The concept of ecological debt as an argument against the opening of an open pit mine

The concept of ecological debt as an argument against the opening of an open pit mine

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By Reinhold Klaes Stefan

The fact of giving a value to an element or a function of our environment is deeply anthropocentric. In the case of estimating the value of the environment, as Professor Martínez-Alier says, one can ask: “who has the power to simplify the complexity of ecosystems by imposing a single evaluation language? The very idea of ​​wanting to evaluate environmental functions presents a risk of privatization of these functions, since if a company can pay for its exploitation, it will do so and it will pollute more.

The Cordillera del Condor, to the southeast of the Republic of Ecuador, is the scene of a conflict that can be described as "environmental", pitting an indigenous community against a Canadian mining company: Corriente Ressources Inc. Since 2000, violent confrontations have opposed the inhabitants of the region to the employees of the company with the force of order.

During the 1990s, the subsoil of the Cordillera del Condor was extensively explored by mining companies. According to a study by the company, there would be 890 million tons to be mined with a measurement of 0.56% copper and 0.16 g / t gold. This same study also indicates that the project had to be suspended in 2006 due to “social unrest” (1). I had the opportunity to spend a few days in the canton "El Pangui" (closest town to the concession) in April 2009 and I can give my personal testimony of the social tension that existed at that time in the canton. The population of the towns and surroundings is clearly divided between the pros and the anti-mines and that sometimes generates violent hookups. Faced with this disturbance, and although the exploitation of the mine has not yet begun, it can be considered that the company has already contracted a social debt to the inhabitants of the region for the disorders it generates, sometimes even dividing entire families.

This conflict situation was born from the antagonism between the search for a short-term benefit and the endangerment of the environment of neighboring populations, this very environment on which populations live. The concern of the autochthonous, essentially composed of the Shuars indigenous communities, is legitimate in the face of the destruction of their livelihood. Indeed, the Shuar, who have conserved their ancestral way of life, depend very much on nature, or Pachamama, for their survival. It is also necessary to specify that the Cordillera del Condor is one of the richest places on the planet from the point of view of its biodiversity. Numerous endemic species are counted, which makes it a global hotspot in terms of its biodiversity. Let us mention, for example, that between 800 and 2000 meters of altitude, there are up to 308 different species of birds, among others the famous condor (2). It is important to note that the entire region was classified as a National Park as a result of the peace agreement between Ecuador and Peru. Once the ecological importance of this region was understood, legitimate questions could be asked about the rationale for the mining project and its true profitability. The company, with the idea of ​​maximizing its profits, has already carried out the Cost Benefit Analysis (CBA) of the project. However, this profitability study does not take into account human and ecological aspects. We want to provide ecological-economy tools in order to improve the initial CBA and thus take into account the most important, that is, people and their environment. That means trying to internalize the negative effects of the project and thus being able to appreciate if this project is really profitable for the inhabitants of the region, for Ecuadorians, and finally for the entire planet.

Before expanding on the possible consequences of the opening of the mine, it is important to understand how the economy (macro or micro) is embedded in the planetary ecosystem. You can compare the relationship that the economy has with the environment to the relationship of a mammal with its livelihood. In effect, to function, the economy, like the mammal, would have to swallow / gobble up and transform natural resources (or food for the mammal). Once the consumption process is finished, rejections will be caused. If this mammal enlarges and swallows all the resources present in its environment, it will end up with a large amount of waste and very few resources. It is the same with the economy at the level of the planet. The metaphor between the animal and the current economic system allows us to understand how the need for economic growth can endanger our planet. Since the planetary system is finite, the logical conclusion of unlimited growth would obviously be the destruction of the environment and that would lead to a decrease in human well-being.

The concept of justice is also fundamental in ecological economics. The geographical distribution of environmental conflicts would be the consequence of the dogma of economic growth. Given the prevailing neoliberal logic, it is understood that “third world countries deteriorate their environment in order to remain economically competitive” (3). Let's analyze some clues to internalize the negative effects and thus take into account some fundamental elements of life on earth.

The opening of the mine would end up destroying the forest located above the deposit with a certain dose of contamination, especially due to acid drainage (leaching) of rainwater in the slag and around the hole and this phenomenon will undeniably end up contaminating the water table . In the name of corporate social and environmental responsibility, Corriente Ressources Inc. should do everything to avoid all types of contamination as much as possible and when it occurs should pay the costs of decontamination. A suitable estimation technique would be the evaluation of the “cost of avoidance” (or Best Available Technology). For this, it is assumed that the company always uses the best exploitation techniques available and consequently those that pollute the least. However, due to the leaching phenomenon, the contamination of the site can continue for a long time and it would be necessary to evaluate the costs of decontamination of soils and wells. By itself this first stage can upset the initial CBA of the company and thus put the profitability of the project in doubt.

