The Battle Over Sustainable Development in Ecuador's Intag Valley

by Gerard Coffey, La Linea de Fuego

QUITO — Born in Cuba, Carlos Zorrilla left the island when he was 11 and emigrated with his family to the United States. But the promised land did not live up to his expectations. Like many of his peers he found it hard to accept the war his adopted country was waging in Vietnam, not to mention the politics of then President Richard Nixon. So he left, looking for somewhere to live in peace. In 1978 he found himself in the Intag valley in Northern Ecuador where, he tells, he found an attractive agricultural area populated by solid and supportive communities. So he stayed. "I love agriculture," he says with a smile.

Attractive is probably an understatement. Intag, located in the western foothills of the Cotacachi volcano in Imbabura Province, some 150 miles south of the Colombian border, is warm, green and unequivocally beautiful. Populated in the late nineteenth century by families that migrated from other parts of the province, the area is a subtropical and primarily agricultural district with plenty of water, high levels of biodiversity and spectacular landscapes.

But the story of Zorrilla and Intag is not one of bucolic bliss. As he found out, peace and harmony do not come so cheaply. There is copper in the hills, and twice in recent decades mining companies have come looking for minerals to exploit.

"The first we knew about mining in the area," he says,”was in late '94, when Bishimetals, a subsidiary of the Japanese multinational Mitsubishi, showed up. At the beginning we didn't know why they were here."

It didn't take them long to find out, and the following year Zorilla and others, including a local priest, set up DECOIN (Ecological Defense and Conservation of Intag). The goal was to protect the local environment and implement sustainable development projects. "We knew that the projects were going to be important for the area's future," says DECOIN's now president, Silvia Quilumbango. Time seems to have proved them right. One of the most important results of the group's efforts, and presently the area's most important product, is the organic coffee produced and sold internationally through the local coffee growers association (ACRI). "There’s a global market for the coffee," adds Zorrilla, presently DECOIN's executive director, "but it's not the only positive consequence of the work we've done over the years, Intag also has a growing tourism industry. That was our initiative too."

There was a less positive side to the mining company's presence, explains Zorrilla. Conflicts sprang up, local communities took sides for or against the mine and what it represented. It wasn't possible to be neutral. The disputes came to a head in May 1997, when hundreds of demonstrators came down from their communities in the hills to occupy the Bishimetals camp. After three days of "dialogue," tempers frayed, part of the camp was dismantled, the equipment was removed, and what remained was burned. The predictable response was not long in coming, in the form of prosecutions. A number of community leaders, including Polivio Pérez—a local leader from Junin where the mining concession is centered, who is still involved in the fight against the proposed mine—were the subject of legal action. For a time Pérez went into hiding.

Faced with solid local opposition backed by substantial international support, including in Japan, Bishimetals decided to cut its losses and in 1998 packed up and left. But the peace proved to be short-lived. Six years later the Canadian company Ascendant Copper arrived, and with it came new and increasingly severe conflicts. The company has used more aggressive tactics than Bishimetals, and the fight intensified. There were death threats and intimidation; clashes between pro- and anti-mining groups become more common.

Part of the problem, explains Zorrilla, was a parallel community association, CODGEM, set up by the company to create divisions amongst the local the communities. The organization had links to what he generously calls "unpleasant" characters, at one point being directed by a former parliamentarian, Ronald Andrade, in whose hacienda four people linked to the drug trade were killed [La Hora, Jan. 16, 2007]. Andrade, who was accused of having links with convicted drug king Oscar Caranqui, is presently on the run, and now appears on the INTERPOL's "most wanted" list.

And in December 2005 history repeated itself. An Ascendant Copper work camp was burned down, some 300 people agreeing to take collective responsibility for the act.

As a prominent member of the opposition, Zorrilla was in the eye of the storm, finding himself the subject of a preventive detention order. Fortunately, he says, the decision was overturned: according to the judge there was insufficient evidence to warrant detaining him. He was also accused of "robbery" and "harm" by an Ascendant Copper employee. The incidents allegedly took place while she distributed company information at a July 2006 anti-mining demonstration in front of the Ministry of Energy and Mines in Quito. The complaint was also dismissed. According to witnesses and footage taken at the protest, Zorrilla took no part in a confrontation between protesters and the company employee. Not a hair on her head was touched, he adds.

