Renee Lewis / Al Jazeera

Protesters allegedly shot near planned mine site in Dominican Republic

Activists say a foreign company is taking advantage of a series of suspicious fires to clear the way for a nickel mine

Police reportedly shot and wounded protesters this week at a march prompted by a spate of suspicious fires near the proposed site of a nickel mine at the Dominican Republic’s Loma Miranda mountain.

A group of environmentalists and other activists had gathered at the base of Loma Miranda on Sunday with the intention of going up to help extinguish a series of fires that had been blazing since Thursday.

Military forces allegedly blocked the group from entering the forest but allowed people with uniforms from the mining company Falcondo to ascend, according to local media and activists’ accounts.

In response, anti-mine campaigners started marching down a nearby highway to protest the military obstruction.

Pedro Caba, an environmental activist, told local media Sunday that police then opened fire without warning. During the protests, Caba said, “suddenly security forces started to shoot people. Three teachers were injured by birdshot.”

Sixto Gabin, president of the Dominican Republic’s Association of Teachers in San Francsico de Macoris, and Juan de Dios Ortego, professor at the Autonomous University of Santo Domingo (UASD), were among at least three protesters who received medical attention for apparent gunshot wounds after a confrontation with security forces, local media reported. 

The Dominican Republic National Police did not respond to Al Jazeera's request for comment in time for publication.

Loma Miranda had appeared destined to be made into a national park after the country's Senate passed a bill last year to preserve the mountain, banning any mining activities.

But President Danilo Medina rejected the measure, saying such a move would violate the constitution by hurting the country’s investment interests.

Medina cited article 17 of the constitution (PDF). Activists say Medina is interpreting the constitution’s statement that “individuals can use renewable natural resources in a rational manner” to mean that those resources “must be” utilized.

Despite Medina's decision, local residents, environmentalists and members of the clergy have founded a camp at the base of Loma Miranda, moving forward with plans to protect the area as if it were a national park.

Activists with the camp alleged that the fires were set intentionally Thursday, at dozens of strategic points atop the mountain.

“I could see how small pieces of land were on fire, without connection,” Caba said. “It was obvious someone was setting the fires.”

Falcondo’s president, David Soares, said the company was supporting attempts to find out who was to blame. “All the efforts made by the authorities … to find those responsible for the fire will be highly valued by Falcondo, its employees and all families living around Loma Miranda,” Soares told Dominican Today.

Some of the activists said the fires provided an excuse for Falcondo to move heavy equipment into the area and start clearing roads for its mining operation. Falcondo is the name of the Dominican branch of Swiss-based mining company Glencore.

Peter Fuchs, a spokesman for Glencore, told Al Jazeera the machinery was moved to the mountain at the request of the Ministry of Environment to help fight the fire. He said there were currently no mining operations happening on the mountain.

"The fact is we are not mining at Loma Miranda — there is no mining going on," Fuchs said. "We are maintaining and caring for the site."

Soares said the company was alerted to a fire Thursday and sent more than 30 men, one road grader, a bulldozer and other heavy equipment to open trails to prevent the blaze from spreading, local media reported.

More than 621 of the 700 acres affected by the fire were on Falcondo’s property on Loma Miranda, Soares told Dominican Today.

Polls suggest that more than 80 percent of Dominicans oppose the planned mining project. But the government has encouraged foreign investment in mining, citing the impact on local jobs and economy.

Though such investment brings much-needed money into the developing country, critics say mining projects have left a legacy of pollution and illness and have called them a "new form of colonialism."

Local environmentalists have described Loma Miranda as a “water mine” because it provides drinking water and irrigation for the surrounding region. It is also home to much of the country’s biodiversity, activists say.

Since Medina rejected the Senate decision to turn Loma Miranda into a national park, Falcondo has been carrying out an environmental assessment for its planned nickel mine. 

Fuchs said the possibility any future mining projects on Loma Miranda depended on a number of factors. First, the environmental assessment must be finished, at which point the Dominican government will decide whether it wants to issue Falcondo a mining permit, Fuchs said.

Whether or not a favorable environmental assessment would amount to approval for the mine was unclear. Fuchs said he could not speculate on what decision the government would make.

Market conditions are another factor, he added, saying that even if the government approved a new mining operation at Loma Miranda the company would still have to establish whether it would be profitable.

Meanwhile, activists at the camp have vowed to stay on as long as there are plans for mining activities at Loma Miranda. More than a dozen groups backing the creation of a national park there met on Monday and promised to continue their resistance activities, with a “general assembly” scheduled to be held in the protest camp on May 24.

"This repression and criminalization of the resistance against the destructive mining is oppression that obligates us to denounce it nationally and internationally and to a more organized, sustained and amplified resistance,” the groups wrote in a statement released this week. 

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