Ecuador has taken its first step into the megamining sector, starting production last week at the Condor-Mirador open-pit mine.
The mining project, which will produce copper, silver, gold and molybdenum, is located in Tundayme, an area in the Amazonian province of Zamora Chinchipe.
President Lenin Moreno's administration inaugurated the project on Thursday, betting that Condor-Mirador will boost development in the Andean nation, which still depends producing crude oil, a resource whose extraction has not benefited everyone in the country.
The mining project, however, is controversial, with critics contending that it will harm the environment and communities in Zamora Chinchipe.
Condor-Mirador was conceived during former President Rafael Correa's 2007-2017 administration and became a signature project due to its economic potential.
Ecuacorriente S.A. (ECSA) broke ground on the project in 2014 and invested some $1.5 billion in Condor-Mirador, which produces copper concentrate that will be exported to China for processing.
ECSA, a subsidiary of Chinese consortium CRCC-Tongguan, plans to process some 60,000 tons per day of minerals, with about 2 percent of the output being copper concentrate.
The large-scale mining project will also produce gold, silver and molybdenum.
During the project's 30-year life, a huge pit will be created that ECSA will later turn into a man-made lake stocked with species native to the Amazon.
Environmentalists and indigenous communities fear that the project will harm the region without providing benefits to residents.
Critics argue that the oil industry, which began operations in the 1970s, never yielded the benefits promised by officials.
The Confederation of Indigenous Nationalities of Ecuador (CONAIE) and its branch in the Amazon region, CONFENIAE, are demanding that the government obtain "prior consent" from affected communities before starting operations on any extractive project.
ECSA executives and government officials, for their part, said the large-scale project would be an example of "responsible mining," avoiding harm to the environment and communities, while boosting Ecuador's economic development.
"All the environmental and social standards have been complied with," an ECSA executive told EFE, adding that nearby communities welcomed the project.
Some $80 million in royalties has been paid since the project started and another $15 million is expected to be disbursed in coming weeks, Energy and Non-Renewable Natural Resources Minister Carlos Perez said.
Condor-Mirador mine manager Angel Cueva said the project's start marked a development milestone for Ecuador following the "oil boom" of the 1970s.
While Ecuador is just getting started in large-scale mining, a sector in which Chile and Peru have long had a presence, the Andean nation's industry is operating under stricter environmental rules, government officials and mining industry representatives said.
Ecuador has adopted "the best models" for producing and transporting minerals, and officials are working closely with nearby communities, Cueva said.
Perez, for his part, said that while "responsible mining" did not completely eliminate the risk of pollution, it represented one of the best industrial options for the country, generating revenues and foreign exchange.
Along with other strategic initiatives, such as the Fruta del Norte, Llurimagua, Rio Blanco and Cascabel mining projects, Condor-Mirador will open the door to development for Ecuador, Perez said.
The energy and non-renewable natural resources minister said 11 strategic and second-generation projects were being tapped by the government to boost economic development.
"The plan is for mining to account for 4 percent of the gross domestic product (GDP) by the year 2021, and to have it become the second line of exports, after hydrocarbons," the minister said.
"If it (the mining industry) continues developing, it is expected to take leadership of exports in the coming years," Perez said. EFE