A major gold and silver mine site in southern Ecuador was forced to suspend exploring for minerals after a local judge ruled its operation unconstitutional.
Judge Paul Serrano of the Cuenca civil court ruled over the weekend that the Ecuagoldming Rio Blanco mining concession financed by the Chinese company Junefield violates articles 57 and 398 of the nation's 2008 constitution. The articles mandate that the government provide various public hearings in communities that may be environmentally affected by nearby projects.
Negotiations for the Rio Blanco mine began in 2000 but escalated in 2016, as did protests by community members of Molleturo and Rio Blanco who say that they have seen their local streams become contaminate over the past two years. These same fluvials provide drinking water to one of Ecuador’s biggest cities, Cuenca. The Rio Blanco area serves as a buffer zone that protects the ecosystems of nearby Cajas National Park.
The case was brought to the court by Ecuarunari, a decades-old indigenous rights group in Ecuador, citing that the towns potentially most affected by the mining projects - Molletero and Chaucha - had not been consulted as required by the constitution. Critics say that there was never any public hearing made available in Cuenca, a city of well over half a million people.
Lawyer and president of Ecuarunari, Yaku Perez, said the decision was a "huge gain for the resistance", and is unprecedented in Ecuador’s uptick of international mining concessions that began around 2016. He says it’s the first time, in terms of mining, that a judge has ruled in favor of the state, rather than a transnational corporation.
The judge's ruling also ordered the removal of some 300 security forces stationed in front of the site's entrance after community members in the region tried to storm the mining camp weeks ago resulting in severe damage to excavation equipment.
At least four activists were detained after the incident.
Activist and resident of Rio Blanco, Andres Durazno, said he’s celebrating but is remaining vigilant as the court's suspension isn't permanent. The judge ruled that public consultations must be held, but there is no guarantee that after community members have their say that mining won't proceed as usual.
Cuenca mayor, Marcelo Cabrera commented of Serrano's decision, "justice has been served."
Neither the sub-secretary of mining or Junefield officials were available to comment to local media regarding the legal decision.
The Rio Blanco mining concession handed over some 5,708 hectares to Ecuagoldmining in 2015 and its exploration phase began in 2016. It's forecasted that the mine could produce 800 tons of gold daily, along with silver and copper. This is just one of Ecuador’s five major mining projects that have gotten off the ground since the government initiated its mining ministry in 2015.
Ecuarunari and several other social movements have been battling for just as long against another major mining concession in the nearby Quimsacocha lake region granted to the Canadian company Lundin Gold. That concession covers some 9,497 hectares of high altitude paramo and marshland that's a critical source of the region's potable and irrigation water.