(New throughout, adds details on community protests)
By Alexandra Valencia
QUITO, May 18 (Reuters) - Ecuador has restarted some mining operations that were paused for nearly two months due to the coronavirus pandemic, and residents of a community near one of the country’s largest mines have protested that resuming work could spread the disease.
The Andean country’s government, in need of revenue to help service a heavy debt load, approved new security protocols for mineral transport and the return of workers to the mines. Mining activity has fallen by 60% due to quarantine measures to stem one of the worst coronavirus outbreaks in Latin America.
Ecuador’s two largest mines, Fruta del Norte and Mirador, are preparing to restart operations gradually, said Fernando Benalcazar, the country’s vice minister of mining, while smaller gold miners in the south have already begun transporting minerals.
Some residents of the town of Zamora near the Fruta del Norte mine said they do not believe the company is doing enough. Three people, including one member of the local police force, were arrested over the weekend for seeking to block vehicles bringing materials to and from the mine, though they have since been released.
“We are concerned and scared that our people get infected,” Zamora’s mayor, Miguel Gonzalez, said in a telephone interview, adding that the town’s 50-year-old hospital was not prepared for an outbreak.
Canada’s Lundin Gold, which operates Fruta del Norte, said it was restarting mineral transport under international security protocols for workers and nearby communities.
It said it would test the drivers of the vehicles that entered its mine for COVID-19, the respiratory disease caused by the novel coronavirus, and fumigate daily.
Lundin said its vehicles would not make any stops at nearby restaurants or gas stations, which would help avoid the spread. Ecuador’s energy ministry said it had discussed the new protocol with more than 250 officials from localities near mines.
Ecuador, an oil-producing country wrestling with a debt crisis, is seeking to develop its mining industry to diversify the economy and sources of government revenue.
“The priority continues to be containing the spread, but in this stage of economic reactivation the new protocol allows us to reach that goal,” Benalcazar told Reuters on Saturday.
Ecuador’s government projects that its mineral exports, mostly gold, copper and silver, will reach at least $642 million this year. Exports from Fruta del Norte and Mirador will begin in early June, Benalcazar said. (Reporting by Alexandra Valencia Writing by Luc Cohen; Editing by Steve Orlofsky and David Gregorio)