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27 de Julio del 2021
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Lectura: 16 minutos
27 de Julio del 2021
Redacción Plan V
Panela vs. mining: the hidden battle in northwestern Quito
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The inhabitants of Pacto state that their main livelihood is agriculture, specifically the cultivation of sugar cane and the production of panela.
Photos: Luis Argüello / PlanV

In Pacto, the community members have been holding a sit-in for more than 80 days to prevent the removal of gold-bearing material. They are asking the authorities to revoke the mining concessions and to seize dozens of sacks of mineralized stones that, they claim, are in these camps. They prefer agriculture, especially sugarcane cultivation and panela production, to be the main livelihood of these families. One of the mining companies defends itself.



An unknown battle is being fought in the northwest of Quito. Hundreds of Pacto families dedicated to sugarcane cultivation and panela production fear that their livelihoods will be affected by mining. For more than 80 days, the communities of this rural parish have been on vigil. They have organized to prevent vehicles from leaving the area with rocks extracted from the mines.

It all began when they set up a checkpoint at the entrance of one of the communities to fumigate the vehicles, as a preventive measure against the spread of the virus. They observed the entry and exit of dump trucks with rocks. It was not the first time that this had happened, but it was the first time that they decided to hold a sit-in in the community of La Victoria to prevent vehicles from entering. Each panel organization and the water boards have a 24-hour shift to stand guard. From a small tent they give warnings.


For more than 80 days, the community members have maintained a sit-in to prevent the passage of mining company vehicles.

These communities propose to live from more sustainable activities away from mining. Pacto is located in the Andean Chocó Biosphere Reserve, declared as such by UNESCO in 2018. The extension of that reserve reaches 286,805 hectares, which represents 30.31% of the territory of Pichincha. It is located between two hotspots or areas of high importance for biodiversity conservation. It has up to four different climates, ranging from 360 to 4,700 meters above sea level. Its inhabitants consider it the botanical garden of Quito. Pacto is surrounded by an extensive green mantle and is warm, a climate conducive to the cultivation of sugarcane.

For this reason, dozens of families have preferred panela to mining, an industry that has been tempting its inhabitants for 20 years. This sector is considered the capital of organic panela, as they have managed to export directly to Europe. Countries such as Italy and France consume their product. Their panela is characterized by its light honey color.


Copropap is a cooperative dedicated to the export of panela to Europe. This project started in 1992.

But the advance of mining, according to these communities, has begun to contaminate the affluents and if this continues, they will have to stop exporting because no one will want to buy panela produced in mining areas. One of the mining companies defends itself.

13 mining concessions in Pacto

When talking to the inhabitants of Pacto, one company appears as the main source of their concerns. It is the Ecuadorian company Melina Changó Santa Bárbara.

According to the inhabitants of Pacto, this company operates without an environmental license or an environmental management plan. The people have retained dump trucks with mining material that they claim belongs to the company, and organizations such as Acción Ecológica have denounced that the police have escorted these vehicles.

Last January, according to Acción Ecológica, the community found more than a ton of gold-bearing material and even an aerial infrastructure construction for transporting the stones. The latest discovery occurred on February 13, when 130 sacks of gold-bearing material were found in the San Luis de Gualea sector at night and in the early hours of the morning. According to what was reported, this occurred in the La Conquista concession, one of Melina Changó's two concessions. One person was arrested and the evidence found included a motor, a grinder and tension cables to extract the gold-bearing material.

But Robert Erazo, owner of the mining company, assured that this material was extracted by illegal miners who were installed in La Conquista. He states that no material has been seized from his company and that the materials that are visible in his concessions "have to do with the pre-feasibility of the project, it has nothing to do with any exploitation".

Erazo affirms that the company has been operating since 2010 and is classified as a small mining company. He explains that Pacto crosses the Imbabura mineralized cord that goes from Pichincha to the north of the province of Imbabura.


At the intersection of La Victoria, the community members set up a small tent to guard the entrance and exit of trucks carrying gold-bearing material.

On March 12, dozens of inhabitants of towns such as Pacto, Intag and Buenos Aires gathered at the intersection of the community of La Victoria to share experiences about legal and illegal mining. They are opposed to these activities.

