Quito, Ecuador – As the results of this month’s presidential elections in Ecuador remain disputed, another important vote was held that could have wide-reaching implications for the South American nation.
Residents of the Andean city of Cuenca and the county’s rural outskirts on February 7 voted to prohibit future large-scale mining activities in five nearby watershed zones – an area that stretches over 3,100 square kilometres (1,197 square miles) and is home to more than 580,000 people.
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Each of the five questions on the ballot received nearly 80 percent support in favour of the ban on mining for any metals, provincial authorities said on February 11, when the final count was released.
“What the results show … is that Cuenca doesn’t want mining near their water sources nor in the Andean moorlands and forests,” Paola Ortiz, an activist with the YASunidos Cuenca environmental group, told Al Jazeera.
Throughout the Andes, river systems provide clean water for communities downstream from unique, high-altitude ecosystems called moorlands (paramos, in Spanish).
About 30km west of Cuenca lies the El Cajas National Reserve paramos, the source of most of the city’s water. Currently, two mining projects near the reserve are in the exploration phase, though neither is extracting yet.
Environmentalists have raised concerns the close proximity of these mines to El Cajas National Reserve could contaminate local water sources. “We don’t want foreign investment that destroys our sensitive and valuable ecosystems,” said Ortiz.
Ambiguous court ruling
That was echoed by Cuenca Mayor Pedro Palacios, who told Al Jazeera “the result [of the referendum] is a reflection of what we as a city and as citizens have been seeking to do for a long time”.
Palacios said it is now up to the Ministry of Environment and Water to approve the delineation of the five hydrological water systems that will be covered by the future mining prohibition, and update the municipality of Cuenca’s development and land-use plan.
But how exactly the vote results will be applied remains in dispute, as pro-mining unions and the city are deadlocked over what to do about mining projects that have already received the go-ahead.
The confusion is linked in part to a September 2020 ruling by Ecuador’s Constitutional Court, which reviews all ballot initiative requests under Ecuadorian law.
What the results show ... is that Cuenca doesn't want mining near their water sources nor in the Andean moorlands and forests
While the court approved Cuenca’s request to hold the referendum, it said the results of the vote would apply to future projects – not projects already in the operating phase. That has spurred another debate over what stage a project must be in to be allowed to proceed, and what exactly “operating phase” means.
Experts said the court’s decision likely aimed to avoid the risk mining companies could seek international arbitration should operations that earlier received a green light suddenly became prohibited. The Constitutional Court is expected to clarify its ruling in April.
Mining company confident
In the meantime, at least one mine operator has expressed confidence it will be able to move forward despite the results of the referendum.
The Loma Larga project, run by Canadian company INV Metals, is currently in a phase of advanced exploration and economic evaluation. The proposed gold mine lies 30 kilometres southeast of the city of Cuenca.
CEO Candace MacGibbon told Al Jazeera in an email that “the Constitutional Court’s decision in September 2020 provided the industry with the required legal security of our continued investment”.
She said the company is confident the results of the February 7 referendum will not disrupt its plan to operate in the area, adding the mining industry contributes to Ecuador’s gross domestic product (GDP) and provides jobs.
A January report by the country’s Central Bank estimated Loma Larga will bring in nearly $432m over the mine’s proposed 12-year life span. More than $64m has been invested in the project between 1999 and 2019, during which exploration and regulatory studies were carried out. The mine is expected to commence operations in 2023.
“INV Metals has worked in partnerships with our local communities for over 15 years,” said MacGibbon. “We look forward to continuing the partnership to realize the significant benefits of sustainable development within the area.”
A ban on future projects also means the city of Cuenca will face the arduous task of coming up with new opportunities amid a national economic slump.
According to the Ministry of Energy and Non-Renewable Natural Resources (MERNNR), there are just below 10,000 mining jobs in Azuay province, where Cuenca is located.
The ministry said last month that Ecuador exported $810m in mining products from January to November 2020 – a 206 percent increase compared with the same period a year earlier. Mining products account for 4.4 percent of the country’s total exports and are the sixth most exported product overall, the ministry also said.
Mining advocates have argued allowing projects to go forward will thwart illegal extraction. “If mining businesses lose the right to operate, it could generate a wave of illegal miners,” Emma Quezada, an environmental mining consultant in Cuenca, told Al Jazeera.
Illegal mining is an issue President Lenin Moreno has sought to crack down on during his tenure. In November 2020, five people died in a landslide at an illegal mine near Ecuador’s border with Colombia, highlighting the unsafe conditions informal miners labour under.
For Palacios, the mayor of Cuenca, the issue is not mining per se, but rather ensuring water sources are safe.
“We have been very clear, we are not against mining … we are in favour of our water sources,” he said, adding that extraction to provide material for the province’s important ceramics industry could continue.
But some say Ecuador altogether should stop relying so heavily on extractive industries to fuel its economy.
William Sacher, a professor who specialises in environmental sustainability at the Universidad Andina Simon Bolivar, told Al Jazeera making that shift will not be easy but the COVID-19 pandemic provides an opportunity.
Ecuador’s wealth of resources offers an opportunity to shift to cleaner sources of income, such as pharmaceutical products, he suggested.
“In times of pandemic, more sustainable practices can be promoted with the vision of building new harmonious businesses for the environment, taking advantage of the country’s biodiversity,” said Sacher.