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Ecuador court denies requests for popular approval of mining projects

QUITO, Sept 18 (Reuters) - Ecuador’s constitutional court rejected two requests to make mining projects contingent on popular approval, a victory for companies seeking to exploit some of the world’s largest untapped reserves of copper.

The prefect of southern Azuay province, home to several mining projects including Canadian firm INV Metals’ Loma Larga, had in July requested that the court make development of large-scale mining subject to a popular referendum, expressing concern about environmental impact.

The pro-mining mayor of a town within Azuay had, in turn, made a competing proposal to ask the voters of the Camilo Ponce Enriquez municipality to affirm their support for mining, which he argued was an important source of employment.

On Tuesday night, the court denied both requests, saying it would evaluate petitions to make mining contingent on popular approval on a case-by-case basis.

Ecuador’s President Lenin Moreno is seeking to attract foreign capital to develop the OPEC nation’s largely untapped mining sector, which he sees as crucial to reviving the country’s moribund economy and weaning it off its dependence on crude exports.

The constitutional court has previously ruled against requests to subject individual mining projects to popular approval, including a request for a community consultation over Australian company SolGold’s Cascabel mine in northern Ecuador, seen as one of the world’s most promising copper projects.

Reporting by Alexandra Valencia, Writing by Luc Cohen, Editing by Rosalba O’Brien