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What Do Protests Mean for Ecuador’s Mining Industry?

Photo of Leonidas Iza Indigenous leader Leonidas Iza is leading opposition by Indigenous groups to some mining projects in Ecuador. // File Photo: Facebook Page of Conaie.

Leonidas Iza, the president of the Confederation of Indigenous Nationalities in Ecuador, or Conaie, said March 26 that the organization would be taking a firmer stance against mining activities in the country. Ecuador’s mining chamber said in early March that mining exports totaled a record $3.2 billion in 2023—an increase of almost 20 percent, and clashes recently broke out between police and villagers of Palo Quemado, where a project by Canadian firm Atico Mining is currently underway. How much might Conaie’s protests undermine the mining industry’s expansion in Ecuador? Why are Indigenous communities at odds with the mining industry? How will potential protests, or the threat of them, affect business and investment, as well as Ecuador’s economy generally?

John Polga-Hecimovich, associate professor in the political science department at the U.S. Naval Academy: “Despite the fact that Conaie’s political agenda has historically promoted environmental sustainability and opposed extractive industries in Ecuador, the mining and petroleum industries have continued to grow. Indeed, in 2023, mining was Ecuador’s fourth-largest export sector, providing $762.72 million in tax revenue and accounting for nearly 97,000 jobs. Yet resource extraction in Ecuador is a divisive issue, and Indigenous communities have long been at odds with the mining industry. First, Indigenous attitudes are influenced by the philosophy of sumak kawsay, which promotes living in harmony with nature rather than dominating it. Second, Indigenous communities’ physical proximity to mining and oil operations—and the resulting environmental degradation—has helped harden attitudes against extractive industries. Lastly, many of these communities suffer the environmental consequences of resource extraction without enjoying their economic benefits. Changes to mining could be underway. As history has shown, Conaie is a powerful veto player with the ability to alter national politics, and the organization could limit the extent to which mining expands in Ecuador. Among other things, protests are aimed at the Noboa government’s new guidelines on ascertaining communities’ free and informed consent for mining projects. Conaie argues that the new rules establish that communities will only be consulted if they have registered in advance with the government, limiting many people’s ability to oppose new projects. This suggests that change is aimed at empowering local communities’ abilities to oppose new mining projects rather than eliminate existing ones.”

Gabriel Santelices, partner, and Santiago Paz, associate attorney, at Dentons Paz Horowitz in Quito: “Conaie is currently the strongest Indigenous political movement in Ecuador, and even though it has been able to mobilize sufficient people to paralyze Quito, we have yet to see such support against mining. We have to consider that Conaie does not only work or act with protests; it also started several legal processes that have affected the mining industry, such as lawsuits challenging the constitutionality of regulations governing prior consultation. Although these actions have affected the mining industry, they do not carry the same weight in industry risk assessment as political instability, internal insecurity and recent diplomatic conflicts that have affected Ecuador. The public stance of the Indigenous communities that are against mining is that its operation affects community lands and pollutes nearby waterways, air, and the environment in general without control and without environmental remedies, leaving the land dry and sick and without the possibility of producing as it did before. Also, the communities maintain that international mining companies ‘steal’ the resources that belong to them. Still, in reality, most of the antimining postures of the communities are spurred by their leaders with a particular political agenda that does not care about the wellness of the communities. With this being said, potential protests, or the threat of them, will not significantly affect the mining business since Indigenous communities close to the mining concessions generally favor mining and, therefore, are unlikely to support such an antimining movement. We also have to consider that mining concessions are located all around the country, and thus, it will be hard for Conaie’s members to protest and impede operations in all mining concessions.”

Marc Becker, professor of history at Truman State University: “Local communities bear the brunt of negative impacts from mining and other forms of resource extraction. The clashes in Palo Quemado underscore the deep-seated grievances of Indigenous peoples against the mining industry. Their opposition stems from a history of exploitation and marginalization, as well as a disregard for their rights and land tenure. These communities are rightfully concerned with the long-term consequences of mining activities on their lands and ways of life, and Conaie’s protests highlight these injustices. More importantly, popular opposition to mega mining projects extends well beyond concerns with adverse environmental consequences that receive the most media attention. Underlying ecological concerns are more fundamental problems with the detrimental impact of resource extraction on a country’s economic development. While supporters champion the profits that these projects generate, most of that money flows into the pockets of wealthy individuals and more commonly out of the country. All that is left for local communities are environmental degradation, displacement and a loss of livelihoods. But even the country as a whole benefits little from the mining industry. While populist governments justify extractive industries as providing financing for education, health care and infrastructure—and indeed that funding can improve the lives of those in marginalized communities—large-scale mining projects never result in structural economic shifts that would lead to a type of development that would benefit the country. Despite optimistic projections, these projects leave countries even more deeply impoverished.”

