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30 de Junio del 2021
Lectura: 57 minutos
30 de Junio del 2021
Redacción Plan V
Cuenca: the popular vote that puts large-scale mining at risk

Cajas, from one of its highest points, Tres Cruces, at 4,150 meters above sea level. This is an ancient lake and moorland system where two of the four rivers that cross the city of Cuenca originate. It is a protected area and any type of mining is prohibited. Photos: Luis Argüello / PlanV


The struggle to defend water in Cuenca has been going on for decades. At the beginning it was only a matter of peasant and indigenous communities, but then the towns and cities joined in. Especially the young people. Now, it is a cultural and political issue that, after the anti-mining referendum, has generated an environmentalist shake-up, whose consequences are yet to be seen.

Electoral councilors Esthela Acero and Luis Verdesoto arrived on the first flight in the morning to Cuenca on Wednesday, April 21, 2021, to deliver the credentials to the elected assembly members, but also to officially deliver the results of the popular consultation to the city's Municipal Council and the mayor, Pedro Palacios. These data consigned a historic moment: 80.9% of 435,936 voters had rejected mining activity in the water recharge areas of the Tarqui, Yanuncay, Tomebamba, Machángara and Norcay rivers, areas located in the paramos of the Cuenca county.

In the session room of the Municipal Council, Mayor Paúl Palacios receives the electoral results of the February 7, 2021 referendum.

In front of the full Council, Verdesoto delivered the results amid effusive applause, in the session room of the Municipal Palace, located in front of Calderon Park, the main square in Cuenca. There, Verdesoto made his last public act after his resignation from the CNE following the second round of elections, and told the Cuenca leaders that "this is the most important act of Ecuadorian democracy, because it is a democratic and correct way of resolving delicate problems such as this", referring to the alleged anti-mining consultation.

Mayor Pedro Palacios received the results. The dignitary thus culminated a process that had taken months, almost the entire pandemic, to achieve an aspiration cherished for decades by the community of Cuenca and Azuay. Azuay is proud of its water sources and rivers and that has been its battle horse for a long time. "If we could always ask the people to decide on transcendental things, the destiny of the countries would be spectacular. It is not always possible. However, being such a specific and important issue for us, and when the economic issue is in the middle, for us the issue is clear: water is life. In February 2019 I had a commitment with my city to find the necessary ways to protect water sources", Palacios told Plan V.

Palacios' promise in 2019 was not an isolated event. In that year of sectional elections, the Prefecture of Azuay was surprisingly won by the anti-mining activist, indigenous leader and water defender, Yaku Pérez. His campaign was modest and handmade and his symbol was a drop of water. So, symbolically, water came to power. Two years later, Palacios would recognize that the victory in the 2021 referendum was an achievement of the great majority of the people of Cuenca, of a great many people.

The historic center of Cuenca. In the foreground, the "new" cathedral whose construction took more than a century and is the only temple, of the dozens in the center, that has no bell towers, due to a structural engineering flaw.

Above, the Tomebamba river, near the historic center, one of the four rivers that cross the city. Below, the Yanuncay river, near Paraíso park. Both rivers originate in the paramo of El Cajas.

The mayor said at the event that "we are not against mining. Cuenca is one of the most industrial cities in the country, and one of them is ceramics, which requires non-metallic mining, as well as material for construction. We cannot be incoherent and say no to mining and at the same time expect the development of the city; what we have been clear about is that we are in favor of water, which means that where there are water recharge areas, water sources, even if there are tons of gold, it does not compensate for what life means. That is priceless. Now, outside the recharge zones, I am convinced that with new technologies it is possible to generate extraction activities without causing greater impact".

How did this come about?Plan V conducted a reportage in the area to understand the background of this long process of struggle for water and the consequences of this popular consultation.  And to meet the people who made it possible.

I. Twenty years of struggle

Lauro Sigcha lives in the Tarqui parish, south of Cuenca. His house has a tile roof, brick walls, wooden windows and doors; it is painted yellow, is bright and warm and is at the foot of the Pan-American Highway. In his kitchen reigns a wood-burning oven and four cats, which Lauro calls "the protectors". He has been fighting for almost 20 years against mining and in favor of peasant-family agriculture. Two decades ago, peasant and indigenous organizations in the Tarqui and Victoria del Portete area began a resistance to the Quimsacocha mining project, which would later be called Loma Larga. This first name identified this area, which is a cattle, dairy and agricultural zone. Through this productive valley runs the Tarqui River, one of the four that crosses the city of Cuenca and whose waters are formed in the Quimsacocha moor.  There, in Tarqui, there is a community drinking water system that serves more than 3,000 families in the two parishes.  There is great concern that this water source will be contaminated by mining and they will lose not only the water for human consumption but also for agriculture and irrigation.

Lauro Sigcha, an indigenous and peasant leader from Tarqui, in the city of Cuenca. He is sitting in the living room of his house, which is full of plants. Below, the kitchen and a panoramic view of his house.

