A people's assembly in Cuenca, southern Ecuador, is demanding the cancellation of mining licenses in the region, arguing that the activities are polluting the water sources they depend on.
During an assembly called 'For The People, For The Water And The Paramos,' the people of Cuenca demanded mining activities be stopped.
The assembly was called by Cuenca's City Hall as part of a citizens' participation national political initiative, and several individuals and environmental organizations assisted, as well as local authorities.
"It was an absolutely democratic assembly," said Cuenca Mayor Marcelo Cabrera. "The citizens said they won't allow metal mining in the areas near our watersheds.
"Cuenca is located in a delicate place and we consume the water coming from the highlands of the mountain chain, therefore we have absolute right to protect those wetlands and lagoons."
Between 2016 and 2017, the government granted mining licenses over 291,584.35 acres (118,000 hectares), which amounts to 37 percent of the Cuenca canton, all within El Cajas National Park's biosphere and buffer zones.
The licensed territory was reduced to 171,908.74 acres, 21 percent of the territory, in March this year after Cuenca's cantonal council increased its protection efforts and declared the region free of metal mining.
On May 30, the council and the mayor demanded the Ecuadorean national government halt all mining in the Caja mountain chain and especially the Rio Blanco mining project, considered 'strategic' by the government in Quito, at least until the Azuay and Cuenca universities do the corresponding studies on environmental impact.
One of the demands is to cancel mining licenses that could directly or indirectly affect territories controlled by the local public company Etapa in order to protect watersheds, as well as all those licenses granted in Cuenca during 2016 and 2017, and suspend further ones for mine exploration or explotation.
During the assembly, technicians hired by Etapa presented a report about the region's water resources and showed the importance of the wetlands and lagoons in El Cajas National Park for the people of Cuenca's access to water.
Etapa is the public communications, drinking water and sewage systems company, and controls accces to the national park.
Paul Vintimilla, Etapa's environmental manager, said the fact licenses are outside El Cajas doesn't mean they won't affect its watersheds, since in that territory there are more than than 4,000 lagoons directly connected.
According to Mayor Cabrera, the people of Cuenca weren't consulted over the projects and there were no corresponding environmental studies, hence the demands to national government to respect laws related to the rights of nature and communities.
On Friday, mine engineering students from the University of Azuay; miners; locals, and representatives of the Chamber of Mining protested in Cuenca against the government's stance, arguing that mining brings investment and jobs to the region.
Emma Criollo, spokeswoman, said the assembly "has political intentions, as elections are coming and they are offering a popular consult to promote candidates."
Rio Blanco Mine
On May 8, locals and other anti-mining groups tried to occupy the Rio Blanco mine, owned by Chinese company Ecuagoldmining. According to the groups' spokesman Andres Durazno, the protest was due to "security, environmental and job contracts concerns."
About 200 police and 100 military officers arrived to guard the mine, but they claim protesters managed to torch buildings and heavy machinery with molotov cocktails. Protesters also blocked entry roads with rocks and trenches.
The mine's staff had already been evacuated due to the presence of anti-mining groups, as the company couldn't provide the necessary security measures and so remains closed.
The mine is labeled "one of five strategic mining projects of Ecuador" by the Mining Ministry and it's already in its exploitation phase. It has proven reserves of 2.1 million tones of mineralized rocks, out of which the mining company expects to extract 605,011 gold ounces and 4.3 million silver ounces over 11 years.
Paul Vintimilla claims the corresponding environmental studies were meant to be concluded within two years, but failed due to lack of collaboration between Ecuagoldmining and the government.
"Not even the municipality has the complete information, that's why we hired the universities to do an environmental study," said Mayor Cabrera.
The deputy director of the Rio Blanco mine, Xavier Sanchez, claims the company has fully collaborated with the Cuenca and Azuay universities on their research: "We have complied with the rules, the management plans, licenses, audits, and we collaborate so the universities do their research."
The Chamber of Mining has rejected both the protests and the assembly, arguing the mine has all the necessary environmental, legal and security licenses for its activities.
A total of 193 people work in the mine, of which 70 percent belong to the neighboring communities Rio Blanco, Cochapampa, Zin alo and Llano Largo.