The Cuenca cantonal council voted Sunday for a suspension of all mining activity in the Cajas Mountains, claiming that it posed a threat to water resources and an internationally recognized ecosystem.
It is unclear how the city will enforce the action since mining concessions are granted by the federal government. President Rafael Correa said Monday that the vote was political, timed intentionally just weeks ahead of the February 19 election.
According to Cuenca Mayor Marcelo Cabrera, the government is granting mining concessions in an environmentally sensitive area without performing adequate tests to determine the effect on water supplies. “This is a protected UNESCO biosphere area and the watershed for local communities as well as the city of Cuenca,” he said. “It is not compatible with mining for gold, copper and other metals. We are asking the government to suspend all current and future activity until adequate studies can be performed.”
Cabrera also claims the area contains several undisturbed archeological sites.
Two mining operations, Río Blanco and Loma Larga, are already in exploratory stages in the Cajas. The resolution passed by the city asked that no further work be allowed at the sites until scientists from the University of Cuenca and the University of Azuay conduct environmental impact studies. Cabrera claims that scientists have been denied access to the mining property to perform tests.
Sunday’s 12 to four vote supporting the suspension of mining was preceded by a lengthy debate between Alianza País members of the cantonal council who opposed the measure and those who claim that new mining concessions will open up 20% of the canton to mining.
País council members said the vote was intended to embarrass the party before the election, since information about the mining concessions has been available for several months. Non-País members maintained that the federal government is rushing the process to pay off its debt to the Chinese government.
“The health and well-being of the people of Cuenca should come before the financial interests of the government,” Cabrera says.