Federico Guzmán, Carlos Pérez Guartambel (who later changed his first name to Yaku " Water") were the first to raise social struggles. Later, as a result of this resistance, FOA was founded, which is the Federation of Indigenous and Peasant Organizations of Azuay. Lauro Sigcha was its president between 2009 and 2013, during the most virulent period of the Correista government against indigenous organizations and anti-mining activists.  The FOA brought together the communities in that struggle.

The peasant leader says that the results of the Cuenca consultation "do not have the effect of suspending the projects", which is its strategic purpose. The results will not stop the "avalanche" that is coming with the Rio Blanco and Loma Larga-Quimsacocha projects, he says. These continue to advance in their exploration process. Sigcha says that the mining companies confuse the people, telling them that mining is going to generate a lot of employment and benefits, "buying consciences through little projects, delivering machines, plants...". For him, the conscience of Azuay has grown in terms of protecting water sources, he believes that this is the strength of this consultation on February 7.

"Eight out of ten Cuencans rejected large-scale metallic mining in water sources, in the four rivers of Cuenca. This means that the vast majority of Cuencans, urban people and especially young people, democratically expressed their support for protecting the páramo areas. It is not only in the vote. There is an active movement in favor of environmentalism, organic agriculture, the defense of water...".


The mining companies, says Sigcha, tell us the story that if there is no legal large-scale mining there will be illegal mining and violence, "but these are stories, in the communities themselves we are aware that we cannot allow any type of mining in the water sources, these are untouchable, without water these areas will die".

There are more than three thousand families in the area, there are two water sources in the region and many natural irrigation systems. From the valley where Sigcha and his family live, 300,000 liters of milk are produced every day and the people are dedicated to livestock and agriculture for consumption. But there is a dilemma: consumption of dairy products has fallen. Because of the pandemic and because of an open or hidden campaign that claims, in urban areas, that milk and its derivatives are harmful to health.  This discourages the activity of small producers. In the area, intermediaries pay producers 28 cents per liter of milk and the consumer receives more than 80 cents.

Lauro Sigcha makes cheese, yogurt, and puts together agroecological baskets with the valley's producers to sell; he also coordinates a nursery to educate and give away plants of all kinds. The lack of steady employment is an opportunity for people to produce their own food, and not leave the countryside. "If people leave the fields, it is easier for mining to enter; the gold they want to lure us with is a short term benefit for a few, water and food are forever," says the leader. But that does not change the reality. The price of milk falls because the dairy industry is an oligopoly, and there is a lack of processing industries in the region and now the quality of the milk has decreased, because the intermediaries and industrialists use whey to mix with the pure milk and sell it as if it were milk. 

The plant nursery is half a kilometer from Lauro Sigcha's house, a distance that the leader travels along the Pan-American Highway on his bicycle. His petite figure covers that distance quickly. He usually makes his short trips on his steel horse, although he also has his double-cabin pickup truck for heavier activities. The nursery is located on a four-hectare plot of land called Agro Kawsay. There Sigcha gives a small lecture on family agriculture: this area used to have capulí and blackberry. The grandparents were wise and planted fruit trees that their children and grandchildren would harvest. The borders were with pencos, from which chaguarmishqui, a refreshing and festive drink, is made. The area was full of wheat fields, corn and beans, but then cattle ranching arrived and destroyed all that diversity to plant pasture. The idea of the nursery is to recover it.

At Agro Kawsay, a small, one-story building has been built and the volunteers, mainly young people from the FOA, are doing mingas to build the rest of the nursery's infrastructure. One of them, a technologist, is supporting the work during the week. He is Francisco Shagüi, president of the FOA youth and is 29 years old. He says that all his work is aimed at fighting in defense of water. In the plot, the young people work on training in irrigation, forestry and planting. There are 21 people involved in the project.  He wants "young people today to be aware that nature is something sacred that should not be touched, and the more we work in community, the more beautiful it is". The place is also called the Casa de la Semilla (House of the Seed).  "The young people, says the leader, we are ready to work in any social field, each contribution is a grain of sand to learn and relate to the defense of nature".

II. A warehouse as big as the United Nations Avenue (an iconic road in Quito)

The general manager of INV Minerales Ecuador S.A. is Jorge Barreno, a 58-year-old geological engineer who has been in the industry for three decades, and is now in charge of Loma Larga, the large-scale mining project that is in the eye of the storm. Barreno was the one who discovered the Rio Blanco and Quimsacocha veins and is now in charge of the Ecuadorian-Canadian mining company that has been investing in the project for two decades, which is just waiting for the permit to develop the subway mine, which means digging the ramps and the whole structure underground. Loma Larga is a mineral deposit containing gold, silver and copper. The deposit or vein is a flat, cigar-shaped body with a length of approximately 1,600 meters from north to south by 120 meters to 400 meters from east to west and up to 60 meters thick, starting approximately 120 meters below the surface, says the company's official information. For a Quiteño to visualize it better, approximately the surface of the United Nations Avenue and its surroundings.