He says that in 2017, he applied to the Ministry of Environment for the environmental license. "But it does not give any celerity and takes enormous times to dispatch any paperwork." He acknowledges that he does not have that license and says that at the moment the company is engaged in prospecting and cleanup work. He adds that they should be in the exploration and exploitation phase, but assures that they are not due to the opposition of the community members. "In reality it is not the community of Pacto. It is the president of Pacto who scares the community." "In no way are we illegal mining, we are attached to the law".


The Andean Chocó Biosphere Reserve was declared as such by UNESCO in 2018. Each hectare of its forest has a reservoir for approximately 250 tons of carbon.

The businessman also denied that they are contaminating the water. He assures that when they have all the permits they will use tunnels to remove the material and these use "very little water, which is controlled and returned to the riverbed decontaminated". In his opinion, sewage, agriculture, and cattle ranching contaminate more.

The community estimates that there are between 30 and 40 meters of mining tunnels and more than 3,000 sacks of rocks extracted in Pacto. When the community members set up an encampment to prevent vehicles from leaving, they observed other methods for extracting the material. For example, they found a tarabita that was used to send the sacks to another road that was not blocked. They have also seen that mules have been used to remove the material. They estimate that the Mining Regulation and Control Agency (Arcom) has made 20 inspections, but they do not see any action by the authorities at the site. During the pandemic, they claim, mining activity has increased.


The communities of Pacto have registered road sacks with mining material in their area. They ask that it be seized and that the mining companies' concessions be withdrawn. Photo: Acción Ecológica

This is not the only company in the Chocó Andino reserve. According to the mining cadastre, there are 21 concessions for the exploitation of gold deposits, of which 13 are in Pacto. Seven of these concessions are in the exploration-exploitation phase, including Melina and La Conquista, owned by Melina Changó; 5 de Junio, concessioned to Compañía Minera Aurífera Pacto (Marpsa); Chirape, owned by Asterio Velásquez; Raquel, owned by Jorge Calderín; Rufo 2, owned by Eduardo Salgado; and Ezequiel, owned by Leobaldo Cabrera.


The area is megadiverse, besides sugar cane, it is rich in fruit trees and a variety of orchids, as well as a large number of birds.


Between 2018 and 2019, hundreds of balsa trees were cut down in Pacto. Currently, this species has almost disappeared.
 

At the end of February, officials from the Ministry of Energy and Non-Renewable Resources, the Ombudsman's Office, Arcom and Enami (because there is also a state concession in the area) made an inspection. They instructed Melina Changó to clean up the material, according to Erazo.

A week later, the Vice Minister of Environment came for a tour. "They don't tell us and they come in with the miners," said Eddy Cortez, one of the inhabitants of the area. But the official did not arrive to the impacted areas because he did not go with boots, said Cortez who was in conversations with the officials at the Ministry's facilities in Quito.

"The Ministry of the Environment has already made a statement and has said that they do not have all the requirements in order. The Municipality also gave us documentation saying that they do not have the license for economic activities," says Milton Arciniegas, forestry engineer and president of the Anti-Mining Front. "Since they don't have the licenses, everything operated by these companies has been illegal. Therefore, we are demanding from the State that the more than 3,000 sacks of gold-bearing material (that are in mining areas) be seized." He explains that these sacks are in various places and have been identified by the community members on a map.

Richard Paredes, president of the Pacto Parish Government.

On March 12, Pacto hosted an anti-mining meeting. Representatives from other towns affected by mining such as Intag, Apuela and Buenos Aires arrived. They shared experiences and agreed that illegal mining has divided communities and affected rivers and forests. In addition, they reported that local leaders are being intimidated. Richard Paredes, president of the Pacto parish government, said that he is being prosecuted for alleged theft of gold material, personal threats and demands for his dismissal for allegedly persecuting the miners.

Pacto, said Paredes, has 27 communities. But division occurs among the inhabitants who are in the population center. "There are people who benefit temporarily from the mining companies. The rest are dedicated to agriculture, tourism and handicrafts. It has been proposed to the Government that a study be made to show if extractivism surpasses these activities as sources of income". He added that they will ask the authorities to carry out a popular consultation with the inhabitants of Quito on whether they agree or disagree with metallic mining in the rural parishes of the canton. Juan Carlos Ochoa, vice-minister of Mines, has pledged to suspend mining activities and seize gold-bearing material, according to Paredes. When that happens, the protesters at the sit-in will leave. 

