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Hundreds March in Ecuador for Water Safeguards and Mining Protests

Hundreds of demonstrators – both indigenous people and members of the political opposition – began a two-week march from Ecuador’s southern Amazonian region to Quito on March 8 to protest large-scale mining projects and urge the government to safeguard water sources.

The march, organized by the Confederation of Indigenous Nationalities of Ecuador (Confederación de Nacionalidades Indígenas de Ecuador, CONAIE), started in El Panguí, in the Amazonian province of Zamora Chinchipe, where the Chinese-owned company Ecuacorriente plans to open the $1.7 billion Mirador copper mine.

About 800 people set out from El Pangui toward Zamora, the provincial capital, and about 400 more joined them along the way, according to Paúl Palacios, director of the province’s environmental office. They expect to arrive in Quito on March 22.

Meanwhile, allies of President Rafael Correa organized a demonstration in support of the government in Quito on March 8. Protest organizers complained that national government officials also refused to grant local buses permission to travel outside their normal routes, making it difficult for the protesters to travel beyond Zamora.

The protesters and local government officials in Zamora worry about possible social, cultural and environmental impacts from the mine, which is located in a mountainous area known as the Cordillera del Cóndor on the Peruvian border. Indigenous groups on the Peruvian side of the Ecuadorian border, not far from Ecuacorriente’s planned Mirador mine, have also been protesting mining companies exploring for gold in the Cordillera del Condor.

That area may have even greater biological diversity than the better-known Yasuní National Park, which has been the focus of an international campaign to stop an oil-drilling project that would affect both biodiversity and several groups of semi-nomadic indigenous people, Palacios said.

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One community that included both Shuar people and non-indigenous settlers has been displaced by Ecuacorriente’s Mirador mining project, he said, and provincial government officials worry that the mine will be accompanied by sharp increase in the local population, with a rise in problems such as crime, drug use and prostitution that have accompanied large mining projects in other parts of the region.

The Mirador mine – which will measure more than a mile across and more than half a mile deep – would be Ecuador’s first foray into large-scale mining. President Rafael Correa signed a contract with Ecuacorriente on March 5.

“There has always been very small-scale mining here, but there has never been large-scale mining anywhere in Ecuador,” Palacios said. With the Ecuacorriente contract, the government of President Rafael Correa “plans to usher in large-scale mining, but without a plan for using the resources. We are only a country of raw materials. That does not allow us to overcome our underdevelopment.”

Mining and water issues have been the focus of increasing protest in Latin America in recent years. The march in Ecuador comes a month after small farmers and local government officials from communities in Cajamarca, in northern Peru, marched to Lima, the capital, to protest a large-scale gold mine that was to begin construction in an area of high-mountain lakes and wetlands.

Ecuador’s indigenous movement was a strong political force in the 1990s. Nationwide protests by indigenous organizations led to the fall of the governments of presidents Abdala Bucarám in 1997 and Jamil Mahuad in 2000. The movement was weakened after the collapse of an alliance with former President Lucio Gutiérrez, who was involved in the Mahuad’s ouster and was later elected president 2002.

Indigenous organizations initially supported Correa, who took office in 2007, but political differences also caused that alliance to break down.