Jorge Barreno, 58-year-old geological engineer. General Manager of the Canadian mining company INV Metals, which is carrying out the Loma Larga project. He poses in his office in the north center of Quito.

At the end of March 2020, proven mineral reserves were released: 13.9 million tons of rock, about 5.5 million cubic meters. These contain 2.6 million ounces of gold equivalent including: 2.2 million ounces of gold, 13.3 million ounces of silver and 88 million pounds of copper.

The feasibility study determined that initial pre-production capital expenditures were estimated at $316 million, with sustaining and mine operation capital expenditures of $71 million and mine closure and rehabilitation costs of $22 million (including taxes and duties). The mine has a projected 12-year mine life. Average annual mine production is estimated to average 289,000 gold equivalent ounces mined during the first four years. The company would generate exports of US$4.5 billion for the 12 years of operation. Initial daily ore production is estimated at 3,000 tons per day, generating approximately 1,095,000 tons of ore annually.


Barreno, in dialogue with Plan V says he is confident that, after the consultation - the results of which are not retroactive and ratify the operation of his project, he says - due process and good faith must be respected. "This company has believed in the country for more than 20 years, it has invested US$75 million in Loma Larga. The mining titles were given to us by the Ecuadorian State 20 years ago, they are in force, they are pre-established rights, they are investments made in the area".

The manager of Loma Larga uses the ruling of the Constitutional Court, which gave way to the consultation in Cuenca, which assumes that the acquired rights, legal security and the right to work is "an endorsement to the companies that have their mining titles to continue with their projects. The Court determined that whatever the result, it must be applied in the future. It determined what is considered mining activity and in that context did not give additional power to the Municipality of Cuenca". 

For manager Barreno, mining has to be technically well done and according to this there is no possibility of contamination of water sources in Loma Larga. "Each of the technical processes has a scientific basis, the project is subway mining. In the project, no waste or effluent from our activity will go to any river in the Cuenca canton or to any water source," he assures. No cyanide will be used in the extraction process and no acid products will be required. As a subway mine, the impact on the surface of the project is expected to be minimal: less than 65 hectares at a depth of 125 meters.

The company says that it collaborates with the communities in the area of direct influence, executing more than 40 sustainable ventures with the local population, 30 community association agreements, with a focus and prioritization of heads of families and people in vulnerable situations. They expect to generate 900 direct jobs and 2,500 indirect jobs during the construction stage of the mine, and some 500 direct jobs during its operation. In addition, Barreno points out that Loma Larga is expected to provide opportunities for local Ecuadorian companies to supply goods and services for more than US$ 150 million during the construction phase and US$ 571 million during the mine's lifetime operations. The manager estimates that some 5,000 suppliers could be activated around the project. 


Mineralization in Ecuador is in sulfides, explains the manager. The minerals are associated with sulfides and the best way to extract them is with a flotation system. The average mineral concentrate within the mineralized rock is 10%. Therefore, out of 3,000 tons per day, 300 tons will be ore concentrate, which is exported. More than 50% of this extracted material will go back to backfill the mining areas, says Barreno, to "provide stability and reduce any impact on the surface."

The company estimates that taxes and profits from the Loma Larga project will be about USD 931 million, at current metal prices. In the exploitation phase, the corporate income tax generated will be USD 386 million.

III. On the banks of the Irquis River

Miriam Machuca is a member of the Decentralized Autonomous Government (GAD) of Victoria del Portete, one of the parishes that decided not to accept any of the offers from the mining company that is about to exploit Loma Larga. She prefers to talk, not in her office next to the central park, but a kilometer away, on the banks of the Irquis River, which flows into the Tarqui River and down to Cuenca. Under the sound of the river water crashing against the rocks, dressed in traditional dress, she declares: without water you can't live.  It sounds elementary, something that is so obvious and natural, but the struggle to keep their water sources clean has taken them more than twenty years. The water is blessed, she says, the water that comes from Quimsacocha and we will not allow mining to contaminate it, "we will not allow that, and as a local authority I am in defense of the water, I will not allow the parish government to manipulate us when they say that mining is good". Where is mining good, she asks. I have told the young people, she continues, that they should go out and fight, because if we do not defend the water, what are we going to leave for our children. 

Miriam Machuca, member of the parish council of Victoria del Portete, one of the parishes that has refused to receive royalties from the mining company. Below, she goes to her office in the Decentralized Autonomous Government, next to the central park. In Victoria del Portete, resistance against large-scale metal mining began 20 years ago.

She was in the presidential campaign of Yaku Perez, the indigenous leader who was born in politics precisely in that area of the Girón canton, in defense of water and against mining. Machuca is convinced that Pérez was cheated, but that does not mean, she clarifies, "that we are going to stop fighting in defense of water and nature.