The complaint may not have had a solid basis, but it was enough to induce a raid on Zorrilla's home by the police. Weapons and drugs were said to have been found, and in October 2006 a case was brought against him for illegal possession of arms and narcotics. Once again he walked free. In March 2007 the case was thrown out after the local prosecutor declined to accuse him.

Not that he was alone. As Zorrilla points out, he was just one of the targets of the company's aggressive tactics. A group of 30 people led by company employees attempted to lynch Polivio Pérez, but he managed to escape. His motorcycle did not: it was thrown into a ravine. Masked gunmen entered a house where a group of environmentalists were holding a meeting, tied them up and stole their equipment.

Other events were more serious. In December 2006 a group of 15 armed security guards attacked opponents of the mine with tear gas and firearms. But they got more than they bargained for. The locals regrouped and took them hostage, together with 40 other guards sent to build a camp, and held them for six days in a nearby forest. The guards were released after the National Department of Energy requested that the mining company refrain from any further activity in the area [DPA, Dec. 10, 2006].

In the long run the opposition proved stronger and more numerous, and in 2006, the last month of President Alfredo Palacio's mandate, they managed to once again stall plans to install the mine. But as with Bishimetals, the company's exit was not the end of the story. Ascendant Copper brought a claim against the Ecuadorian government for having terminated the concession. Carlos Zorrilla is now a key witness for the defense.

The third time—lucky for who?
The battle over, the breathing was easy, but as Zorrilla points out, no one was fooled. "We were always on the alert," he says. The companies had gone, but the copper was still there, and that meant that the miners would likely be back at some point, in one form or another. And they were right.

This time, the third, it is President Rafael Correa, a former finance minister in the Palacio government, who is leading the offensive. And the battle could prove even tougher than before. Alianza País, the governing party, has the resources, controls the security forces, and enjoys a high level of national support. So there was little surprise when on July 26, 2012 it was announced that Correa had signed an agreement with Chilean authorities to revive the project at Intag; Chile is to participate through the national mining company CODELCO. The road map was now drawn, and for good or bad, Carlos Zorrilla, the most visible of the local opposition, was once again at the forefront of the conflict.

In the circumstances it is perhaps not that surprising that the president should assail the Cuban-Ecuadorian. In one of his Saturday "Enlace Ciudadano" speeches, he linked a manual on non violent resistance co-written by Zorrilla with a demonstration in which diplomats from Chile and Belarus were harassed. "I had nothing to do with the demonstration organized by the now closed Pachamama foundation," he protests. "Nothing at all. To connect me with it is simply an attempt to discredit me, because in the president’s view I represent an obstacle to his plans, and so he has to get me out of the way."

"The irony," says Zorrilla, "is that the manual was written to deal with illegalities and abuses committed by of transnational corporations, and when government agencies are mentioned, it suggests cooperating with them."

Given the time he has been living in the country (with four children born here), it is not hard to understand him being offended by the president's words. "I'm not at all surprised to be verbally attacked by the president," he says. "That's the nature of politics, but what does surprise me is being labeled a destabiliser who is promoting foreign interests and interfering in government policy. It's an outrage. And as for calling on people to react, that's nothing less than stirring up xenophobia."

He is concerned. Being designated by the president as an enemy of the state, complete with photos, is few people's idea of a good time, and could quite easily have consequences for him and his family. Amnesty International concurs. In December the international institution issued an alert which noted "a growing concern for the safety of Carlos Zorrilla, environmental activist from Ecuador, and others who have protested against development projects in the Intag region." Zorrilla says that that month the police visited his house on the pretext of a carrying out a survey. They took pictures of the property, he says.

In the final count, he comments, "It's wrong to say we're getting in the way of the country's development. What I and others represent is a different vision, a proposal for another way of living, a way of life that has more to do with Sumak Kawsay [Buen Vivir] than a development depending on the extraction of minerals. We're not naive or destabilizers, we've seen the results of mining in Peru, and believe me, they're not pretty. Here in Intag we've got another vision of the future."

