Codelco: Chile’s Mining Sub-imperialism

Carlos Zorrilla
18 min readFeb 18, 2022

Alberto Acosta(1), Carlos Zorrilla(2)

“Someday America will have the voice of a continent, a voice of a united people. A voice that will be respected and heard; because it will be the voice of people who are masters of their own destiny”. Salvador Allende

A crew of Codelco workers carrying machinery for exploration, Junín, Intag

Ecuador is relatively new in the world of transnational mining. After some failed attempts at the end of the last century and the beginning of the present one, since 2009 these Andean-Amazonian lands have experienced an avalanche of mining companies.(3) They are large, medium and small. Private and state-owned. For all tastes and uses. The juniors help open the door to the big ones. The state-owned ones, to overcome the resistance of communities that have been fighting for decades against transnational mining. And all of them to further consolidate Ecuador’s position as a product-country, in addition to being a cocoa-producing country, a banana-producing country, a shrimp-producing country, a flower-producing country, an oil-producing country… now they want to turn it into a mining country.

1 Economist. Minister of Energy and Mines (2007). President of the Constituent Assembly (2007–2008).

2 Resident of Intag, farmer, environmentalist, photographer, writer. Participant in the World Bank’s Extractive Industries Review.

3 See Alberto Acosta, John Cajas-Guiarro, Francisco Hurtado, William Sacher (2020): El Festín Minero del Siglo XXI — ¿Del ocaso Siglo XXI — ¿Del ocaso petrolero a la pandemia megaminera, Abya-Yala, Quito. Available at https://www.pachamama.org.ec/wpcontent/uploads/2021/03/FESTIN-MINERO.pdf

Mining is imposed with blood and fire

In the areas where large mining companies have settled, such as Morona Santiago, Zamora Chinchipe, Azuay, or the area of Intag in the province of Imbabura, mega-mining has been written “in letters of blood and fire” (in the words of Karl Marx in his analysis of the original accumulation in England).

Paramilitaries shooting at Intag community members, December 2006 (Photo: Elizabeth Weydt)

Disrespect for the Constitution and laws is the order of the day. Criminalization, evictions, harassment, persecutions and assassinations of opponents to extractivist projects, common in the mining world, also occur in Ecuador. In addition to the irregular and abusive land purchases and evictions backed by the public forces. The mechanisms of territorial control deployed by the mining companies become evident -especially through clientelist practices of co-optation- with the unfailing support and protagonist-governments that do not hesitate to violently repress those who criticize or oppose mega-mining in order to ensure control over the territories.

Such is the situation of violence and irregularities in this small Andean country, that all mining, starting with those presented as “legal”, come loaded with illegalities. Even popular consultations to prohibit mining, crystallized after complex struggles on unquestionable constitutional basis, are Olympically disrespected(4). And yet, in various parts of the country, communities resist, as we see in Intag, Tundayme, Girón, Nankints, Río Blanco, Sinangoe, Cuenca, Buenos Aires and other territories trapped by mining greed in Ecuador.

CODELCO sets its sights on half the world.

Let us focus our attention on Intag, a paradigmatic region of these struggles, whose long resistance is attempting to take down a couple of state-owned companies: CODELCO of Chile, and Ecuador’s ENAMI. It’s not worth wasting time on the latter: it’s little more than a legal paper construct, with neither experience nor capital, but which plays the role of standard-bearer of the national interests, opening the door to transnationals. While CODELCO, since 2012, during the government of Rafael Correa, assumed the role of battering ram to break down walls and other obstacles that could stop the mining expansion in that wonderful Andean valley.

Despite being the oldest megaproject in the country, it has been on standby since November 2018 when the first phase of advanced exploration was completed. Since that date the companies have been waiting for the go-ahead to expand exploration, without success, for reasons that we will later analyze.

Santa Rosa Valley, Intag area, and Cotacachi volcano. (Photo: Carlos Zorrilla)

Llurimagua is the project we are referring to. Here the Chilean state-owned CODELCO, through its subsidiary Exploraciones Mineras Andinas Ecuador EMSAEC S.A., intends on opening a copper mine whose useful life is expected to be of 27 years, during which, 210 thousand tons of copper would be produced annually(5).

