- Legal and illegal mining is destroying Alto Nangaritza, one of the last well-preserved forest links between the Andes and Ecuadorian Amazon.
- After the construction of roads connecting remote Indigenous communities to the broader provincial network, miners quickly moved into the resource-rich region with illegal materials and pollutants to dredge rivers and extract gold.
- Monitoring environmental damage and mining is difficult and rare due to the high level of conflict preventing authorities and environmental watchdogs from entering the area, says the ministry of the environment.
- Some Indigenous Shuar people who live in the upper region of the Nangaritza River have also started to extract gold in order to increase their income.
The route connecting the provinces of Loja and Zamora Chinchipe in Ecuador is a series of roads surrounded by green, leafy and picturesque mountains. Near the city of Zamora, signs welcome visitors to the ‘Land of Waterfalls and Birds.’ Naturally, the fluttering of birds and butterflies fills the air. A river runs alongside the road and enters the southern Amazonian city, where there is a pier overlooking its noisiest and more touristic avenue. Such scenery is what travelers expect to find when they think about Ecuador’s Amazon.
But some scenes break this idyll. Five minutes from the pier by car is the Redondel del Minero [Miner’s circle], a statue of a man standing at about 5 meters (16 feet) tall with a helmet and boots. He holds a gold mining pan in his hands. The statue is so well made that the skin looks as if it had tanned in the tropical heat. The miner looks toward the Zamora River and the Podocarpus National Park, a protected area of about 1,462 square kilometers (564 square miles) home to unique bird species and a network of more than a hundred lagoons.
The statue is the first indication that everything revolves around mining in Zamora Chinchipe. Despite the entire province being a forested space of 10,556 square kilometers (4,076 square miles) with mighty rivers, fine-wood trees, medicinal plants and countless endemic species, it also holds tons of gold, silver, copper and bronze in its soil.
Mining contributes to about 70% of Zamora Chinchipe’s total tax revenue, according to 2019 data from the Internal Revenue Service, collected from the province’s Land Management Plan.
Between January and September 2021, Ecuador collected $72.41 million in mining taxes from conservation patent payments, royalties and mining profits. Zamora Chinchipe collected 54% of this amount, at a total of $39 million, according to data from the ministry of energy and non-renewable resources. As a result, the Land Management Plan of the provincial government for 2019–2023 considers metallic and non-metallic reserves an area of potential economic development for mining families and populations close to large projects.
In the village of Namírez there is a seafood restaurant called Puerto Minero [Mining Port]. Almost everything in the area relates to the mining industry. There are dozens of signs announcing the presence of a deposit and warning about paths reserved for dump trucks. Along the road and river, yellow construction boots and helmets hang on the walls of small houses. Large courts and stadiums are also built and paid for through mining royalties.
Partway up the mountains is the upper basin of the Nangaritza River, an area of great biodiversity where there are now dozens of gold-extracting machines – not part of the landscape that the tourist brochures sell.
Mining arrived in 2014, when Salvador Quishpe, leader of the Pachakutik Plurinational Unity Movement, a political branch of the Confederation of Indigenous Nationalities of Ecuador (CONAIE), built two roads while he was prefect of the Zamora Chinchipe province. One in the north connects the Shuar communities of Alto Nangaritza with the capital Zamora, and one in the south leads to the Palanda canton.
“When we built this road, which is 50 kilometers [31 miles] altogether, the miners immediately started using their machinery to break up the Shuar communities,” explains Quishpe, who at the time of the interview was a national assembly member. “Because before this, the communities didn’t want to know anything about mining––they were fighting to look after their land.”
The road that Quishpe had dreamed about since he was a child, called La vía de la Unidad (Unity Road), immediately became a route for miners working in the lower basin of the river to move heavy machinery into other parts of the rainforest. From this year on, a mining boom began.
The destruction of Alto Nangaritza
According to the Land Management Plan, 81% of Zamora Chinchipe will be allocated to conservation and protection. Yet up until July 2021, 36% of the land was granted to the mining industry. Illegal activities are not included in official records but comprise another significant percentage of mining in the region.
Until 2014, Alto Nangaritza was safe from the mining boom and was one of the last forest links between the Andes Mountains and the Ecuadorian Amazon.
