Australian miners hone in on Ecuador

Anthony Amis

In June 2018, the Rainforest Information Centre (RIC) was alerted that mining exploration was occurring within the boundaries of the 7000-hectare Los Cedros Biological Reserve in northern Ecuador.

Los Cedros is a biodiversity hotspot consisting of pre-montane wet tropical rainforest and cloud forest. Los Cedros had been set up in the 1980s largely through a grant from the Australian government and has been a long running campaign of RIC. The call-out from long-term rainforest activist John Seed inspired a small group in Melbourne to relaunch the Melbourne Rainforest Action Group and we got busy better comprehending what was occurring at Los Cedros and more broadly in Ecuador and South America.

Ecuador is currently under assault from a myriad of Australian mining companies. All of the big players of Australian mining are staking a claim in the country. Two of Australia's richest mining magnates, Gina Reinhart and Twiggy Forrest, have areas under exploration, as do heavyweights like BHP and Newcrest. A little-known Brisbane-based company called Solgold is also one of the prime movers and shakers in the country.

In February 2015, the Ecuadorian government created the Ministry of Energy and Mines to grant hundreds of new mining exploration licences throughout the country, the first granting of licences in six years. These new licences funnelled millions of dollars into Ecuadorian government coffers. Eighty percent of mining concessions have been granted to Australian and Canadian companies, and 67% of Australian concessions have been granted to Solgold and subsidiaries.

Newcrest is part owner of a new gold mine in the south east of the country, near the Peru border, called Fruta Del Norte. This mine is currently under construction and is expected to start operation in 2019 in partnership with Swedish/Canadian company Lundin Mining. Fruta del Norte lies about 30 km south of a Chinese copper megamine called Mirador. Both mines are located in the traditional lands of the Shuar people. Mirador has been linked to human rights violations and is owned by Ecuacorriente and the China Railway Construction Corporation.

Solgold have concessions throughout the country, but particularly in the north at a prospect called Cascabel. South of Cascabel, the Solgold concessions have been surrounded by both Hancock and BHP in concessions that cover thousands of hectares. Both Newcrest and BHP have purchased large percentages of Solgold and are circling for a takeover bid.

Solgold is a Brisbane-based minerals explorer, a subsidiary of DGR Global. Individuals involved with Solgold, Nick Mather in particular, have been involved with environmentally destructive developments in Australia. These include kick-starting coal mining in the Galilee Basin through Waratah Coal which was purchased by Clive Palmer in 2008 and also helping kick-start the coal seam gas industry throughout Queensland in the Surat Basin, Galilee Basin and Bowen Basin (Arrow Energy, Bow Energy and Armour Energy ‒ currently active in Queensland and the Northern Territory).

BHP is trying to buy up access to new copper mines to position itself for the expected increase in demand for electric cars, which require 3‒4 times more copper than conventional vehicles. Already locals in Ecuador are starting to report pressure from BHP. An activist website highlighting concerns in the Intag area has been removed after complaints from the company.

Despite its tiny size, Ecuador is one of the world's biodiversity hotspots, with more vertebrate and endemic plant species than the entire United States and Northern Europe combined. This mega-diverse nation also contains some of the world's most endangered forests. The incredibly species rich, north western cloud forests of Ecuador have experienced around 95% deforestation — only fragments of previous habitats remain. Many species unique to the region are under threat of extinction and many more remain unknown to science.

In spite of its global significance as one of the world's most biodiverse countries, around 14% of its total land area has been secretly sold to multinational mining companies by the Ecuadorean government. Many of these mining concessions overlap protected forests and indigenous reserves.

All is not lost however. Support for indigenous groups and local communities could be vital in turning the mining juggernaut around. Over the past year there have been two successful legal challenges of unsustainable development in Ecuador by local people. A mine called Rio Blanco was closed in August 2018 after a local judge revoked the mining licence of Chinese firm Ecuagoldmining on grounds that the people of Molleturo had not been properly consulted.

In October 2018, the A'i Cofan people won their case in the Provincial Court of Sucumbios against the granting of 32,000 hectares of mining concessions in their country based on grounds of violations of free, prior and informed consent; rights to water; and the Rights of Nature.

Melbourne Rainforest Action Group actively supports the Confederation of Indigenous Nations of Ecuador (CONAIE) and local Ecuadorian conservationists and farming communities in their struggle to halt the massive expansion of mining in Ecuador.

CONAIE was founded by 500 indigenous representatives in 1986. Composed of three regional federations, it incorporates Ecuador's Shuar, Achuar, Siona, Secoya, Cofán, Huaorani, Záparo, Chachi, Tsáchila, Awá, Epera, Manta, Wancavilca and Quichua tribal groups.

Melbourne Rainforest Action Group has produced detailed reports on Solgold, Newcrest and Blackrock and also a report on BHP's activities throughout South America.

Anthony Amis is a member of Melbourne Rainforest Action Group and Friends of the Earth Melbourne.

More information:

Melbourne Rainforest Action Group: https://rainforestactiongroup.org/ and www.facebook.com/MelbourneRAG/

Reserva Los Cedros: http://reservaloscedros.org/

Rainforest Information Centre: www.rainforestinfo.org.au/

Published in Chain Reaction #134, December 2018. National magazine of Friends of the Earth Australia. www.foe.org.au/chain_reaction


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