All mines pollute
What he says is hard to deny. Mining is one of the dirtiest industrial extractive activities. If drilling for oil can cause serious environmental consequences, mining is clearly worse, and in Intag the proposal is not for one, but several mines. "Copper is not like gold," says Zorrilla, "deposits are scattered. So to mine in the local Toisan mountain range would be a disaster." He adds for good measure that the mining sector is the biggest polluter in the US.

Of course, not all mines or mining companies are alike; there are ways and ways of extracting metals, some better than others. Official sources in Ecuador talk of using leading edge technology, but in the end even the best technology in the world cannot eliminate the solid waste caused by opencast mining. And there is an awful lot of it. From what is known, the concentration of metal in the Intag concession is around 0.7 %, which means that 99.3% of the removed rock ends up as waste. For every ton of copper, more than 99 tons of rock are mined and then left lying around. Apart from the tremendous amount of land needed to store the waste, or mine tailings, an added problem is that the latter are not inert. "They can release heavy metals and trigger acid drainage," explains Zorrilla, "causing serious impacts in the environment, especially rivers. And here we're at the headwaters of several major river systems that feed the coastal region, and in an area where the rain is a strong and permanent presence."

But the arguments did not bend any official ears. According to the state mining agency, Enami EP, present holder of the mining concession in Intag, in order to obtain an environmental license from the Ministry of Environment, "it is necessary to comply with favourable, documented administrative acts approved by various authorities, amongst which, according to cantonal economic development land use and social planning, is the Municipal Council Cotacachi." [La Hora, Feb. 27, 2013]. And the acts, of course, require site measurements.

Orders may be orders, but Enami's words did not carry much weight in Intag either. Site visits and measurements might be "necessary" for the mining agency and for the Ministry of Environment, but when technicians from both CODELCO and the national mining company tried to enter the Junín area of in September 2013 accompanied by police, the local response was to block the road and keep them out.

Rafael Correa's reaction was blunt. "Let's learn from this… not to allow a few to hinder the progress of the many and undermine the common good; to reject these people who with pretty labels such as the 'right to resistance' want to impose their group, family or individual interests, and undermine democracy itself… Have faith in this government," he concluded, "one that seeks nothing for itself, but for you. Responsible mining can get people out of poverty, in particular the people living in these areas." [ENAMI Noticias]

So the battle goes on. At the moment the confrontation is no more than verbal, but there is always a danger that it will become violent. The president, as is his wont, does not seem willing to compromise his position, and opponents of the mining project are sticking to theirs. They have been through these battles before and don't doubt their ability to resist.

Development and El Buen Vivir
It is true that in Ecuador there is a lot of poverty, that is to say a great many unmet basic needs, and it is equally true that to meet those needs—providing drinking water, sanitation, education and health services—money is essential. Few would doubt it. The question is not whether to try to resolve the problems, but how. For President Rafael Correa it is crucial to use the resources available to the country to maintain social and infrastructure programs that will improve Ecuadorians' lives. Faced with an uncertain oil future, he might say, there is no sense in being beggars sitting on a sack of copper.

The Inteños who oppose the mine protest that protecting the area's environment is not simply a matter of keeping their land and way of life unsullied. Nor is it designed to impose their agenda on other Ecuadorians. They proffer economic arguments related to the value of "ecosystem services" for the country. Silvia Quilumbango explains that "our position is not uninformed rejection. As regional leaders in generating financial resources for communities in alternative ways—by respecting nature, by respecting local customs—we have consolidated a less damaging development model and don't want it to be ruined."

A study done in 2011 by Earth Economics (PDF) shows that the value of the environmental services that would be destroyed by mining in Intag could be greater than the value of copper extracted. According to the document, by applying a 3% discount rate, "…we find that the 17 ecosystem services examined provide an asset value of between $3 and $ 28 billion. This shows that the current natural and agricultural systems of the Intag region are enormous national assets. Because natural assets appreciate, rather than depreciate over time, the actual discount rate is likely closer to zero."