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4. More about these consultations, see Alberto Acosta; “La naturaleza reta a la democracia — Ecos de la consulta de Kimsacocha”, March 2019. Available at https://rebelion.org/ecos-de-la-consulta-de-kimsacocha/ and Alberto Acosta; “El Agua, fuerza motriz de la Naturaleza — Su emancipación por la senda de las consultas populares”, March 2021. Available at https://www.aporrea.org/tiburon/a301480.html

In terms of potential physical and environmental impacts; given the ecological context of the area and the proposed technology (open pit), plus the high risks of heavy metal contamination and acid mine drainage, Llurimagua is, in the words of an expert mining engineer, “the worst of the worst scenarios”. That was the opinion of Steven Emerman, expert geologist, after an on-site visit to the mining area in 20198, 8a

5. See Pan-American Mining note: “Agreement between Codelco and Enami will be defined soon”, November 20, 2019. Available at: https://www.mineria-pa.com/noticias/acuerdo-entre-codelco-y-enami-se-definira-pronto/.

A s of December 2021 the investment made for exploratory activities was estimated at around 60 million US Dollars6. It has not been feasible for us to confirm information on the estimated rents the project might produce. Llurimagua could involve processing at least 1,360 million tons of ore(7), which would make it one of the largest mining projects in Ecuador.

In terms of potential physical and environmental impacts, plus the ecological context of the area and the proposed mining technology, and the high risks of heavy metal contamination and acid mine drainage, combine to make Llurimagua “the worst of the worst scenarios”, according to the diagnosis of mining engineer Steve Emerman. That was the engineer’s conclusion after an on-site visit to the mining area in 2019(8).

The Region of the Junín community, Intag, Ecuador

Worst-case mining scenario in sight

That nightmare would be shaped by several clearly foreseeable impacts. Intag is not the Atacama Desert, where CODELCO has its copper mines. The proposed mine would be within the buffer zone of the Cotacachi-Cayapas National Park, one of the most biologically important protected areas on the planet, rich in rainforests. The mining site is also surrounded by dozens of campesino communities. Therefore, besides provoking serious environmental impacts, mining will also severely affect the social and cultural wealth of the area.

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7 Ore is understood as the material extracted from the subsoil from which the minerals sought can be extracted after processing.

8 At the end of the expected mine’s life, according to rough estimates, the mine will have produced only about 6 million tons of pure copper, and approximately 750 million cubic meters of contaminated sludge (4.5 times the volume of Lake San Pablo in the province of Imbabura) and some 675 million tons of solid waste (7.5 times the volume of Quito’s Panecillo). Over the same period, water consumption will be 31.5 million liters of water per day: 1.5 times the daily consumption of the city of Ibarra, capital of the province of Imbabura, which has about 120,000 inhabitants

8a in 2018, without providing evidence, Codelco estimated a much larger ore body.

The Toisan Mountain Range, where the copper deposit is located, contains numerous geological faults and is topographically very rugged. It is also known to have numerous geological faults, posing significant earthquake risks. All of this greatly increases the risk of tailings pond collapses and landslides and, thus, water contamination. The in-perpetuity impacts of this type of extractivist activities cannot be ignored either. Complicating the scenario is the indications that the Junín copper deposit is very deep, and has a high content of arsenic, lead, cadmium, cadmium and other heavy metals (according to the 1996 Japanese report9), all contained in a porphyry-type ore deposit (which would cause acid mine drainage10). All this makes mining activity much more environmentally destructive and more economically challenging, even without considering the costs of compensating the inhabitants who will be affected, or the real costs of mine remediation and restoring Nature, as required by the 2008 Constitution.

