The northwest slope of the Ecuadorian Andes is known as the Intag. Since the 1990s, the Ecuadorian government, with the support of the World Bank, has promoted large scale metal mining in the area.
Mitsubishi arrived to Intag in 1993 and began exploring a deposit of copper, molybdenum, and gold. It left four years later — after local communities burned the company's mining camp (after removing, inventorying, and later returning its contents).
Community opposition reached a boiling point when Mitsubishi's own Environmental Impact Assessment (EIA) forecast severe environmental contamination to local water sources and the displacement of 100 families from four communities.
In 2004, Ascendant Exploration — now called Ascendant Copper — acquired the rights to Mitsubishi's former concession.
Ascendant wants to mine the southern flanks of the Toisan, a mountain range that predates the Andes. The Toisan forms a natural border between Intag and the Cotacachi-Cayapas Ecological Reserve. It is the largest protected area in western Ecuador and part of two of the world's 25 biodiversity hotspots as identified by Conservation International.
Ascendant listed on the Toronto Stock Exchange in October 2005. Its stock price has steadily declined due, in part, to widespread Intag opposition.
Ascendant Faces Community Opposition
Some of the region's powerful landowners support Ascendant's project in the Toisan. However, most of Intag's residents, particularly the communities closest to the mining concession, have rejected the possibility of mining in the region.
Mining was the dominant theme in parish elections in November of 2004. Anti-mining candidates won five out of six parish contests and saw the re-election of the Cotacachi county mayor who opposes the project. (A parish is equivalent to a municipal government.)
The county itself was declared an Ecological County in September 2000. The measure, backed by a legally binding Municipal Ecological Ordinance passed by the mayor, seeks to reorient development in the county by promoting sustainable activities.
In addition to concerns about their local environment, Intag's residents also fear the social impacts that would accompany large-scale mining. The community closest to the concession, Junin, now maintains a constant check point on the road into the area to prevent the entry of Ascendant personnel.
Ascendant's Duplicity Enrages the Local Community
At its first public meeting in Intag in the summer of 2004, Ascendant announced the creation of an agricultural development farm, called La Florida. Ascendant touted La Florida as the centerpiece of a local development plan based on sustainable agriculture. However, Ascendant also put a former general in charge of its community relations program. Members of the community, in particular those questioning the project, started reporting incidences of threats and intimidation.
Most prominently, Ascendant, through its community front group (CODEGAM), tried to delegitimize a regional environmental group (DECOIN) and undermine the mayor opposed to the mine. It failed.
In the summer of 2005, Ascendant changed strategies. It removed the general and his staff from Intag and scaled back its funding of CODEGAM. The company then began buying land around the concession at grossly inflated prices.
Opposition to Ascendant boiled over on December 20, 2005 when a group of 300 people from 20 surrounding communities burned La Florida, which the company claims was also a health clinic, in much the same way communities destroyed Mitsubishi's camp eight years earlier.
In May 2006, hundreds of representatives from Intag's communities and parishes gathered at an assembly to discuss the presence of Ascendant in Intag. The assembly passed a resolution calling on Ascendant to leave Intag immediately, noting that Intag's sustainable development should be based on the conservation, not exploitation, of natural resources.
In 2008, Ecuador revoked the company's concessions, shortly after warning the company that it was violating the country's mining laws. Ascendant left Ecuador the following year.
Chile Enters Scene
The Intag region was not left alone for very long. In July 2012, the government granted approval for CODELCO, the Chilean state mining company, to explore in the area. The company expects to begin exploration in September 2014.