By Harald Eraker
The gold mining company Ecuanor, which is based in the Norwegian town Kristiansand, has been engaged in mining activity in Ecuador for many years. Today it holds around 20 concessions in the country.
Early in the 90s Ecuanor was in conflict with environmental interests in the Poducarpus National Park. At the moment the bone of contention is the company's activities in the Tenguelillo concession area in Pucara, which is situated in the Azuay province in the southern part of Ecuador. According to the environmental organisation Accion Ecologica, Ecuanor recently started to prospect for gold in this area, which is inside the forest reserve Malleturo-Mellopungo.
This immediately led to protests from the local communities, especially from peasants in Shumiral.
The reason for the protests is fear that the mining activity will pollute the river Gala, the only river in the area which so far has not already been polluted by the mining industry.
- The mining activity is located in the forest reserve where Gala has its headwaters. Gala provides a total of approximately 25.000 inhabitants in 16 villages with water. People are very concerned about the environmental consequences of industrial, open-cast gold mining, says Gloria Chicaiza in Accion Ecologica to NorWatch.
Shumiral is a peasant community where the inhabitants are mestizos. They made contacts with Accion Ecologica and other organisations themselves in order to get support for the campaign to drive Ecuanor out of their area. The resistance started when 300 youths from Shumiral and 17 other villages formed the organisation "Protectors of the Gala River" (Organisacion Ecologica Guardianes del Rio Gala).
The manager of Ecuanor ASA, Øyvind Midtbø, says to NorWatch that they are aware of some protests against their activity.
- But the protests are completely premature. We have only carried out some test drilling, and our activity so far has not had any negative effects on the environment. When we know whether we will run mines in the area, we will make sure that there are no plans to protect the area before we do anything, says Midtbø.
He claims that it is incorrect that there is a forest reserve within Ecuanor's concession area, but he knows that the people in the area are working to give it such a status.
- If there had been a forest reserve in this area, Ecuanor would have had to pay 25-50.000 US dollars as a deposit to INEFAN, the national park authority. This we have not done, says Midtbø, who assures us that Ecuanor has no interest in running mines in disputed areas.
Chicaiza in Accion Ecologica tells us that the activists earlier on have organised meetings with the local people, disseminated information to the media in Ecuador and organised letter-writing campaigns directed towards the authorities, demanding a full stop to Ecuanor's prospecting activities in the forest reserve. Since 1996 Ecuador, through resolution 007 which was passed by the national park authority INEFAN, has permitted mining activity in forest reserves.
- Now we want to launch an international campaign to drive Norwegian-owned Ecuanor out of the Molleturo concession area, and we therefore address people in Norway in particular, Chicaiza explains to NorWatch. Ecuanor's activity in Ecuador is led by the Norwegian Consul Odd E. Hansen, who is also a major shareholder of the company. According to official documents, Hansen is listed as being legally liable for all of Ecuanor's concessions in the country.
Consul Hansen is, according to Accion Ecologica, not satisfied with the protests from the local communities.
- Odd Hansen has been to Shumiral himself and threatened various persons with lawsuits if they condemn or talk negatively about the company, says Gloria Chicaiza.
Øyvind Midtbø in Ecuanor ASA does not know about these accusations, and in his opinion the case may be that Odd Hansen has spoken about possible threats from the locals against Ecuanor's employees in the Tenguelillo concession area.
"The locals and their supporters are ready to protect the river and what it means to people and farmland in the province to the utmost consequence."
Gloria Chicaiza in Accion Ecologica about the protests against Ecuanor's hunt for gold
About 40 persons came from Shumiral to Quito to participate in the occupation of the Norwegian Consulate. Followed by environmentalists and sympathizers approximately ten persons made their way into the consulate around 10.30 local time.
About 60 persons demonstrated outside the consulate, and the first hours passed quietly. But around 14.00 hours the riot squads suddenly moved into the consulate.
- The police chased all the occupants, except two, out of the consulate in a brutal manner, hitting around themselves with batons. Gloria Chicaiza and the president of the organisation which represents the Indians in the Andes mountains were kept within the consulate for hours, Esperanza Martinez says on the phone from the place of action to NorWatch.
After a while an ambulance was called to take the Indian chief to hospital because of the rough treatment he had been given by the police. The demonstrators outside tried to prevent the ambulance from taking the chief away, according to Martinez because they feared that the police would continue their brutality in the hospital. After pressure from among others an Ecuadorian human rights organisation, the arrested persons were later reportedly released. The day after the occupation the details of the action were still not clear.
Press spokesman Ingvar Havnen of the Norwegian Ministry of Foreign Affairs informs NorWatch that they expect a report on the incidents from the consulate in Quito, and that they thereafter will make closer investigations.
Will protect the river
According to Accion Ecologica the local population's campaign against Ecuanor is supported by the national indigenous people's organisation CONAIE, by the peasants' organisation FENOCIN, and by various other organisations within the church and human rights work.
- The locals and their supporters are ready to protect the river and what it means to people and farmland in the province to the utmost consequence, Chicaiza ascertains to NorWatch.
Midtbø on the other hand underlines that Ecuanor will never give in to pressure:
- There is always someone who disagrees with what we are doing. But democracy must work and we will only listen to factual arguments. Within a month we will know more about our future activities in the Tenguelillo concession area. Then we will provide you with a report on our evaluation of the situation, Midtbø promises NorWatch.
Out of Poducarpus
This is not the first time Ecuanor faces opposition against its activity in Ecuador. In the early 90s they were strongly criticised for their prospecting for gold in the Poducarpus National Park in the southern part of the country. At that time the Norwegian gold prospectors planned to run an open-cast mine in the national park which protects endangered species and is an important water reservoir for people living around the park.
In spite of the fact that the national park was scientifically recognised as an area in particular need of protection, Ecuanor maintained the opposite. In co-operation with local and international environmental organisations, Framtiden i våre hender therefore launched a campaign to make Ecuanor withdraw from Poducarpus.
On February 4th 1993 Ecuanor gave way to the pressure, and the company's decision to pull out of Poducarpus was made public in the Norwegian newspaper Aftenposten.
Ecuanor in Ecuador
Ecuanor SA in Ecuador is fully controlled by the Norwegian stock exchange registered mining company Ecuanor ASA. The company has for the past 10 years been prospecting for gold in Ecuador, and it holds about 20 concessions in the country. Ecuanor SA is led by the Norwegian Consul Odd E. Hansen, who is resident in Quito.
Norwatch Newsletter 18/98