Hernán Reyes Aguinaga, professor of communications at Universidad Andina Simón Bolívar in Ecuador: “Along with the large wave of violence unleashed by criminal organizations that broke out in recent years, Ecuador is experiencing the violence unleashed by environmental devastation and its social consequences. Since the 1970s, the causes are the extractive oil model, and currently also mining exploitation. This reality hides the fact that more than half of the concessions for mining exploration and exploitation are located in territories where ancestral peoples live. Furthermore, most mining areas are highly sensitive in terms of biodiversity and the existence of watersheds that are essential for the protection of life. In Ecuador, the constitution and current laws mandate that before mining begins, a prior, free and informed consultation must be made to the residents of those areas. However, the latest Ecuadorean governments, including the current one, have refused to issue regulations to prevent this consultation from being applied, and have opted for strategies such as dividing the communities, militarizing the area to defend the mining company and brutally repressing their actions. They have also accused more than 70 community members of being ’terrorists,’ even sentencing several of them to prison. Faced with this panorama of socioenvironmental devastation and abuses by transnational mining companies with the complicity of the state, the National Anti-Mining Front and the Confederation of Indigenous Nationalities of Ecuador, Conaie, headed by Leonidas Iza, have stood up, at the national and international level, denouncing the ‘curse of abundance,’ since extractivism has only enriched a few and devastated Indigenous communities and poorer sectors.”

Mario Flor López, senior partner at Flor, Bustamante, Pizarro & Hurtado in Quito: “The La Plata project is controlled by a local subsidiary of Atico Mining and is currently involved in acquiring the environmental license to build a mine to produce gold and copper concentrates. As per Ecuador’s constitution, prior to getting that license, the right to environmental consultation must be exercised. That right establishes that all the people who live in the area touching a project’s environmental influence must be consulted, but the result of the consultation is not binding. During the environmental consultation, people from the Indigenous movement of Cotopaxi, a local arm of Conaie, demonstrated, and tense incidents were reported. Amid these incidents, the environmental ministry asked for the support of the police to proceed with the consultation. These incidents have raised issues for the mining industry in the country, and several anti-mining groups are regaining prominence, with new constitutional actions being filed, most of them arguing a violation of prior consultations or environmental consultation rights. We are unsure if these actions will cause a definitive roadblock in the development of the mining industry in Cotopaxi province, but they will certainly cause some delays. Mining production in other areas of the country, such as Zamora province, where two large-scale mining projects are in production, Mirador and Fruta del Norte, continue with no material incidents. These protests are mainly focused on mining in certain areas—and also oil exploitation—but do not appear likely to involve other industries.”

Juan Paz y Miño C., professor of contemporary history at the Pontifical Catholic University of Ecuador in Quito: “The mining situation in Ecuador involves several points: 1.) The constitution requires ‘prior, free and informed consultation’ to be carried out in communities before proceeding with the ‘prospecting, exploitation and commercialization of nonrenewable resources found on their lands.’ 2.) Conaie has questioned an alleged irregular consultation, supporting the resistance of the Palo Quemado communities to prevent the advancement of the mining project. 3.) Environmental and social organizations have joined this Indigenous cause. 4.) Latin America and Ecuador have a long historical experience of incursion by companies that have been abusive. 5.) President Daniel Noboa’s government has a neoliberal business orientation, which is why it privileges both foreign capital that invests in the country and the mining company involved. Every foreign company should respect the country’s institutions and legal systems. Declines in foreign investment come from other circumstances: weak state institutions created by the neoliberal business economic model, internal insecurity that has grown since 2017, the crisis of the country’s diplomacy as a result of the tension with Mexico or subordination to Monroist geostrategies that affect the country’s constitution and laws. All of these factors create a climate of growing social and political tension for any investor.”


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