Ecuador’s Mining Holocaust by Liz Downes
Ecuador is a small country with large conservation significance for the world.
The Los Cedros Biological Reserve lies within the Tropical Andes Hotspot, in the country’s northwest. It consists of nearly 7000 hectares of premontane and lower montane wet tropical and cloud forest, and is a crucial southern buffer zone for the 243,638 hectare Cotocachi-Cayapas Ecological Reserve. Only 6% of this forest remains in isolated pockets, such as this.
To reach Los Cedros, one travels by bus for three hours from the Ecuadorean capital Quito, mostly along a winding dirt road clinging to the side of the mountains. The valleys, baking in the sun, are given over to farmland – cows, coffee, bananas. It is only on leaving the tiny town of Chontal that one enters the original cloud forest: dense trees, shrouded in rolling mist, resounding with bird calls. Finally, by mule, travellers enter the forest for real, and it is like walking through into another world. The research station - a simple, sturdy structure covered in jungle vines – is the basis for adventurers and scientists who come for the place’s ethereal beauty and biological riches.
Researchers are still finding new species each year in the reserve. Over 240 species of birds have been identified, many of which are endemic. The Andean Cock-of-the-Rock, the colourful Toucan Barbet (which looks as though a five-year-old went wild with a bunch of paint brushes) and the Golden-headed Quetzal make their home here. Los Cedros contains thousands of species of insects - mostly unidentified - and many endemic species of snakes, lizards and frogs.
Five species of large felines live in the area. The reserve director José LeCoux, who has lived here for thirty years, told us that he tried to keep chickens in the past, but “the cats got them.” He was talking about ocelots. The only species of South American bear, the Spectacled Bear, inhabits the higher elevations of the reserve; a local ecologist has calculated that there are only about 2000 individuals left in Ecuador.
One day we walked underneath a family of brown-headed spider monkeys, who are among the rarest species of primates in the world. Critically endangered in the wild, their only habitat is here in the Chocó region. They rampaged around the treetops, barking and breaking branches and throwing them down at us, trying to scare off these dangerous humans. The monkeys had no way of knowing that humans are driving their species to extinction as we speak.
In 2016, Los Cedros came under the concession of the Canadian speculative mining firm Cornerstone Capital Resources, and was then bought by the Ecuadorean state mining company, ENAMI. This agreement will allow mining exploration in the Chocó region, including the Cotocachi-Cayapas Ecological Reserve. There was no public consultation.
If one wants to get an idea of the social and environmental consequences of allowing exploratory activities in a similar habitat to Los Cedros, one only needs to look a few kilometres away. Just down the road, the communities of the Intag Valley have been fighting mining since the 1990s. As soon as they kicked out one company, another moved in. There have been publicised cases of human rights abuses against citizens by mining companies such as Ascendant Copper. Exploration and mining has produced measurable impacts on the environment, including contamination of water sources and logging of ancient trees in primary forests.
Australia has had a major stake in the founding and preservation of the Los Cedros reserve over the past thirty years. In 1988 the Development Assistance Bureau (now AusAID), under the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade, provided funding towards the establishment of the reserve, which was administered by the Rainforest Information Centre (RIC). Since then RIC has maintained contact and supported the reserve management committee in navigating a continuous onslaught of challenges, including encroachments from loggers, poachers and now mining surveyors.
As well as continuing to support the maintenance and protection of the reserve itself, RIC supported the Los Cedros committee to forge links with the local communities around Chontal and in the Intag Valley slightly further north, assisting the local environmental protection organisation, DECOIN, and other community groups to develop economically viable alternatives to mining for the area.
Now with the new holocaust of mining concessions, local groups on the ground, along with RIC and other international NGOs, believe that the only way to save specific areas such as Intag and Los Cedros is to expand the campaign, launching an international push for an end to all extractive projects in protected forests and indigenous territories across the country.