By Mongabay staff
In 2017, the name “La Merced de Buenos Aires,” or simply “Buenos Aires,” became famous throughout Ecuador. This small parish located high in the Andean province of Imbabura was invaded by illegal miners who quickly took control of the mountains.
Giant mining camps made up of plastic tents garnered media attention, and the illegal nature of the mining brought violence, fear, and hopelessness to the area. The population that traditionally lived there cried out for help so that their territory would return to the tranquility that had characterized it in the past.
Several residents interviewed by Mongabay Latam say the gold rush attracted people from Peru, Venezuela, Colombia and southern Ecuador who intimidated the community. Former fighters from the now-dissolved FARC guerrilla group in Colombia even began to collect “vaccinations” — protection payments in exchange for not infringing upon them — and started to suppress the community in an attempt to dominate the illegal mining business.
In July 2019, 1,102 police officers, 1,200 soldiers and 20 prosecutors arrived in the area as part of an operation called “Radiant Dawn” (“Amanecer Radiante”). In the first few days of the raid, they managed to remove about 3,000 people from the mining camps. The operation also dismantled 30 gold-processing plants and a complex system of pulleys for transporting the gold. According to María Paula Romo, the minister of government at the time, the illegal gold trade in Buenos Aires was valued at about $500,000 per week.
For almost a year, an apparent sense of peace fell over the community. But in 2020, residents realized their land was being considered as a potential mining site again — this time in search of copper — by a company owned by an Australian firm. Since November 2017, the company has obtained eight mining titles in the area, one of which overlaps with the illegal mining area. The situation became increasingly tense in April, when more than 300 residents of Buenos Aires staged a protest on the outskirts of the parish in an attempt to stop the company’s trucks and machinery from starting mining activity in the territory.
This mountain in the parish of Buenos Aires was the epicenter of illegal mining between 2017 and 2019. Image by Iván Castaneira/Agencia Tegantai.
Mining company sues dozens of people
The residents of Buenos Aires have declared their resistance. They say that since 2017, they have been invaded by illegal mining in this area, which has traditionally been dedicated to agriculture and cattle ranching. Now that legal miners want to exploit the land, many residents say they do not want any further involvement with mining.
The problem, according to a resident who asked not to be named for fear of retaliation, is that the resistance movement has generated a stigma. “They told us that we are illegal miners and that we do not want legality because we want to return to what is illegal. But this is false,” the resident said.
Natalia Bonilla, from the organization Acción Ecológica, says that when her organization began to work with the residents, they realized that the portrayal of the community members as illegal miners was not truthful. “It is a community of farmers, ranchers and agricultural people that was invaded by illegal miners. They marked them as illegal miners and made them invisible,” Bonilla said.
Favio Ocampo is the head of operations of Hanrine Ecuadorian Exploration and Mining S.A., the company that holds the mining titles and is a subsidiary of Australian company Hancock Prospecting. Ocampo said in an interview with Primicias, an Ecuadoran media outlet, that “there is a group of residents of La Merced de Buenos Aires that is polluting with illegal mining and that is now disguising itself as an anti-mining group. This group has taken the entrance to La Merced de Buenos Aires, claiming that the town is against legal and illegal mining, but they are the same [ones who] have legal proceedings against them for illegal mining.”
This is where the issue becomes more complicated. Using the argument that the opposing residents who are blocking the company’s entry into the land are illegal miners, Hanrine has launched civil and criminal actions against several people from the community, including some local authorities. “We are going through five criminalization proceedings. They are doing this to undermine the resistance of this peaceful protest that we’ve had since April 19,” said another resident of the area who asked not to be named. “The latest thing they have accused us of is unlawful association. They have even accused the president of the decentralized autonomous government [GAD] of the rural parish of Buenos Aires.”
Yuly Tenorio is a lawyer specializing in the environment who says that while some people denounced by the company may be linked to illegal mining, the vast majority are defenders of the territory who are being persecuted. This is why she has decided to defend them. According to Tenorio, Hanrine has denounced about 70 people from the area, including several Awá Indigenous people from the Palmira community who live in the forests of Buenos Aires and oppose mining.
“Not everyone has received notice because they live in very remote areas, and the Awá do not have a stable territory. Many of them do not even have a form of identification,” Tenorio said.
The five legal processes are in the pretrial investigation phase. Three of the proceedings are for alleged damage to property, one is for intimidation, and the last is for alleged unlawful association.
“The company is denouncing them via criminal and civil action to recover the alleged money that it has lost due to citizen resistance,” Tenorio said. “The objective is for the community to exhaust themselves by hiring lawyers for their defense instead of dedicating themselves to protecting their territory, requesting information, or precautionary measures.”
Ocampo said Hanrine has attempted to enter one of its mining concessions, called “Imba 1,” for several months, “but our attempts have been blocked by these people who have taken the entrance of the parish of La Merced de Buenos Aires, within full view of the police.”
