"Mining can bring you wealth in the short term, it can give you a house or a new car, but with money you can not buy the rain, the water we need to drink or to give to our livestock." This is how Bolívar Quezada, a 33-year-old Ecuadorian community leader, sums up the problems arising from mining in Latin America, an industry characterized by its high environmental impact.
Quezada is the coordinator of the Community Water Systems of Girón, a town in southern Ecuador that on Sunday 24 will vote in a referendum whether or not it is in accordance with the Loma Larga mining project, which partially sits on its territory. It is the first binding environmental popular consultation to be held in the history of the country. Despite the strong division among the inhabitants, everything points to the fact that the do not.
The 15,000 voters of Girón will have to decide if they want the exploitation to take place, which aims to extract 62 tons of gold, 377 tons of silver and 40,000 tons of copper from a vein granted to the Canadian company INV Metals. For this they must answer this question: "Do you agree with mining activities in the páramos and water sources of the Quimsacocha Hydrological System?"
The precious minerals are found in the subsoil of the Quimsacocha páramo, a large wetland located at an altitude of more than 3,500 meters full of lagoons and rivers that supply water to Cuenca, the third city in the country with more than 300,000 inhabitants.
"The company itself admits that approximately 30 liters of water per second will infiltrate the underground tunnel, equivalent to the daily consumption of a population of 10,000, according to the World Health Organization," reveals Kléver Calle, member of the environmental group. Yasunidos Guapondelig. "The expert report clearly states that the construction of this type of sinkholes in páramo ecosystems tends to dry the entire region," adds the Cuenca activist.
The water defense of Quimsacocha, which means Tres Lagunas in Kichwa, began 20 years ago. Since then, many of the inhabitants of the surrounding communities have mobilized to avoid mining. "I am against mining because everything is going to dry up and there will be no water, we will not have to drink or irrigate the gardens," explains María Rosa Paute, 54, who sells at a roadside stand. the vegetables and fruits that he grows.
However, not all residents are of the same opinion. In an economically depressed region, where many residents have had to migrate to the United States in search of work, the arrival of a multinational and its promises of employment and development have convinced some. In San Gerardo, the community of Girón closest to the mining camp, the State built a health center, asphalted the streets and installed potable water and sewerage systems thanks to the anticipated royalties given by the North American company.
"The dilemma is not between water or gold, but rather between formal mining or illegal mining, the veins have already been identified, many people know the coordinates, which is why I have the absolute conviction that sooner or later it will end up exploding," says Patricio Vargas, president of the provincial mining chamber, convinced that the mining industry is the solution to the situation of poverty that Ecuador is going through. Loma Larga had projected to provide 554 million dollars (about 490 million euros) to the coffers of the State, as well as generating 1,450 direct jobs. Now, all this is hanging by a thread that could end up breaking if the do not was imposed in the referendum on Sunday.