In addition to the above, it should be noted that the cloud forests of Intag belong to one of the most important Biodivesity Hotspts hotspots in the world, the Tropical Andes. Within the mining concession, dozens of species of plants, mammals, amphibians, fish and birds in danger of extinction have been identified. These include, among many others, spectacled bears and the brown-headed spider monkey (one of the world’s most endangered primates). Also on the list is a very rare type of cat fish (Astroblepus ubidiai) and the Lynch’s glass frog, reported during the investigation for the last Environmental Impact Study in 201811. We also note that the area extremely rich in amphibians, being home to a frog belonging to the genus Ectopoglossus, and the Longnose Harlequin frog (Atelopus longirostris). The former, according to the Jambatu Center, is new to science, and is already in danger of extinction. The Harlequin Frog was declared extinct by the IUCN, until rediscovered in 2016 in Intag. Both frogs species have only been reported within the mining concession and nowhere else on the planet. Their extinction would have global consequences.

In as much as studies are still incomplete, new species -unique in the world- will continue to be discovered there(12). In fact, Centro Jambatu, whose biologist discovered the two aforementioned frogs, discovered 22 species of frogs just within the mining concessions in a relatively short time, most of which are in danger of extinction. They believe, with further studies, the area could be home to 100 species.

Furthermore, the Los Cedros Protected Forest (Bosque Protector) is located a few kilometers away from the Llurimagua mining concession, close enough to shares the same ecosystem and altitudes.

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8 At the end of the expected mine’s life, according to rough estimates, the mine will have produced only about 6 million tons of pure copper, and approximately 750 million cubic meters of contaminated sludge (4.5 times the volume of Lake San Pablo in the province of Imbabura) and some 675 million tons of solid waste (7.5 times the volume of Quito’s Panecillo). Over the same period, water consumption will be 31.5 million liters of water per day: 1.5 times the daily consumption of the city of Ibarra, capital of the province of Imbabura, which has about 120,000 inhabitants

8a in 2018, without providing evidence, Codelco estimated a much larger ore body.

9 See https://openjicareport.jica.go.jp/661/661/661_706_11282761.html

10 Understood as the formation of acidic water, rich in sulfates and heavy metals. This is caused by the leaching of metallic sulfides and pyrite present in ores. This happens by two processes: abiotic oxidation and biotic oxidation. And these drainages can last for literally hundreds of years.

11 See https://www.enamiep.gob.ec/wp-content/uploads/downloads/2019/01/EIA-LLurimagua-Complementario.pdf

12 Intag is considered to be one of the places where new species are most likely to be found. See the map at https://mol.org/patterns/discovery

13 The Court’s ruling is available at https://www.corteconstitucional.gob.ec/index.php/boletines-de-prensa/item/1262-caso-nro-1149-19-jp-21-revisi%C3%B3n-de-sentencia-de-acci%C3%B3n-de-protecci%C3%B3n-bosque-protector-los-cedros.html

Scientific studies carried out in the Bosque Protector Los Cedros for decades have identified 231 endangered of plant and animal species in the categories of vulnerable, endangered and critically endangered.

In this context, it is worth pointing out that at the end of 2021, the Constitutional Court, in a landmark ruling(13), banned mining in this site due to the profound effects mining would have on the Rights of Nature, environmental rights, to water, as well as to the life cycle of water. The court also ruled that the community’s Constitutional right to prior environmental consultation was violated. The Court’s ruling has binding effects, that is, it creates jurisprudence for similar cases.

In reality, the Rights of Nature go beyond these protective forests, as they do not exclusively encompass protected areas or endangered species, but rather Mother Earth as a whole.

Las Gemelas waterfalls impacted by mining exploration. Llurimagua mining project.(Photo Carlos Zorrilla)

In synthesis, mining activity, with the accompanying deforestation it brings, would affect an area of great ecological importance due to its biodiversity, and obviously it would make the conservation of the forests impossible; forests that also play a crucial role in the protection of, and supply of water for communities and climate stability. It’s helpful to keep in mind that the area is also, extremely rich in water resources. For example, just within the 4,929 hectare Llurimagua mining concession there are 43 sources of rivers and streams. Based on a small copper mine, the Japanese Environmental Impact Study predicted that the local rives and streams would be contaminated with lead, arsenic, chromium, cadmium and other toxic substances. There is also concern about the impacts to the groundwater. Giving its geographical location, mining at this site would contaminate not only the mining site itself, but also the watersheds of several rivers that flow into the Pacific.

