Copper and conflict in south-east Ecuador

A dangerous backlash to Chinese copper-mining operations in eastern Ecuador adds instability to the region.

Photo © Carlos Rodríguez/ANDES

Introduction

South-western Ecuador is, for the first time, open for major copper exploration, with its first large-scale copper mine scheduled to begin production by the end of this year. The mine, called Mirador and located in the El Pangui municipality of the Zamora-Chinchipe province, will be operated by EcuaCorriente, the local subsidiary of Corriente Resources, which is itself a joint venture between two Chinese state-owned enterprises, Tongling Nonferrous Metals Group Holdings and the China Railway Construction Corporation. A USD1.5 billion investment, Mirador will require significant infrastructure improvements, including a run-of-the-river hydroelectric plant to power mining operations.

Mirador, however, is not the true prize of the region. That distinction goes to San Carlos Panantza, a copper deposit in the San Juan Bosco canton of the south-western Morona-Santiago province which is likely one of the largest in the world. Despite the value of the deposit, however, it is undeveloped due to a series of conflicts with the local population that last month turned deadly and now threaten to spiral out of control.

The copper of San Juan Bosco

Copper exploration has been conducted in the San Juan Bosco canton on behalf of Chinese state-owned enterprises for over a decade, but from the very beginning it has run into fierce resistance from the local people, many of whom are members of the Shuar tribe. In 2006, for example, an exploratory mining camp was destroyed by a group of several families who laid claim to the land.

This low-level dispute between locals and the mining company, however, has reached fever pitch over the past months. On 14 December 2016, a group of Shuar indigenous people launched an attack on the police officers who were tasked with guarding the San Marcos mining camp in the San Juan Bosco canton. One police officer was killed and seven more wounded, which the attackers said was justified because of the continuing encroachment on property that they claim as ancestral lands. The attack prompted the government to deploy the armed forces to the region, where they restricted access to areas near the copper reserve.

Shortly thereafter, the Federación Interprovincial de Centros Shuar (Interprovincial Federation of Shuar Centres, FICSH), which acts as a quasi-government for the Shuar people, demanded the immediate withdrawal of the military, and announced that it was withholding its recognition of President Rafael Correa as the legitimate head of state. It further declared that under no circumstances would it allow Chinese mining firms to operate in what it considers to be Shuar territory.

Simultaneously, the president of the Confederación de Nacionalidades Indígenas del Ecuador (Confederation of Indigenous Nationalities of Ecuador, CONAIE), the nation’s largest indigenous organisation and one of South America’s most powerful indigenous rights groups, launched blistering criticism of Correa’s support of mining and claimed that Correa had become completely beholden to the Chinese and their mining firms, stating ‘Although [Correa] dresses up like us, putting on our ponchos and feather headdresses, he’s ready to lay waste to our people to make way for the Chinese’. The criticism was particularly notable not only because both CONAIE and Correa’s Alianza Pais party are leftist, making it seem at first glance that they should be allies, but also because CONAIE has a long tradition of engaging in protests designed to be as disruptive and destabilising as possible, with militants blocking roads, seizing government buildings, and even participating in coups d’état.

Ultimately, the government moved against FICSH, arresting its leader and charging him with ‘incitement of discord among citizens’. FICSH claimed that the charges were baseless and used an excuse to ransack their headquarters, while the government claimed that in serving a warrant they discovered explosives and ammunition in a building used by FICSH.

FICSH and CONAIE are not the only indigenous groups in the region which are militantly opposed to Chinese-backed mining in the region: the Sarayaku indigenous people have come together to carry out actions designed to force both miners and soldiers out of San Juan Bosco, and have kidnapped over a dozen members of the armed forces, who they have generally held for some time before ultimately releasing. In carrying out these actions, the Sarayaku use terminology designed to show that they consider themselves to be the sole legitimate governing authority in the region, describing their kidnappings as ‘arrests’ and ‘detentions’ designed to allow ‘questioning’ of the soldiers, who they see as illegally trespassing on their territory.

Analysis

The risks associated with mining in Ecuador are considerably different from those elsewhere in South America. This is largely due to the extent to which indigenous people exercise political power, and their consideration of themselves to be wholly autonomous from the central government and unbound by the concessions and permits that the institutions in Quito grant. To a degree, it seems almost paradoxical that this would be the case in Ecuador. Ecuador, for example, has a considerably smaller percentage of citizens who claim to be indigenous than Bolivia and Peru, the major mining countries in the Andean region. However, in no other country in South America are the indigenous organised into such powerful civil society groups and political parties, and, as the comment about ponchos and headdresses made by CONAIE’s president suggests, the indigenous of Ecuador largely see themselves as outsiders who are unable to trust most political leaders, and instead must take matters into their own hands.

Not only are indigenous groups particularly strong in Ecuador, but so too is anti-Chinese sentiment, which is growing. According to Latinobarómetro, a well-respected poll of Latin American public opinion, the percentage of Ecuadoreans who describe their opinions of China as either bad or very bad has increased from 13 per cent in 2010 to a full 30 per cent in 2015, the last year for which polling data is available. This is considerably higher than any other year measured, and the degree to which anti-mining activists use anti-Chinese language, or at a minimum ensure they point out that the mines they oppose are Chinese-operated at every opportunity, is a symptom of this underlying sentiment.

Mining firms, particularly those that are Chinese, which are considering entry into the Ecuadorean market should understand that merely meeting the legal requirements to begin operations is often not nearly enough to allow on-site operations. Firms are likely to be met with a number of confusing and often contradictory claims to the land by indigenous people, and the political power they have makes it difficult merely to dismiss them.

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