|Why is a population that resisted mining for 20 years splitting apart?
Ileana Torres’ telephone rang at 1 in the morning: “Honey, it’s Javier. I’ve been arrested, but one day I’ll be back.” Then the call from her husband, community leader Javier Ramírez, cut off. It was early in the morning on April 11, 2014. Ramírez had been arrested on charges of rebellion and sabotage. The National Mining Company of Ecuador (Enami) accused Ramírez and a group of campesinos of having thrown rocks at the windshield of a pickup carrying engineers into the Llurimagua mining project concession area. This area consists of about 5,000 hectares for the exploration and extraction of copper, and is located in the Íntag zone, in Imbabura, a small province in the north of the Ecuadorian highlands. Seven months have passed, and Ramírez has not returned home.
The road to Junín, one of Íntag’s 76 communities, crosses rivers and tree-lined farms. The population here has opposed mining for 20 years. They managed to force two multinationals, Japan’s Bishi Metals in the ‘90s, and Canada’s Ascendant Copper in the first decade of the 2000s, to leave the zone. Today, however, Íntag is divided. The facades of some houses reflect the discrepancy that exists now in the town: Some have posters promoting mining’s benefits while others repudiate it.
On the other side of Junín’s main square is Javier Ramírez’s house, made of wood and surrounded by gardens. Sitting on the patio, Ileana Torres remembers that she asked her husband not to travel to Quito, where he had a working meeting with Interior Minister José Serrano, who – 10 years ago – was the lawyer for community members in their fight against mining. The police arrested him on the way home. His brother Víctor Hugo, who was also accused, remains missing.
As his case continues, Ileana needs $250 a month to buy food and toiletries for Javier. She is getting the money through work and community support. She deposits one part of it at the store inside the jail so he can buy fruit and sweets to complement his meagre prison rations that, according to her, are limited to a plate of rice, a green plantain and some salad.
A group of police are playing on the volleyball court in Junín one Saturday in September. One of them is dancing to the rhythm of a bachata coming from a nearby store, and he yells for them to turn up the volume. The officer, looking serious in the middle of the court, wipes his head when his team loses points; if they score one, he groans. He raises the ball so his teammate can hit it and says, ‘Give it to me, papi!’
Since May 8, 2014, the police have been a daily presence in Junín. Since Javier was arrested, Enami entered the area guarded by 120 police officers. A black stain of men in uniform marched across a country road. Seventy-five community members tried to stop them, but they were outnumbered. The police shoved the campesinos, forcing them to the other side of the road. Two backhoe excavators and a group of Enami specialists entered to take soil and water samples for an environmental impact study for the Llurimagua project. Junín acquired the dark silence that usually governs situations of such absurdity: More than a hundred police settled in one town that only has 270 inhabitants. Being kept under control was suffocating, especially for those opposing the mining. The vehicle used by community leader Polibio Pérez was stopped five times; they asked for his documents, searched his bags and pockets. They asked him what he was doing with a camera, and asked for the receipt, insinuating that it was stolen. But it was the police who photographed him that day. They could do that, but the people could not.
Ever since the police came to Junín, the tourism sector has also been affected. Peter, a German, experienced the worst of it. As he was entering the community, the police stopped his vehicle, interrogated him, photographed him front and profile, made copies of his documents and prevented him from entering. The 60-year-old tourist indignantly had to take a bus back out.
In June, the police presence started to diminish. Now there are around 20 left, inhabitants are more accustomed to them and the surveillance is less acute. After the volleyball game, an older lady who provides food for the police every day served them noodles with potatoes and slices of sausage. She stares at them and I heard her whisper, “I can’t recognize them, they all look the same.”
While some inhabitants of Junín were disturbed by the police presence, others took advantage of the situation. The Cultid family recalls that they hosted about 30 of them for a month. Each one paid $19 a day, plus $3 for each meal, which is more than an average Íntag family’s $234 monthly income, according to a 2011 Prodeci Foundation survey. Taking a police officer into one’s house, even if one has to sleep on the floor, was profitable.
Those against mining criticised him, but Óscar, a Cultid family son, argues that if they had not provided food for the police, people from other communities would have fed them, losing that income for Junín families, which would have been absurd.
Óscar, an evasive thirty-year-old, asks me to turn off the recorder, and doesn’t look up except to show me his distrust. With him is Víctor Calvache. Both were ferocious opponents of the mining. In 1997, Víctor was part of the group of campesinos who set fire to Japan’s Bishi Metals encampment. In 2006, Ascendant Copper, after its own encampment was also burned, charged Óscar with kidnapping its employees. But now both are in favor of mining activities in Íntag.
Óscar “converted” to mining because, according to him, ecological organizations tricked them by giving them biased and incomplete information about mining’s implications. And then, other community members accompanied President Rafael Correa to Chile, where the CODELCO company has its operations, to show the positive effects that mining could have, and they convinced him it would be beneficial. Furthermore, Enami has offered Íntag a more than $5 million investment in social programmes in order to implement the Llurimanga project. “The government deserves to be trusted; in other communities in Ecuador they have already created education, health and employment,” says a convinced Óscar.
