- In July, farmers in Las Naves, Ecuador, got into violent clashes with police while protesting a new environmental consultation process and a large-scale open-pit mine soon to begin operations in their canton.
- The environmental consultation is part of the new controversial Decree 754 passed in May by outgoing President Guillermo Lasso which may speed up environmental permits for infrastructure projects — including mining — as its oil economy flounders.
- This conflict highlights an important tension that lies at the heart of all extraction projects in Ecuador: the consultation process. Amid much dispute between environmental lawyers and the ministry on the legality of the decree, the Constitutional Court is stepping in to review it.
- Tensions like these will be on the plate of newly elected President Daniel Noboa who promises to revamp the country’s economy.
LAS NAVES, Ecuador — The small farming community of Las Naves in the center of Ecuador is surrounded by a rich variety of crops crawling up hillsides next to large patches of rainforest. Everything grows in this tropical climate, from sweet pitahayas to at least five varieties of oranges. Locals proudly talk about nine waterfalls in the region that are little explored by tourists, making the place seem like a well-kept secret.
But Las Naves isn’t always a quiet town. Earlier this year, violent clashes erupted between police and locals protesting a planned copper and gold mine after outgoing President Guillermo Lasso passed a controversial decree shaping how environmental consultations are carried out. The decree may fast-track consultations to green-light large-scale infrastructure projects, including the protested El Domo-Curipamba mine, set to be the country’s third large-scale mine.
Today, the town is anxiously awaiting the Constitutional Court’s review of the decree.
Farmers say the mine will deplete and contaminate the local water sources they depend on for their crops and livelihoods. Other locals say the mine has already created needed jobs for the community, while the Ecuadorian government maintains that Curipamba will generate more than $3.6 billion in mining exports in its first year of operation alone.
Protests against the project, owned by Ecuadorian company Curimining (held by the Canadian companies Adventus Mining and Salazar Resources), have often turned violent throughout the years during clashes with police. And Las Naves isn’t the only place.
“They never informed the people, the inhabitants of this area, if we wanted the mineral exploration to be carried out upstream for mining exploitation,” Ernesto told Mongabay on his farm in Las Naves, surrounded by mandarin trees. He asked that his real name not be used due to fears of criminal charges related to his frequent protests against the mine. “Where is our right, that the Constitution itself establishes?”
The conflict over the mine highlights an important tension that lies at the heart of all extraction projects in Ecuador: the consultation process.
The 2008 Constitution lays out three different consultation processes that are declared a right, said Mario Melo, an environmental lawyer representing the national Indigenous movement CONAIE in its motion against the decree. Yet no laws have ever been created to define these processes or how they should be implemented.
The Constitutional Court and the Inter-American Court of Human Rights have ordered the Ecuadorian state to create inclusive laws for both free, prior and informed consultations with Indigenous communities and environmental consultations affecting communities with planned projects on or near their lands.
But the state still hasn’t done so, Melo said, leaving room for multiple interpretations of the Constitution.
This has led to frequent conflicts and lawsuits launched by communities. Lasso’s new decree, Decree 754, was meant to resolve some of them, but has only sparked conflict in other communities too.
Meanwhile, conflicts between local communities and extractive sectors are unlikely to cease. Ecuador has been promoting the expansion of its relatively young mining sector as its oil economy flounders, and the newly elected President Daniel Noboa promises to increase employment opportunities by incentivizing national and foreign companies.
In 2021, a study by the Fraser Institute showed that Ecuador was the most attractive jurisdiction for mining investment in Latin America after Chile. Investors say only 10% of Ecuador’s territory has been explored, “implying significant potential for new discoveries,” according to BN Americas.
The debate over ‘proper’ consultation
The reforms highlight that the consultation is nonbinding, that participation is mandatory, and that the consultation before moving forward with environmental permits must be divided in two phases: the informative and consultative phases. It also outlines what citizen participation mechanisms will be used, ranging from assemblies to websites, videos, public information centers, call mechanisms and consultation mechanisms.
But these reforms are far from adequate for community consultation requirements, according to the Constitution, said Alejandra Zambrano Torres, a lawyer with the Quito-based Ecumenical Commission on Human Rights (CEDHU). The reforms don’t call for real in-depth participation with citizens, they don’t establish adequate time frames to properly understand individuals’ concerns about a project and how it will affect them, which in many cases could upend their livelihoods, or require the government and companies to respond to those concerns, she said.
It makes the environmental consultation another quick requirement on a checklist, rather than a real participative process with communities, Zambrano Torres added.
Environmental lawyers and advocates also call the decree unconstitutional. They say outgoing President Lasso passed the executive order only two weeks after he dissolved the government on May 17, while trying to avoid impeachment. This means the reforms established in the decree didn’t go through a debate among lawmakers in the National Assembly, a necessity in creating new laws and regulations.
In July, when the national Indigenous movement CONAIE filed a motion against the decree with the Constitutional Court, the court immediately suspended the decree pending proper evaluation. This also suspended all projects dependent on environmental permits, like the El Domo-Curipamba mine, until the court makes a ruling on the matter.
After heavy lobbying by the mining industry and by the Lasso administration, the court quickly picked up the case. On Sept. 18, it held an online hearing and listened to testimony from both supporters and opponents of the decree.
Gabriela Manosalvas, the deputy minister of environment and water, said Decree 754 is misunderstood by the environmentalists and organizations currently speaking out against it. First, she said, it’s not true that Lasso is trying to fast-track mining projects, as the decree applies to all infrastructure projects, including hospitals and power plants. Of the 178 projects currently awaiting an environmental license, only three are mineral mines, she said.
Manosalvas also denied that it’s unconstitutional as it simply follows previous orders by the Constitutional Court to reform the environmental consultation process.
Clashes in other communities
After the outgoing president implemented the decree, officials from the Ministry of Environment and Water arrived in Las Naves accompanied by hundreds of police officers, residents told Mongabay. They reportedly set up the main information center for the environmental consultation process to take place at the local police station, surrounded by metal barricades and police.
Tensions reached a peak between the protesters and police on July 14, with each side throwing rocks at the other, and police firing tear gas at protesters within the narrow streets of the community. Both the Ministry of Environment and Water and the protesters blamed the other side for starting aggressions.
Manosalvas of the ministry denied that officials entered the community with security forces. Rather, they called for backup after “anti-mining groups that came from sectors outside the communities in the area of influence” threatened ministry officials. Many of them were hooded and carried handmade weapons, she said.
The controversial Decree 754 sparked similar clashes in other communities, like Palo Quemado in the canton of Sigchos in the Andean province of Cotopaxi, where clashes between police and military forces and anti-mining protesters broke out the same week as in Las Naves.
The conflicts prompted alarms from both the office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights and the European Union. In a statement released July 27, U.N. rights commissioner Volker Türk said, “People directly affected by mining projects or other activities must be heard, not repressed.”
Not everyone in Las Naves participated in the protests against the environmental consultation.
Carla Ledesma Padilla, 24, helps her mother in their family restaurant and said business has improved since the mining company, Curimining, came to town. They hire local restaurants on a rotating basis to cater meals to the workers, and bring in extra people to the area. The company also funds a local football club and paid for her dance troupe to travel to a competition in Peru.
“They have provided the communities with jobs,” Ledesma Padilla said, adding that she attended a rally in Quito in defense of Decree 754 in September. “If they [Curimining] leave, then the canton becomes the same canton as before,” with the same stagnant economy, she added.
Curimining didn’t respond to Mongabay’s questions by the time of publication. According to its website, the company engages in “responsible mining that drives sustainable development and better opportunities.”
Banner image: Protesters traveled from Las Naves, and across the country, to protest mining activities in their communities in front of the Constitutional Court, during a hearing to debate Decree 754 on September 18, 2023. Image by Victor Jose Mendez Alonzo.
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