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Paving a national avenue on top of a complex network of trails: Contentions around mineral extraction in Ecuador

23 Jul 2014

Paving a national avenue on top of a complex network of trails: Contentions around mineral extraction in Ecuador

This contribution is published as part of the Young Scholars Think Piece Series which aims to provide promising young researchers with an opportunity to present their research on social development and contribute to the diversity of ideas within the development community. The winning pieces have been selected for their alternative perspectives and the way they highlight marginalized viewpoints and bringing neglected issues to the fore. 

Duygu Avci is a PhD researcher at the International Institute of Social Studies (ISS) of the Erasmus University Rotterdam (EUR) in the Netherlands where she is affiliated with the research group “Political Economy of Resources, Environment and Population” .

Contentions around mineral extraction in Ecuador

In the last decade, due to increasing global demand for commodities driven primarily by China’s growth, investment and production in the minerals sector have increased substantially (Muradian et al. 2012). This has led to a renewed interest in the debates around the relationship between mineral wealth and development, on both scholarly and political levels. In Latin America both processes have been particularly salient: In this period the whole region has seen significant increases in investment in mineral extraction while going through important political and economic changes, usually referred as the Left Turn, in which the role of mineral wealth in development has become a central issue.

Ecuador is one of the countries in the region where these changes have been more radical and have primarily manifested themselves in the increasing control of the state over the minerals sector. The leftist president Rafael Correa who came to power in 2007 embarked on a post-neoliberal development strategy based on the idea of reasserting the role of the state in development processes (Arsel & Avila 2012). As the main pillar of this development strategy Correa has promoted extractive industries, seeing them as the main source of revenue to finance social development. In fact, the Correa government has substantially increased the share of the state in oil revenues and has used these revenues to increase social spending on poverty alleviation, health, education, housing and infrastructure. In addition, the government has shown strong support for the development of the mining industry in which currently there are no large-scale operations but several projects are being advanced, especially in the southern part of the country.

Will of the state and rights of the people

The Ecuadorian government claims that both the existing oil extraction and possible future mining activities will be governed so as to ensure that the pattern of mineral wealth and poor development outcomes known as the ‘resource curse’ will be avoided. In fact, the government seems confident that through increased state control, more stringent regulations, better redistribution and compensation mechanisms, and economic diversification strategies, mineral extraction will serve broad-based social development. This confidence also extends to concerns about the negative impacts of extraction at the local level, as the government strongly insists that it is possible to prevent or at least minimize the local economic, social and environmental impacts, and that it has the will and the capacity to implement the necessary measures.

Despite all the actual changes in the governance of the oil sector, in the use of revenues for social policy, and the promises for the future of mining, various social actors, both at local and national level, oppose the further development of extractive activities. The opposition has been particularly intense in the case of mining, and local socio-environmental conflicts around the proposed mining projects have intensified. These conflicts actually started before Rafael Correa came to power. However, the tensions escalated due to the government’s ever stronger support for mining and its efforts to delegitimize and criminalize social resistance. Despite all the discourse on citizens’ participation, plurinationality, indigenous cultural and territorial rights, and rights of nature, all enshrined in the new Constitution of 2008, the government made it clear that local concerns cannot justify leaving minerals underground and that local populations do not have the right to decide on the matter.

Social opposition to the expansion of mineral extraction does not normally arise without a good reason. On the one hand, as the debates around the resource curse thesis have demonstrated, mineral wealth poses specific challenges both for economic policy and political governance, and transforming mineral wealth into social development is not a straightforward task (Hujo 2012). On the other hand, mineral extraction clashes with existing local resource uses (especially of land and water) primarily by peasant and indigenous communities, and degrades the local environment on which their livelihood depends (Bebbington et al. 2008). Moreover, extractive activities pose threats to human health, cultural diversity, social cohesion and human rights. Ecuador’s own experience with more than forty years of oil exploitation in the Amazon is sad proof of these perils.

The Ecuadorian government has responded to such concerns first by insisting that it is different from the previous governments and will not let the same things happen again. Second, it has argued that given its development needs, Ecuador does not have the luxury not to exploit its mineral wealth, that mineral extraction is indispensable to improve the well-being of the people, above all of the poor and of historically marginalized groups. Third, it has asserted that extraction is in the ‘national interest’ which it says is the supreme value guiding its decisions.

