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Last month Ecuador did something it had never done before. It signed contracts for the first large-scale mining project in the history of the country. Prior to President Rafael Correa's championing of mega-mines in Ecuador, Ecuador was the last Andean country without a large-scale mine. It was also the last Andean country to not have to deal with major water contamination from cyanide run-off. It was the last Andean country to not have to deal with the millions of tons of toxic mine tailings each mine site must dispose of, often in water sources. That's all changed now.

Despite growing protests because of Correa's decision to open up the country to multi-national mining corporations, the President has remained defiant and steadfast in his decision. Even as thousands of people poured into the streets last month for a two week march in defense of water and in opposition to large-scale mining, Correa proclaimed: “We will not be beggars sitting on a sack of gold.”;

On March 5th, Ecuador signed the first mining contract in the country’s history, a $1.4 billion copper mine, El Mirador, proposed by China's Ecuacorriente. The proposal is already stirring up plenty of controversy in the southern province of Zamora Chinchipe, where the mine would be located. In an interview with the Christian Science Monitor, the Governor of the region, Salvador Quishpe, says that the government did not consult with local communities prior to approving the project. Quishpe explains that there are 227 water sources inside the mining project's zone. The project would be located in the Amazon Basin.

In the past, Ecuador has sometimes been viewed as a leader in Indigenous rights and environmental stewardship, taking steps like incorporating the rights of nature into the country’s constitution. Now Ecuador has taken a dramatic turn, bucking these trends, to prioritize investments from the extractive industry over the rights of nature and Indigenous communities. Companies long blocked from exploiting Ecuador’s resources at the cost of its diverse ecosystems, deep cultural ties, and clean water are now lined up to receive contracts.

In addition to the El Mirador mine, four more contracts are in the pipeline to be signed this year:

Not listed in the contracts to be approved, but of equal concern, is the presence of Codelco, Chile's major copper mining company, in the northern Ecuador region of Intag. The community that has pushed back multiple mining operation attempts on their lands now faces a mining giant with full government backing. Our partner Carlos Zorrilla writes about Codelco's operations in the area at length HERE.

It's clear that Ecuador's communities have a new wave of mining projects that corporations have waited years to develop. Whether it is copper in the North or gold in the South, the landscape of mining in Ecuador is changing rapidly. We'll continue to watch closely as Ecuador tries to reshape itself from a mining wallflower to regional mining power despite growing public opposition.

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September 23, 2011

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