The Horrors Of Copper and Gold Mining in the Headwaters of the Amazon
By David Dene*
An area in the upper Amazon in south-eastern Ecuador is under threat from the first of what may be a succession of open pit copper mines. The first mine – Mirador One – has already been licensed and more mines are planned for the future.
The type of "open pit" mining being planned always causes pollution because, as soon as sulphide rocks are exposed to air and water, they create a chemical reaction and exude sulfuric acid, which in turn releases heavy metals from the rocks, which in turn create toxic waterways. In this case, the waterways link into the great Amazon River system.
The acidification of the water causes gill malfunction in all fish life and ultimately causes death. The waters also become toxic due to the presence of heavy metals and toxins used to extract copper and gold from the mined ore. This acidification is known as Acid Mine Drainage and lasts forever, as the poisons remain in the river sediment. Mines opened in the time of the Romans are still leaching acid after 2,000 years.
This acid almost always moves into groundwater. In this case this is a certainty, as the pit will be started at an altititude of 900 meters and eventually go down to 1,250 meters, which will put the base of the pit below sea level.
Every day the mine will process 60,000 tons of ore. This ore will be crushed and washed with poisonous chemicals and an estimated 12 million liters of water per day. There are 227 water sources in the area, and with such a deep pit the delicate hydrology of the area, which supports a huge diversity of life, will be irreparably damaged.
There is on average two and a half tons of rain per square metre per year in the region, so a considerable run off of polluted rain water is inevitable. This run off, together with already polluted toxic water, will find its way into the waterways, causing a die off of fish. Heavy metals bio-accumulate in all of nature and this will have an impact on the food chain, with the spread of slow cancerous destruction throughout the area. The Environmental Impact Assessment rates this mine as a High Risk project.
Sacred springs and sacred lands will be rendered unusable, The Shuar indigenous people will no longer be able to hunt and fish. Their culture will be destroyed and their lands polluted for eternity.
This is a desecration of Nature. Eight NGO's and Human Rights Organisations are prosecuting the government, using the due process of law with respect to the Rights of Nature, which are enshrined in the Ecuadorean Constitution of 2008. On Friday 15 March the first hearing was due to be held in Quito, the capital of Ecuador. The Minister for the Environment failed to appear, so the case was postponed.
In 1997/8, the Shaur whose land is threatened by the mine, helped the government in the border war against incursion from Peru. They say that they will protect their lands against mining, until their last breath.They are a proud, strong people and they will use all their knowledge of their jungle, their history and their will to survive in the struggle.
These men and women are "warriors". The worst scenario, which is unfortunately a real possibility, is the militarization of the area and serious civil unrest.
The President is relying on mining and oil exploration, financed by Chinese loans, to continue his "social revolution". At present Ecuador pays 24% of its Gross Domestic Product to service these loans, and it seems that access to more money hinges on China being able to strip Ecuador of its most valuable mineral resources, which in turn strips Ecuador of the most ecologically mega-diverse areas left on the planet.
This is a short term gain for one generation, followed by a terrible loss for all future generations. The legacy for the future will be an ongoing huge financial cost to mitigate the effects of Acid Mine Drainage in the upper Amazon, The fabric of Nature and the fabric of society will be devastated.
All the money in the world cannot re-make and re-build a fragile eco-system, and a thousand-year-old culture destroyed by copper and gold mining. The issue of the Mirador Mine goes beyond minerals and pollution. It is a pivotal point in the future of Ecuador. Will the government and President protect Nature and the "Good Life" for future generations? Or will they sell and destroy Nature, leaving a legacy of severe environmental degradation and an ongoing financial burden that will arise from the need to mitigate the effects of further damage from Acid Mine Drainage?
If they choose the second course of action they will destroy the elements of Nature and "the good life" enshrined in their Constitution of 2008. Indeed, they will infringe the Constitution.
The president faces an extremely difficult dilemma. Does he sell Nature at the expense of future generations? Or does he totally re-think his strategy and implement a new economic policy?
*David Dene is one of the founders of Protect Ecuador.
See the video here