Human rights and environmental abuses at Buenos Aires, Ecuador
Last updated in June 2023
From 2019, community members and environmental activists in the parish and town of Buenos Aires, in Northwest Ecuador, have endured ongoing persecution, violence and human rights abuses due to the activities of the Australian-owned mining company, Hanrine.
Buenos Aires sits within the northern part of the Cotacachi Cayapas buffer zone, within the Tropical Andes Biodiversity Hotspot. The area has only been used for agriculture for about 100 years. It hosts several small communities, who earn livelihoods from small-scale production of many kinds of fruits, vegetables, livestock and dairy produce.
As well as Buenos Aires, Hanrine’s mining concessions in the region also cover part of Awá indigenous territory and hyperdiverse primary forest, the ecology of which has never been studied by science.
The lands affected by Hanrine’s concessions are within the mega biodiverse Tropical Andes hotspot and comprise part of the Cotacachi Cayapas buffer Human impacts on the region until recently have been small. The biodiversity of the cloud forests north of Buenos Aires has never been studied, but it is likely that the endemism here is as high as in Cotacachi Cayapas, Los Cedros, and Intag.
Mining concessions and sites of public protest being monitored by RIC in northwestern Ecuador
In 2017, Hanrine took advantage of the grand land sale to international mining companies by the Ecuadorian Government under Correa. By 2018, small-scale “illegal” miners were flooding into Hanrine’s concessions to mine gold. Most of these people were (and are) poor immigrants from Colombia or the coast of Ecuador. By 2019 the area had become a hotspot for narcotrafficking, prostitution and violence.
In June 2019, the Ecuadorian Government moved the military in to clear out the “illegal” miners. The area remains a militarised zone to this day. However, large numbers of people are still mining in the hills around Buenos Aires, using mercury to leach the gold ore; these encampments are known as “Plastic Cities”. Conditions in these camps are precarious and dangerous.
In April 2021, Hanrine made its first move to reclaim its “territory”. The company tried to move its trucks through the only access point into the town of Buenos Aires. The people resisted, peacefully blockading the road with their own vehicles. This blockade was maintained for several weeks. Hanrine retaliated by bribing a county court judge to allow the National Police unprecedented powers to move people on. Several illegal arrests were made of local residents.
In June 2021, the community launched a legal injunction against Hanrine. The injunction was won, with the judge agreeing that the people had constitutional rights to protest and to have a say in who entered their lands.
Police amass to confront peaceful protestors at Buenos Aires, August 3, 2021. Image: BUPROE
Hanrine was furious. They could not appeal, but immediately filed their own legal Action for Protection in Quito against the national police, arguing that the police had failed to do their job protecting the company’s legal rights to pursue business. The police defended themselves, saying that their job was to protect the citizens of Ecuador, not the interests of transnational mining companies. However, Hanrine won, having already paid off the judge. Two days later (3 August 2021) the company forced their vehicles through the town.
3 August was a day of violence. Peaceful protestors, including grandparents, amassed the streets, and were dispersed with tear gas, rubber bullets and threats to drive vehicles through the crowds. Several people were beaten and injured, and several arrested with no legitimate charges against them.
Hanrine subsequently established their first exploration camp in the mountains near the town – there are now five such camps, with the company undertaking exploration activities. There are police checkpoints on the entry and exit road to the town devoted to monitoring residents' activities.
In late November 2022, the company applied for access to 27 water source points, most of which provide essential water for farming and agricultural activities.
In January 2023, military police tried to move in via a private road to set up another camp. Local farmers dialogued with them for hours, before being repelled by tear gas. The next day, the military inexplicably packed up and left. People continue to live their daily lives under constant fear of what will happen next.
Three legal actions are currently in the pipeline to stop these abuses by Hanrine and protect lands, water and the environment.
1) An injunction to stall Hanrine's activities until environmental assessments can be made and the company can be made accountable
2) An Action for Protection at the Provincial Court - this case will argue that constitutional rights to prior consultation have been violated by the mining company.
3) An Extraordinary Action for Protection at the Constitutional Court of Ecuador - this has been accepted by the Court and awaits assignation of a hearing date. The case will be constructed around constitutional laws protecting the rights of nature, rights of community residents to a clean environment and water, and rights to prior consultation.
In February, RIC designated part of a $US 15,000 grant donated by pollinator conservation project Flow - Billions of Blossoms to support legal work for Buenos Aires.
These funds have so far enabled lawyers to keep working on all three of the above cases, plus continue work to gain amnesty for local farmers and their families persecuted by Hanrine.
Most recently, funds have helped with the costs of an official enquiry by the Public Defenders Office into the illegal obtaining of access to water source points by the mining company. In May, the Public Defenders Office established that Hanrine had no right to the water, which was allocated to use for agricultural and irrigation purposes by farmers.
This legal work is highly important as it is establishing a precedent for a first line of defence by communities against mining that is not in their interests, nor in the interests of the thousands of non human species and the special ecosystems which call Ecuador home.
To keep supporting our work with these communities into 2023-24, please donate to our Ecuador Endangered crowdfund.