Panoramic view of the entrance to the parish of La Merced in Buenos Aires. Photos: Luis Argüello / PlanV
At the entrance to the parish of La Merced in Buenos Aires, the dawn has changed for 38 days. Hundreds of workers from the Hanrine mining company get out of trucks, vans and improvised structures made of plastic very early in the morning to form lines. Before 07:00, pro-mining men and women fill the wavy road that leads to the town. They wear company uniforms and receive instructions.Then they set up and exercise along the only access that Buenos Aires has. Since April 19, this group arrived in dozens of trucks with camp materials and machinery. Hanrine wanted to enter one of its mining concessions in the area and can only do so by this route. They were unable to do so.
Hanrine workers get up early to form up and exercise at the entrance to the parish of Buenos Aires. In front, the community blocks their entrance because they do not want mining in their territory.
´Zero mining' is the message that can be read at the entrance of this parish. Two police officers permanently guard this point of the town.
Dozens of inhabitants of Buenos Aires have prevented the mining company from entering the community since its arrival. At the entrance to the community, they set up plastic tents, anti-mining posters and a restaurant that now serves as a dining room for those attending what they call 'the resistance'. There, men and women prepare food three times a day for the Buenos Aires vigilantes. Inhabitants of one street of the town plus those of one community are assigned daily. They have organized themselves for 24-hour shifts. Relays are at 06:00. At night, they listen to music, light bonfires and play cards. During the day, the biggest movement of 'the resistance' is next to the dining room. There they meet to discuss the news of the day, wrapped in ponchos and blankets.
Residents of Buenos Aires remain at the entrance to the town to prevent Hanrine workers from passing through. They have been on vigil for more than a month.
Women and men from the community cook for the watchmen, whose shift lasts 24 hours straight.
Both groups look at each other. On the village side, they have heard the mine workers shouting slogans such as 'we want the right to work'. They know that every day, the company pays around USD 30 dollars to these people who come from other parishes near and far from Buenos Aires. Others are service providers, according to the company. But there are also people from Buenos Aires in its ranks, especially the younger ones who see mining as a job option. Hanrine says it has 150 people at the access. The community estimates that this number reached 300 in the first weeks of the conflict.
At that point, distrust and tension are permanent. Any action can be considered hostile. For example, the company's workers rejected the flight of this media drone. "They are filming our privacy," they shouted when they were lined up on the public road and suspended their exercises so as not to be filmed. On the side of the community, which does not have telephone, but does have internet, they set up a wifi point to transmit any incident to their social networks. Last Friday, they registered the arrival of dozens of mattresses for the company's workers who spend the night on the main road and in another nearby access. For 38 days, no one has been sleeping peacefully in this part of the country.
The wound remains unhealed
The community says that the gold rush started because of a 'huaquero'. This is the name given to people who look for 'huacas', a term used to refer to ancient indigenous burial sites or sacred places. The villagers claim that a farmer in the community found a pot supposedly with valuable objects and since then he has been looking for them. He told this story to an acquaintance from the south of the country, who in turn brought a metal detector to search the mountain. That is how they found a vein of gold. The southerner, according to the locals, spread the good news during a drunken binge. The rumor went unchecked and in a short time approximately 10,000 people arrived in Buenos Aires in search of the precious metal.
Hanrine has another version. Steve Gamboa, the company's legal attorney, maintains that they identified the existence of illegal mining since the first tours of the concessions, in December 2017. These outbreaks, he says, occurred because the government decided to expand the exclusion zone for mining activities in Zaruma, El Oro province. Then-Ministry of Mining said that there was a risk to the lives of the inhabitants of the Zaruma urban area due to "physical alterations" that had been produced by mining. In other words, it expanded the area where mining activities were prohibited. The miners migrated to other parts of the country, including Buenos Aires.
Illegal mining settled in the mountains surrounding this town, which has an estimated 3,000 inhabitants. Thousands of people, nationals and foreigners, chopped and peeled the mountains to extract the mineralized material, which was processed on site. There are still dozens of tools such as drills, wheelbarrows and even abandoned power plants in the Old Mine, the first one opened by the miners. There were two more: Mina Nueva and El Olivo. With mining also came violence, drug addiction and prostitution in the town. Armed groups ravaged and intimidated the population. The State arrived late and it took 2,400 police and military to evict the miners in July 2019.
Illegal miners cut down trees to extract the mineralized material. Remains of structures that served as housing for the miners.
