Historic ruling in Ecuador shows clash between global demand for minerals and protecting biodiversity

Imagen del Río Apuela en los llanos del Intag, Ecuador

Río Apuela, Intag. Photo Flickr/Andreas Kay (CC BY-NC-SA 2.0)

On March 29, 2023, the Intag communities in northern Ecuador, where there is one of the most biodiverse forests in the world, won a long-awaited legal battle. An Ecuadorian court has invalidated the licenses of the Chilean state copper mining company CODELCO and the National Mining Company of Ecuador (ENAMI EP). For the lawyer defending the communities in court, Carlos Varela Arias, this victory is “historic.” For International Environment Day on June 5, we decided to take a closer look at the message this sentence sent out.

This victory is also part of the growing tension in South America around the growing demand for minerals such as copper and lithium to power electric car batteries. The race to decarbonize our atmosphere, including the drive towards green energy in the automobile industry, along with other industries, has a price. The production of electric cars requires six times more mineral resources than other cars.

For Carlos Varela, the ruling is also evidence that the rule of law is respected in Ecuador. The judges ruled that the mining companies had not properly consulted the local community before starting their activities, which were also considered harmful to the rights of nature, according to the 2008 Ecuadorian Constitution. Ecuador recognizes nature as a subject having rights, and according to Varela, this is a definitive judgment because there are no appeal mechanisms.

During the press conference after the legal victory, a representative of the Intag communities, Cenaida Guachagmira, asked “Who is this ecological transition for?”, adding “Forgive me, but I'm not going to get a luxury electric car in exchange for a beautiful mountain that provides what I need to eat every day, [just] so that a millionaire can sit in a luxury electric car [and] say that [they] take care of nature when in reality a copper mine had to be exploited in Ecuador.”

The scientific consensus holds that biodiversity and natural areas are fundamental to mitigating climate change. However, for many people, this fight against climate change and the preservation of the environment are polar opposites. To explore the impact of this ruling on these issues, I interviewed the lawyer Varela.

Melissa Vida (MV): Do you see this ruling as part of the increasing demand in the “global north” and China for South America's natural resources, to fuel the renewable energy industry?

Carlos Varela (CV): En efecto, la sentencia del caso Llurimagua se produce en un momento en el que el apetito voraz por minerales metálicos, como el cobre, ha obligado a las empresas mineras a explorar proyectos en lugares que, como Ecuador, se encontraban fuera de las fronteras de la gran minería. En concreto, este renovado apetito por extraer minerales tensiona las fronteras, antes infranqueables, de lugares con ecosistemas megadiversos y condiciones poco propicias para actividades extractivas. Esto pasa en lugares como Llurimagua, que se asienta sobre los andes tropicales, que es nada menos que uno de los hotspots de diversidad más importantes del planeta.

Carlos Varela (CV): Indeed, the judgment in the Llurimagua case comes at a time when the big appetite for metallic minerals, such as copper, has pushed mining companies to explore projects in places that, like Ecuador, did not previously have large-scale mining. Notably, this renewed demand for extracting minerals puts strain on the previously uncrossed borders of places with megadiverse ecosystems and conditions that are not conducive to mineral extraction. This happens in places like Llurimagua, located in the tropical Andes, which is nothing less than one of the most important diversity hotspots on the planet.

MV: Are these countries prepared for the large demand?

CV: El ingreso agresivo de empresas dedicadas a la minería a gran escala, en países sin experiencia con esa industria, pone a límite la débil capacidad institucional de estos países para regular y controlar una actividad en extremo compleja (desde la perspectiva técnica), lo que – a su vez- genera enormes riesgos sociales y ambientales.

CV:The aggressive entry of large–scale mining companies, in countries without experience with this industry, severely stretches these countries’ weak institutional capacity to regulate and control an extremely complex activity (from a technical angle), which – in turn – causes enormous social and environmental risks.

MV: How, in your view, do these companies act so as to establish themselves in these countries?

CV: La agresividad de las empresas, que proviene de su desesperación por agilitar el inicio de la explotación de minerales en estos nuevos proyectos, se traduce en estrategias asimismo agresivas para “gestionar” los problemas comunitarios; usualmente orientadas a dividir y amedrantar a las comunidades, así como a generar sistemas clientelares con los que se pretende “intercambiar” el acceso a derechos y servicios públicos por el “apoyo” a los proyectos mineros.

CV: These companies’ aggressiveness, due to their desperation to start these new mineral extraction projects as quickly as possible, leads to similarly aggressive strategies to “manage” problems with [local] communities; usually aiming to divide and intimidate the communities, as well as generating clientelist relationships which intend to “exchange” access to rights and public services for “support” of mining projects.

MV: More generally, many [of these cases] feed the narrative that there is a tension between solutions for the climate crisis and protecting biodiversity. Do you think that this tension exists?

CV: No soy experto en energías renovables ni en transición energética, pero, sin duda, toda transición que para concretarse requiera incrementar considerablemente la extracción de minerales metálicos generará una fuerte tensión con la necesidad de proteger la biodiversidad y la diversidad genética en el planeta. Especialmente, si para ello se requiere expandir la frontera minera y, consecuentemente, invadir los pocos espacios en los que la naturaleza todavía se desarrolla ajena a la depredación humana (como los remanentes de bosques en los Andes tropicales).

CV: I am not an expert in renewable energies nor in the energy transition, but, without a doubt, any transition that requires considerably increasing the extraction of metallic minerals will cause a deep tension with the need to protect biodiversity and genetic diversity on the planet. Especially if it requires expanding the mining frontier and, consequently, invading the few spaces where nature still flourishes outside human exploitation (such as the remnants of forests in the tropical Andes).

MV: Do you think that this recent Ecuadorian ruling sends a signal to other countries in the region?

CV: En efecto, la sentencia envía una fuerte señal a los demás países de la región, así como a los inversionistas extranjeros. En concreto, el mensaje es que, al menos en países como Ecuador, existen comunidades, activistas e instituciones (representados por los jueces) que no están dispuestos a permitir que, a pretexto de la inversión, se vulneren derecho de las comunidades y/o la naturaleza.

CV: Certainly, the ruling sends a strong signal to other countries in the region, as well as to foreign investors. Specifically, the message is that, at least in countries like Ecuador, there are communities, activists and institutions (represented by judges) that are not willing to allow, on the pretext of [attracting] investment, to violate the rights of communities and/or nature

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