For tourists, it is an exotic place leading to the rainforest’s heart. Crossing waterfalls, listening to birds, interacting with the area’s Shuar inhabitants, drinking chicha [purple corn liquor] and learning about Indigenous customs are some of the highlights in many tourist itineraries. For the province’s Shuar inhabitants, Alto Nangaritza supports their existence. For miners, it is their crown jewel.
The Nangaritza canton is accessed by a gravel road full of stones that create a bumpy journey. Its 8,000 inhabitants are spread across four villages: Guayzimi, Zurmi, Nuevo Paraíso and Nankains. Most inhabitants belong to the Shuar community.
Next to the main road is the Nangaritza River, after which the land is named. During the 1940s, the Shuar sailed up this river to flee from settlers in search of refuge. The river was a source of fish and freshwater, but it is now surrounded by backhoes that remove its subsoil in search of gold.
Nuevo Paraíso, the rural village where Alto Nangaritza begins, is inhabited by 10 Shuar communities and has less than 100 houses. The houses have electricity, but only a few have potable water or sewage.
“Most of the Shuar inhabitants lived from day to day because, as such a remote area, there were no organizations or businesses to generate jobs,” says María Molina, a journalist from Zamora Chinchipe who had visited the area both before and after the mining started. “They were dedicated to agriculture and livestock; there were also entrepreneurial initiatives that ended up failing.”
The Shuar people lived far from the big cities because there were no roads to get around. They only had boats to travel via the river, which was the only way to leave and access other regions. Such isolation kept their rainforest protected for a long time. However, disaster sparked after the road connecting remote towns to the rest of the province opened in 2014.
“Gold, everything here is pure gold,” says a miner at a local restaurant that serves miners in Zurmi, one of the rural villages in Nangaritza. On the tables are advertisements for a backhoe distributor.
People with mining experience arrived from the provinces of El Oro, Azuay and other areas of Zamora Chinchipe. They rented Shuar properties and promised communities that their living conditions would improve. Over time, mining activities then took over the banks of the Nangaritza River, pushing out families that protested against extractivism and altering the last land in the province safe from human intervention.
“They have mined in the worst way imaginable,” says Paúl Palacios, an environmental engineer and former director of the Environmental Management Service in Zamora Chinchipe.
“Backhoes are currently eviscerating a piece of the Amazon. The miners work at a destructive pace: their days last between 16 and 20 hours, seven days a week. They use what is closest to hand: mercury, cyanide, rusty machinery,” he tells Mongabay. “For dredging, they use backhoes with arms that are six or more meters [20 feet] long. When they enter the water, they destroy the aquatic ecosystem, removing fish, micro-invertebrates and vegetation, and leave holes that are not filled due to the urgency with which they work.”
Mining along the Nangaritza River. Photo by Jackeline Beltrán.
The mercury and cyanide they use to extract and separate the gold from the stones end up in the river. According to Palacios, who worked on the Salvemos el Alto Nangaritza [Let’s Save the Alto Nangaritza] project promoted by the previous Zamora Chinchipe government, even if these chemicals are not used, dredges release buried minerals from the land that become harmful to the ecosystem after coming into contact with oxygen.
“The most affected areas are the Shaime River and the Shamatak ravine,” says Palacios. “If the Nangaritza River is a disaster, this impacts the Shamatak ravine, which can no longer be used. That’s where most gold has been found. This tributary starts in one of the mountains next to Nambija [the most well-known deposit in the Zamora canton], so it seems to be a single vein stemming from there.
“The attitude is very much: ‘Let’s get as much as possible before the authorities arrive because there won’t be another chance’,” he says.
All this activity is happening without any prevention or, at least, regulation from a state control authority. Although some permits have been issued, most of the mining that takes place in the area is illegal. Everyone knows this, says Palacios, even the authorities.
Assembly member Isabel Enríquez, who monitors mainly artisanal mining activity in Zamora Chinchipe, explains that local authorities have held meetings with officials from the ministry of the environment and the Mining Regulation and Control Agency (ARCOM) to request interventions.
According to Enríquez, ARCOM works with the national police and armed forces to conduct follow-up inspections and surprise operations. From these activities, the authorities have identified 26 illegal mining points in Alto Nangaritza and found open-pit mines, the use of heavy machinery in areas without permits and unauthorized materials such as chemicals and fuels.
