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Rio Blanco mine closure upheld by Azuay court; Government plans an appeal

Judges from the civil and commercial division of the Azuay provincial court voted Friday afternoon to uphold a June 3 decision to close the Chinese-owned Rio Blanco gold mine west of Cuenca. The decision was celebrated by mining opponents camped at Parque Calderon, outside the courthouse, while the government said it would appeal.

Army continue to stand guard at the entrance to Rio Blanco mine.

The court said that Judge Paúl Serrano was correct in ruling that the government had violated the rights of the citizens living near the mine. “We accept the earlier ruling that a violation of the right to due process and prior consultation was committed against the community of Molleturo in relation to the Río Blanco mine by the government. The community was not allowed to participate in a free and informed discussion about the project before it was awarded.”

Protesters from Molleturo and surrounding communities in the Cajas Mountains shut down Rio Blanco in early May, claiming that their constitutional rights had been violated and that the mine was polluting local water supplies. On May 8, a miners’ dormitory and storage shed was set on fire by protesters, resulting in two arrests.

A May 8 destroyed a miners’ dormitory and a storage facility at Rio Blanco. (El Mercurio)

Yaku Pérez Guartambel, president of the indigenous union Ecuarunari and anti-mining activist, said he was pleased with the court’s ruling but was wary of the government’s plan to appeal.  “Cuenca, Azuay Province, clean water and the health of our children have triumphed in this case and we are very pleased,” he said. “We will maintain vigilant watch on the future actions of the government and fight any attempt to reverse today’s court decision.”

Rocío Juca, ministry of mining sub-secretary, said the government will appeal to a higher court. “We are very respectful of Ecuador’s system of justice and will work through the proper channels to represent the government’s interests,” he said.

Juca said the ministry will release information in coming weeks proving that water coming from the Rio Blanco has not been contaminated by mining operations.

The government claims that Rio Blanco is a key component in revitalizing the mining industry in Ecuador and says revenue from mining is needed to assist impoverished areas near the mines as well as provide funding to the federal budget. Geologists say that the area around Rio Blanco, 24 miles west of Cuenca, contains one of the richest deposits of precious metals in the world.

The Rio Blanco contract with the Chinese mining company Ecuagoldmining was awarded during the administration of former president Rafael Correa but it is supported by the current administration, Juca says.

Opinions of residents adjacent to the mine are divided on the issue since the mine employed dozens of workers. In protests near the mine and in Cuenca, there have been fights between anti- and pro-mining factions.