"In our research," the authors continue "we found that 17 of 23 ecosystem services across the land cover types in Intag provide the regional and national community an average of $447 million in yearly benefits." They end by saying that "The overall conclusion of the report is that economic development within the Intag region is best achieved by tapping the vast value that ecosystem goods and services provide…"

The authors explain that the study is not the final the final word on ecosystem service valuation for Intag, nor a full ecological economic analysis. What is does represent, they say, is one part of a debate that is not happening. It is just the first step in understanding the economic and social risks of mining in the region.

Laudable goals
As might be expected, not everyone in the Intag area opposes the project; some see benefits in the presence of a mine and the jobs that it may create. The question is how significant a proportion of the local population they are. The president of the Apuela Parrish Council puts it another way, claiming that the percentage opposing the mine is less than 20 %, while Enami sources speak of majority support based on a survey commissioned by them. [TVN, Oct. 6, 2013] For Zorrilla the numbers lack validity. "In the zonal and county meetings,” he says “the proportion opposing mining is 90%. As for the polls, I have no idea where or how they were carried out."

Notwithstanding the differences between sectors of the local population, external factors could have a decisive influence on the fate of the proposal. One is the international price of copper. The metal has fallen about 25% from its high point of US$4.50 per pound in 2010 to around $3.30 today, even though still high compared to historical levels. In 2004, for example, copper traded at less than a dollar a pound.

Much will depend on the Chinese. The country consumes 40% of global production and any reduction of demand will clearly have an impact on copper prices and hence the profitability of mining in Intag. Will the price of the metal rise or fall? Opinions differ. For some [Forbes, Nov. 13, 2013] it is likely to remain stable, while for others a dramatic drop is possible, above all if the housing bubble driving Chinese demand finally bursts. There is also talk of a significant oversupply of copper in 2014, as well as the existence of millions of unreported tons. [WSJ, Dec. 27, 2013] Both factors could cause a significant price decline in the near future.

Whatever happens to the price of copper, the basic question is how much destruction can be justified in the name of building a more modern and equitable society. And while it is true that all human activity has a negative impact on the environment, the argument is clearly insufficient. As the Earth Economics study implies, the environmental and social cost of open face mines in the Toisán Cordillera could exceed the value of the extracted copper. And that without considering "remediation," the skeleton in a mining industry closet that no one wants to open.

The question becomes even more important in an area where for decades people have been trying to develop less harmful ways to make a living. The opponents of the mine ask why the government does not consider the long term benefits other options might provide for the country, for example improving the area’s tourism infrastructure—a pillar of the plan of the previously loudly proclaimed Plan del Buen Vivir—or promoting the production and export of the area’s organic coffee.

Whatever is finally decided, the real battle Intag is clearly not about the few imposing their agenda on the many, or a personal dispute between Carlos Zorrilla and Rafael Correa and his government. Nor is it a matter of bad faith. Rafael Correa wants to use the money from the mines to improve the lives of the many, as he would say, while the inteños are trying to prove, with some success, that another world is possible. These are laudable goals, but clearly mutually exclusive.

Resolving this clash of interests is important for the Intag area, and for the country as a whole, but the best way to do so is not by personalizing the debate and demonizing Zorrilla. The tactic is grotesque, and probably counterproductive, but more to the point it obscures what is basically a conflict between two ways of seeing and living in the world, and two ways of reading economic texts.


Gerard Coffey is editor of the online Spanish-language political journal Lalineadefuego.info, published in Quito. This story first appeared in English, with footnoes, Jan. 14 in The Grinder.

Photo by Dawn Paley via Flickr.

From our Daily Report:

Ecuador: protests mount over mining, oil
World War 4 Report, April 6, 2013

See also:

Campesinos Stand Up to the Mineral Oligarchy
by Bill Weinberg, WIN Magazine
World War 4 Report, February 2013

Julian Assange, Ecuador, and the Belarus Connection
by Bill Weinberg, Al Jazeera
World War 4 Report, January 2013


Reprinted by World War 4 Report, Jan. 20, 2014