THERE ARE STILL DOZENS OF TOOLS SUCH AS DRILLS, WHEELBARROWS AND EVEN ABANDONED POWER PLANTS IN THE OLD MINE, THE FIRST ONE OPENED BY THE MINERS.
In the Old Mine there are still tools, wooden and plastic structures and even clothes of the miners who came to that mountain.
The inhabitants of Buenos Aires still remember the streets collapsed by vehicles and improvised tents made of black plastic. For this reason, they called it the 'plastic city'. Franklin Benavides, of the Integral Social Association 24 de Junio, remembers that the tanker that came to the town to take the milk took up to two hours to cross the center of town. The dairy sector, he says, was affected by illegal mining.
The insecurity was compounded by the poor condition of the road due to the increasing number of heavy vehicles. There was a risk that the company that buys milk from them would stop coming in. The 98 families that make up this association carried out a minga to improve the road and ensure the sale of their product. They were assaulted by the miners for letting them circulate while they maintained the road.
This association collects 3,500 liters per day from dairy farmers in the communities that make up the parish. It has a laboratory and machinery for artificial insemination. In Buenos Aires there are three collection centers that cool milk. All the inhabitants can sell milk to the association; there are families that send as little as three liters. These resources have helped them to face the pandemic.
Buenos Aires is a community that lives from agriculture, but above all from livestock since the cost of naranjilla and tomatoes dropped during the crisis. Walking along its roads, one or more containers of milk can be seen on each farm. The families leave them at the door waiting for the association's truck to take them to the warehouse.
The Integral Social Association 24 de Junio collects the milk produced by 98 families. This production is the main source of livelihood for this population.
"We were never miners, some people participated, but they were pawns, they were enslaved by the miners, many times even swindled," says Benavides. The inhabitants of the village rented rooms or fed the miners. Some also worked in the mines. "They are survivors of a state that has abandoned them, of a state that has criminalized them," says Yuly Tenorio, a lawyer from the Buenos Aires community. She is referring to the five investigations against 20 people from the sector. They are being investigated for alleged damage to the property of others, intimidation and illicit association.
The lawyer considers that these crimes exceed the sentences received, for example, by the five soldiers who were found with gold material. Two were sentenced to four months in jail and one to 40 days; the other two are still awaiting a resolution. The community, says Tenorio, has denounced the illegal mining activities. The miners would have entered by alternate roads, through the mountain, to collect the mineralized material that was not taken by the military and police forces in 2019. Only in February of this year, the Ministry of Environment reported on an operation to remove the remaining material. Few lumps are still visible on the road to Mina Vieja.
Now, the night in Buenos Aires is quiet. People walk the streets until late hours or even play soccer on the community soccer field. This was not the case during the illegal mining era, when families would take refuge in their homes after dark. Motorcycles come and go, and a small group of policemen circulate in the sector. Only the early morning is interrupted when the bus of the Trans Valle cooperative whistles announcing that it is about to leave at 04:00. Both during the day and at night, some of the doors of the houses remain unlocked. This tranquility is what they do not want to lose again, neither with illegal nor legal mining.
The inhabitants of La Merced de Buenos Aires state that they do not want either legal or illegal mining. They prefer to live from their agricultural and livestock activities.
NOW, THE NIGHT IN BUENOS AIRES IS QUIET. PEOPLE WALK THE STREETS UNTIL LATE AT NIGHT OR EVEN PLAY SOCCER ON THE COMMUNITY SOCCER FIELD. THIS WAS NOT THE CASE DURING THE ILLEGAL MINING ERA, WHEN FAMILIES WOULD TAKE REFUGE IN THEIR HOMES AFTER DARK.
‘It is not a mere provocation’: Hanrine
Hanrine is a subsidiary of the Australian company Hancock Prospecting. It has been the concession holder for Imba 1, 2, 3, 3, 5 and 6, since November 20, 2017. They are located in the province of Imbabura and are in initial exploration. The company promised an investment of US$234 million during that phase. So far it has disbursed $25 million.
In Imba 2, the invasion of illegal mining occurred. In December 2017, the company sent an email to the Mining Regulation and Control Agency (Arcom) with a complaint of illegal mining. In January 2018, it requested an administrative injunction, which was granted in March of that year for the eviction of illegal miners. According to Steve Gamboa, Hanrine's judicial prosecutor, they identified two people as the alleged leaders of these activities: a miner from Zaruma, from a miners' association, and an inhabitant of Buenos Aires, who would have presented himself as a member of a landowners' association. Gamboa affirms that these leaders asked the company for mining operation contracts.
