Ecuador: mining law splits the indigenous community / FRFI 207 Feb / Mar 2009

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FRFI 207 February / March 2009

A recent spate of protests by some indigenous groups in Ecuador against a new mining law has ex­posed tensions with the radical government of President Rafael Correa. The ur­gency of the law arose from a decision by the former Constituent Assembly to cancel all existing legislation, thereby suspending all mining concessions while mandating a term of six months for the development of a new legal framework.

Correa had defended from the very beginning the necessity of a new way of mining that introduces a considerable degree of environmental responsibility, and that increases the stake of the Ecuadorian state in terms of royalties and taxation. Broadly, the law that Correa and his supporters proposed would provide a series of guarantees to areas affected by potential mining, including the right to a non-binding referendum.

Correa has warned that ‘we cannot live as beggars while sitting on a sack of gold’, highlighting the state’s budgetary problems with the declining prices and reserves of Ecuadorian oil, and the badly needed social and infrastructure projects that the new Constitution prescribes.

The Confederation of Indigenous Nationalities of Ecuador (CONAIE) and some ecologists did not consider the safeguards sufficient, and tried to block the approval of the new law. On 20 January, a national mobilisation against the law took place. However, support was limited. In the 1990s, the indigenous movement had organised uprisings that were strong enough to topple two presidents. But the movement fragmented after the CONAIE leadership decided to join the previous reactionary Gutierrez government. Hence some sections of the indigenous movement broadly support the law, especially as they have seen in Correa’s government the first executive really attending to their concerns. It is not by chance that Pachakutik, the political arm of CONAIE, kept a certain distance from the protest, and that other indigenous groups and communities have had only mild criticisms of the law’s provisions.

There are clearly serious issues at stake. On the one hand there are the needs of the environment which has been severely damaged by past mining and oil extraction. On the other, Correa envisages a model of development to deliver decent standards of living for a population where 30% live in poverty. He is conscious that mining in itself cannot be a model for sustainable development and that the environmental resources of Ecuador must be preserved, but recognises the importance of generating the necessary funds to build a new economy.

Samuele Mazzolini, Movement of Ecuadorians in the UK