Social development: one size does not fit all

Considering that social development concerns not only improved economic outcomes, but also equality, social cohesion, democracy, participation and sustainability, the government’s approach to extraction seems rather contradictory: First, the government is claiming that revenues from extraction will be used to improve equality in the distribution of income and social services, i.e. of 'goods'. However, to the extent that the negative impacts of extraction are localized this would imply more inequality in the distribution of environmental degradation and risks, i.e. of 'bads'. Second it is difficult to see how this form of inequality and the social conflicts around it are to contribute to social cohesion. Third, the government asserts that better social policies will reverse the historical marginalization of indigenous and peasant communities, but denies them their rights to decide what happens in their territories.

This is not to suggest that the Ecuadorian government should just renounce any attempt to use mineral wealth for development. Rather it is a criticism of its approach which denies the challenges and tensions of an extraction-based development strategy. Similarly, it is not the case that in all places where extractive activities are taking place or projects are planned local populations or civil society actors are categorically against them. It might also be the case that they have legitimate concerns and they want them to be addressed in a more open and democratic environment. The government’s hard stance against any criticism or resistance hardly contributes to such an environment.

It is also important to recognize that the reasons for opposing extraction are not necessarily the same in all places. Crucially, in some places extraction is rejected in defense of ‘alternative’ local development strategies. In such places there might be more reason to think twice before going ahead with extraction. In addition to promoting extraction as a source of revenue for social development, a sound development strategy can include giving space to, encouraging and supporting such local efforts that might contribute more to a diversified economy, institutional innovation and social learning in the long term.

Such alternative development initiatives, ranging from the local to the international level and usually grouped under the name of social and solidarity economy, are seen as one response to current development challenges in the context of multiple global crises of food, energy, finance and environment. They are important because they can integrate “social and environmental protection, social cohesion, local employment generation and economic development, cultural diversity, democratic decision making and empowerment” (UNRISD 2012: 1). If and when expansion of extraction threatens such initiatives it seems more difficult to assess whether extraction or the growth of such initiatives is a better option for long-term social development. If states are to invest mineral wealth productively to diversify the economy, what else but such initiatives are indicative of suitable sectors and activities for investment?

Opposition to mining and alternative development in Intag

In Ecuador, a concrete example of such a situation is the Intag valley. Located in the Cotacachi canton of the Imbabura province, Intag is a subtropical valley of cloud forests and farms which houses the largest remnants of Ecuador’s western forests. The primary forests of the valley lie in two of the 34 biodiversity hotspots in the world, namely the Tropical Andes and the Chocó. The valley is home to more than 13,000 peasants whose livelihood mainly depends on agriculture and cattle ranching, as well as forestry, small commerce and ecotourism.

Since the 1990s Intag residents have been struggling against the prospect of a large-scale copper mine. First, the Japanese mining company Bishi Metals tried to develop the project in 1990s, but had to leave the region due to popular resistance. Then from 2004 to 2007, a small exploration company from Canada, Ascendant Copper, took over the project. This company was also beaten in its attempts thanks to the fierce opposition of part of the local population, grassroots organizations, local NGOs and the local government. Since 2010 the state mining company ENAMI and the world’s largest copper producer, the Chilean state company CODELCO, have been working on the project.

The struggle against mining became a catalyst for the initiation of a long-term process of collective reflection, debate and action around the use and conservation of the environment in Intag. Civil society organizations and peasants joined hands to develop sustainable economic activities such as organic coffee production, agroecology, commercialization of agricultural products through fair trade networks and cooperatives, community eco-tourism and women’s handicraft production. Moreover, with support from international conservation organizations several ecological reserves were established to protect the remaining forests in the valley.

