The Guardian • Issue #2101

Australian companies exploit Ecuador’s Indigenous Lands

Children playing with turtles Tiputini River, Ecuador.

Tiputini River, Ecuador. Photo: Julie Larsen Maher, Wildlife Conservation Society – flickr.com (CC BY-NC 2.0)

By 2022 Australian companies produced 40 per cent of the world’s metal resources, including South America’s. Between 2016 and 2017 Ecuador opened up a third of the country to mining companies to invest in its rich reserves of copper and other base metals. By 2021, Australian companies held a third of the total mining concessions in the country. Australian companies hold 60 per cent of the mining investment in Ecuador.

Nearly two thirds of those concessions are in areas of protected rain forests and traditional Indigenous territories, in which Indigenous communities have long resisted encroachment upon their lands. In 2020 regional assemblies ratified local government ordinances detailing the region’s stance against mining. Local communities staunchly rejected BHP’s attempts to socialise with them. By 2024 mining companies had left a trail of environmental damage and carried out violent actions against the indigenous peoples.

The Financial Review Rich List has estimated Gina Rinehart’s wealth in iron ore at $37.8 billion. She is Australia’s richest person, and is building a major mining portfolio in South America. For Rinehart these acquisitions are part of recent investments in battery metals, including copper, lithium and rare earth metals.

Rinehart is the majority owner and chair of Hancock Prospecting, which is the 100 per cent owner of its subsidiary Hanrine. In 2018 Hanrine acquired exploration rights to explore for copper and gold in eleven mining concessions in northwestern Ecuador. Two of the mining company’s concessions have had armed conflict and human rights abuses. In 2021 the company blocked access to residents of one town and hired military police to break up peaceful protests. Works at the Llurimagua mine have been on hold since 2018, when an ombudsman’s report posited that the project was one of “the highest-risk mines” in the world, because of the region’s topography, biodiversity, and local resistance to mining.

Hanrine was awarded the concessions after the Ecuadorian government pledged to suspend more than 2,000 mining concessions, in the wake of a national referendum in which 80 per cent of Ecuadorians voted against the expansion of mining in environmentally sensitive areas. Local communities received no consultation about Hanrine moving into the region. Hanrine has been directly and indirectly involved in violent attacks, alleged irregularities in dealings with the judicial system, and civil rights violations. Hanrine has manipulated the Ecuadorian judiciary, trying to gain access to water sources reserved for agriculture, and criminalising people who protested peacefully.

The CEO of Hanrine, Carlos De Miguel, was a former US Marine and ran a private security company. He has close ties with the Ecuadorian government under the Rafael Correa and Lenín Moreno administrations. He was known to be friends with Correa’s Minister of Mines, Javier Cordova ex-CEO of Ecuadorian state mining company ENAMI, Stevie Gamboa.

Hanrine has also invested $186 million in the Linderos copper exploration project in the Ecuadorian province of Loja, owned by Australian company, Titan Minerals, to acquire 80 per cent of the project.

This year Hancock Prospecting acquired a further five exploration concessions in Ecuador, in a richly biodiverse region. The company also invested $186 million in a copper exploration project in the south of Ecuador. Brazilian Rare Earths (BRE) has been listed on the Australian Securities Exchange, with Hancock as the major shareholder. BRE is developing the rare earths deposits in the Brazilian province of Bahia State. Hancock is teaming up with Chile’s SQM in a $1.7 billion deal for Azure Minerals, which has a controlling stake in the Andover lithium and nickel-copper-cobalt project in the Pilbara. Hancock also holds the majority of WA lithium mining company Liontown Resources.

In 2023, Ecuador was among the top three most violent countries in Latin American, along with Venezuela and Honduras, and the economy has been failing due to falling tax revenues. Daniel Noboa was elected in 2023 on a platform of reducing violence and improving the economy. To restore public safety, declared a state of emergency, and then held a referendum which allows him to put the military on the streets, as well as expanding police and military powers.

With the economy on the ropes, Noboa is now proceeding with a policy of opening up Ecuador to further mining investments as a “crucial driver” of the future economy. Australian mining companies are taking advantage of this despite the numerous demonstrations against these companies destroying their traditional lands.

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