If Australian mining baroness Gina Rinehardt is to believed, the Ecuadorian arm of her transnational mining operations, Hanrine, has been under siege by ‘swarms’ of ‘bandits’ who are backed by ‘organised crime,’ protected by ‘scoundrel layers’ and ‘unscrupulous politicians,’ and are carrying out ‘environmentally destructive’ and illegal mining operations around the concessions granted to Hanrine by the Ecuadorian government in 2017. The Ecuadorian government, Hanrine alleged at the beginning of the year, has been forced to send in the military to restore order.
These claims from Hanrine Holdings come in the face its own operations in the small town of La Merced de Buenos Aires, against which the residents of the area have been organised in ardent opposition for the best part of five years. More than 300 residents spent over a month blockading access roads for Hanrine machinery, trucks and employees when they first arrived, and have now set up a permanent camp around the new copper mine in protest at its destructive effects on their local community and ecology.
Hanrine’s allegations are of particular interest and concern insofar as the actual chronology of events associated with the discovery of copper deposits around Buenos Aires sits conspicuously at adds with the claims published in the mainstream Australian corporate media at the beginning of the year—claims that have neither been upheld with any evidence, nor withdrawn for lack of any. The best lies, as political propagandists have long understood, are those spun from partial truths, not those cut from whole cloth. In this case, the claims from Hanrine are brazen distortions of half-truths.
The half-truth being weaponised by Australian mining operations in Ecuador in this instance is that the discovery of gold deposits in the area in 2017, four years ago, did indeed attract a rush of unlicensed miners from as far away as Peru and Venezuela. According to the Murdoch press article carrying the Hanrine claims, Buenos Aires was ‘plagued by violence, prostitution and drug addiction’ for two years until the Ecuadorian state put the area under a 60-day state of emergency. At the time, neoliberal Ecuadorian president Lenín Moreno tweeted, ‘Illegal mining and its network of associated crimes must be stopped!’
While it is clear then that the first discovery of precious minerals in the area did produce a gold rush, with all of the social ills typically associated with them, no explanation from Hanrine or the Murdoch Press has been forthcoming as to how this constituted either ‘banditry’ or ‘organised crime’—much less to say such activity protected by nebulous ‘scoundrel layers’ or ‘unscrupulous politicians.’ The existence of the oldest profession in the area was hardly proof; for all anyone knows all involved were self-employed. The existence of prostitution in the area certainly does not bear association with the narcotrafficking and official corruption more typically associated with South America. Nor is there any explanation to how a gold rush that failed to bear such descriptions four years ago has any bearing on anti-mining organising around Buenos Aires in 2021.
No less problematically, claims that the 2017 gold rush was ‘environmentally destructive’ because it was illegal are belied by the fact, pointed to as one of the main bones of contention by residents of Buenos Aires, that legal mining operations are just as environmentally destructive—if not more so. The attempt by Hanrine and their enablers in the Murdoch Press to establish a pretence to the contrary is, in this case, telling, in meeting attempts by Buenos Aires residents to hold them accountable with PR spin associating ecological sustainability with legalism. Insofar as Ecuadorian President Moreno colludes in perpetrating this false assumption, this also serves to call into question his impartiality. No enabling ‘scoundrel layers’ or ‘unscrupulous politicians’ to be seen here.
Further clues as to what is actually going on, and what purposes the claims from Hanrine actually serve, are suggested by testimony from Earth defender Natalia Bonilla. As Bonilla points out, when
her organization, Acción Ecológica, took an interest in what was happening in Buenos Aires, and started trying to work with residents to resist the mining operation, she realised that the people clustered around the mine were residents of the area, not participants in a gold rush. ‘It is a community of farmers, ranchers and agricultural people,’ she stated, arguing further that the spin from the mining company had ‘marked them as illegal miners and made them invisible’ (Cardona 2021).
The holes in the story as published by the Murdoch Press here in Australia, along with the direct testimony from Earth defenders on the ground in Ecuador, tends towards the conclusion that the claims from Hanrine, parroted and platformed by the Murdoch Press, have been constructed for the express purpose of invisibilising protest and demonising Earth Defenders. This is consistent with two decades of counterterrorist moral panic operating on the logic of ‘doubting the judgment of the powerful gives aid to the terrorists’—the association of Earth defence with terrorism being as predictable today as it was in 2001.
Indeed, as Rebekah Hayden, a member of the Rainforest Action Group points out,
Villagers say Hanrine is acting illegally in trying to forcibly enter their territories. They do not want any kind of mining in their territories, particularly a foreign-owned mine, and they view the incursion as a violation of their rights. Despite reports in Australian and Ecuadorian press that resistance in the area was by illegal miners, locals insist this is not the case, saying that Hanrine is conducting a smear campaign against them.
If it is a truism that throwing mud at others is a reflection of what we fear most about ourselves, we might conclude from the abovementioned facts that, in contrast to the claims from Hanrine, Ecuador is under siege from legal mining bandits. Backed by organised crime and scoundrel layers in the form of a neoliberal national government, who are enabling them in environmentally destruction, it is transnational mining corporations—in this instance, Hanrine, and in other instances, any number of others—who are culpable for extractivist destruction in what remains of the world’s forests.
Even if the claims published in the corporate media are threadbare, hysterical and bizarre, they nevertheless serve to muddy and disguise these basic facts associated with the global ecological crisis and its root causes—claims that the Earth defenders demonised as a result of media propaganda and demonisation work tirelessly to draw attention to.
Cardona, Antonio José Paz (2021). ‘An Ecuadoran town that survived illegal miners now faces a licensed operator,’ Monga Bay, via https://news.mongabay.com/2021/08/an-ecuadoran-town-that-survived-illegal-miners-now-faces-a-licensed-operator/, accessed 20 September 2021
Cockburn, Gerard & Anton Nilsson (2021). ‘Ecuadorean mine owned by Gina Rinehart has been swarmed by illegal gold diggers,’ News.com.au, January 27, via https://www.news.com.au/finance/business/breaking-news/ecuadorean-mine-owned-by-gina-rinehart-has-been-swarmed-by-illegal-gold-diggers/news-story/d06110875a43d4741e72912724832ef2, accessed 20 September 2021
Mining Journal (2019). ‘”Illegal mining and its network of associated crimes must be stopped!” via https://www.mining-journal.com/politics/news/1366551/%E2%80%9Cillegal-mining-and-its-network-of-associated-crimes-must-be-stopped-%E2%80%9D, accessed 20 September 2021
Rainforest Action Group (2021). ‘Gina Rinehart’s Ecuador concession faces new trouble,’ April 26, via https://rainforestactiongroup.org/gina-rineharts-ecuador-concession-faces-new-trouble/, accessed 20 September 2021