Blog Entry

One Year Since Cuenca, Ecuador Voted to Protect Water Over Mining, Communities Demand Their Decision Be Respected

Viviana Herrera

Latin America Program Coordinator

This week marks one year since residents of the canton of Cuenca in southern Ecuador went to the polls to defend their water and highland páramo wetlands from metal mining.

At the time, the Canadian company INV Metals was carrying out exploration activities at its Loma Larga project – a gold-copper-silver mine that will dramatically impact the high altitude wetlands and water sources of the Kimsakocha páramo, a fragile ecosystem that supplies water for domestic use and irrigation to numerous Indigenous communities and other residents in Cuenca. Since the referendum, a new president took office and a new Canadian company acquired the mining project. But one thing remains the same: local communities remain steadfast in their opposition to mining and continue to organize to protect their water. 

Dundee Precious Metals boasts it won't respect community rights to say ‘no’ to its mine

When Toronto-based Dundee Precious Metals acquired INV Metals and its sole Loma Larga project in July 2021 – four months after the referendum – the company was clearly aware of strong local opposition to the project. It went ahead with the acquisition anyway and now follows in INV’s footsteps in saying it won’t respect the referendum results that banned mining activities in the headwaters of the Tomebamba, Tarqui, Yanuncay, Machángara and Norcay rivers.

Dundee’s Vice President of Sustainability and External Relations said  “The public consultation in Cuenca does not impact already-established projects, this is very clear from a constitutional standpoint and, from a legal perspective, the project’s development is not hindered by the public consultation.”

When the former CEO for INV Metals was asked about Dundee's ability to bring the Loma Larga mine into development given the longstanding and strong opposition to the project, she boasted that Dundee has experience developing projects "where anti-mining sentiment could be significant.”

But as the urban environmental collective Yasunidos Guapondelig says, “#CuencaAlreadySaidNo. Nobody can IGNORE our decision: Water for Cuenca, NOT for the mining companies!”

Canadian mining lobby in Ecuador

Despite a large social movement against opening the door to further mining investment in Ecuador, Canadian embassy officials continue to actively promote its mining interests in the South American country. 

And as anticipated by Canadian mining firms, Ecuadorian President Guillermo Lasso has become a cheerleader for foreign investment in the country, despite early promises to protect biodiversity. The president, who met with the CEOs of Canadian mining firms Solaris and Lumina, used his first 100 days in office to enact the controversial oil and gas decree 95 and mining decree 151. The decrees aim to expand resource extraction into fragile ecosystems under the pretext of economic recovery post-COVID-19 –  decisions that sparked a series of national protests in October. 

Against this backdrop, residents of Cuenca are reminding the Ecuadorian government and mining companies about the overwhelming results of the 2021 referendum. Ecuadorians from around the country shared messages of support to Cuencanos like “Cuenca Already Said No - #CuencaYaDecidió”, “There is no water without the páramos #SinPáramosNoHayAgua” and “No mining in Kimsakocha #KimsakochaNoSeExplota,” to demand the referendum results be respected.

Yasunidos Guapondelig says “One year after the directive from the people of Cuenca, it must be emphasized that the referendum result is binding and should be immediately respected, according to Article 106 of the constitution.” 

The people of Cuenca say that their páramos will not be sacrificed for mining profits. MiningWatch Canada urges Canadian companies, including Dundee Precious Minerals (DPM), and the Ecuadorian and Canadian government to respect the referendum vote in Cuenca. 

For more information or to set up interviews with organizations in Cuenca contact Viviana Herrera Vargas, [email protected].   

Read the statement from Yasunidos Guapondelig below:


We celebrate the expression of democracy and free will of the people to defend the water of Cuenca.

This February 7 marks the first anniversary of a major achievement in the protection of water in Cuenca, when 80.04% of referendum participants voted to ban mining activities in the headwaters of the Tomebamba, Tarqui, Yanuncay, Machángara and Norcay rivers.

This historic milestone for our country is a display of direct democracy enshrined in our constitution for the protection of the páramos and water sources, and is rooted in the efforts by the collectives who make up the Decentralized Autonomous Government (GAD in Spanish) of Cuenca. This referendum opens the door to other initiatives in other places, re-asserting the rights of urban and rural communities to decide on substantial issues that affect our lives and ecosystems. 

As a result of the Peoples’ Referendum, watershed protection has been included in the Development and Land Use Plan (PDOT in Spanish) and Land Use and Management Plan (PUGS in Spanish) for Cuenca. Through Agreement No. MAATE-2021-077, the Ministry of the Environment declared (although with delay) that the headwaters named in the referendum would be out of bounds for mining.

During this same period, however, the mining companies have not ceased their harassment of communities as they persist in their malicious intention to mine our páramos. They advance in their efforts to lobby government agencies and seek to legitimize their presence under the banner of “social and environmental responsibility” – a “progress” that has never been witnessed in areas where mining exploitation takes place. 

The Government is launching an aggressive plan to transform the country into a major hub for industrial mining activity, contrary to its initial stance of respecting the páramos and the results of the referendum.

One year after the directive from the people of Cuenca, it must be emphasized that the referendum result is binding and should be immediately respected, according to Article 106 of the constitution. Therefore, it is up to the Decentralized Autonomous Government and ministries to guarantee that our democratic decision is upheld.

As such, the Ministry of the Environment, Water, and Ecological Transition should refrain from granting licenses for mining activities in the headwaters of the Yanuncay, Tomebamba, Tarqui, Machángara and Norcay rivers. Furthermore, it should exercise the corresponding control to protect the páramos and water sources.

In addition to including the prohibition of mining in headwaters in the land use plans (PDOT and PUGS), the Municipality of Cuenca must accordingly uphold the ban through the Dirección de Control Municipal, the Commission for Environmental Management and the ETAPA EP (the Municipal Public Company of Telecommunications, Potable Water, Sewerage and Sanitation of Cuenca).

We will not allow our decisions to be erased. The results of the referendum are permanent. We will not accept trinkets from the government and from the mining companies. We are on the side of truth, justice, and reason.

Cuenca has already decided. We demand our decisions be respected! 
No mining in our páramos!