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Illegal mining advances uncontrolled in the Ecuadorian Amazon and threatens protected areas and indigenous communities

Published on March 18, 2024

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by David Tarazona on March 15, 2024

  • Mining – both illegal and legal – went from deforesting 185 hectares in the Punino River, Napo, in 2022 to 784 in 2023, according to the most recent report from the Andean Amazon Monitoring Project (MAAP) and the Ecociencia Foundation.
  • According to the report, the majority of extractive activity is carried out illegally outside of concessions. Mining expansion threatens the protected El Chaco Municipal Conservation Area and is also approaching the Sumaco Napo-Galeras National Park.
  • The communities in the area denounce that the Colombian FARC dissidents are already in the area and that they protect the illegal miners.

In just one year, mining in the Punino River, in the Amazonian province of Napo, multiplied four times. It went from 185 hectares affected in 2022 to 783 in 2023. The report warns that at least 90% of the activity is illegal, that is, it is carried out outside the authorized mining areas.

“In Punino, the situation is already approaching 1,000 hectares devastated by illegal mining, in Yutzupino close to 400, in Arosemena Tola more than 1,500 and in Ahuano close to 600. All this with the full knowledge of the authorities,” says Eduardo Rojas, former provincial delegate in Napo of the Ombudsman’s Office.

The situation in Punino is just a snapshot of what is happening throughout the Ecuadorian Amazon . According to recent satellite mapping by the Andean Amazon Conservation Project (MAAP) and the NGO Ecociencia, two organizations that continuously analyze and report changes in the Amazon biome, mining tripled from 2015 to 2021, reaching 7,495 hectares. The most affected provinces are Zamora Chinchipe (5,034 hectares), Napo (1,125 hectares), Morona Santiago (646 hectares) and Sucumbíos (610). The most alarming thing is that at least 46% of illegal mining activity today affects indigenous territories.

Yellow machinery found by the military and the Police within the framework of the Manatí 3 operation in Punino. Credit: Armed Forces.

Although the State has begun carrying out military operations in Punino, as is the case with the Manatí operation in May 2023, the situation remains out of control. According to sources consulted on the ground, mining is not decreasing and now miners act in smaller groups to avoid attracting attention. Furthermore, the communities in the area confirmed to Mongabay Latam that the problem is still valid, something that is also demonstrated by the recent figures released by the MAAP and Ecociencia report.

Violence must be added to illegal mining. The communities that inhabit the areas invaded by mining and the former officials consulted have recently reported the arrival of Colombian FARC dissidents to protect illegal gold extraction.

Military and police developed the Manatí 3 operation against illegal mining in Punino, the results of which have been questioned. Credit: National Police.

The operations have not stopped mining

Mining in the Punino area has expanded dramatically in 2023, as confirmed by Ecociencia experts. “It is along the Punino River. Affectation was also recorded in the basins of the Sardinas River, Lumucha River and Supayacu River, which in turn are part of the macro water system of the Coca River,” an expert from the Ecociencia Foundation who prefers to remain anonymous explains to Mongabay Latam. the public order conditions of the country.

The specialist also assures that there is a trend of increasing mining in the Ecuadorian Amazon, which grew by 19% between 2021 and 2022, that is, an increase of 1,405 new hectares in a single year. He also points out that Punino is the most worrying case because all the damage is caused only by illegal mining that operates next to the Podocarpus National Park.

In May 2023, in an attempt to stop the devastation, the Ecuadorian authorities ordered the execution of the Manatí 3 military action. Despite the fact that 1,500 troops entered the area and destroyed 34 extraction machines, along with other supplies used in mining illegal gold, the situation has not changed.

Deforestation caused by mining in the Ecuadorian Amazon in red and yellow. Data: MapBiomas Amazonia, 2022. Map prepared by Ecociencia and MAAP.

