QUITO – Kayaking down the Napo River in Ecuador’s Amazon rainforest, environmentalist Matthew Terry bemoaned how the once-lush riverbanks are now barren and full of dredges, excavating machines and bulldozers as illegal gold mining spreads across the region.
In certain areas, miners have completely rerouted the river channel, while some smaller tributaries of the Napo and other rivers have been obliterated, threatening biodiversity and water sources for local communities, according to Terry.
“(Illegal mining) used to happen in isolated sites,” said the executive director of the Ecuadorian Rivers Institute (ERI), a non-profit that monitors the country’s whitewater rivers.
“Now we’re starting to see … mining activity throughout (entire rivers),” Terry added.
Ecuador’s illegal gold mining problem stretches far beyond the northern Napo region – the government has identified illegal mining camps in 21 of the country’s 24 provinces since 2000.
But it has recently become a major worry for conservative President Guillermo Lasso. His administration in January declared illegal mining a national security threat, and said it has links to money laundering, and drug and arms trafficking.
The government is seeking to build its mining sector and reduce its financial dependence on crude oil exports – and security secretary Diego Ordóñez has said Ecuador will back international companies that have legal mining concessions, and fight illegal mining.
Mining exports rose 32.6% to $2.76 billion in 2022, and the government has said it expects at least $4 billion by 2025. The increase is driving increasing competition for land – and new threats to forests, biodiversity and Indigenous people.
While Ecuador is just starting to tackle illegal mining, illegal gold prospecting is a longstanding and growing concern across Latin America as the price of the precious metal rises and its limited traceability embolden miners.
That is endangering forests and Indigenous communities in nations such as Brazil, Colombia and Peru, analysts and activists warn.
Ecuador’s authorities carried out about 350 operations against “irregular mining activities” in 2022 – including a major raid in February 2022 where some 900 security forces expelled hundreds of illegal miners from two rivers in Napo.
But Patricio Meza, leader of the CONAIE national Indigenous organization, criticized Ecuador’s crackdown as ineffective and intended solely to protect the legitimate mining sector, which he said also threatens local communities and the environment.
Neither the Ministry of Energy and Mines nor the Government Ministry, which oversees Ordóñez’s office, responded to numerous requests for an interview about the issue.
(Cover photo: courtesy of Ecuadorian Rivers Institute)