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Ecuador to restart mining activity after pause due to pandemic

QUITO, May 18 (Reuters) - Ecuador will progressively restart mining activity this week after the government approved new security protocols for mineral transport and the return of workers to the mines amid the coronavirus pandemic, an official said over the weekend.

Mining activity in the Andean nation fell by 60% since mid-March, when the government imposed a quarantine to contain one of the worst outbreaks of the coronavirus in Latin America, government data show.

That came as Ecuador, an oil-producing country facing a debt crisis, is seeking to develop its mining industry to diversify its economy and sources of government revenue as it struggles to pay a heavy debt load.

“The priority continues to be containing the spread, but in this stage of economic reactivation the new protocol allows us to reach that goal,” Fernando Benalcazar, the country’s vice minister of mining, told Reuters on Saturday.

The country’s two largest mines, Fruta del Norte and Mirador, are preparing to restart their operations gradually, while smaller gold miners in the country’s south have already begun transporting their minerals, which had been prohibited since the quarantine began, Benalcazar said.

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.

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)