Worth its Weight in Copper

December 22, 2011 • Features, Print • Views: 834

by Ashley Dalton:

On May 13, 1997, the smell of smoke infused the fresh mountain air of Junín, Ecuador as a single, empty wooden shack burned to the ground. If the burning timber didn’t send a message clearly enough, a simple wooden sign nailed to a post just beyond it did: “Not Another Step Forward For Miners.”

The message was left for the mining companies, in this case Bishimetals, that, since the discovery of copper in Junín in 1991, have coveted the seventy-two million ton copper deposit tucked away beneath the town’s pastoral land and forest reserve. So far, the community of Junín has defended the message they left that day: That which they value most—their homes, their livelihood, and their forest—are safe from the environmental disaster that would ultimately ensue from copper mining. For now.

Citizens of Junín protesting in Otavalo. (Dalton/TYG)

According to the government-mandated environmental audit that Bishimetals conducted in 1991, the open pit mine proposed in Junín would result in massive deforestation that would lead to dire environment consequences including desertification and pollution of water sources by heavy metals. Social unrest would also likely follow due to the introduction of prostitution, alcoholism, and crime. Upon the publication of this audit, a local grassroots ecological organization created to resist mining in the region, Defensa y Conservación Ecológica de Intag (DECOIN), obtained a copy. Two concerned foreign activists associated with DECOIN, Cuban native Carlos Zorrilla and Wisconsin native Mary Ellen Fieweger, took a copy of the audit to the leader of the Junín community, Victor Caldachi, and asked him to call a town meeting about it.

A month later, Zorrilla and Fieweger returned to Junín to check on the progress of the community’s education about the proposed mine.

But Caldachi hadn’t called the meeting. Rather, Fieweger explained, “He and another local leader, Luis Torres, had gone door to door and sat down with all 50 families in the community and explained to them the essence of the environmental audit: The mine is going to be a disaster for all of us.” Junín believed him.

As a result, the overwhelming majority of the Junín community strongly opposed the mine proposed by Bishimetals and organized against it. They partnered with neighboring communities in Junín’s region, called Intag, and with national and international non-governmental organizations to create alternative industries for the rural population. These include Fieweger’s local newspaper, a radio station, a shade-grown coffee production cooperative, sugar cane collectives, fish farms and ecotourism. All of these industries support the community’s political resistance to mining by serving as a means of alternative income. When speaking about the purpose of her local newspaper, Periódico Intag, Fieweger says that “in order to say no to some kind of economic activity, you have to say yes to something.”

For a town in which 90 percent of the population lives below the poverty line, however, the appeal of the lucrative employment opportunities that a mining company offers cannot be underestimated. Even industries as profitable as ecotourism are not stable enough to serve as a primary means of income for the majority of the population. As a result, cattle raising remains the foremost means of income in the Intag region, as it has been long before the appearance of mining companies in the area. The alternative industries serve only to supplement income from pastoral agriculture.

It is not surprising, then, that when in 2006 a second mining company, Ascendant Copper, promised employment, roads, and healthcare to the Junín community in exchange for their land, the once stalwart resistance weakened. “Many people saw the money that would come from mining as an opportunity to educate their children,” said Danielle Bernstein, who filmed a documentary about Ascendant’s occupation of Junín in 2006. On this occasion, however, the community’s resistance to mining prevailed, proving strong enough even to cause Ascendant to send in paramilitaries in an attempt to take over the land that the community would not cede. The resulting armed conflict attracted international attention and undoubtedly served a role in the Ecuadorian government’s subsequent revocation of Ascendant’s mining concession, causing them to leave Junín in 2007.

Father and son sawing wood in Junín. (Dalton/TYG)

While Ascendant may have left Ecuador and gone out of business, mining has continued to affect the area. For example, just after the departure of Ascendant from

Junín, Bernstein witnessed one of the young leaders of the anti-mining movement go to work in a mine in the south to pay for the healthcare of his sick mother. “You saw how, even though the resistance was so strong in collective, it could be quite fragile for individuals,” she said. Currently, three of the seven houses on the main square in Junín are left vacant since their inhabitants have gone to work for the mining industry.

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The struggle for control of Junín’s land is by no means won. This year Ecuador’s president, Rafael Correa, announced an ambitious plan to invest 9 million dollars on studies to determine the feasibility of mining the Junín copper deposit. Such a measure would undoubtedly serve as the first step in the Ecuadorian government’s long-held desire to nationalize the mining industry. The economic feasibility of nationalization, however, seems low in a country with such massive foreign debts. The economic future more likely lies in transnational mining companies, but only those that, Correa assures, “respect the workers and develop social and environmental responsibility projects.” In short, companies unlike Ascendant, which send in paramilitaries and attract negative attention towards Ecuador in international news.

Correa’s clear support of “responsible” mining by transnational companies was called into question this fall in his administration’s approval of an environmental audit for Ecuador’s first large-scale copper mine in the south of Ecuador, El Mirador, despite the fact that its environmental audit pointed out numerous potential social and environmental issues. “[Mining] represents this country’s future,” he said.

If this is true, then the Bishimetal’s bleak environmental audit represents Junín’s future. Community resistance, partially organized by alternative industries such as Fieweger’s Periódico Intag, has proved successful in the past, but the threat of even wealthier mining companies and potentially even the government lies ahead. As Fieweger remarked, mining will be “a problem that we deal with as long as there’s copper in Junín. And as long as we are successful, there will always be copper in Junín.”

Now, the only smoke in the mountain air of Junín comes from sugar cane refinement houses. Within this relative tranquility, however, the people have not forgotten the current looming threat. When the next mining company, and possibly even the government, comes in, the economic and political power organized by alternative industries will be tested. Whatever their chances of success against future miners may be, the people of Junín in general have clearly affirmed that they will not give up. Junín local Rosario Piedra, who runs Junín’s tourism cabaña, affirmed, “We want to make it clear that mining companies will not be allowed to come in and destroy our natural resources.”

Ashley Dalton ’15 is in Ezra Stiles College. Contact her at ashley.dalton@yale.edu.

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