A copper mine in Ecuador owned by Australian billionaire Gina Rinehart has been swarmed by illegal gold diggers, prompting a military response by the country’s government.
Hanrine Holdings, a subsidiary of Mrs Rinehart’s Hancock Prospecting, has confirmed exploration at its South American site has been “temporarily hampered” as a result of incursions with mining bandits trespassing and scouring for gold deposits.
Hanrine Ecuadorean Exploration and Mining said exploration works at the Imba 2 site near the district of La Merced de Buenos Aires has been halted sporadically, with army personnel and police officers regularly needing to patrol the area.
“Hanrine continues to undertake exploration in Ecuador, albeit less so last year given the pandemic. At times this has also been temporarily hampered due to incursions by illegal miners,” a Hancock Prospecting spokesman said.
“We are working with the relevant Ecuadorean authorities to prevent unsafe and environmentally damaging illegal mining on our concessions.”
Ms Rinehart holds a 76.6 per cent stake in Hanrine, according to company information accessed from CreditorWatch.
Ecuadorean President Lenín Moreno has addressed the situation, saying some of the intruders are backed by organised crime networks.
“Once again, groups of illegal miners have entered Buenos Aires,” Mr Moreno told a local television station last week.
“There are some that are unfortunately backed by organised crime groups, and some [that are protected] by scoundrel layers, and also by unscrupulous politicians.”
The mining concession in northern Ecuador has been the site of periodic police and military crackdowns since gold was accidentally discovered there in 2017.
The finding sparked a gold rush and caused thousands of fortune seekers from Ecuador and other nearby countries like Peru and Venezuela to flock to the area.
Local media in the area have reported illegal miners have attempted to access the site as recently as January 6, from a nearby enclave of squatting tents dubbed the “plastic city”.
The latest attempt reportedly involved approximately 400 people who tried to recover gold bars that were left in the mine after government officials forced the gold diggers out of Imba 2.
In 2019, the area was put under a 60-day state of emergency to combat the unauthorised miners, according to a Reuters report.
Hanrine is primarily using the site for copper exploration and has been registered as an Australian company in 2011.
Jay Newby, an executive director at Hancock Prospecting, is also a beneficial owner of Hanrine Holdings.
Hancock Prospecting said it intends to develop a major copper and gold project in the area.
“Our staff working on the project are very enthusiastic and dedicated and want to be able to retain their jobs, and we wish to ensure our staff remain safe from the unauthorised entrants,” a company spokesman said.