Meanwhile, Víctor claims that during the 20 years they resisted mining, ecological organizations never proposed economic alternatives. “So the ecologists are just like the miners,” he laughs toothlessly. He also doesn’t trust tourism, saying it’s not community but family based, because it is concentrated in a few hands. He proposes encouraging livestock raising, though ecologists said it would disturb the forest.
If they think this way, they must be happy with what’s happening in Íntag, with the Llurimanga project, the police presence, and even Javier’s arrests. But it’s not like that, say Óscar, who is Javier’s cousin, and Víctor, his former partner in the struggle, quietly shaking their heads. Víctor would do anything he could so that Javier could go free. He believes people have to stop opposing the mining for Javier to be let go: “There must be a political solution because Javier is a political prisoner.”
Although there is no official data, the people interviewed agree that half of Junín inhabitants are now in favour of the mining. Óscar divides the table’s boards with his machete blade, saying the community must realize that the government will do what it will, one way or another.
What is happening in Íntag represents a modern political problem. According to French philosopher Michel Foucault, the question is not if the sovereign can gain the obedience of the subjects, forcing them to act against their own interests. The present challenge is to establish certain conditions so that the population desires what is in the State’s interest, what its rulers want. In this way, the conditions created in Íntag go from the imprisonment of Javier (a community leader), the occupation by police forces, up to promises of social investment. In this context, Óscar and Víctor have not only stopped opposing mining but are actively promoting it, desiring it in the same way as the government.
But there remain some in Junín, as before, who reject mining, who view the promises with scepticism and are not surprised by Javier’s imprisonment, and they are maintaining that position even if it means separating from their family. Olga Cultid, Óscar’s older sister, distanced herself from him and their parents when they hosted the police. She could not stand to see them all together in her parents’ house, while remembering how her family fought mining for so many years.
I meet Olga in the woods near her house, unaware, knitting standing up, the twilight sun shining on her in fragments made by the trees. She’s a small woman, about 40 years old, and her expression oscillates between tenderness and rage. She always had a very intimate relationship with Óscar since childhood, when she cared for him like a mother. Óscar, as an adult in turn, took care of Olga’s sons like a father. The siblings fought together against the copper mining. She doesn’t recognize him now, saying that her brother in favor of mining is indifferent to his cousin’s imprisonment.
A few days before the police arrived at Óscar’s house, his family called her and offered her $600 if she would cook for them. That is four times her salary. But Olga refused. Her children study, are fed and clothed. “It wasn’t necessary.”
According to her, being for or against the mining is not a matter of taste, like when someone is for one or another political party. She refers to an environmental impact study done in the 90’s by Japanese mining company Bishi Metals when they were in Íntag which said that mining causes rivers to be contaminated with toxic substances, displaces communities and brings desertification. With mining, it is not what populations have that is at risk, but who they are.
In order to prevent the damage that Olga refers to, Enami promises to take maximum measures to reduce the effects of mining activities. That optimism wanes when one remembers that four months ago in Mexico occurred the worst environmental disaster in that country’s history of mining. It released 40,000 cubic metres of copper acid into the Sonora River, affecting at least 20,000 people and thousands of hectares of agricultural land.
One of the major figures opposed to mining in Íntag is Polibio Pérez, president of the Community Council for Development in Íntag. He receives me in his restaurant, where he also usually meets with other campesinos in the sector. He describes how Óscar supported the resistance to mining, and they made a promise to each other: “If mining is a slow death, to die slowly it’s better to die fighting and hopefully our struggles, our lives, will ensure our children’s survival,” he says. But the promise was not fulfilled, Polibio tells me sadly.
He says he is gathering organizational forces to demonstrate – as they did before – “the mass rejection” of mining. The proposal is that during the project’s present exploratory phase – which may last several years before operations start – Enami will provide campesinos with full access to information, with an independent technical team. In that way, everyone will understand what are the mining’s true consequences. If the people know this information, “the same ones who are supporting it will be opposed to it,” the leader confides.
Enami continues work in this tense atmosphere, but there is still something that may yet detonate an explosive conflict: If Javier is sentenced. “We’ll take radical measures. We’ll block all the access roads,» says Polibio. “We know that many more of us will go to jail, and we may die. Hopefully the government will not take that as a threat, but as a fact,” he explains.
Javier hasn’t come home yet, but he is not alone. In prison, a friend is teaching him to carve tagua. His wife visits him every week. A few Junín community members gather money to support his family. Cotacachi social organizations demanding his release organized cantonal assemblies in April and October 2014, with hundreds attending to support the community leader. In November, his mother, Rosario Piedra, travelled to Chile to present her son’s case to the Chamber of Deputies’ Human Rights Commission. One hundred thousand people from all over the planet requested that the Chilean government intercede for his release through an Internet petition . Maybe Javier’s arrest has intimidated the protestors, but it has brought the world’s attention to Íntag.