In addition, the delicate question of estimating the loss of environmental functions guaranteed by the ecosystem above the deposit arises. Eliminating the forest would inevitably lead to a loss of free environmental “services”. For example, the forest ecosystem has always participated in the purification of water and air (one thinks, in particular, of capturing carbon dioxide). This forest also guarantees a constant contribution in food to the indigenous communities, thanks in particular to the pollination of bees that allows us to eat fruits. It also naturally controls the proper flow of rivers and prevents the risks of flooding. In short, the forest is the traditional habitat of the Shuars and has great cultural and spiritual importance for them. Eradicating it would mean losing all these functions. Knowing that the Cordillera del Cóndor is the habitat of endemic species, the intrinsic value of environmental functions can only increase.

The fact of giving a value to an element or a function of our environment is deeply anthropocentric. In the case of estimating the value of the environment, as Professor Martínez-Alier says, one can ask: “who has the power to simplify the complexity of ecosystems by imposing a single evaluation language? Who has the power to impose your conclusion on this debate? " (4). The very idea of ​​wanting to evaluate environmental functions presents a risk of privatization of these functions, since if a company can pay for its exploitation, it will do so and it will pollute more. We issue many reservations as to the usefulness of estimating ecosystem “services”.

Before continuing, we want to make a comparison with the Yasuni initiative. Through this initiative, the government proposes to leave an oil field underground and renounces several billions of petrodollars. On the other hand, Ecuador, taking into account the UN principle of "common but differentiated responsibility" for global environmental problems, asks the international community for a contribution up to a maximum of 50% of the financial basket that it could have if it exploited this Petroleum. Thus, the Government would undertake to leave this part of the Amazon rainforest intact, guaranteeing the carbon dioxide capture service that humanity takes advantage of.

Ecuador is immediately placed as an ecological creditor and the Yasuni initiative represents an implicit request for reimbursement for ecosystem services provided and at the same time for a loss of financial opportunities. The Ecuadorian initiative is justified for financing climate change prevention and mitigation measures. The UNDP (United Nations Development Program) states that there is an opposite relationship on a global scale between responsibility for climate change and vulnerability to its effects (5). The Yasuni initiative implicitly affirms that it is more profitable in the long term and for humanity as a whole to leave a living ecosystem that guarantees us essential environmental functions than to exploit and consume the oil field. This is incorporated into our observation regarding the open pit mine in the Cordillera del Cóndor. One can then be inspired by the Yasuni initiative to try to transpose it into several other controversial cases of exploitation of natural resources.

To conclude, we insist on the fact that the company and especially the project funders are at risk of contracting a new ecological debt. This debt would be added to the imposing historical debt contracted by the nations and the providers of funds that enjoy the resources extracted from the Ecuadorian soil. Since the discovery of "the New World" in 1492 until today, Ecuador has always been in demand for its wealth in natural resources, formerly taken by force and today under the pressure of immoral financial mechanisms imposed by international financial institutions (World Bank and International Monetary Fund). The Daule Peripa dam represents another example of ecological debt incurred after a loan from a financial institution. Indeed, the Inter-American Development Bank (a subsidiary of the World Bank) financed this project, which today turns out to be highly controversial due to its ecological cost (6).

The recognition of the ecological debt would make it possible to cancel all or part of the Ecuadorian financial debt, this same debt that prompts the Government to speculate on the value of its resources in regions as rich in biodiversity as the Cordillera del Condor. The project to open the open pit mine seems illegitimate to us and goes against the concept of "Sumak Kawsay" alleged by indigenous communities to define their relationship with others and with the environment. Sumak Kawsay means in Quechua "good living", and this concept refers to and agrees with those demands of "décroissance" by Serges Latouche, "conviviality" by Iván Illich and "deep ecology" by Arnold Naess (7). The Shuars are, perhaps without knowing it, the most radical ecologists and rather than presenting them with arrogant projects that only companies from the northern countries take advantage of, we would certainly have much to learn from their way of life, since they are more in harmony with the environment than we do in our Europe.

Reinhold Klaes Stefan Translated with the help of Patricia Aldaz Burbano -


  • Morales Mite (2007), Protected Areas and Indigenous Peoples, a case study in Ecuador, Latin American Network for technical cooperation in national parks.
  • M. Torras (2003), An Ecological Footprint approach to external debt relief, World Development, Volume 31, Issue 12, December 2003, pages 2161-2171
  • J. Martinez-Alier (2007), Conflits de distribution écologique, identité et pouvoir, in Cornut et al. (2007), «Environnement et inégalités sociales», ed. From l’Université de Bruxelles
  • UNDP (2007), Human Development Report 2007-2008. The fight against climate change: solidarity in the face of a divided world. UNDP
  • Faisabilité etude de la concession Mirador de Corriente Ressources Inc .:…), April 10, 2010.
  • Sowing deserts, The social and ecological debt generated by external indebtedness in the multi-purpose project Jaime Roldos Aguilera:…), on April 21, 2010
  • The Sumak Kawsay (Good Living) and the Caesuras of Development - Pablo Dávalos, on April 21, 2010

Video: Ecological Handprints: Rocky Rohwedder at TEDxUCIrvine (June 2022).