Blog Entry

Attempt to Advance Environmental Consultation for Atico’s Mine in Ecuador Brings Renewed Criminalization, Police Repression, and Militarization

Viviana Herrera

Latin America Program Coordinator

Ecuadorian and international human rights organizations are denouncing renewed violence over the past three weeks around Atico Mining’s project in southwestern Ecuador. 

Atico, a Canadian mining company headquartered in Vancouver, has been attempting to develop its La Plata gold-copper-zinc-silver project since 2019 in Sigchos, in the province of Cotopaxi. Despite significant local opposition to the proposed mine – particularly from the directly affected communities of Las Pampas and Palo Quemado – the company is supporting the advancement of a process for environmental consultation that has been widely denounced by local and national Indigenous organizations for being a rubber stamp to permit mining, imposed under the conditions of militarization, intimidation, and police violence.

On March 4, speaking at the world’s largest mining conference put on annually by the Prospectors and Developers Association of Canada (PDAC), a representative from Atico Mining told attendees that the environmental consultation was set to begin for the La Plata project the following week. Atico eagerly spoke about how the project is making a positive impact in Cotopaxi and how the company is taking a responsible approach when it comes to mining – failing to mention that previous attempts to advance the environmental consultation were suspended following significant police repression against local communities. The following day, Atico announced it had secured an investment agreement whereby the Ecuadorian government committed to “assist and expedite the progress of La Plata mining project.”

By March 11, communities were already denouncing the company and the government’s attempt to re-launch the consultation. The Alianza por los derechos humanos del Ecuador (Alliance for Human Rights in Ecuador) – a national body which brings together 14 Ecuadorian human rights and environmental organizations – has denounced the presence of armed paramilitary intimidating people who oppose the project, as well as the presence of state security forces who have allegedly used tear gas and rubber bullets to quell protests. 

In their statement released on March 20, the Alianza amplifies reports from the Frente Nacional Antiminero (National Anti-Mining Front) that police and military are being housed within Atico Mining’s compounds. Seventy-two community members from Las Pampas and Palo Quemado have been slapped with unfounded legal charges and accused of being “terrorists” in an effort to criminalize their legitimate protest and prevent them from continuing to document the acute violence facing communities since the environmental consultation resumed. 

On March 25, an Ecuadorian court provisionally suspended the consultation process, accepting a legal action for Protective Measures filed by the mayorship of Sigchos. The Confederación de Nacionalidades Indígenas del Ecuador - CONAIE (Confederation of Indigenous Nationalities of Ecuador), the Frente Nacional Antiminero, and the Movimiento Indígena y Campesino de Cotopaxi - MICC (Indigenous and Campesino Movement of Cotopaxi) said in a public statement: “The Judge has recognized that the acts of resistance in the territory demonstrate the people’s opposition to the La Plata mining project, which directly affects the population of Las Pampas and Palo Quemado, [and recognizes] the seriousness of the acts of violence against the population and the imminent likelihood of the violation of their constitutional rights.” 

The organizations, who are calling this temporary victory “the fruit of the tireless struggle and the resistance of Palo Quemado and Las Pampas,” are already denouncing continued police repression and are calling on national and international bodies to stay vigilant as further attempts to develop this project are certain. 

Environmental consultation through militarization: Executive Decree 754 

In 2023, former Ecuadorian President Guillermo Lasso issued Executive Decree 754 – an executive order to formalize a process for environmental consultation with the public for large-scale development projects like mining, oil, and gas. The Decree, which the country’s highest court found to be unconstitutional late last year, allows for a non-binding consultation process that affords communities no rights to veto proposed projects on their lands. 

When the Ministry of the Environment, Water, and Ecological Transition first tried to carry out the environmental consultation back in July 2023 under Decree 754, it led to significant violence on the part of state security forces. At least five people were injured after heavily armed military and police opened fire on protestors. Lawsuits were filed at the Constitutional Court by CONAIE and the Frente Nacional Antiminero, who argued the Decree violated the constitutional rights of Ecuadorians. While the Court eventually agreed that the Decree as written was unconstitutional, it upheld it until a relevant law could be passed, with the added stipulation that consultations must be carried out in accordance with high national and international standards for consultation. This decision has resulted in a sort of legal limbo where the Ecuadorian government – with the support of transnational companies – is trying to advance consultations that violate the rights of Ecuadorians to permit mining projects and is using state security forces to do so.

The violence surrounding Canadian mining projects continues. Urgent alerts issued by local and national Ecuadorian organizations have been echoed by international human rights bodies as well. On March 25, UN Special Rapporteur on Human Rights Defenders Mary Lawlor tweeted, “I'm receiving disturbing news about risks for human rights defenders in the Las Naves & Palo Quemado communities in #Ecuador. Faced with the negative impacts of mining projects, the State must ensure that their rights are respected.” Amnesty International also sounded the alarm about reports of alleged excessive use of force by security forces in Ecuador against Indigenous communities of Las Pampas and Palo Quemado, highlighting that “live ammunition is prohibited as a means to break up protest.” 

Last year, United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights Volker Türk also expressed his concern over the violence surrounding the projects and underscored the right of Indigenous peoples to be consulted on the use of their lands. He said that “People directly affected by mining projects or activities must be heard, not repressed.”

Appeals to the Canadian Embassy to reign in Canadian mining companies 

As when the environmental consultation was first attempted – and suspended – in 2023, the Canadian Embassy has been silent in the face of ongoing police repression in support of a Canadian mining company. The Alianza is calling on the Canadian Embassy to take swift action regarding the “violation of the constitutionally-recognized rights of individuals, collective rights, and the rights of nature by Canadian mining companies operating [in Ecuador].” They emphasize, “Silence in the face of the violation of these rights, while promoting and glorifying Canadian mining investment in Ecuador, renders the State of Canada complicit.”

For now, while the environmental consultation around La Plata may be provisionally suspended, the priorities of the Canadian and Ecuadorian governments when it comes to advancing mining in Ecuador are clear. In the same PDAC 2024 session where Atico pitched its La Plata project as a responsible mine, current Ecuadorian President Daniel Noboa spoke about efforts underway to make Ecuador the next premier mining destination. He proudly pointed to regulatory changes already in the works – including changes to speed up project approvals – as proof that Ecuador is serious about attracting Canadian mining investment. Direct from the PDAC convention, President Noboa went to Ottawa to formally launch the start of free trade negotiations with Canada – a trade deal mining-affected communities and environmental and human rights organizations fear will exacerbate environmental conflicts, human rights violations, the militarization of territories, and the threats and intimidation against Indigenous leaders who speak out against Canadian mining projects.

Atico proudly joins the Ecuadorian government in holding up the La Plata project as an example for what the future could hold for more Ecuadorians impacted by Canadian mining investment. For the communities currently facing intimidation, militarization, and criminalization for their opposition to the proposed mine, this is a future they’re fighting to prevent. 

Photo from the Frente Nacional Antiminero.