One of their struggles is precisely to keep the parish out of the mining offers. "They call the president of the GAD, they offer him things, but he is not ready to receive the royalties they offer us. They also offer hoses to the communities, but we do not accept it. I have been appointed to defend the water and not to receive royalties from mining, because that brings us nothing good. It is bread for today and misery for tomorrow".

The Irquis was born in Quimsacocha and she traveled there in mid-April to see how the company has put up signs to continue with the work. There are people working, and "the puma is just asleep," she says. "Many comrades went to jail, beaten, dragged, just for defending the water, and it is for all Ecuadorians. The miners say they do not pollute the water, but it is only for the money. It's all a lie", why don't they come to the parish and show the damage that is being done in the world, he says.

Miriam Machuca has worked in agriculture and livestock since she was a child, with her mother. Now that she works for the GAD, she does not stop tending to her crops and animals, which she does very early in the morning. She does not trust in the Cuenca consultation: it is not that reliable, there is a lot of money that they put in and it is hard to believe. President-elect Guillermo Lasso says that the water sources in Azuay will not be touched, but we cannot trust him, because the authorities say that but behind they continue mining. 

The Irquis River follows its course until it flows into the Tarqui River. This creates a natural irrigation system for pastures that allows the development of livestock and also for consumer agriculture. Below, a woman and her young children wash clothes in the crystal clear waters of the Irquis.


From the skepticism of the leader of Victoria del Portete, to the conviction of Patricia Mogrovejo, president of the FOA.  She lives in a house located in the lower part of the valley that leads to Girón. The FOA is part of Conaie and is one of the strongest organizations in the southern highlands of Ecuador. But she does not speak as a leader, but as a user of an irrigation canal, which serves hundreds of users in the valley. The communities organized against mining, I have been doing this for twenty years, she says. The Federation was consolidated in that struggle. In 2012, she was part of the efforts for a consultation in the canton of Girón, on mining, but it was not approved. They got it in 2019, in the same elections in which Yaku Pérez was elected prefect of Azuay. "That does not mean that we won, she says.  Because the mining companies are still working, they keep the thatch up, forestry, cleaning the road. They have not abandoned the place.

Patricia Mogrovejo, president of the Federation of Indigenous and Peasant Organizations of Azuay, an organization that belongs to Conaie and is one of the strongest in the south of the country. She lives in the rural area of the Girón canton, which in 2019 voted against metallic mining in a popular consultation.

But the Girón canton does not have organizations, there are only communities. She says that the mining company has given ten thousand dollars to the president of the GAD of San Gerardo to buy a refrigerator to have vaccines. And those from San Gerardo continue to support the mine, but the rest are against it, she says. "It's nice to show off the jewelry, the rings, the earrings. But imagine up there what the lagoons are like, if they are destroyed, it's all over. She stretches out her hand and shows the water channel that reaches the Las Rosas neighborhood in Girón. "In the summer we all irrigate with this water, if there wasn't this canal there wouldn't even be water for the chickens," she says.

She remembers the years of struggle against mining. The strikes, the outrages of the police, the beatings and imprisonments, the criticism from the communities and neighbors, "but I will fight to the last; I will not let myself be convinced because the gentlemen of the mine have called me, they have wanted to give me money, they tell me that with the money I should step aside and not say anything; from Mr. (Andres) Arauz they called me, the same from Mr. (Guillermo) Lasso, they asked me to support them. But I am a mother of a family and I have my children, and I fight for them, not for the politicians but for a whole generation". 

IV. Academy was never consulted

The campus of the Universidad del Azuay, in Cuenca, looks modern but abandoned. Only a guard takes the temperature to enter a harmonious set of brick buildings, large windows with modern lines. Leonardo Núñez, 58 years old, is the director of the School of Geology and Mines of this university. It is the only one of its kind in a historically mining region. Núñez opens the School's laboratory to show the equipment and classrooms where future professional geologists and miners of the central and southern highlands are trained. Geology and Mines are only available at the universities Central del Quito, Politécnica Nacional, ESPOL and U. de Guayaquil, and at the two universities of Loja. In the laboratory of the University of Azuay there are several giant models of types of mines and their processes, there are samples of minerals from all over the world, several machines that work to teach and practice the different ways of processing.... He believes that the issue of the popular consultation was handled politically, "the academy was never consulted on anything. The issue was handled politically". The fact that they were not taken into account surprised the academic authorities, because the school has signed agreements with ETAPA, to carry out, precisely, the investigation of a probable contamination that could be generated by the projects to which the consultation was directed: Loma Larga and Río Blanco".

Leonardo Núñez, 58, is the director of the School of Geology and Mines at the University of Azuay.

The mayor was able to consult with all the entities involved in mining in the area and discuss a technical issue, says the director. For him, the intention behind the involvement of the mayor and his administration was the need to rise in the polls. The citizens, he says, "went to vote on a confusing issue, with problems such as the fact that the only water authority is the Ministry of Environment and Water, and the one who gave the reference plans in the petition that was made to the Constitutional Court was ETAPA, which is not the body that manages this. ETAPA cannot be above the Ministry of the Environment, which never pronounced itself".