At the same time, in the canton Cotacachi the administration, or municipality,1 initiated a process of participatory local governance. This process was institutionalized through the establishment of the Assembly for Cantonal Unity that brought together organized sections of the population and created a space for collective deliberation and planning. As part of this process, an Ecological Ordinance was enacted by the canton government in 2000 following the consensus reached by all parish governments of Intag. The Ordinance, important more as the result of participatory decision-making than as a legally binding instrument, declared Cotacachi an ecological canton, prohibited environmentally degrading economic activities—particularly mining—and promoted sustainable ones, and encouraged community management and the protection of forests and watersheds.

Throughout the years, the residents of Intag have asserted their rejection of a large-scale copper mine while demonstrating their willingness to pursue alternative territorial development undertaken in a participatory manner, and which is ecologically sustainable, socially inclusive and politically empowering. To sacrifice already existing and for the most part successful attempts at alternative local development in exchange for a mining project that will take many years to develop and whose contribution to national development is an uncertain promise may not be the best course of action for the sustainable well-being of Ecuadorian society. In the long term Ecuadorian state and society may benefit more from this local social experiment in terms of learning about possibilities of and routes toward sustainable development than they could from a questionable mining project.


While in Ecuador, thanks to its ideological orientation and political commitments, the government might enjoy some success in mobilizing mineral wealth for development, by adhering to a modernist and technocratic view of control and centralized decision making, and invading newly emerging spaces of diverse social experiments it might actually be closing some other avenues to social development. Moreover, in today’s world characterized by complexity and uncertainty, opting for an extraction-based development strategy cannot be easily justified by adherence to an alleged ‘national interest’. In a context in which multiple crises (economic, ecological, food and energy) threaten societies, where unexpected political changes at the national level are becoming more common (arguably best demonstrated by the Arab spring) and local socio-environmental conflicts are intensifying, states cannot pretend to have the capacity to foresee the future with clarity. This is not to suggest that states cannot play an important role in directing the development process but a call to acknowledge and take seriously complexity and uncertainty. Therefore, in some cases it might be a more sensible and prudent strategy to allow social experiments to flourish as what can be learned from these experiments with regard to economic activities, political institutions and ecological conservation can prove to be more beneficial for society in the long run.


Arsel, M. and N.A. Angel. 2012. “'Stating' Nature’s Role in Ecuadorian Development Civil Society and the Yasuní-ITT Initiative." Journal of Developing Societies 28(2): 203-227.

Bebbington, A., L. Hinojosa, D. H. Bebbington, M. L. Burneo and X. Warnaars. 2008. "Contention and ambiguity: Mining and the possibilities of development." Development and Change 39(6):887–914.

Hujo, K. 2012. "Introduction and Overview: Blessing or Curse? Financing Social Policies in Mineral-Rich Countries." In Mineral Rents and the Financing of Social Policy: Opportunities and Challenges, edited by K. Hujo. United Kingdom: Palgrave Macmillan.

Muradian, R., M. Walter and J. Martinez-Alier. 2012. "Hegemonic Transitions and Global Shifts in Social Metabolism: Implications for Resource-Rich Countries. Introduction to the Special Section." Global Environmental Change, 22(3): 559-567.

UNRISD (United Nations Research Institute for Social Development). 2012. Potential and Limits of Social Solidarity Economy. UNRISD Project Brief, No. 2. UNRISD, Geneva.

1 In Ecuador, cantons are the second level administrative units below the provinces and are governed by a municipality. They are made up of rural and urban parishes which are the third level administrative units and are governed by parish councils. Intag is comprised of seven rural parishes, six of them belonging to Cotacachi, and one to the canton Otavalo.

    Duygu Avci is a PhD researcher at the International Institute of Social Studies (ISS) of the Erasmus University Rotterdam (EUR) in the Netherlands where she is affiliated with the research group “Political Economy of Resources, Environment and Population” . Her PhD research is on environmental conflicts around large-scale mining projects in Ecuador and Turkey. Duygu aims to understand the politics of resistance against large-scale mining projects, focusing on the discourses and practices of local opposition groups. Her research is a comparative study of two specific local mining conflicts in Ecuador and Turkey in which she analyses how the political subjectivities of local communities are constructed and transformed through the struggles they are engaged in to stop the mining projects. More broadly, Duygu is interested in political economy of environment and development.



This article reflects the views of the author(s) and does not necessarily represent those of the United Nations Research Institute for Social Development.