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13 The Court’s ruling is available at https://www.corteconstitucional.gob.ec/index.php/boletines-de-prensa/item/1262-caso-nro-1149-19-jp-21-revisi%C3%B3n-de-sentencia-de-acci%C3%B3n-de-protecci%C3%B3n-bosque-protector-los-cedros.html

In addition to affecting life, mining destroys the social fabric and cultures of the inhabitants of the region, as well as part of the nation’s history. This is because the mining site is rich in pre-Inca Colombian archeological sites from different cultures, which would disappear with mining. To add to this concern, the region is also known for its long list of productive activities, including farming and ranching, tourism and handicrafts which, in terms of job creation, is much more relevant than mining. This is especially true as far as sustaining decent livelihoods, and healthy habitats for Intag’s non-humans residents.

Does Boric know what CODELCO is doing in Ecuador?

Added to the above issues, is a long list of legal and constitutional violations related to the Llurimagua mining project. For reasons of space, we will mention just a few:

- After the expulsion of the Japanese corporation, Bishimetal, in 1997 by the communities of Intag, attempts to impose mega-mining have not waned. After the Japanese left the Canadians came, starting in 2002 when the mining concession was awarded to an Ecuadorian lawyer who happened to be the only bidder in a “public” auction; the concession was later sold to the Canadian company Ascendant Copper.

- Ascendant Copper created and funded a group of paramilitaries that, in November 2006, attempted to violently access their concessions through Barcelona-Cerro Pelado communities, but were repelled by the campesino communities. A month later the company tried again to access its concession through the Junín community, but it was likewise unsuccessful. In the latter attempt, the paramilitaries were detained by the community. A couple of years later, the company also had to leave Intag due to the determined resistance from the communities.

- The violations of the 2008 Constitution began with disrespect for the Mining Mandate issued on April 18 of the same year, which revoked most of the country’s mining concessions. It continued later with the imposition of the mining law in January 2009 without complying with the constitutional provision of the pre-legislative consultation of Indigenous Peoples.

The absence of environmental consultations, carried out respecting the norms established, even by international bodies, was and is a constant. Intag is no exception.

- On April 2019, the Ombudsman of Ecuador published its report(14) on the Llurimagua mining project where it revealed and denounced serious human and collective rights violations as consequences of the imposition of the mining project.

  • On March 2019, the Nation’s General Comptroller published its report on the Special Examination(15) of the mining project which documented dozens of serious breaches by the companies and officials of different state institutions carried out during the more than four years of activities in the area.

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14 Available at https://cedhu.org/noticias/13-noticias-cedhu/145-resumen-del-informe-de-la-defensoria-del-pueblo-sobre-el-proyectollurimagua-de-enami-ep-codelco

15 The Report is available at https://www.contraloria.gob.ec/WFDescarga.aspx?id=57938&tipo=inf

The breaches and illegalities are so extensive and of such magnitude that the Comptroller called the attention of the regulatory institutions for not have insisted on the annulment of the project’s mining license. But the irregularities and illegalities don’t stop there.

- The binding nature of the declaration of Cotacachi as a Ecological Canton, in effect since

2000, was not respected either. Only the Constitutional Court, in light of the new Constitution, may question the validity of local ordinances, and to date it has not done so.

- In May of 2014, after nearly two years of the communities rejecting the presence of the mining companies, the Correa government resorted to the use of hundreds of police to forcefully escort Codelco and Enami employees to the concession. Below we delve a little deeper into this dark chapter in Intag’s history.

- At the beginning of 2019, the Cotacachi government approved the municipal ordinance that declared the Intag-Toisán Municipal Conservation and Sustainable Use Area, covering all of Intag, which imposes limitations on land use, and excludes activities mining. This resolution has also not being respected.

