Río Blanco: Left to be robbed? Or, resist?

Sandeep Banerjee

A bench of the civil and commercial division of the Azuay Provincial Court voted on the afternoon of August 3, Friday, to uphold a June 3 decision to close the Chinese-owned Rio Blanco gold mine, about 40 km west of Cuenca, the third largest city of Ecuador. Earlier, from newspaper El Comercio we know that the June 3 judgement of Civil Judge Paúl Serrano, which ordered closing operations of the Rio Blanco gold mine, is there in the portal of the judiciary of Azuay[1]. It may happen that the Govt of Ecuador and the China owned Ecuagoldmining company will again go to appeal to still higher judicial authority as they did after June 3. So, it is not clear whether the community at Molleturo, and also the streams and river that supply potable water to Cuenca, the Cajas National Park and citizens of Cuenca can breathe a sigh of relief, end of one of the bitter-most environmental disputes in Ecuador.

Interestingly, Telesur, a media company owned by Govt of Venezuela, reported the judgement as: “Ecuador: Court Cancels Rio Blanco Mine To Protect Waterways | The mine has proved highly controversial: it's located in the buffer zone of the El Cajas National Park and residents claim it would pollute watersheds and lagoons. A court in Ecuador has ratified the decision to halt the Rio Blanco mine in Cuenca, rejecting an appeal from the government to continue a mining project it calls "strategic" and instead protecting the watersheds vital for the surrounding communities.”[2]

The mine was dug to yield 605,011 ounces of gold (about 18.82 tons) and 4.3 million ounces of silver (about 122 tons) in 11-12 years of operational life by sending 2,100,000 tons of mineralized rocks taken up from the mines for processing[3] [btw, traditional gold and silver ounces are different weights in gram].  Daily ore production will be about 800 tons. Out of 89 million USD investment, the Chinese company invested 78 million and another company that started the preliminary work invested 11 million. Peak manpower involvement might touch 800 as the company claimed[4], but presently less than 200 people are there in the project in total; in the mine operators and technicians totally number less than 50[5]. Out of about 96 under the mining concessions more than 57 (5708 hectares) were already under the mining operation. This area is at a high altitude, according to two reports it is nearly 3900 metres (or about 13000 feet) above mean sea level[6].

This year saw protests turning into high-pitch conflict when 300 armed police, military personnel from state appeared to protect the company. Clashes, arrests, and even abduction of anti-mining protest leader, Molotov cocktails, and what not happened. Interestingly, the company and the government together could also develop a pro-development or ‘pro-mining’ lobby and that too staged demonstrations; in one such occasion, even students of mining engineering rallied in support of Rio Blanco mining and asked government for mining projects purportedly for more employment and development[7]. Communities were also fractured, and one section was pitted against others. How active is capital nowadays not only in propaganda and agitation but also in organising!

‘Extractivism’, ‘Extractivist-capitalism’, ‘Mining-feast’ are some of the words that gained currency in recent years in Ecuador. Professor María Fernanda Solíz Torres, of Health Sciences of the Universidad Andina Simón Bolívar recently wrote the following in the Viewpoint section of El Telégrapho[8] “In Ecuador, the country of the rights of nature, 16% of the territory was given as mining concessions for mega-mining projects with the reopening of the mining registry in May 2016. This “auction”, which was developed illegally and unconstitutionally, disrespected the processes of social mobilization and resistance. During the government of Rafael Correa, the deepening of extractivism and the consolidation of a "mining-oil-energy complex" was possible thanks to a normative, institutional and political framework, subservient to Chinese imperialism.” She described some cases of criminalisation of protests, militarisation of areas and displacements that happened in some recent mining projects in Ecuador.

The judges mentioned several irregularities, perhaps most prominently the absence of proper process of free and informed public consultation before the project is decided. In todays parlance this is the public consultation to be done as mentioned in all EIA process, but in many cases and in many countries these are not followed at all. But in Ecuador a referendum was going on in early this year. Question 5 of that referendum was: Do you agree with amending the Constitution of the Republic of Ecuador to ban metal mining at all stages without exception in protected areas, intangible areas and urban centres, in accordance with the provisions of Annex 5? In this case it was demonstrated that the communities residing in Molleturo area (where Rio Blanco mining is situated) voted: 67.38% Yes and 32.2% No[9]. This helped to know what the public was thinking regarding that particular mining operation too. The Mayor of the city of Cuenca also expressed opinion against the project[10].

The reactions of the internationally renowned lefts are yet to be known. It is a case of development planning of their left government which is in power in Ecuador, with active help from China, which they perhaps see as socialist country.

[The parliamentary lefts and the corporate right were seen to be equally ardent and vociferous supporters of ‘development’ as we are seeing in recent history, for example the Singur days of 2006.]

6. ;

Aug 20, 2018

Sandeep Banerjee [email protected]

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