Canadian Mining Companies in Ecuador Face New Challenge as Constitutional Court Approves Plebiscite on Large-Scale Metal Mining

MiningWatch Canada

(Ottawa) In an important decision, Ecuador’s Constitutional Court ruled yesterday that a plebiscite on metal mining in the southern municipality of Cuenca is, in fact, constitutional.

On September 8th, the mayor of the municipal Autonomous Decentralized Government (GAD) of Cuenca, with unanimous backing from the GAD council, submitted a petition to the Court to review the constitutionality of a series of plebiscite questions developed to protect Cuenca’s principal water sources from mining.

The court was charged with reviewing the question:

“Are you in agreement with large-scale metallic mineral exploitation in the zone of hydrological recharge of the a) Yancunay, b) Tarqui, c) Tomebamba, d) Machángara, and e) Norcay rivers according to the delimitation created by the Municipal Company for Telecommunications, Potable Water, Sewage, and Sanitation, ETAPA EP?”

For Paola Granizo Riquetti, a member of Yasunidxs-Cuenca, a Cuenca-based civil-society group which has organized for years to protect the surrounding páramos (alpine wetlands) from mining, “The victory is a symbol of the strong opposition to the mining sector’s attempts to make Azuay a mining district. It is a breath of fresh air, showing us that there still exist some mechanisms so that we are able to access our right to participation as citizens.”

Fourteen mining companies and their representatives, along with Fernando Benalcazar, Deputy Minister of Mines, submitted amicus curiae briefs to challenge the petition submitted by the municipality. Of those fourteen companies, six were Canadian, including INV Metals (owner of the controversial Loma Larga project), Atico Mining, Aurania Resources, and Cornerstone Resources. These companies have operations not only within the Kimsakocha and Rio Blanco páramos but also elsewhere across the country, pointing to the importance of today’s decision and the ripple effect that the industry fears most.

[The decision] represents a big hit for mining companies, because now they recognize that there is now a strong and organized civil society, in alliance with the Municipality of Cuenca, which has expressed its will to protect our hydrological sources as well as our natural and cultural heritage,” said Granizo Riquetti.

Plebiscites on mining in Ecuador have been picking up speed and producing material impacts for mining companies. An overwhelming 2019 “No” vote to metal mining in the neighbouring canton of Girón forced INV Metals to redesign its Loma Larga mine plan to put its built structures on the Cuenca side of the canton boundary, which is also where the actual deposit is. This pushed the people of Cuenca to hold their own vote, with the hope of stopping the company’s activities once and for all. The upcoming vote will target the Loma Larga deposit, and, if successful, would ban mining activities there.

According to Dr. Carlos Manuel Castro Riera, a member of the Cabildo para el Agua de Cuenca, one of the civil organizations that lobbied the municipality for the consultation, today’s victory is small compared to the much longer struggle they will now face with transnational mining companies: 

Surely the mining companies will give their own interpretations of the Court’s decision and say, as they have been saying, that the consultation results will only apply to future concessions. What future concessions? 100% of the páramos watershed is already concessioned to the mining industry. The judgement clearly says all stages of the mining process, and the majority of these companies have not reached the production stage...The mining companies need to understand that we, the people of Cuenca, will not permit anymore mining activity in our water sources.”

The next step in this process now falls into the hands of the National Electoral Council, which will set the date for the plebiscite, likely coinciding with the country’s upcoming elections in early 2021.

Communities, women, and organizations in and around Kimsakocha, as well as outside scientific experts, have been saying that mining in the sensitive páramos ecosystems is not viable, for nearly two decades. And yet, companies have continued to advance their unwanted and toxic operations. Canadian mining companies need to take note and begin to make plans to cease activities and withdraw from the region,” said Kirsten Francescone, Latin America coordinator for MiningWatch Canada.

In Cuenca, organizations are positive that the vote, like its predecessor in Girón, will be successful in permanently banning mining, thereby protecting the municipality’s crucial water sources.

Mining companies need to realize that they will never be able to mine in these areas which produce and reproduce Cuenca’s water. They are wasting their time,” said Castro Riera.

For more information, contact:

  • Dr. Carlos Manuel Castro Riera, member of the Cabildo para el Agua de Cuenca (Spanish), +593 99 487 1756

  • Paola Granizo, member of Yasunidxs Cuenca (Spanish and English), +593 98 439 9656

  • Kirsten Francescone, Latin America Program Coordinator, MiningWatch Canada  (Spanish and English), +1 (437) 345-9881