Núñez says he is based on a technical vision, and maintains that "responsible mining, carried out with the highest technological procedures, cannot cause contamination. Moreover, why not appoint a citizen watchdog to oversee the project? ". It was a lying consultation, he says, and a stop is being put to an activity that produces and would produce a lot of resources for the canton of Cuenca. He highlights the generation of employment and the activation of the economy at scale for thousands of suppliers. Núñez defends the environmental and social standards of the Canadian company INV Metals, which operates in Loma Larga.

The other important issue for the dean is the transmission of knowledge from the projects to the academy. The School of Geology and Mines graduates mining engineers who serve the industry and society, but now they have to look for work in other sectors, because in Cuenca the doors have been closed to them with this consultation. He also agrees that the consultation is not retroactive according to the Constitutional Court and the projects have to continue, and they will be watching for that to happen.


For him it is not scientific truth that the mining to be done in Cuenca is not polluting. Loma Larga, he says, is one of the projects that has been studied the most in terms of its impact on surface and groundwater. There are close to 200 studies, from private and public consulting firms and academy itself. The Canadian company has an agreement with PROMAS (Water and Soil Management Program) of the University of Cuenca. For years, the University has been working in the area, and its School, says Núñez, has also researched the subject. "Technologies are now clean and that dilemma of water or mining is a lie. We say water and mining. No one in Azuay can think of being in favor of an industry that pollutes water, never. In our system of studies we have a transversal axis that refers to water and the environmental and social part".

All human activity is polluting, recognizes Leonardo Núñez. Every industry has an impact, not to mention mining, but it is possible to control and minimize it. And this is not said with sufficient forcefulness because the academy has not been consulted, he claims.
"The consultation is a message to the world, because it is a matter of legal insecurity. How can it be that a company of the seriousness of the Canadian company, which has spent twenty years in the country and invested tens of millions of dollars, with mining titles in force, now it turns out that the State comes, makes a consultation and says 'just go ahead, thank you'?  This should be a State policy, and every day politicians talk about foreign investment, but these signals make the opposite happen", says Núñez. "The billions of dollars that mining generates do not come from tourism or agriculture, he points out. Mining is a replacement for oil. What will we live on in Ecuador tomorrow? This country is what it is because of oil exploitation.  Ecuador took a leap to modernity because of the money that came in from oil, and it is expected, with the due rectifications, that mining will take us to a new, more advanced stage of national development, he assures. And mining must be the most controlled activity in the country, and if there is no legal mining there will be illegal mining".

In Rio Blanco, the other project in Azuay, an area that was taken over by the communities and its installations set on fire three years ago, now not even the police can enter. The Chinese company that was developing the project sued Ecuador for USD 450 million, which is 50% of what the mine was going to generate as profits, outside of taxes. "No one can enter that mine, several government ministers have passed and so far no one enters. This is a state within a state," says Núñez. "If we don't sponsor legal mining, the illegal ones will come and we will have in Cuenca a Buenos Aires 2.0 and a Buenos Aires 3.0 and with all the danger that means. Who is going to control thousands of people, in an area of two thousand hectares?" he asks.

V. It is now much easier to be an illegal miner than a legal one

The president of the Mining Chamber of Azuay and vice-president of the National Chamber of Mining, Patricio Vargas, has his office on the fourth floor of a downtown building in Cuenca. He is a lawyer specialized in resolving mining conflicts. And as such, he has serious doubts about the application of the questions of the popular consultation. This union leader says that there are small mining chambers in several provinces where the industry is developed, "the one that always takes the lead is the Chamber of Mining of Ecuador, in Quito". There are cantonal chambers in Cuenca, Zaruma, Portovelo, Pasaje, Riobamba... They are grouped in the National Chamber. Those who do mining belong to it, as well as related professions, such as engineers, lawyers, traders.... Before they were very strong, but at the moment when the affiliation stopped being obligatory, they lowered their protagonism. "We hope with this new government to have a greater role in public policy."

The chambers serve to provide advice, sponsorship, union defense, training... they try to be interlocutors between the government and the industry, basically when it comes to implementing new regulations. "Now we are in a total disaster, it is a fatality what happened with the Regulatory Agencies, to say that here in Cuenca it is already eight months that the Agency of Regulation and Control has no technicians: how do they control illegal mining without technicians? Vargas has had complaints of illegal mining in his office for more than a year, which have not been addressed. That is why, he says, illegal mining is rampant and the formal sectors, those that comply with the regulations, the requirements, pay taxes and all that, feel powerless: sometimes they think that now it is much easier to be an illegal miner than a legal one. This is evidenced by the number of complaints they have made to the control authorities, who do nothing, by the way.