“All the people in our favor and who work with us, or who provide any type of service to us, have been injured, intimidated, and threatened,” he added.
The tension between the community and the company has escalated to new levels. On April 21 this year, the Ombudsman’s Office said in a public announcement that the government will be responsible for the criminal proceedings of the Buenos Aires community leaders and those who are defending human rights and the rights of nature.
When contacted by Mongabay Latam, ombudsman Edwin Piedra confirmed that criminal proceedings have been initiated that are in the domain of the Prosecutor’s Office and are under investigation. But he added that “the Ombudsman’s Office hopes that the requests will be considered and that the prosecutor’s office will archive the proceedings, since those who exercise the right to resist cannot be penalized for common crimes like unlawful association and other types of criminal offenses, which can serve to threaten and harass people and therefore hinder their defense work.”
Lack of environmental and prior consultations
While the conflict between the residents and the mining company continues, illegal mining in the area has left damage that has not yet been fully evaluated. The only concrete data so far comes from a report by Ecuador’s Ministry of Environment and Water (MAAE) at the time of the Radiant Dawn operation. The report says 54.38 hectares (about 134 acres) of deforestation was found, along with changes to water flows, inadequate management of solid waste, and changes in water and soil quality.
More than two years since the removal of the thousands of illegal miners, it’s still not clear who will be held responsible for this damage and for rehabilitating the environment. The Ecuadoran government has not conducted an in-depth analysis, and the mining company hasn’t accepted responsibility for these costs within its concession.
Ocampo said Hanrine takes no responsibility for the damage already done.
“The government needs to take action,” he said. “We have not received any report by experts from the government about the calculation of the environmental damage. It is not the responsibility of Hanrine. Once the expert report is done, the government should identify those who are responsible.” They know who they are, he added, and they should prosecute them, because the people who profit from the illegal mining remain free.
The company says it has the right to enter its mining concessions to continue its advanced prospecting for copper. However, the difficult socioenvironmental conflict that exists in Buenos Aires complicates the situation.
The community says the company has never publicized the mining project and that neither they nor the Awá Indigenous people participated in an environmental consultation or a free and informed prior consultation. Piedra says government institutions should have sufficiently informed the community about the consultation processes that would have been conducted, and that they permitted the acquisition of environmental permissions for the concessions. “It is the responsibility of the government to comply with this obligation before granting concessions and permissions,” Piedra said.
Mongabay Latam contacted the MAAE to learn whether there was an environmental consultation but did not receive a response by the time of this article’s publication in Spanish.
No access to information
Access to information has also been an obstacle for the Buenos Aires community. According to several residents interviewed by Mongabay Latam, the company has told them it does not need to show documentation to them, so they have had to make formal requests to government entities. These entities have delayed their responses or not given complete answers, arguing that the information being sought is sensitive in nature.
“We still do not know the environmental management plans or whether environmental impact studies exist that are not a copy of other studies,” Tenorio said. Mongabay Latam also asked the MAAE whether it had granted environmental permits to Hanrine but did not receive a response.
The Ombudsman’s Office said it was “urging the Ministry of Environment and Water, the Ministry of Energy and Non-Renewable Natural Resources, and the Agency of Regulation and Control of Energy and Non-Renewable Natural Resources not to grant environmental permits or mining concessions until they proceed with the integral repair of the rights of nature, due to the existence of environmental liabilities, and they must begin the necessary measures for the restoration of nature.”
Buenos Aires community leaders say they hope for a popular consultation to prohibit mining in their territory. On May 10, some residents who want to ban both illegal and legal mining requested precautionary measures before the constitutional judge for the province of Imbabura, Manuel Mesías Sarmiento, to guarantee the removal of the camps that Hanrine has set up in public areas, and the prohibition of the entrance of heavy machinery and any other vehicles owned by the company.
One of the people who signed this action was assembly member Mario Ruiz Jácome. “The idea is to preserve the physical and psychological well-being — and the life — of the community of Buenos Aires and of the employees of the Hanrine company,” he said. “We are at an imminent risk of having confrontations that put their lives and their physical well-being in danger.”
He added that, at the entrance to the parish, there are still about 120 trucks and about 250 company workers. They stay in overcrowded conditions without restrooms, which endangers the health of everyone in the area.
Those defending this territory high in the mountains in Imbabura are awaiting a response to the precautionary measures as they continue to block the entrance of the mining company into their territory, especially given the uncertainty of the potential outcomes of the legal proceedings against them. “We want the new government to create an amnesty process for the defenders because resisting is a constitutional right, not a crime,” said Tenorio, the lawyer.
Note: Mining company Hanrine has denounced more than 60 people in Buenos Aires and says the illegal miners have now disguised themselves as “anti-mining” groups to block the entrance of legal miners. Image by Iván Castaneira/Agencia Tegantai.
This story was reported by Mongabay’s Latam team and first published on the Latam site in July, 2021.