Ascendant Copper Threatens Ecuador Cloud Forest

Since the early 1990s, the Intag region of Imbabura in northwestern Ecuador has been the target of mining exploration. There is a large ecological reserve there (the Cotacachi-Cayapas Ecological Reserve) as well as community forest reserves. The region depends on subsistence farming, coffee and other agricultural production, and eco-tourism. There is widespread and vehement opposition to plans by Bermuda-based Ascendant Holdings to mine copper in the cloud forest.

Ascendant’s mining concessions are located in primary forests in the Toisan Mountain Range, in the confluence of two of the world’s biodiversity “hotspots” (Tropical Andes, and the Chocó-Western Ecuadorian), home to dozens of endangered species.

In order to raise money for further exploration, Ascendant (through its subsidiaries Ascendant Exploration and Ascendant Copper) is seeking a listing on the Toronto Stock Exchange, despite questions that have been raised about the accuracy of its resource estimates and the status of its claims.

Ascendant’s press releases claim inferred reserves three times those found in exploration work by a subsidiary of Mitsubishi, Bishimetals, in the 1990s. Local people have not allowed Ascendant to carry out any road-building or drilling in the concession area. In May, 1997 Mitsubishi’s camp was burned to the ground by hundreds of local residents from seven different communities. Mitsubishi eventually withdrew completely. The government laid criminal charges against three community leaders, but was unable to get a conviction.

The Mayor of the Canton of Cotacachi, where the concessions are located, has written to the Toronto Stock Exchange outlining why Ascendant should be denied access to the Stock Exchange. The communities nearest the mine – which would have to be relocated if the project proceeds – Cerro Pelado, Barcelona, El Triunfo, and Junín, have also declared their categorical opposition to the proposed mine.

The affected communities have not been consulted by the government regarding the concessions themselves, as required by Ecuador’s Constitution, and neither has the company sought the authorization of the Municipality of Cotacachi as required by the Mining Law. The concessions can therefore be anulled according to the Environmental Management Law. As well, the concessions were granted while a law suit by the Municipality of Cotacachi challenging the legality of the Ecuadorian government’s actions and those of the mining companies involved was before the Constitutional Tribunal. Final clarification of the Tribunal’s resolution is still pending.

Ascendant recently dropped its attempts to sue a local community newspaper, INTAG, for libel, apparently for simply reporting on comments made by local people and government and church officials at a public meeting. On March 14, 2005, a settlement was reached absolving the paper of any wrongdoing – see the paper’s web site for details.

MiningWatch is working with Friends of the Earth and DECOIN (Defence and Conservation of the Intag, a local organisation), to protect the cloud forest and the rights of the affected communities.