Hundreds of people in the remote jungles of northern Ecuador could lose their homes and livelihoods as Australian mining giants move in. But farmer Carlos Zorrilla is leading the resistance.
Sixty-eight-year-old coffee farmer Carlos Zorrilla has been fighting against mining in remote northern Ecuador for decades, but now he is facing off against the companies owned by Australian mining giants including Gina Rinehart and Andrew ‘Twiggy’ Forrest.
The companies, Hancock Prospecting and Fortescue Metals Group, are among a flood of Australian and Canadian operations rushing into northern Ecuador in search of lucrative copper resources.
Hancock Prospecting's subsidiary, Hanrine Ecuadorian Exploration and Mining SA, established a presence in Ecuador in 2017.
But in the Intag valley, a remote part of the country with untouched pristine forest, locals like Mr Zorrilla are speaking out about the consequences they say the work will have on up to 1,000 people.
“We will see massive deforestation, our weather would dry up, rivers contaminated with heavy metals and communities forced to relocate,” Mr Zorrilla told SBS News.
“It’s my community, my biological, social community. I like it here, I want to live here, I want my kids to live here - and you're damn right I’m going to defend it until the end,” he said.
It’s my community, my biological, social community ... You're damn right I’m going to defend it until the end.
- Carlos Zorrilla, Farmer
Mr Zorrilla has been involved in leading a series of protests against the mining developments in the region, with protesters blocking mining trucks and facing off against Ecuadorian police.
In March this year, dozens of locals gathered outside the courthouse in the region’s capital Ibarra holding signs and chanting slogans against the mining companies.
It is not the first time the residents of the region have rallied against foreign mining companies. Several attempts from Japanese and Chilean mining companies to open up the region failed after widespread community backlash.
The 70 acres of land owned by Mr Zorrilla is part of a much wider pristine forest region that provides local jobs through small-scale farming and eco-tourism.
Along with Rinehart’s Hancock Prospecting and Forrest’s Fortescue Metals Group, other Australian mining companies involved in the region include BHP Billiton, Newcrest Mining and Brisbane-based Solgold.
Mr Zorrilla’s land and the surrounding forests are being threatened by a BHP Billiton concession.
He claims the Ecuadorian government granted the mining licences after little consultation with the affected communities.
In this sparsely populated part of the country around 1,000 farmers and villagers in the Intag valley, many of them indigenous, may be affected by the mining operations. Some may lose their homes and Mr Zorrilla says many more may be affected by water contamination and other issues.
Some farmers and villagers affected have been offered financial compensation from the mining companies, but Mr Zorrilla says it is impossible to put a price on the environment.
Global prices for copper have soared in recent years, with the metal used in electric wiring and also a key component in the manufacturing of high-end products such as electric cars.
Mr Zorrilla’s says community consultation over the mining projects from the government and mining companies has been scarce and that there is broad opposition to the mines throughout the Intag valley.
“It’s just criminal that these mining companies want to mine in these last pockets of native forests,” he said.
The group led by Mr Zorrilla is challenging the legality of the Ecuadorian government’s granting of mining concessions in the Intag valley in the courts, with the case likely to have industry-wide ramifications across the country.
Hancock Prospecting declined to comment when contacted by SBS News, and Fortescue Metals Group, Newcrest Mining and BHP Billiton did not respond to requests for comment.
A spokeswoman for Solgold said the company employed 500 people, 97 per cent of whom are Ecuadorians and that the communities surrounding their mining development were highly supportive of the project.
“We have followed, if not gone beyond, all social, legal and environmental requirements set out by the Ecuadorian government which includes environmental impact assessments and community consultations,” the spokeswoman said.
It’s not just the mining giants hoping to cash in on the copper boom in northern Ecuador.
Individual miners from Ecuador and neighbouring South American countries have been involved in small-scale illegal mining on Hancock Prospecting’s concession without the company's permission.
The flood of so-called ‘artisanal miners’ bringing social and environmental problems to the region near the Colombian border.
Earlier this month the Ecuadorian government declared a state of emergency and deployed over 2,000 troops to kick out thousands of illegal miners that had been camped out at a concession area owned by Rinehart’s Hancock Prospecting - showing it is willing to mobilise troops to protect mining investment.
SBS News has contacted the Ecuadorian government for comment.
Anthony Amis, an Australian researcher from the Rainforest Action Group, told SBS News there were concerns that illegal mining and associated crime activity that came with it, would now spread to other areas.
“The Ecuadorian government has granted the approval to mine a third of the country without proper consultation at all,” Mr Amis claims.
“In their haste to approve these mining concessions the Ecuadorian government has trampled over the rights of many of the communities that will have to be living in these impacted areas,” he said.
There are also concerns for a number of endangered species in the forest areas of northern Ecuador where mining concessions have been granted. Ecuador is one of the most biodiverse countries in the world, something environmentalists fear will be destroyed as the mining ramps up.