“The work of the armed forces is insufficient, there is a lack of inter-institutional work, in addition, operations are sabotaged among the control bodies,” says Eduardo Rojas, former official of the Ombudsman’s Office. “Napo is no man’s land, the crime that governs illegal mining has bought consciences at the highest levels,” he adds. The alarming thing is that, according to the former delegate, there has not been a single detainee in the last two years.

Rojas says that mining control should be relatively simple for authorities with the confiscation of machinery without legality and fuel documents. He says that today, these controls are not exercised, so in the area “300 excavators move like needles, no one has seen anything.”

José Moreno, a human rights defender, adds that in the province of Napo there are more than 78 mining fronts and that practically all mining in the area is illegal, since even that carried out in concessions “does not have an environmental license or the previous administrative acts.” He points out that part of the machinery that should have been destroyed in the operations was also hidden in the area of ​​legal concessions, so it could not be found. “At least 150 machines remained in the sector,” he says.

Photographs of the mining camps in Punino. Photo: MAAP and Ecociencia.

Moreno also says that after the operations, the illegal miners adapted and “no longer go in large groups, but in small ones,” to avoid attracting attention and having their operations intervened. He says the entity in charge of controlling mining, the Hydrocarbons Regulation and Control Agency, is not doing enough. He points out that the Napo Citizen Security Council has asked the national government to declare a state of emergency focused on mining, as well as an environmental emergency, in addition to requesting that the area be militarized to stop illicit activity.

Threatened communities

The expansion of mining in Punino has also violated the rights of indigenous peoples to control their territory. “8% of Ecuadorian territory has been concessioned for mining. All the concessions have violated the main constitutional requirement, which is free prior informed consultation and environmental consultation,” says Kevin Zuñiga, a community communicator who works hand in hand with the country’s indigenous federations and who has recently visited Punino. Regarding the area, he says that “there has been total devastation of the river, it is a very extensive sector.” At the national level, he points out that the figures reflect the crisis, considering that Ecuador went from being the thirtieth largest exporter of gold in 2015 to being the ninth in 2019, according to the media outlet PlanV . For Zuñiga, this shows the mineral fever in the country.

Mining, legal and illegal, is approaching the protected areas of the Napo and Orellana region. Photo: MAAP and Ecociencia.

The health of indigenous communities, a product of the excessive use of mercury, is what Zuñiga is most concerned about, who cites the case of the Kichwa people. “It is generating serious consequences at the level of health in the families of the Amazon, especially in the communities that live on the banks of the rivers and that use water for their existence.” He adds that communities are currently resisting the miners and the criminal gangs that protect them.

Three sources in the territory interviewed by Mongabay Latam confirmed that Colombian guerrillas are already present in Punino, intimidating the communities and protecting the miners. “For two years there have been armed groups guarding the illegal mining fronts, on February 15, 2024 it was already evidenced by the Ecuadorian military who faced crossfire with a group of guerrillas between Colombians and Ecuadorians who guarded the mining fronts in Punino” says Rojas, former representative of the Ombudsman’s Office.

Dynamics of mining activity between 2019 and 2023 in the Punino area. Photo: MAAP and Ecociencia.

Moreno gives a similar version, stating that “security is provided by dissidents, probably from the FARC. They are Colombians”. He points out that the communities have had no alternative but to start moving, abandoning their territory. A military confrontation in Punino in February 2024 between the Ecuadorian military and an illegal Colombian armed group resulted in the death of a Colombian national and the seizure of weapons, as well as bracelets with the FARC initials.

Increase in mining in Punino between December 2022 and December 2023. Photo: MAAP and Ecociencia.

One of the sources consulted points out that the presence of illegal armed groups of Colombian origin is also proven by police intelligence reports. He also assures that the miners “are heavily armed” and that, as the media reports, the communities recently found a guerrilla camp in Punino. “Punino is today a land where there is no law, a no man’s land, where children and women cannot walk freely because the territory is controlled by dangerous people,” she says.

*Main image: illegal mining devastates Punino. Photograph of the Manatí 3 military operation. Photo: Military Forces of Ecuador.

This report as originally published in Mongabay Latam.


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