In 2020, illegal mining monitoring activities reduced due to the pandemic, despite mineral extractions continuing. That same year, 282 operations were carried out in Ecuador compared with 418 in 2019, according to the newspaper La Hora. Around 85% of the activities were based in six provinces: Zamora Chinchipe, Napo, Imbabura, Azuay, Loja and Los Ríos.
In Alto Nangaritza, there is a rumor that there were up to 150 machines in the river’s upper basin in 2020. No authority has corroborated this, one of the reasons is that the area has been difficult to access since 2018. In 2018, during an ARCOM operation in the Shaime community, members of the Shuar Tayunts center detained 22 public officials and burned three of their vehicles.
“The authorities are afraid to go upstream because something like this could happen to them again,” says Palacios.
In an email to a request for information from La Barra Espaciadora about environmental monitoring in Alto Nangaritza, the ministry of the environment stated that, “due to the high level of conflict in the area, entry has been prevented, meaning it has not been possible to determine the environmental damage.”
The ministry also reported that in 2021, together with the Agency for the Regulation and Control of Energy and Non-Renewable Natural Resources (ARCERNNR) and the national police through Environmental Protection Unit Z9-DMQ, two interventions were carried out in the area. But “so far, the optimal security conditions for entry have not been present […] inter-institutional coordination will continue to be insisted upon to enter the area.”
Although most of the mining in Alto Nangaritza is illegal, there are 36 registered mining rights, which is the last official data obtained, as mining concessions have not been granted since December 2017.
In 2019, on behalf of the Water Defenders’ Network, lawyer Darwin Riera filed a protective action against the ministry of the environment and the ministry of energy to prevent the granting of mining titles and reverse those existing within the Protected Forest and Vegetation Area of the Upper Nangaritza River Basin and along its banks.
However, the appeal was rejected in the first instance by a judge from Centinela del Cóndor, and in the second instance by the Single Multicompetent Chamber of the Provincial Court, based in the Zamora canton.
The ministry of the environment argued at that time the concessions were outside the Protected Forest and Vegetation Area of the Upper Nangaritza River Basin, meaning there was “no prohibition to carry out mining activities.” Riera argued that while this may be the case on paper, mining was already taking place in the protected forest, which the ministry had never been able to enter in order to control, monitor or oversee how the concessions operated.
Another issue members of the communities worry about is that although the Alto Nangaritza is a protected forest due to its biological and ecological significance, the state does not consider this category a protected area, meaning it is not protected from mining activities.
Despite this, in an official response, the ministry of the environment reported that it was working on a comprehensive management plan for the Protected Forest and Vegetation Area of the Upper Nangaritza River Basin, “in which the technical and legal aspects behind the relevance of its expansion were being analyzed, considering that it is of great importance as a buffer zone of the Podocarpus National Park Protected Area.”
Communities left without options
Among the Shuar people’s principles are autonomy and free choice. Per these principles, the Tayunts Association, which brings together ten communities, decided to allow small-scale mining in its territory. They organized themselves and created the Kakaram Mining Production Association in 2017 (kakaram means brave in the local Shuar dialect), through which they sought the state’s approval to grant land for mining.
In general, Ecuador’s Indigenous peoples tend to be opposed to extractive activities, even in areas very close to the Tayunts. However, this perspective is not shared by all Indigenous Shuar people.
According to Washington Tiwi, president of the Federation of the Shuar in Zamora Chinchipe, Indigenous artisanal mining slowly expanded, starting off as curiosity, then turning into zeal when some people saw how much money they could fetch.
“Mining did not directly enter the Shuar community,” he explains. “Rather, it entered through individual territories […] There was a mestizo who entered with dredgers, then came the machines, and then a Shuar asked for permits to have the opportunity to ‘try’ [mining], but when he saw what he had produced, he thought ‘this is good.’ Once he had money, this Shuar encouraged another to do the same, and so they expanded. This carried on until mining exploded.”
In the Shaime community, there were several attempts by local authorities to promote public policies that contributed to the construction of productive, touristic and entrepreneurial projects in order to avoid mining activities, says journalist María Molina. However, these policies failed.