Patricio Vargas, lawyer, president of the Mining Chamber of Azuay and vice president of the National Chamber of Mining. He denounces inaction and indolence of the mining regulation and control agency to prevent illegal mining from prevailing in the area.

Vargas Vargas is professionally linked to the mining district of Camilo Ponce Enriquez, the westernmost canton of Azuay, located on the Ecuadorian coast, three hours from Cuenca. It is the mining heart of Azuay and one of the few cities that has doubled its population due to mining. There is only immigration, of nationals and foreigners who always find a livelihood and some kind of work. Although its population is close to ten thousand inhabitants, Vargas calculates that the fluctuating population exceeds 15,000. There are the mining areas of Bella Rica, La Fortuna, San Gerardo, La Rica, San Antonio, La Unión... For the time being, attorney Vargas is attending an attempt to return mining areas to the Isaías Group, which were seized by the government of Rafael Correa and passed into the hands of the National Mining Company. But in 2019 a Peruvian citizen appeared, claiming the areas, says Vargas, claiming to be a representative of the company Oromining, which in turn was a representative of Gaby Panama and Guadalupe Mining Corporation, to which the government seized the concessions. Under the auspices of Ricardo Noboa Bejarano, an action for constitutional protection was filed in Guayaquil. In this action, says Vargas, the Ministry of Energy and Mines was never summoned. The process was handled in April 2019 and in the sentence the judge ruled that the rights of the companies were violated and ordered the restitution of the Rio Tenguel mining concessions and five other concessions. The restitution was ordered and the authorities were ordered to return the rights to these companies. Appeals were filed and the sentence was upheld, but almost a year later an additional area, Muyuyacu, was registered. For this, a modulation of the sentence was requested. This was admitted by the judge.

The problem is that ENAMI EP had already regularized more than 44 mining operations within the Muyuyacu mining concession, allowing approximately 923 people in the area (technicians, workers, administrative and others) to benefit directly, receiving all the benefits of the law, protection, safety, health, among others; and approximately 3,000 people benefit indirectly from the mining activity.


The president of the Chamber of Mines faces problems like these. And it is, he argues, because the Mining Control Agency does not do its job, "illegal mining is rampant". We need compliance with what the law says, but it is not enforced, says Vargas. No one evicts those who do not have legal authorization to work on a site. Legal mining occurs in Ponce Enriquez and it is the people who left Buenos Aires, in Imbabura. And those people are also in the abandoned Rio Blanco project, in Azuay. "They are like bees," says the director of the Chamber, "they are looking for sustenance in the mines. In Sigsig they walk ten hours to get to the mine and take the mineralized material on muleback to the processing plants ("chanchas") in the El Oro area.

The issue of the consultation is political, says this mining lawyer, "and this was born in part because of a mistake on our part". He admits that the environmentalists won the game a long time ago. They positioned in people's imagination that mining is equivalent to destruction and contamination. Cuenca's water is not endangered by mining, he says, which is already affected by the advance of the agricultural frontier, the cattle running loose in the moors, the burning of the hills. The lodges, the trout farms exploit and contaminate the water resource, without planning, he adds. "I have told Perez Guartambel: when are you going to control the farmers who burn the hills, those irresponsible cattle ranchers who dump the cattle and collect them every year only when they need money?". The hoof of the cattle is what damages the páramo the most, he says.

The consultation question was a hoax, he says. Vargas shows it printed in a very large copy, for better exposure. The question was:

Do you agree with the prohibition of large-scale metallic mining in the water recharge zone of the Tarqui River, according to the technical delimitation made by the Public Municipal Company of Telecommunications, Drinking Water, Sewage and Sanitation of Cuenca - ETAPA EP? Yes or No.

Vargas shows one of the questions of the February 7 referendum, a copy of which he has covered with plastic and which contains the remarks of the president of the Chamber.

The remaining four questions had the same text, but with a different delimitation zone, changing the name of the rivers to Yanuncay, Machángara, Tomebamba and Norcay. Vargas notes that if the purpose was to protect the environment, why only mining is prohibited, why not prohibit all harmful activities such as cattle ranching and agriculture, and what about non-metallic mining? Any poorly conducted mining activity causes environmental impacts, mining of construction materials also damages water sources, says Vargas.

Now, the consultation banned large-scale metallic mining, when the law also allows artisanal, small and medium mining. "As a miner it is simple for me to ask to be granted a concession for medium mining, which is not prohibited." More than 3,000 mt per day of exploitation is big mining. Paro, says Vargas, I can move 1500 tons a day, and instead of lasting five years the project will last ten. In the Tarqui River water recharge zone, they changed the question on large-scale mining and put medium-scale mining, because the objective was not to protect the environment, but to get rid of the Loma Larga and Río Blanco projects, he points out.

