Quimsacocha (Ecuador) (AFP)

"We have to decide between gold and water, what do we prefer comrades?" Says indigenous leader Yaku Perez. "The water", shout the militants against the gigantic mining project of Quimsacocha, in Ecuador, in the heart of the Andes whose torrents and glaciers feed the basin of the Amazon.

The crystalline water cascades down the steep slopes. From the paramo, high wet moor typical of the equatorial regions, it enlarges the streams in its path. But natives and peasants denounce a threat: the mines.

In the southern province of Azuay, half of the approximately 20,000 hectares of the Quimsacocha paramo (three lagoons in Quechua) have been granted to the Canadian group INV Metals Inc.

This mining company is developing a project deemed strategic by the Ecuadorian government. It is in the exploration phase of reserves estimated at 2.2 million ounces of gold, 13.3 million ounces of silver and 88 million pounds of copper, according to official figures.

"Bienvenidos, Proyecto Loma Larga, La Nueva Minería" (Welcome Project Loma Larga, The New Mining) proclaims a large banner deployed on a path, at more than 3,000 meters above sea level.

In the background, one of the many torrents feeding Cuenca, chief town of the department, about 80 km north of the paramo which stores water as a sort of huge sponge.

In this uninhabited nature, where an icy wind bends the shrubs and where the soil burns the skin more than it warms it, INV Metals plans to build an underground mine and start producing gold concentrate in 2021.

- "We can live without gold"

Last March, during an unprecedented popular consultation, the inhabitants voted against the mining activities in Quimsacocha, of which only 3,200 hectares are protected to date while it is a biosphere reserve.

"We can live without gold, but without water ever," said Perez, whose name Yaku means "water" in Quechua, and who is the prefect (governor) of Azuay.

Belonging to the Cañari Kichwa ethnic group, this 50-year-old man leads the "resistance" of the natives and peasants opposed to mining, and for the defense of water sources.

"Where it settles, mining generates spoliations of land, violence against the community, destabilizes democracy, promotes the corruption of institutions, pollutes water, poisons rivers", he denounces, on the banks of the torrent Tasqui, from which he drinks the transparent water with long gulps.

Mr. Perez believes that mining groups "reserve their flesh and leave only bones, and contaminated bones".

Ecuador, which launched large-scale metal mining in July and is one of the world's major deposits, will receive about $ 554 million from the Loma Larga site, according to official data.

"The mining is like a mirage: we are given money for a moment, but this money evaporates, goes up in smoke, in other words: bread today, hunger and desolation tomorrow," Mr Perez denounces.

- Fragile water sources -

This lawyer defends Quimsacocha with all his strength and nothing stops him when he wants to enter the paramo. Its supporters cut chainsaw chains that block access to a narrow track high up in the mountain.

"Private property, entry prohibited," warns a sign, in white letters on a blue background.

"It's not a private property, it's a communal property, we have some papers from 1893. The ancients bought this huge moor, we do not want land to cultivate it, but as a water reserve," he says. prefect.

Here "we will not let miners come," says Maria Dorila Fajardo, a 60-year-old native, wearing a woolen hat and wearing a huge red skirt.

According to Mr. Perez, the popular consultations, which must be approved by the Constitutional Court, are the way for "Ecuador to be declared a free territory of mining industry, and its water sources as well as its ecosystems, fragile areas" .

Ecologists, natives and peasants won their first victory with the vote in favor of Quimsacocha paramo protection.

But the government hopes that the Constitutional Court will prevent further consultations of this kind, in order to demonstrate the country's legal security and thus attract more foreign investment in the mining sector.

According to official forecasts, Ecuador is expected to receive more than $ 2.2 billion by 2021 and its GDP to grow from 1.61% in 2018 to 4%.

© 2019 AFP