Intag: Why BHP Billiton should leave a region famous for stopping destructive mines

Cloud forests, endangered species and the clear opposition of communities that have already successfully stopped two international mining companies. There are many reasons why BHP Billiton should abandon its plans to explore for copper in Intag, Ecuador.

Originally published by 7/6/18.

BHP Billiton- the world’s largest mining company- has acquired mining concessions in the Intag region of Ecuador. Here the company intends to start an open-pit copper mine in one of the most biodiverse places on earth.

(A Black and Chestnut Eagle (IUCN Endangered) nesting within the BHP Concession – photo by E. Barrientos)

Last year the Mayor of Cotacachi, the county in which Intag lies, wrote a letter to BHP that YLNM member groups and their allies took to BHP’s AGMs in the UK and Australia.

The letter clearly warned the company against trying to mine in the region, stating that the project- even in the exploration phase- does not have the backing of the people:

“Mining is not included in our (the Canton of Cotacachi’s) plan for territorial development, a legal and mandatory instrument, written together with the communities and other local governments of our area, to guide and control the development of our territory. Withdraw your concessions from our Canton as soon as possible, and respect the will of the communities and our local government.” – Mayor Jomar Cevallos Moreno, Cotacachi

Despite this, BHP has made the ill-informed decision to explore for mining potential anyway in a region famous for its ultra-biodiverse, threatened ecosystems, and whose people are internationally recognised for stopping destructive mining projects.

For a company still trying to repair its reputation after the largest environmental disaster in Brazilian history, the catastrophic Samarco mine waste dam collapse in Bento Rodriguez, this is a risky investment.

About Intag

Intag is a region in the Cotacachi County, Province of Imbabura, in the Andes of Northwest Ecuador. It is a system of river valleys on the western slopes of the Andes, with an elevation ranging between 1200 and 2300 meters (3937 and 7546 feet).

The Intag region falls within two of the world’s 25 most important biodiversity hotspots: the Tropical Andes and the Choc/Darien/Western Ecuador hotspots. The predominant ecosystem is tropical montane cloud forest, although premontane humid forests dominate lower-elevation across the regio

Intag’s scattered farms, communities, and hamlets are occupied by a mix of people with indigenous, African, and mestizo backgrounds. The name Intag is a nonpolitical label for region dominated by the river valley of the ‘Rio Intag.’ The region is administered by the Cotacachi County and contains seven parishes, with a total land area of 150,000 hectares (~370,660 acres) Intag has a current population of roughly 15,000 people, most of whom are small-scale landowners.

A history of resistance

BHP Billiton is not the first company to attempt exploitation of copper in this megadiverse area. Previous attempts to mine copper in the region have been met by fierce resistance from communities in Intag, who have successfully stopped two international mining projects.

(Anti-mining protests. Source

Mitsubishi Corporation (1993-1997)

The Intag copper deposit was discovered in the early 1990s by Bishimetals, a subsidiary of Japan’s Mitsubishi Corporation, as part of a larger survey called PRODEMINCA, which was funded by a US$14 million loan from the World Bank. By 1995 early stages of mining ‘exploration’ had begun in Intag, and with it contamination of a river just above the community of Junin.

The same year, concerned Inteños began organize their opposition to the threat mining posed to their environment and way of life.

In 1997 community members, frustrated by a lack of government regulation or advocacy, took to civil disobedience as a way to expel the company. It is important to note that particularly during that time period civil disobedience was a common way to gain concessions for under-represented rural communities in Andean Latin America.

On May 5, 1997 local community members and the county mayor burned the mining encampment to the ground. Sensitive to their international reputation, Bishimetals, quickly left Ecuador.

Ascendant Copper Corporation (2004-2006)
The people of Intag were engaged in a second conflict between 2004 and 2006, this time with a Canadian mining corporation called Ascendant Copper.The company also began exploratory work despite having failed to gain approval for an Environmental Impact Study.

Human rights violations by company employees culminated in an invasion of community land by illegally-armed paramilitaries in May 2006. After assessing the situation the Minister of Energy and Mines ultimately revoked Ascendant’s concession, banned them from the country, and upheld a general amnesty for environmental defenders.

Why BHP should leave

The 2017 letter sent to BHP by Mayor Moreno points out that BHP’s concessions in the Intag area overlap  cloud forests, watersheds and protected forests (Bosques Protectores), and will:

“…directly affect the buffer zone of the Ecological Reserve of Cotacachi-Cayapas; one of the most biodiverse national protected areas of Ecuador and the world.”

Civil society groups argue that the recent wave of concessions granted for large-scale mining in Ecuador, of which BHP’s concessions are a part, violates the rights of communities to prior consultation, as enshrined in the Ecuadorian Constitution.

These are just two of many reasons why local people say BHP should consider its reputation and leave Intag now. Here are another five:

1.They would violate their own commitment on Threatened Species. BHP’s Environment and Climate Change GLD  states: “We do not operate where there is a risk of direct impacts to ecosystems that could result in the extinction of an IUCN Red List Threatened Species in the wild.” A recent paper by Roy et al. (2018) found 58 species at risk of extinction within the El Refugio and Intag Cloud Forest Reserves. The BHP concessions contain the entirety of the El Regio area, and a significant portion of the Intag Cloud Forest Reserve.

2.They would violate their commitment on Protected Areas. Another of BHP’s environmental commitments states: “We do not explore or extract resources within or adjacent to the boundaries of the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) Protected Areas Categories I to IV, unless a plan is implemented that meets regulatory requirements, takes into account stakeholder expectations and contributes to the values for which the protected area is listed.” The BHP Billiton concessions are located approximately 5 kilometers from the IUCN recognized:  Cotacachi Cayapas National Park  (IUCN Category II).

3.They would violate the Ecuadorian Constitution. Article 57 of Ecuador’s constitution guarantees all citizens the right to free, prior and informed consultation regarding any exploitation of non-renewable resources. “Prior” means that consultation should occur before a concession is granted, something that neither BHP nor the Ecuador government did. In a recent case an Ecuadorian court ordered Junefield Ecuagoldmining to cease all activities due to its noncompliance with Article 57 and Article 398 (which states that prior consultation should be carried out if there is a risk of environmental harm).

4.They would cause irreparable harm to one of the world most Biodiverse places.The Intag region falls within two of the world’s 25 most important biodiversity hotspots: the Tropical Andes and the Choc/Darien/Western Ecuador hotspots (Myers et al. 2000).  The Bishimetal’s Environmental Impact Assessment  (see Mining & Intag) predicted, “massive deforestation” to make way for the mine. These are primary tropical and subtropical cloud forest, some of the few primary cloud forests left in western Ecuador. While BHP’s environmental and social record is by no means clean, they have shown an interest in improving in recent years (most notably by forming an alliance with Conservation International)

5.They would endanger Ecuador’s supply of fresh water. The old bishimetals EIA stated that a mine would contaminate various rivers and water sources with heavy metals. These are the water sources of communities downstream. The EIA stated that a mine would contaminate various rivers and water sources with heavy metals. These are the water sources of communities downstream. The levels of cadmium in the water would increase by 4000%, levels of chrome by 1600%.



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