- Likewise, and to highlight the importance of the region, at the beginning of 2019 UNESCO declared the province of Imbabura, where the mining project is located, a Global Geopark, the first in Ecuador. These territories must be managed under criteria of conservation, education and tourism. Needless to say, this too has been ignored.

Protest during the filing of the Constitutional Challenge at the Cotacachi Court. November 2021

The violence used to impose Codelco and Enami in Intag deserves a special mention. The companies were complicit in the systematic violation of human rights, specifically related to the police-military aggression of May 8, 2014 mentioned above. On that date, approximately 400 armed police from different elite police units violently installed the mining companies in the in the community forest which the community had been using as part of an ecological tourism initiative for decades. A month prior, Javier Ramírez, a community leader, was illegally arrested and jailed and a five-year persecution of his brother, Hugo Ramírez, commenced. The strategy of intimidating the whole of Intag area was obvious. In other words, CODELCO’s presence in Intag was made possible only through the use of violence. It was the only way to break the community’s long, peaceful resistance.

Since CODELCO’s presence, the actions deployed by the community to defend their rights have been numerous. We’ll mention just a couple of examples from the last two years:

- On November 2020 a biologist, with backing from Intag’s civil society, filed a Constitutional challenging the validity of the mining project based on the violation of the Rights of Nature. The lawsuit was won in the lower court, but was rejected on appeal due to procedural errors by the court.

- On November 30, 2021, members of the four communities within the mining project’s area of influence filed another Constitutional challenge at the County court based on the violation of the Rights of Nature and lack of environmental consultation(16). The suspect negative court decision(17) came on February 11 of 2022, but an appeal was immediately filed.

It is worth mentioning that the Constitutional Court, in its ruling in favor of the Bosque Protector los Cedros at the end of 2021, recognized that environmental consultation (18) is fundamental and must be carried out prior to the granting of the environmental registrations or licenses. Therefore, the granting of a new environmental registry to rectify these irregularities is also inappropriate. The Chilean transnational company has continued to operate without paying any attention to these complaints or to the multiple observations made by various state regulatory bodies.

The list of irregularities is long, and the companies were notified of all the observations and illegalities. In fact, ENAMI, CODELCO’s partner in the mining project, has not yet complied with the some of the 233 observations made in 2018 by the Ministry of the Environment to the Environmental Impact Study, which was approved in 2014.

As is plain to see, Llurimagua has an obscure past, and it is getting more obscure. According to reliable press reports, in collusion with officials of the governments of Rafael Correa and Lenín Moreno, Codelco sought to reach agreements “under the table”, a situation that has not changed in the government of Guillermo Lass. Its actions violate the Constitution, the Organic Law of Public Enterprises, as well as mining legislation.

To complicate matters, on two occasions, Codelco filed international arbitrations, alleging what it considers to be a breach of a bi-lateral investment treaties between Chile and Ecuador signed to develop the Llurimagua mining project. At Christmas eve 2021, CODELCO filed for the start of arbitration at the International Center for Settlement of Investment Disputes (ICSID) against Ecuador. This was preceded months earlier by another arbitration request filed with the Paris-based International Chamber of Commerce.

This is not the first time that a mining transnational has resorted to international arbitration over this mining project as a way to recover its investment and to blackmail the State. The Canadian Copper Mesa (formerly Ascendant Cooper), which operated in Intag, did so in 2011.

Given the seriousness of the events, the Ecuadorian press is gradually beginning to uncover information about a complex and obscure relationship between CODELCO and the State.(18) A recent press article, for example, expanded on CODELCO’s obscure relations with the Ecuadorian government. Its headline asks “Does Boric know what CODELCO is doing in Ecuador”(19)?

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16. On February 11 2022, a different judge of the same court ruled against the community residents. The ruling raised suspicions given that there were 8 days of hearings, more than 4.000 pages worth of information filed, and numerous witnesses and experts testified. However, incredibly, the ruling was ready in less than 24 hours. The lawyers representing the campesinos filing the case, immediately appealed. As of this writing, no date has been set for the appeal.

