Nestled amid the Andean mountains, Cuenca — Ecuador’s third largest city — has long been known for its bounteous sources of fresh water. This is thanks to its privileged location within the Maziso del Cajas, a newly declared UNESCO biosphere reserve. However, over the last decade, its underlying gold and silver reserves have fallen prey to corporate mining interests — a situation that has only grown more critical with the government’s recent announcement that there will be further exploitation of these minerals.
Social and environmental groups across the city have stood up to defend their region from the mining industry. At the forefront is the Yasunidos Cuenca-Guapondelig youth collective — a local branch of the national Yasunidos movement that gained attention in 2014 with a nationwide failed call for a referendum on President Rafael Correa’s extractivist policies. Along with frontline communities in the region, the collective is working to preserve what they see as the region’s very source of life.
On October 22, the authorities of Azuay province — where Cuenca is located — gathered in the mountains, over 11,000 feet above sea level, to unanimously pass a resolution declaring the province’s moor ecosystems “mining-free territories.” Alongside Kimsacocha, a majestic lagoon that serves as the source of one of Cuenca’s four emblematic rivers, the organizers, including city mayors and members of the provincial council, participated in cultural festivities and rituals to celebrate this symbolic victory.
For the Yasunidos collective in Cuenca, along with other social and peasant movements, this action was part of an ongoing effort to render water’s life-giving qualities — and the hardships that come with its scarcity — more visible. In the face of ever-growing mining activities in the region, their actions seek to counterbalance a false and pervasive official narrative of “responsible mining practices.”
Two mining projects at the entrance of a water reservoir
At the core of this asymmetrical battle lie two mining projects promoted by the Ecuadorian government: Rio Blanco and Kimsacocha. Located respectively at the west and south margins of El Cajas National Park — a delicate set of humid moor ecosystems — these two mining projects are a direct threat to local agricultural communities benefiting from this complex web of watersheds.
Their fear is justified given not only the vital role the moorlands play in irrigating the river system of the Andean region, but also the specific environmentally detrimental features of both projects. A recent independent technical study by the U.S.-based Kuispers & Associates consulting firm has already raised alarm bells over this and urged the government to stop their implementation.
Rio Blanco is a gold and silver mine run by Hong Kong’s Junefield Minerals Resources Holdings Ltd., located right at the west border of El Cajas National Park. When fully operational, beginning next year, it is projected to produce 1.5 million cubic meters of toxic waste (the equivalent of 456 Olympic swimming pools) over the course of its expected 11-year life span — all of which will be stocked in an open pit, risking groundwater pollution.
Meanwhile, the Kimsacocha project — which has also raised concerns regarding toxic waste — is operated by Canadian mining company INV Metals within a recreational area to the south of El Cajas. Its advanced gold exploration activities for the last year have been met with direct local opposition.
“Our resistance dates back more than a decade” said Virgilio Ramón, president of the Union of Community Water Systems in Girón County, which took part in the celebrations. “Our county is practically right on the foothills where the mining activities are planned.”
Like Ramón, other local leaders are disappointed with the government’s lack of action. For more than a year, a local referendum proposed by his community to stop mining activities in the province’s moorlands has been blocked, along with their claims of the territories’ vulnerability.
A truth of the government’s making
In an effort to tackle Ecuador’s ongoing economic crisis, the government of President Rafael Correa has engaged in a two-pronged media strategy to cover up its extractivist policies. On one hand, the state has been promoting an image of the country as an appealing investment location for foreign mining corporations. This has involved several international campaigns devised to sell Ecuador to enthusiastic investors. One recent example was the country’s participation in Mines and Money Americas, the world’s largest mining investment conference held in Toronto, Canada in late September. On the other, it downplays the imminent risks that both mining projects pose to the delicate moor ecosystems in the province through state-run media outlets.
For Ecuador, there is much to brag about to the mining industry abroad. Since 2015, the government has been implementing a set of fiscal incentives intended to ease corporate tax burdens. For the sake of competitiveness, mining companies now enjoy exceptions to cash outflow taxes and subsidies that not long ago were unthinkable for Correa’s self-proclaimed revolutionary administration.
On September 21, high-profile authorities — led by Javier Córdova, the Ecuadorian Minister of Mines — staged an academic event hosted by a local university. What was intended to appear as an academic dialogue, however, more closely resembled a monologue with no room for dissent.
“We have come to Azuay because this is Ecuador’s leading gold-exporting province,” Córdova said. “What we are proposing is to proceed in a responsible way, to break down those myths you hear very often that — when repeated time and again — you end up believing are true.”
Event participants were welcomed with pamphlets titled “Myths and Truths About the Mining Industry,” while undercover supporters bypassed official registration procedure to take their place in the audience, applauding the minister and his explanations of Ecuador’s new friendly investment conditions.
This was only the latest such occurrence of a governmental official stumping on behalf of the mining industry. On August 11, at the inauguration of the Rio Blanco facility’s construction, Ecuadorian Vice President Jorge Glas justified mining activities in Azuay province as part of a larger effort toward “responsible mining.” State-run media outlets have since perpetuated this one-sided discourse.
Building consciousness for water
For local communities and social movements, the government’s proselytism in favor of “responsible” and “sustainable” mining is no more than official propaganda. While the official story depicts social participation, the use of cutting-edge technology, and the overall enhancing of living standards, local communities experience discrimination, cooptation and exclusion.
Such an intimidating stance toward resistance seems to be paying off. “We have been resisting less,” said Laura Plaza, a local peasant woman, whose community would be affected with groundwater pollution. “We are afraid of protesting,” she added, while recognizing the battle is still worth fighting.
Nearby peasant and local communities are not alone in their concern with the contamination of these water sources. For more than two years, Yasunidos Cuenca-Guapondelig has been working to raise awareness on the issue among Cuenca’s urban population. While they have suffered several setbacks, Yasunidos has also scored some important victories.
On September 16, Yasunidos members stormed the plenary session of Cuenca’s city council, which helped raise the mining issue to the level of public debate. “We have to take over public spaces,” said Yasunidos delegate David Fajardo in a press conference following the action. “Political resistance means civil disobedience,” he added.
As a result of their resolve, most of the council members now show their public support for the cause. And despite the mayor’s reluctance, their support for the protesters is echoed by government officials within the provincial prefecture.
The current mobilization intends to challenge the government’s dominant political narrative. In this effort, other groups, ranging from art and cultural collectives to youth organizations, have joined the call. They are working to craft a common communication strategy to debunk the fallacies of the “responsible mining” discourse. Nonviolent protests and symbolic cultural events — specifically “tap dances for water,” or zapateadas — have increased to make the mining issue more visible.
Yasunidos organizer Klever Calle said the underlying objective of these actions is “to bring the moors and our water sources closer to the people.” This view exemplifies the movement’s strategy of giving Cuenca’s urban population a wake-up call and helping them realize that their own water is under threat.
A communal camp in Cuenca’s Abdón Calderón Park is scheduled for mid-November. As a sign of protest, participants intend to occupy this central park, named after a young independence hero, whose statue sits in the old city center. “Perhaps the young Calderón will jump off his pedestal and joins today’s youth to defend our moors and rivers from Chinese and Canadian miners,” Calle said.