This was because people within communities saw how much more money was made through. In the Shaime community, for example, people were told to work in organic agricultural products. However, this yielded little income. In the case of organic bananas, after 18 months of planting, a harvested bunch is only sold for about $2.5.
According to Tiwi, a gram of gold is sold for $45 and $47, which is why many people from both within and outside the community gather to extract gold.
“If just one gram is extracted between two people, they are already earning $20 a day,” he adds.
But it is not just about earning $20 or more every day. The Shuar people have a long list of unattended needs. Tiwi mentions that among these needs are education with respect to their culture, universities so they can become more professional, permanent access to health care, housing and telecommunications.
Bartolomé Kukush, leader of the Tayunts Association, is clear in saying that “we’re aware that we’ve damaged the Alto Nangaritza’s nature, but what else is left for us if we have no options?”
On September 29, 2021, Kukush arrived in the Zamora canton with other Shuar indigenous people. They walked from their communities for seven hours to take transport to the city. The aim was to meet with the local authorities to explain their needs, but they only managed to deliver some documents.
“We’ve come to realize that we’re only important in campaigns,” he said as he left the Zamora Chinchipe provincial government building.
The documents contained the offers made years ago by other authorities. One document was an application for an environmental license for the construction of the last 30 kilometers (18 miles) of the road to connect the most remote Shuar communities with the rest of the province, the project that the former prefect and current assembly member, Salvador Quishpe, could not finish.
“When we saw that the machines were taking advantage [of the road] to enter and destroy the Alto Nangaritza, we made the decision not to build it anymore,” says Quishpe, who negotiated with the ministry of the environment for the expansion of the Cerro Plateado biological reserve near the Alto Nangaritza in order to protect it from other interventions.
According to a study by the University of Andina Simón Bolívar, when a road is opened, there is a risk that 120 kilometers (74.5 miles) of forest will be lost for every kilometer (0.6 miles) opened. If the road continues to be built, mining will also continue and will reach more biodiverse areas that must be protected.
In a response sent to this report, the ministry of the environment confirmed that the construction of this road “is not technically feasible in terms of conservation” for three reasons: First of all, the ecosystem is home to species that have adapted to unique conditions that are still unknown to science; Secondly, it risks the integrity of the area’s ecosystems (currently the Protected Forest and Vegetation Area in the Upper Nangaritza River Basin); And lastly, the opening of the road is not viable as it would enable free access to illegal miners.
Every action has consequences and these have already seen. According to a report from the provincial government of Zamora Chinchipe, between 2014 and 2018, about 46 square kilometers (about 18 square miles) of natural forest were lost in Alto Nangaritza, which is almost 10 square kilometers (about 4 square miles) per year.
While there are yet no studies on the impacts of mining on the river, experts such as Paúl Palacios explain that the damage caused by dredging is irreversible. Some effects include the loss of the channel, overflowing and flooding, sedimentation, the loss of aquatic habitats and the interruption of ecological processes.
Despite Ecuador promoting its gold and cooper “boom” on the idea of “responsible mining”, illegal mining activities show the severe negative impacts it can have. On December 15, 2021, in Zaruma, a small city in the province of El Oro, decades of mining caused the urban area to begin to sink. Meanwhile, in Ponce Enríquez, in Azuay, rivers have been completely contaminated by chemicals used in mining.
In Esmeraldas, illegal mining has been linked to crimes such as drug trafficking, smuggling and the movement of vast sums of money. Paúl Palacios, Isabel Enríquez and Salvador Quishpe hope that a catastrophe will not occur in Alto Nangaritza, but the situation is so complex that no one is entirely optimistic.
This report is part of the Amazonía Viva series of La Barra Espaciadora of Ecuador, a multimedia investigation that includes an interactive map that reports the magnitude of the damage caused by mining, oil operations, deforestation and hydroelectric power plants in real time in the territories of 11 indigenous nationalities and Amazonian mestizo populations in Ecuador.
Banner image: View of the Nangaritza valley from near Las Orquideas. Photo by Andrew Neil via Flickr (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0).
Related listening from Mongabay’s podcast: A conversation with Cultural Survival’s Daisee Francour and The Oakland Institute’s Anuradha Mittal on the importance of securing Indigenous land rights within the context of a global push for land privatization. Listen here: