Residents from the southern Ecuadorian province of Azuay used rocks and burning tires to block a stretch of the Panamerican Highway on April 2 to protest a planned industrial-sized goldmine, which they say will contaminate the local water supply. Canadian gold giant Iamgold has been eyeing entry into the region.
The peaceful demonstration began at 5 AM was met with state repression around noon, leading to the arrest of 17 protestors, which include the parish priest of Victoria del Portete, dairy farmers, and University of Cuenca students. Approximately 80 soldiers blasted tear gas into to the crowd of protestors— around 300 strong. Female students report that they were later taken to a casino for police and forced to undress.
“We are here to defend the right to pure and clean water,” declared Miriam Chuchuka, a 36-year-old dairy farmer from Victoria del Portete. Small farmers fear that cyanide and mercury related to gold mining and production will pollute local water sources.
Local farmers draw drinking and irrigation water from the high paramo where Toronto-based Iamgold has discovered the second largest gold deposit in Ecuador. Protestors want the government to nullify Iamgold’s mineral concession.
Farmers and rural residents working under the National Coordinating Committee in Defense of Life and Sovereignty had staged a national twelve-hour protest to nullify four major gold and copper concessions in southern Ecuador. They oppose the stance of President Rafael Correa, who despite a leftist rhetoric, wants to develop large-scale export oriented gold and copper mining projects to finance education and healthcare programs. Residents in the path of these projects are concerned about their short and long-term environmental impacts.
Detained protestors were released the next day, but they may face sabotage and terrorism charges. In his nationally-syndicated radio show, President Correa lambasted the National Coordinating Committee and said that anti-mining protestors will be prosecuted to the fullest extent of the law. Anti-mining activists have said that Correa’s response threatens the right to dissent and criminalizes activism.
Movement leaders are looking to follow up on recent successes. In February, the Ecuadorian government revoked the concession for Ascendant Copper, after it was found that the company contracted security firms to rough up local opposition leaders. Occidental Petroleum was kicked out of Ecuador in 2006 for business and tax improprieties.
The National Coordinating Committee and the national indigenous movement have planned an April 21 follow-up protest.
Teresa Velasquez for Upside Down World, April 8
See our last post on Ecuador.