After the consultation, much foreign investment in mining is doubtful, acknowledges the mining leader. If we are going to continue with the consultations, it means that we are going to have difficulties; nobody will want to invest, because of the legal insecurity. The pronouncement of the Constitutional Court states that the effects of the consultation will only be for the future, and therefore do not have retroactive effects. This means that not only what is now in exploration and exploitation, but all concessions are in force, says Vargas, at any stage of the projects. 

VI. This is how the Cuenca consultation was orchestrated

The Assembly for the Water of Cuenca was formed after a long process of resistance in favor of water in Azuay. The 90s of the last century were the starting point. It was then a peasant and indigenous struggle, from the communities. But then Cuenca, especially the social and youth organizations, joined this struggle. Before the Assembly there was the Coordination for Water and Life (Coordinadora por el Agua y por la Vida) and other articulation spaces. In 2015, at the initiative of two Cuenca councilors, the Assembly for Water was convened, which brought together all sectors fighting for water, against mining and for the páramos, to consolidate a common agenda. This first assembly lasted until 2016. On August 11 of that year, Jorge Glas, then Vice President of the Republic, arrived in Azuay with a group of national authorities and inaugurated the exploitation phase of the Río Blanco mining project, one of the five projects that government had declared as strategic for the State. The declaration energized the water defense sector. Glas' attitude, which did not take into account any of the dissident agendas, was a binding force for the resistance. In 2017, water organizations re-founded the Assembly with greater participation of social organizations, without local authorities.

David Fajardo, an environmental lawyer, is part of the YasUnidos collective and directs the Assembly for the Water of Cuenca, whose activism was key to achieving the broad victory in the popular consultation.

David Fajardo is a lawyer, director of Yasunidos in Cuenca. He is now president of the Assembly for Water. He believes that the consultation was very important, because it demonstrated that the will of Cuenca is that mining should not take place in any of the ecosystems that allow the generation of water. The electoral act was a form of prior and informed consultation with the entire population of Cuenca on mining and, therefore, it has to be completely binding. If Cuenca said no to mining that is what should happen, says Fajardo. For this activist, the legacy of the consultation is a fight against centralism. Cuenca's decision is a strong message to the centralism with which the country has been managed: Cuenca is deciding that it does not want to be a mining district, that it does not want to be a territory of ecological sacrifice and therefore, in Cuenca a different development model is required, according to the limits of nature.

Southern Ecuador has been the territory of a historical dispute. Between an economic model that understands water as a mere resource, versus a way of life that has water as a common good that guarantees the life of the peasant communities. Social uprisings in the South have always had water as an agenda. There are records that in the sixteenth century, in the town council of Cuenca, the debate was already taking place. It was the exploitation of gold versus the economic model that was based on the use of water, for the mills, for the fulling mills.... At that time, the thesis in defense of water won, which was repeated centuries later. Cuenca has a cultural DNA linked to water. The four rivers that cross it, the moors where they are born and its lake system are so close. The Cajas is a symbol of Cuenca's identity, and represents a water sanctuary.

Consultation as a mechanism of democratic struggle to confront extractive projects has a long history in Latin America. It began in Peru, then moved to Colombia and then to Ecuador. In Ecuador there were the consultations in Victoria del Portete, the sabotaged attempt of consultation for Yasuní, then in the Girón canton and then in Cuenca, a consequence of the victory in Girón. There were three attempts, by Yaku Perez, who from the Prefecture of Azuay tried a referendum for the province, which was denied by the Constitutional Court. Fajardo is critical of those attempts: "they were quite personal, of him and his circle". Perez did not join a more collective effort, his pressure to the Court was on his side and the rest of the organizations went the other way, says Fajardo. The debate was installed in the Assembly for Water: whether it was more appropriate a consultation at provincial or only cantonal level. And the Cabildo opted for the cantonal, because of the competence of land use that the municipalities have, and it is thanks to this point that the Court issued its favorable opinion for the development of the popular consultation. 


While they were building the Cuenca consultation project, the pandemic arrived. Before the April confinement, the intention was to call for a consultation by citizen initiative, that is, to collect signatures with 1% of the electoral roll. But the pandemic changed the plans: it was not possible to collect signatures in those sanitary conditions and they decided that the consultation would be managed through the Cantonal Council, as allowed by the Constitution. The Assembly for Water presented the consultation project to the Council, which was accepted by the Environmental Commission, led by Councilman Christian Zamora, and within that commission the debate began. Professionals and involved sectors were invited and then an extended session of the Environmental Commission was held, with the participation of the mayor. In a session of the Cantonal Council the consultation was approved unanimously. This was submitted to the Constitutional Court, which has the role of qualifying the constitutionality of the consultation request. That is, neither the recitals nor the questions were against the provisions of the Constitution of the Republic and the catalog of constitutional rights. The CC had to make a constitutional control of the questions: that they guarantee the freedom of the voter, that they are not suggestive, that they do not induce the answers and that they have enough information for the voters to make their decision in a free, informed and voluntary manner. After this, he made the ruling 6-20-CP which gave way to the popular consultation.