The jurist adds that in the other concessions there was also illegal mining, where they also filed administrative injunctions. But only in Imba 2 there was no timely eviction and that is why illegal mining grew, he says. In March 2019, Hanrine requested the suspension of the Imba 2 concession, due to the lack of security. In that same month, President Lenín Moreno declared a state of emergency in Buenos Aires and carried out the massive operation to evict the miners.
Arcom accepted Hanrine's request and since July 2019 the Imba 2 concession was suspended. A year later, on August 17, 2020, the Ministry of Energy and Non-Renewable Resources decided to lift the suspension because that State portfolio assured that there was no longer illegal mining. "For us wrongly and inexplicably," says Gamboa. The resolution implied that the company could enter Imba 2 and continue its operations. He questions that the Ministry did not carry out any analysis of the territory, because for the company there is still environmental damage that the State must resolve and there is still illegal mining. Hanrine challenged this provision and, in March 2021, the Ministry agreed with them and maintained the suspension of Imba 2.
THE JURIST ADDS THAT IN THE OTHER CONCESSIONS THERE WAS ALSO ILLEGAL MINING, WHERE THEY ALSO FILED ADMINISTRATIVE INJUNCTIONS, BUT ONLY IN IMBA 2 THERE WAS NO TIMELY EVICTION AND THAT IS WHY ILLEGAL MINING GREW, HE SAYS.
Gamboa explained that Hanrine now wants to enter another of its concessions, Imba 1, but to get there it needs to pass through Buenos Aires. On April 19, the company arrived in the community and encountered a blockade. According to Hanrine, they are families identified with illegal mining. "It is not the community of Buenos Aires, a united, unified parish, which has a free criterion on an issue", says Gamboa.
Local organizations such as Bonaerenses Unidos Protectores del Ecosistema (Buproe) question the concessions to Hanrine because there was no prior consultation, a right of indigenous peoples settled in areas of influence of extractive projects. Gabriela Fraga, one of its members, says that there is an Awá community in Imba 2 that used to feed on the river's fish, but can no longer do so because of contamination. The rest of the population is asking for an environmental consultation. On these issues, Gamboa responds that prior consultation is the responsibility of the government. "But if it were the case, Buenos Aires does not coincide with the elements required because it is not an ancestral community."
Why have hundreds of people on the road? The judicial prosecutor assures that once free transit is arranged on the road they will settle on the lands where they have agreements with the owners to be able to provide more comfortable facilities for their personnel. "It is not a provocation and it would never be a provocation to the community of Buenos Aires with which we are neighbors and with which we intend to work together”.
The governor's misstep
"And the solutions?" shouted the inhabitants of Buenos Aires to the authorities as they stood up from the table that had been set up for dialogue on April 22. Among them was the governor of Imbabura, Gabriela Jaramillo, who in her speech linked the population to the illegal miners. "We will not allow even for a second that illegal mining wants to manage their minds in order to prevent the presence of the State," she said.
The governor of Imbabura, Gabriela Jaramillo, visited La Merced de Buenos Aires on April 22. But she left the town without providing a solution to the conflict. Photo: Buproe video capture.
She continued: "They say that there is a peaceful protest and I receive the news that they are burning camps". Jaramillo referred to the fire that was set against a company camp in August 2020. When she mentioned it, there were whistles. "Here we are seeing how a group of people are running the town and not letting the other side demonstrate." Jaramillo proposed a dialogue, but within minutes she left town. In a video published by the media La Raíz, a group of people can be seen in front of the authorities' vehicle raising their hands in a sign of resistance. The police surrounded them to allow them to pass. At the microphone, attorney Tenorio asked the people to let the people pass so that there would be no confrontations with the uniformed officers. The retinue left. Elderly women were seen crying after the failed meeting.
But if there is one thing the mining company and the community agree on, it is the lack of response from the State to this growing conflict. The Ombudsman's Office also pointed this out in its exhortation of April 21. "Their omission (referring to the Ministries of Environment, Energy and Arcom) is evidenced by the fact that despite having knowledge of the conflict, there is no adequate intervention or no intervention to reach a solution". He asked these entities to exercise "adequate control and regulation of both legal and illegal mining" and held them responsible for possible excessive use of force and violation of rights.
While the people of Buenos Aires wait for the State to react, mining is keeping the community awake at night.
Translated by Manuel Novik