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"A tale of two frogs, six mining companies and much, much more" by Carlos Zorilla

A recent article exploring the history and complexities of mining in Ecuador by one of our partners, Carlos Zorrila.
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From the outside looking in, it’s easy to get the impression that it’s a black-and-white struggle of two critically endangered frogs versus a massive transnational copper mining project. In part, you’d be right. But it’s much more than that.

It could be said that it all started in the 1980’s when a Belgian-government funded expedition discovered a potential mining site in Northwestern Ecuador on the flanks of the biodiverse Toisan Range, in an area known as Intag. In the following decade the Ecuadorian government asked the Japanese government’s support to assess the site’s true mining potential. Japan back then, as now, imports 100% of its copper. Just a coincidence no doubt. Thus, enter mining company number one, Bishimetals, a subsidiary of Mitsubishi Corporation. Bishimetal’s exploration was wholly financed by the Japanese government through the Japanese International Cooperation Agency; JICA. They drilled dozens of test wells deep into the subsoil right in the middle in of some of the most biodiverse and threatened tropical forests in the world. The mountainous cloud forests of northwest Ecuador harbor hundreds of species facing extinction; including the two frogs protagonist of this story. It was Bishimetal’s presence that triggered the creation of DECOIN, the region’s oldest environmental organization, and to date- the 26 year-old resistance to mining, the oldest in the country.

After 4 years of exploration, Bishimetals confirmed the site was promising for large-scale copper mining. In 1996, they published a preliminary environmental impact study for a small copper mine which predicted massive environmental and social impacts, including widescale deforestation, contamination of rivers with toxic heavy metals, and relocation of four communities. The following year, local communities reacted to the possible scenario by burning their mining camp to the ground. That was enough for Mitsubishi to abandon Intag and their copper dreams. In discovering the site’s mineral potential, Bishimetals also contaminated pristine rivers and streams with heavy metals that welled up with the underground aquifers intersected by the drilling. A quarter century later, some of the abandoned wells are still contaminating the area’s rivers and streams.

The World Bank and Mining Company Number Two

One of the least well-kept secrets in the world of underdevelopment is the Bank’s role in facilitating extractivism around the planet. They do this not only by lending billions to mining and petroleum companies, but, and more devastating still, by weaking mining and petroleum legislation in developing countries. They don’t do it so much anymore, but when they did, they helped finance the “modernizing” of mining legislation of over 100 developing countries. The objective was, from the Bank’s narrative, to help develop these countries’ economies. Never mind that those poor countries tend to suffer much worse economic and social outcomes when they depend on extraction of resources to drive their economies; a phenomenon known as the Natural Resource Curse.

In reality, “modernizing” mining legislation translated to radical de-regulating, thus making it cheaper and easier for transnational capital to extract resources from poor countries. Ecuador was one of those countries affected by the initiative. In our case, environmental safeguards were drastically weakened and a number of tax breaks instituted to attract mining investment. And it worked. The changes brought in a horde of mining companies to the country, including many shady Canadian ones. One of those would end up in our neck of the woods and would, unsuccessfully, try to continue where Bishimetals left off.

But before delving into the sordid history of Canadian Copper Mesa, a little bit more about the World Bank project that made it possible for the Canadian company, and others like it, to wreak social and environmental havoc in local communities. Prodeminca was the name the World Bank christened the so-called development project for Ecuador (it stands for Mining Development and Environmental Control Project). The project’s main objective was to open the country to mining. The Bank would do this not only by financing the de-regulation of the country’s mining legislation, but also by creating mineralogical maps highlighting the country’s promising mining areas, thus saving mining companies untold millions of dollars in exploration costs. The main region studied was Western Ecuador, where Intag and the Toisan Range are located. Importantly, the project, and contrary to World Bank guidelines, did not exclude from mineral exploration the nation’s national parks. If Ecuador is now plagued with hundreds of mining concessions and dozens of social conflicts it is in large part thanks to the World Bank and the Prodeminca project.

Copper Mesa

In Canada just about anyone can start a mining company. The country is known for having very lax regulations for creating and listing corporations on the nation’s stock exchanges. It is the main reason that most publicly-traded mining companies are based in the country. For decades, it has been the mecca for crooks who count on the lax regulation and oversight to fleece investors. Copper Mesa, formerly known as Ascendant Copper, is one of those corporations. The company was founded for the sole purpose of developing the Llurimagua mining concession, where the two endemic frogs live. Much more to this story is told in the documentary Under Rich Earth, but to cut to the chase, after five years of aggressively trying to develop the project, including the use of paramilitaries and an outrageous judicial set up, they had to abandon the project due to fierce community resistance. This was in 2009. In 2010, the Toronto Stock Exchange delisted the company from the Exchange. However, it took locals from Intag suing the Exchange for complicity in human rights violations to achieve it. Goodbye company number two.

The mountainous cloud forests are home to hundreds of animals and plants facing extinction. Two of those species, the Longnose Harlequin and the Confusing Rocket Frog, have been found in the mining site and nowhere else on the planet.

