As Chilean copper company Codelco profits from the ‘Ecuadorian Miracle’ under Rafael Correa, anti-mining activists say indigenous people are marginalized.
Last week, Ecuador President Rafael Correa arrived in the capital to accept an honorary doctorate from one of Chile’s oldest public universities — the 11th such accolade he has received in the past six years from institutions around the world in recognition of the head of state’s education reforms and progressive economic policies.
However, when Correa arrived at the Universidad de Santiago (Usach), he was also welcomed by a number of protesters. Whereas Correa has been hailed in the international community for lifting thousands of Ecuadorians out of poverty, he has done so in large part by ramping up the exploration and excavation of the country’s significant natural resources.Correa’s relationship with the largest indigenous movement in the country, the Confederation of Indigenous Nationalities of Ecuador (Conaie), has broken down as leaders claim his policies continue to marginalize indigenous rights and destroy communities all the while benefiting the interests of foreign oil and mining companies — including Chile’s state-owned mining company Codelco.
“There’s a big contradiction between the progress made in Ecuadorian society with the enshrinement of natural and self-determination rights of indigenous people in law, and the economic policies Correa’s government has implemented the last years,” Lucio Cuenca, director of the Latin American Observatory of Environmental Conflicts (OLCA), told press at the protest.
On May 8, hundreds of police officers — as well as pro-mining locals — confronted a crowd of indigenous community members angered that employees of Codelco and Ecuador’s state mining company Enami EP had breached a check-point without consultation while conducting copper exploration tests in the Intag. The area — a vast region of Andean mountain range and Amazon rainforest — has a large indigenous population and massive copper reserves.
Communities have successfully repelled exploration initiatives from international mining companies from the area for decades, as mining operations such as those of a Mitsubishi subsidiary caused deforestation and the contamination of waterways.
In response to such conflicts, in 2009 Correa passed a mining law greatly increasing state control of the country’s mineral resources. Blessed with copper and gold resources thought to be in excess of US$200 billion but with little experience in extraction, Enami EP signed a joint venture with Codelco on August 2013 during President Sebastián Piñera’s administration. The Chilean copper company owns 49 percent of the project. Exploration in the Intag and other areas of northern Ecuador are underway.
For Correa, profiting from the country’s resources is an Ecuadorian solution to Ecuadorian problems. During his acceptance speech at Usach, he directly addressed the protesters from OLCA and the Observatory of Mining Conflicts in Latin America (OCMAL), labelling them a small minority who represent the “infantile left.”
“One of the biggest mistakes of the traditional left was to deny the market,” he said. “[Not to use natural resources] would be absurd — we don’t want to be kneeling beggars.”
The debate over Ecuador’s natural resources peaked in 2007 when Correa presented the Yasuni-ITT initiative to the U.N. General Assembly. A biodiversity hotspot in the Ecuadorian Amazon, the Yasuni National Park sits above an oil field thought to account for 20 percent of the country’s reserves — around 850 million barrels.
Correa pledged to leave the reserves untouched in exchange for half of the reserve’s value — US$3.6 billion — raised by the international community over a 13 year period.
Six years later, Correa canned the project after a committee charged with evaluating the the Yasuni-ITT initiative’s progress deemed it unfeasible. In July last year, the president said the “world failed” Ecuador, and exploration of the Yasuni oil-field has been reinitiated.
“Latin America needs its natural resources to overcome poverty,” Correa said at Usach, going on to describe the work of international activists as another form of neo-colonialism. “These organizations can’t be called non-governmental because they do work for a government, a foreign one.”