17 https://ddhhecuador.org/2022/02/11/documento/comunicado-publico-juez-oscar-coba-vayas-vuelve-fallar-contra-la-naturaleza-y

18 In addition to environmental consultation as a constitutional right for the whole of society (article 398), there is also free and informed prior consultation for indigenous peoples (article 57.1),there are two additional types of consultation: popular consultation “on any matter” (article 104) and pre-legislative consultation for indigenous peoples prior to the approval of any law that may affect them (Article 57.17).

19 We recommend, for example, the PRIMICIAS report: “Salen a la luz los trapos sucios de los acuerdos con la minera Codelco https://www.primicias.ec/noticias/en-exclusiva/trapos-sucios-acuerdos-minera-codelco-enami-arbitraje

CODELCO’s Chuquicamata mine in the Atacama Desert, Chile

The threat of renewed sub-imperialism(20)

In Ecuador, approaches to state authorities have been exhausted. For this reason, Intag’s most important civil society organizations tried, on three occasions, to contact the presidents of Chile without receiving a response.

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20 Sub-imperialism, according to Ruy Mauro Marini (“La acumulación capitalista y el subimperialismo”, 1977; available at http://www.mariniescritos.unam.mx/052_acumulacion_subimperialismo.html), alludes to the fact that the Brazilian military dictatorships made the interests of the bourgeoisie coincided with the interests of the nation, while at the same time promoting them at the international level. In other cases there has been talk of Chilean sub-imperialism, a subject which, for reasons of space, is not included in this short text.

Entrance to CODELCO’s mining camp in Intag

At this moment in history, especially at a time of profound change in Chile, it would be regrettable if, through its state-owned mining company, if Chile attempts to take advantage of Ecuador’s institutional fragility. In this specific case, the Chilean company assumes the role of a transnational, with all defects and vices. This can in no way be accepted as horizontal cooperation.

We insist on pointing out that as a state-owned company, Codelco, helped to break the resistance of the communities by raising the banner of nationalism for a project that was initially promoted as an “Ecuadorian state-owned” project led by ENAMI.

This perverse alliance of state-owned companies does not, by itself, ensure the creation of a different extractive policy, and even worse, overcoming the problems of extractivism.

Let us recall that the actions of state-owned companies are almost always motivated by the demands of the global markets, and has even been, on some occasions, much more damaging than that of the transnationals themselves, as they trample communities’ and human rights in the name of national interest.

To sustain ongoing projects and even concessions granted without adhering to constitutional and legal norms in order not to affect private, or corporate, interests is an aberration, even more so if these situations entail serious harm to the communities and to Nature. To argue, for example, that once the State has granted a concession, even when they are of an unquestionable illegality, and that therefore the concessions should be respected, is wrong, to say the least. In addition, it is well known that the representatives of the mining companies and their lawyers, i.e. the companies -including CODELCO- were perfectly aware of Ecuador’s constitutional and legal framework which they had to comply with. This being the case even if governments don’t adhere to them, nor demand compliance.

We hope that the winds of change in Chile will correct these types of activities framed in sub-imperialist practices that are not, and cannot be, the basis for relations of respect and unity between brother nations -as called for by President Salvador Allende- and even less for the harmoniously attuning of ourselves with our Mother Earth.

At this point in history in which Chile is reforming its Constitution imposed by the Pinochet dictatorship, it’s necessary that it reconnects — also constitutionally — with its neighbors in the region. Chile must take active steps to promote a process of integration based on cooperation and solidarity, including respect for the rights and institutions of neighboring countries.

The new Chilean governmental authorities and the Constitutional Convention, which have generated so many expectations and hopes in our America, and which counts on our active solidarity, have an enormous responsibility. They must not forget that Intag, in its struggle for life, land and water, is not giving up. Its communities have been resisting for twenty-seven years; It is their essence and their passion, and their constitutional right. And there is no doubt that they will continue for as long as necessary.

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Carlos Zorrilla

Full time Intag resident/environmental activist,, farmer, photographer, writer