Carlos Zorilla

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Enter companies three and four

All was relatively quiet for a couple of years, until Ecuador’s president, Rafael Correa, decided he needed more money to fund his political career. He turned to Chile and its state-owned mining company, CODELCO, to try to pick up where Bishimetals and Copper Mesa failed. Codelco is the world’s largest copper producer, its mines are located in the Atacama Desert, the world’s driest desert. The Atacama is the complete opposite of the moss-and-orchid laden cloud forests of Intag, where it rains between 3 and 5 meters annually. In sharp contrast to the Atacama, where water is so scarce that miners are now desalinating water from the Pacific Ocean and pumping it to over 3,000 meters, there are 43 pristine sources of rivers and streams just within the 4,829-hectare Llurimagua concession. There are many other stark contrasts between the two sites, not least being the day-and-night difference in biological diversity. The mountainous cloud forests of the region are home to hundreds of animals and plants facing extinction. Two of those species, the Longnose Harlequin and the Confusing Rocket Frog, have been found in the mining site and nowhere else on the planet. The frogs are but two of 15 frog species facing extinction. Given the global amphibian apocalypse caused by the chytrid fungus, which is wiping out the world’s frog species, one would think that arguments to conserve Intag’s forests are superfluous. And yet, the amphibians in Intag are not alone. They are joined by a fish species, several tree species, and the Brown-faced Spider Monkey; all critically endangered. The monkey is one of the world’s 25 most threatened primates. The list is as depressing as it is long.

To provide a veneer of legitimacy and fool people into thinking this was not a just another transnational extractive project, Ecuador created its own state-owned mining company, ENAMI to join Codelco. In spite of selling the initiative as a “Ecuadorian project”, a narrative very few bought, the presence of the companies was firmly rejected. That’s when the government of then President Rafael Correa turned to its police and military. No need to contract private security when you have the whole repressive state apparatus to serve you.

In May of 2014, the Intag area was violently occupied by 400 elite police and military personnel to secure the presence of Codelco and Enami in the mining concession. They stayed for months and violated basic human rights. Given the lack of independence of the branches of government at the time (a hallmark of the president’s Correa regime) Codelco was able to set up camp in primary forest that was being managed by the communities for ecotourism and began advanced exploratory activities. For three years Codelco, with the proven complicit of state regulators, contaminated pristine rivers and streams and deforested ancient forests. It was also during this time that our small environment organization, Decoin was able to fund a scientific study that discovered the Longnose Harlequin frog, which had not been seen for such a long time that the IUCN had classified it as extinct. Three years later, a much rarer frog, the Confusing Rocket Frog, was also discovered within the mining concession.

The discovery of the frogs gave us a more solid standing for presenting a constitutional challenge to stop mining development. We successfully argued in the lower court that mining development would violate the rights of nature, a right enshrined in Ecuador’s Constitution. We argued that it would do so by causing the extinction of the two frog species, as well negatively impacting the habitat of dozens other species in danger of extinction. However, this past October, the appeals court overturned the lower court decision due to a procedural error by the presiding lower-court judge (here for more details on the court case).

Enter mining companies five and six.

While the two state-owned companies were trying to come to an agreement on how to split the profits and determine how much each side was going to invest, Ecuador was approached by Broken Hill Properties (BHP) and Hanrine. Hanrine is the Ecuadorian subsidiary of Australia’s Hancock Prospecting. UK-Australian based BHP is the world’s largest mining corporation and has several concessions in Intag. Concessions they have been unable to develop due to strong local opposition. While it’s not known what BPH offered the Ecuadorian government for the Llurimagua project, according to press reports, Hanrine offered 400 million dollars cash. The offer was not enough to entice the Ecuadorians to quit the bilateral treaty with Chile that brought Codelco to Intag’s biodiverse forests in the first place.

Meanwhile, for several reasons, including an administrative challenge by civil society groups to a very poor environmental impact study, combined with continued local opposition, plus disagreements on how Ecuador and Chile’s Codelco should split the mineral pie, no exploration has taken place since late 2018. In preparation for the possible reactivation of exploratory activities, the opposition is preparing new lawsuits. In fact, across the Andean country opposition to mining has grown exponentially, threatening other projects, including Hanrine’s, and several of Solgold’s. All are in the northern province of Imbabura, site of the Llurimagua conflict.

What Next?

The frogs are still out there. But so is the copper, crooked companies and regulators, as well as the increasing demand for the red metal. Their destiny and that of dozens of other endangered species may yet be in the hands of Ecuador’s judiciary. The opposition has faith that upon reaching the Constitutional Court, the rights of Nature and that of the frogs and other species to exist will prevail over corporate rights. Basic human rights also hang in the balance. And there is always the chance that Ecuador’s recently elected president, Guillermo Lasso, will live up to his campaign promises to prohibit mining in sources of water, and open-pit mining all together. However, a new actor can disrupt all the plans and bring down the twenty-six-year-old resistance. I’m referring to the demand for copper and the other metals needed to fuel the energy transformation. I don’t call it the clean energy transformation because the minerals coming from places like Intag’s Toisan Range will be anything but clean. Those minerals will be drenched with contaminated rivers, extinct species, razed biodiverse places and gross human rights violations.

For more information see:

If the Frogs Should Win

23 Reasons Codelco Should Stay out of Intag

www.decoin.org and Decoin’s Facebook


Several full-length documentaries on Intag’s struggle have been produced, including Under Rich Earth,: Javier con I de Intag, and Hugo Territorio Rebelde

Additionally, there are several short documentaries on Youtube, under: Minería, Intag and Mining, Intag