers in the Las Naves area are resting while working in the mountains as they install new pipes that connect water sources to the area from wells atop the mountains.
Farmers in the Las Naves region are resting while working in the mountains as they install new pipes that connect water sources to the region from wells atop the mountain. Image by Victor Jose Méndez Alonzo.

The dispute over the mine highlights a key tension at the heart of all mining projects in Ecuador: the consultation process.

The 2008 constitution provides for three different consultation processes that are declared rights, said Mario Mello, an environmental lawyer who is representing the national indigenous movement CONAIE in the movement against the decree. However, no legislation has yet been enacted to define these processes or how they should be implemented.

The Constitutional Court and the Inter-American Court of Human Rights have required the Ecuadorian state to provide free, prior, and informed consultations with indigenous communities, as well as environmental consultations affecting projects planned on or near their lands. He ordered a comprehensive law to be enacted.

But states have not yet done so, Mello said, and the constitution is open to multiple interpretations.

This led to frequent community disputes and lawsuits. Mr. Russo’s new decree, Decree No. 754, was intended to resolve some of them, but only created conflicts in other communities as well.

Meanwhile, conflicts between local communities and the mining sector show no signs of letting up. Ecuador is pushing to expand its relatively young mining sector amid a slumping oil economy, with newly elected President Daniel Novoa pledging to increase employment opportunities by encouraging domestic and foreign companies. ing.

In 2021, a Fraser Institute study showed that Ecuador was the most attractive jurisdiction for mining investment in Latin America after Chile. According to BN Americas, investors say only 10% of Ecuador’s territory has been explored, “suggesting great potential for new discoveries.”

Drone image of the Las Naves community in Bolívar state, central Ecuador.
Drone image of the Las Naves community in Bolívar state, central Ecuador. Image by Victor Jose Méndez Alonzo.

Debate over “appropriate” consultations

The main controversy surrounding the legislation stems from amendments to the Environmental Code of Conduct (RCODA) that change the environmental consultation process with local communities.

The reform emphasizes that consultations are non-binding, that participation is mandatory, and that consultations before proceeding with environmental permits must be divided into two phases: an information phase and a consultation phase. It also outlines what public participation mechanisms will be used, from rallies to websites, videos, public information centres, telephone mechanisms and consultation mechanisms.

But Alejandra Zambrano Torres, a lawyer with the Quito-based Ecumenical Commission for Human Rights (CEDHU), said these reforms fall far short of the requirement for community consultation, according to the constitution. This reform does not seek true and thorough public participation and does not set out sufficient time frames to properly understand individuals’ concerns about the project and how it will affect them. do not have. It can often be life-changing for them or require them to take the necessary steps. Governments and businesses need to respond to these concerns, she said.

Zambrano-Torres added that this puts environmental consultation right on the checklist rather than an actual participatory process with local communities.

Environmental lawyers and activists also argue that the law is unconstitutional. They say outgoing President Lasso passed the executive order just two weeks after dissolving his government on May 17 in an attempt to avoid his impeachment. This means that reform proposals set out in government ordinances have not gone through the discussions among members of parliament that are necessary for enacting new laws and regulations.

Drone image of the hills surrounding Las Naves. Small crops such as oranges, mandarins and cacao bloom along parts of the rainforest.
Drone image of the hills surrounding Las Naves. Small crops such as oranges, mandarins and cacao bloom along parts of the rainforest. Image by Victor Jose Méndez Alonzo.

In July, the national indigenous movement CONAIE filed a challenge to the decree with the Constitutional Court, which immediately suspended it pending a proper evaluation. This also halted all projects relying on environmental permits, such as the El Domo Curipamba mine, until the court rules on the issue.

After intense lobbying by the mining industry and the Russo administration, the court quickly took up the case. On September 18, the government held an online public hearing to hear testimony from both supporters and opponents of the ordinance.

Gabriela Manosalvas, Deputy Minister of Environment and Water, said Decree 754 has been misunderstood by environmentalists and organizations currently campaigning against it. First, the ordinance applies to all infrastructure projects, including hospitals and power plants, so it’s not true that Mr. Russo is trying to fast-track mining projects, she said. Of the 178 projects currently awaiting environmental licenses, only three are mineral mines.

Mr. Manosarvas also denied that it was unconstitutional, as he was merely following an earlier order by the Constitutional Court to reform the environmental consultation process.

Protesters hold placards in front of the Constitutional Court during a public hearing to consider the controversial Decree 754, September 18, 2023.
Protesters hold placards in front of the Constitutional Court during a public hearing to discuss the controversial Decree 754, September 18, 2023. Image by Victor Jose Méndez Alonzo.

Conflicts in other communities

After the outgoing president implemented the decree, he arrived in Las Naves accompanied by officials from the Ministry of Environment and Water. hundreds of police police and residents told Mongabay. They reportedly set up a main clearinghouse for environmental consultation procedures at the local police station, surrounded by metal barricades and police.

tension On July 14th, the confrontation between demonstrators and police reached its peak, with both sides throw stones On the other hand, police fired tear gas at demonstrators in the area’s narrow streets. Both the Ministry of Environment and Water and the protesters accused the other side of initiating the invasion.

The ministry’s Manosarvas denied that officials entered the community with security forces. Rather, it asked for assistance after “influential anti-mining groups from sectors outside the local community” threatened ministry officials. Many of them were wearing hoods and carrying homemade weapons.

In the end, 14 protester injured They were arrested by police and held for 21 days before being arrested. Released on August 4th.

The controversial Decree 754 has sparked similar clashes in other communities, including Palo Quemado in the Andean state of Cotopaxi and Sigchos, and in Las Naves the same week between police, military and anti-mining demonstrators. A collision occurred.

The conflict prompted warnings from both the United Nations Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights and the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights. european union. In a statement released on July 27, UN Rights Commissioner Volker Türk said: “The voices of people directly affected by mining projects and other activities must be heard and not suppressed. No,” he said.

Not all Las Naves residents took part in the protests against the environmental talks.

Carla Ledesma Padilla, 24, helps her mother at the family restaurant and said business has improved since mining company Crimmining came to town. They are hiring local restaurants on a rotating basis to feed the workers and bring additional people to the area. The company also funded a local soccer club and paid for her dance group’s trip to a competition in Peru.

“They have provided jobs to the community,” Ledesma Padilla said, adding that she took part in a rally in Quito in September defending Decree 754. “If they [Curimining] If the state secedes, it will be the same state it was before,” he said, adding that the economy is also stagnant.

Mr. Krimining did not respond to Mr. Mongabay’s questions by the time this article was published. According to its website, the company is committed to “responsible mining that promotes sustainable development and better opportunities.”


Banner image: On September 18, 2023, during the public hearing on Decree 754, protesters traveled to Las Naves and across the country to protest mining activities in the region in front of the Constitutional Court. Image: Victor José Méndez Alonzo.

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Related listening from Mongabay’s podcast: We look at how Ecuador’s Shuar indigenous community recently won a major victory to protect their ancestral territory, the Tiwi Nunca Forest, from ranchers, loggers and miners . Listen here:

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