ACCORDING TO THE MINING CADASTRE, THERE ARE 21 CONCESSIONS FOR THE EXPLOITATION OF MAINLY GOLD DEPOSITS, OF WHICH 13 ARE UNDER AGREEMENT. SEVEN OF THESE CONCESSIONS ARE IN THE EXPLORATION-EXPLOITATION PHASE.

Milton Arciniegas, forestry engineer and president of the Anti-Mining Front.

Milton Arciniegas, forestry engineer and president of the Anti-Mining Front, states that governments have been granting mining concessions for decades. For example, in Rafael Correa's administration, authorization was given to Melina Changó and to the Canadian company Natural Resources. He adds that he is registered with the Ministry of the Environment as an honorary inspector and knows that the Ministry has granted concessions to mining companies for the use of water.

"For us, gold is a blessing because in its natural state it is a mineral that in the soil is nutrient for plants and that is what we feed on. That is why these lands are productive. The mining companies come and make their holes, mine entrances, in the river beds, in the streams. Mandate 6 of the Constitution states that mining is prohibited in protected areas, protected forests and water springs. Here they have damaged the water sources and contaminated them," says Arciniegas.

In Pacto, along with mining, other problems have appeared, such as the logging of primary forest. Its inhabitants say that between 2018 and 2019, the rush for the raft wiped out hundreds of these trees. But mining has also deforested. Arciniegas claims that Natural Resources has felled trees on a farm it has bought. "When a farmer cuts down a tree without permission, he is fined. And these companies, what a crown they have!". The community members have asked that the wood from the felled trees be donated to a school in the sector.

Pacto: worldwide Panela

"Here 90% of the population are sugarcane growers," says Daira Peringuez, a resident of Pacto and secretary of the network of sugarcane growers in the parish. "This is the capital of organic panela, we are producers and exporters."  She assures that the main threat they face is the removal of the seals that guarantee that they are organic producers. This happens when there is mining in agricultural areas. She affirms that this problem has already affected them: they have suspended their orders of up to 150 quintals per week. 

She explains how mining affects them: "When they drill in the mountains, the water that comes out of the springs filters down. That happens to my uncle's farm. There were two water springs, but since they made a hole (tunnel) 22 years ago, all the water comes out through the tunnel conduit. The springs no longer exist. It is contaminated water.

"Organic certification and mining are not compatible," agrees Rubén Tufiño, manager of the El Paraíso Panela Production Cooperative (Copropap).  He says that panela is the livelihood of many families in the sector and he considers it to be the future of the Pact. Copropap began with this production in 1992 and is now made up of 45 family businesses, each composed of three or four families. In other words, more than 150 families and more than 1,500 workers, including family and hired labor, work in this cooperative and produce around 400 quintals per week.


More than 150 families and more than 1,500 workers, including family and hired labor, work in this cooperative and produce around 400 quintals per week.


The panela goes through a specialized process in which the quality of the product is analyzed. It is then packaged and shipped abroad.

It is the only organization that exports directly to Europe, i.e. it has been working directly with buyers in Italy and France for eight years. They hope to open a new market in Germany. To this end, they have been trained and have obtained organic certification. In the factory, which is located in Pacto, quality controls are strict. The paneleros leave their production there and then undergo an analysis to check the product's moisture and insoluble solids. The granulated panela is packaged in these facilities.

On Friday, May 12, a large shipment was getting ready to go to the export containers. The bags with the panela are packed in cartons with the Copropap brand. They have exported the panela abroad under the brand names of the buying companies, but they have also developed their own brand, called Yumbaro Yumba, which appeals to the Yumbo people who inhabited Pacto.

Tufiño says they have had to train both producers and managers. They have become a reference in their sector. Mining threatens to eliminate these sources of work, he maintains and assures that European companies will even send a protest to the authorities against mining, as they support the producers. "It is the activity that provides the most income to the population".

 

Translated by Manuel Novik

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