Luck of the Draw: Carlos Zorrilla visits North America

OTTAWA-“If they’d have arrested me, things would have been different. I wouldn’t have been standing before you here today. They wanted me dead.” Harrowing words, coming from a man as soft spoken as Carlos Zorrilla, but not hard to believe given that as Executive Director of DECOIN (Intag Ecological Defence and Conservation) he is one of the most visible and outspoken opponents of Ascendant Copper Corporation’s activities in the Intag region of Ecuador.

Zorrilla was in North America from mid-April until last week. “It’s been worthwhile being here to get in contact with new allies, and to get the word out to more organizations and to the public in general through events and news articles,” he said, adding, “knowing that the government and major shareholders are informed about the human rights violations happening because of Ascendant’s presence is important.”

When asked to describe what is happening in the region where he lives, Carlos often starts by describing the place that he moved to in 1978: a peaceful, ecologically diverse region, where small farms set among the backdrop of the first growth cloud forests provided bountifully for communities.

The Intag region, located in Northwest Ecuador, encompasses two of 34 biological “hotspots” worldwide according to Conservation International, for its diversity of mammals and bird species, abundance of pristine headwaters and river networks, and intact tropical rainforests and cloud forests.

The threat of large-scale mining interests in the region is not new. The Japanese firm Mitsubishi attempted to develop a copper project in Intag beginning in 1991, but eventually left the region because of strong resistance to the project from community members and local leaders, who were fearful of the environmental damage that Mitsubishi’s own Environmental Impact Assessment indicated would take place during (and after) the life of the copper mine.

Mitsubishi’s exit was a victory of sorts for the communities of Intag. With the rising value of copper on world markets, however, a new company entered the area, hoping to develop the mine and cash in while the prices are high. That company is Ascendant Copper Corporation, a North American (Vancouver/Denver based) company, which estimates that there are 982 million tons of copper, molybdenum, silver and gold for the taking in Intag.

Ascendant has attempted to brand itself as “a socially responsible corporate citizen,” but as is often the case, the company’s need to brand itself as such is a result of the fact that the reality on the ground is otherwise, and is known to the international community.

For Carlos, “corporate social responsibility means that companies can’t just deal with national authorities – they have to respect the opinions of the people on the ground, particularly communities and local governments.”

He continues to explain that “These companies need to know that they may be rejected and thus be required leave the communities when they are not welcome. Corporate social responsibility does not mean causing social upheaval in order to secure a false ‘social licence’.” In the specific case of Ascendant Copper, all of the local mayors in the Intag region have repeatedly expressed their opposition to Ascendant’s projects; however, the company has refused to pull out.

Carlos’ personal experience having had his home invaded by police in November of 2006, as well as the video footage of paramilitaries standing off against community members that he recently showed to the Standing Committee on International Affairs and Development demonstrate clearly what “social responsibility” means to Ascendant.

Before heading back to Ecuador, in an interview with MiningWatch Canada, Carlos mentioned the ways that the thought Canadians could help the people of Ecuador assert control over their lands. Most important, he said, was that “people actively pressure their MPs to adopt the core recommendations of the Advisory Report from the Roundtable Process, and get more informed about what Canadian mining companies are doing overseas.”