Ecuador’s Ministry of Energy presented a strong objection to the Constitutional Court on Wednesday to Azuay Prefect Yaku Pérez’s proposal for a referendum to stop mining in Azuay Province. “To allow such a referendum to go forward and jeopardize the country’s efforts to expand legal mining is completely irresponsible,” Mining Minister Enrique Gallegos said at a Quito press conference.
Gallegos was joined in his objection by Ramiro Montalvo, Deputy Minister of Environment, and Carlos Andrade, National Secretary of Water Resources. According to Ecuadorian law, all referendums must be approved by the court before their sponsors can begin collecting signatures to put them on the ballot. The court threw out an earlier referendum request by Perez but said the rejection was for technical reasons and not based on the substance of the referendum questions.
A poll conducted in August by a University of Azuay political science professor showed a large majority of local voters support a ban on mining.
If it is allowed to proceed, the referendum would ask voters if they agree to prohibit, without exception, prospecting, exploration and exploitation of large- and small-scale metal mining to protect water resources and the ecosystems of Azuay Province. It would also ask voters if they agree to cancel all metal mining concessions that have been granted prior to the referendum in the same areas.
Gallegos claims that Pérez’s intentions are political and not based on technical analysis and that the cancellation of mining concessions would be financially devastating for the country. “We already face a $430 million law suit for the closure of Río Blanco mine near Cuenca and we cannot afford similar situations. Rio Blanco, a Chinese-owned mine 30 kilometers west of Cuenca in Cajas Mountains, was closed in 2018 by local protesters and has not reopened.
Gallegos also says that revenue from mining is critically needed to support the national budget. “We need the funds for education, health care and infrastructure and we cannot allow a local initiative to stop the government’s efforts to grant concessions.”
Pérez calls Gallegos’ charges “nonsense” and says there are already extensive studies showing that mining in the Cajas has caused environmental damage. “We know that it has polluted the water in the Cuenca canton causing the loss of livelihoods to peasant farmers,” he says. He adds that the government has ignored constitutional guarantees that local communities be consulted first before mining projects are allowed to proceed. “The government is engaged in illegal practices and we are asking the court to allow the people of Azuay Province, not the government in Quito, to decide their future.”
According to geological studies, Azuay Province has the largest gold and silver reserves in Ecuador, much of it in the Cuenca canton.