David Fajardo believes that the issue of the consultation goes beyond the results. It is understood within the ecological conflict between mining and water on a global scale. It is not only a conflict, but an ecological crisis, which has strong manifestations such as the increase in global temperature, the disappearance of ecosystems and species, the destruction of biodiversity, pollution and water scarcity. Ecuador is one of the most biodiverse countries on the planet, and among that biodiversity is the páramo ecosystem, which fulfills vital functions such as water catchment, water regulation, carbon sequestration.... "Promoting a policy of mining in the páramo is nonsense, it is shooting ourselves in the foot. What mining does is to go against all local and global efforts to move from the current civilization model to one that respects our relationship with nature. One that understands us as one more species on the planet and with which we build economic models in accordance with nature. Mining is disruptive of all ecosystem functions, because what it does is to extract the elements of ecosystems: soil, water, biodiversity... there is no debate with the mining sector, it is unsustainable".


Fajardo says that there is a point on which they dissociate themselves from the discourse of the mayor of Cuenca, Pedro Palacios. We are not anti-miners in the strict sense, we are ecologists, he says. Ecologism is based on ecology, which is a science that understands the relationships between the different elements that make up all forms of life. Ecology understands that if any of these elements is altered, the whole vital system is affected by the interrelation and interdependence.

Political ecology, which is followed by Fajardo and other activists, seeks profound transformations in the civilizational model. A total transition, for example, such as territorial planning with an ecosystemic approach. In Cuenca it is reflected in this way: the consultation is made on five water recharge zones, but in Cuenca there are eight. The five zones subject to consultation are located on the páramo ecosystem, but the páramo goes far beyond Cuenca and Azuay. If the páramo in Cuenca is affected, the whole páramo in the country is affected. You cannot divide the ecosystems into administrative or political limits, because the impacts do not respect those limits: if you destroy the Azuay páramo you destroy the systems that are interconnected. That is their vision.
The anti-mining struggle makes sense in this approach because it is identified as one of the activities that generate the most unnecessary impacts on ecosystems. Mining can be eliminated, but the struggle does not end there, "because profound transformations are still necessary," says Fajardo.

The Yasunidos of Cuenca regret Mayor Pedro Palacios' stance on mining. "We had hoped that the mayor would understand the depth of the dispute in which we find ourselves, and therefore, that his administration understands that the process is a total transformation of public administration. We must move out of mining and into conservation. This is because where a mining concession has been given, an ecological protection polygon cannot be made. It is impossible to consolidate a conservation area with a nearby concession; in our legislation mining takes precedence over protection areas".

VII. We are proud of the water we have

The pride of María José Guillén, tourist guide and expert in El Cajas, is the water. She has visited almost all of its 245 lagoons that have more than one hectare. Of these there are ten larger ones, the largest is the Luspa lagoon, with 77.4 hectares and 65 meters deep, but the deepest is Osohuayco, with 76 meters and almost 70 hectares. The Cajas has five hills that exceed 4000 meters high. The highest, the Arquitectos, is 4,458 meters above sea level. This ecosystem of moors and lagoons has eight routes for hiking, camping and fishing and seven trails. The longest, 18 kilometers long, is the Inca Trail and the major lagoons. 

María José Guillén, a tourist guide from Cuenca in El Cajas. She is "happy" that the people of Cuenca voted against mining activity in the moorlands behind her. In the photo, at the point called Tres Cruces, at 4,150 meters above sea level.

At the height of the Tres Cruces, where there is a viewpoint and a hill, María José takes a deep breath. It is 4,150 meters above sea level and the air is thinning, but it is a privileged place. Along South America, Tres Cruces is the closest point to the Pacific Ocean (61 kilometers in a straight line) where the continental waters that go to the Pacific and the Atlantic connect. It is a system that has remained respected for more than 15 thousand years, when it went through a process of glaciation, a phenomenon that would leave the legacy of 14.9 lakes per square kilometer. It has two paramo ecosystems and three native forests. In one of them, on the way to the valley of Cuenca, inhabits the only species of Andean toucan, which feeds on a tree called aguacatillo, endemic to the area. The fruit is very similar to the avocado, but smaller and more acidic. It is not for human consumption.


The Tomebamba and Yanuncay rivers originate in El Cajas. The purity of the water, in places where there is no human activity, is eighty percent. For this reason, María José is "very happy that the society of Cuenca has voted this way, but we are a small part of the decision that is in the hands of the government. However, I believe that the resistance of the communities is what rules and what will persist and prevail in the face of this invasion. Water and life are worth much more than billions of dollars. But I have seen many reports of how a system like this, like El Cajas, ends, wears out, drought, deforestation, soil erosion and we, as cuencanos, is something we do not want to see near our cities. We are proud of the water we have and it is worth conserving it one hundred percent".


Translated by Manuel Novik

Cuenca: the popular vote that puts large-scale mining at risk



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