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Ecuador: Historic urban vote against large scale mining in referendum
by Miriam Lang
8 February 2021

Ecuador’s third largest city Cuenca, of more than 600.000 inhabitants, has voted clearly against large-scale mining on February 7th, 2021. According to estimates published on Sunday night, 80% of voters have expressed themselves for water and life, and against mining and extractivism. This referendum has been approved by the Constitutional Court in September 2020, what makes its results binding. While the results of the simultaneous presidential election were still being counted, pointing at a second round in April, the referendum organizers made clear on election night that any new president will have to respect the will of the people of Cuenca. It is the first time in Latin American history that a binding referendum against large-scale mining is won in a big city, and not in a directly affected rural community, according to Argentinian sociologist Maristella Svampa.

In September 2020, the Constitutional Court had given way to the referendum for the protection of the Cuenca water recharge zone with 4200 water bodies in the Andean Highlands, where the five rivers which guarantee the city’s water supply arise. The referendum had been promoted by an alliance of 14 social organizations, the Cabildo del Agua, who first won the approval of the Cuenca City Council and then the Mayor. Corporations from Canada, Australia, Peru, Chile, and other countries hold large or mid-scale mining concessions in this sensitive ecological area, whose exploitation will now be forbidden. For this reason, Ecuador’s mining chamber had argued that the referendum would affect foreign investor’s legal security. According to the mining cadastre, there are 73 concessions in Cuenca county, 43 of which being for metal mining. Two of the mining projects categorized as “strategic” by former governments also fall into the now forbidden zone.

While Ecuador is struck by a severe economic recession in the midst of the pandemic, many presidential candidates have promised large-scale mining would mark the path out of this crisis, alongside with further expanding the oil frontier. Nevertheless, many Ecuadorians are aware that engaging into large-scale industrial mining in one of the Earth’s mega-biodiverse countries in the midst of this era of accelerated biodiversity loss leads into the wrong direction. The overwhelmingly clear result of the Cuenca referendum opens the path to discuss socioecological alternatives which evolve around the preservation of life and the conditions for its reproduction instead of prioritizing the profits of transnational companies and the both socially and environmentally unsustainable export of raw-materials.

In the meantime, with 50% of the records from the presidential election processed, it seems likely that the second round in April will confront Andres Arauz, a close ally of former president Rafael Correa, and Yaku Pérez, the candidate of the indigenous movement party Pachakutik and former prefect of Cuenca. The right-wing, neoliberal banker Guillermo Lasso would just be in third place. Yet much is still uncertain in this count.


Miriam Lang

Profesora de Ambiente y Sustentabilidad en la Universidad Andina Simón Bolívar. Cofundadora e integrante del Grupo de Trabajo Permanente sobre Alternativas al Desarrollo y del Pacto Ecosocial del Sur. Ex directora de la Oficina Andina de la Fundación Rosa Luxemburg.