Mongabay Series: Forest Trackers
The city of Lago Agrio, which lies in the province of Sucumbíos in northern Ecuador’s Amazonian region, is considered the country’s oil capital. It also sits in the midst of several major protected areas, including Yasuní, Cayambe Coca and Sumaco Napo-Galeras national parks, Cuyabeno Fauna Production Reserve and Cofán Bermejo Ecological Reserve.
According to a recent report by conservation organization Amazon Frontlines, more than 6,470 square kilometers (2,498 square miles) of primary rainforest has been cleared for oil extraction infrastructure and subsequent colonization since the the fossil fuels industry first got a foothold in the Ecuadorian Amazon in the 1970s. The report also notes that deforestation for oil has bled into the region’s protected areas.
Cofán Bermejo Ecological Reserve, much of which also functions as an Indigenous territory, has been largely spared from the oil-related forest loss that has affected neighboring protected areas. However, satellite data show a recent uptick in deforestation in the reserve.
Data and imagery from Global Forest Watch show clearings proliferating along rivers that form the northern and southern borders of Cofán Bermejo Ecological Reserve. Clearing activity also appears to be piercing the western portion of the reserve.
According to Nicolás Mainville, a biologist and environmental monitoring coordinator at Amazon Frontlines, Cofán Bermejo’s remote location has protected it from oil-driven deforestation. However, what has protected the reserve from one threat is now spurring another: illegal gold mining. Sources said that because of its isolation and proximity to Ecuador’s border with Colombia, the reserve is attracting the attention of miners eager to avoid the prying eyes of authorities.
According to an expert from an organization familiar with the area who requested anonymity for safety reasons, illegal mining began expanding along the Bermejo River in 2020.
“There is machinery on the banks and deforestation,” the expert told Mongabay. “Excavators and large motor pumps are causing quite a drastic change in the riverbed. You can see the miners; they are not from the area.”
Residents from Indigenous and other local communities in the area said they are concerned about what is happening to the Bermejo River, as well as to the San Miguel and Sarayaku rivers, and that they are already seeing negative effects due to mining.
“There has been a drastic drop in the number of fish where the Bermejo and San Miguel rivers meet, which is impacting fishing communities,” the anonymous expert said. “The water is very cloudy and the levels are very low.”
A community resident who wished to remain anonymous told Mongabay that authorities are not effectively responding to mining incursions in Cofán Bermejo Ecological Reserve, despite being “obligated to act against the threats.”
“The Ministry of the Environment is aware of this serious situation but is not currently doing anything,” the resident said.” As communities we see the entire situation, but we are at great risk and do not know how to act.”
The community residenr added that if authorities do not respond to the situation, then “we will have to think about how to protect the rivers and territories ourselves.”
In response to a request for comment, a representative from the Ministry of the Environment, Water and Ecological Transition (MAATE) acknowledged that “illegal mining activities are being carried out around the Bermejo River in the buffer zone of the Cofán Bermejo Ecological Reserve, among the Etsa community,” and have been occurring for around 10 years.
However, the representative said it has been difficult for MAATE officials to enter the reserve and carry out enforcement activities for the past two years. The representative did not elaborate as to why this has been the case, but did say the ministry has responded to reports of illegal deforestation in Cofán Bermejo on multiple occasions in 2022, and that MAATE requested the Ministry of the Interior to convene the Special Commission for the Control of Illegal Mining (CECMI).
The MAATE representative also said that meetings were held in September 2022 with multiple regional agencies “to better articulate the actions to be carried out in terms of control in the area of Cáscales.”
Illegal mining is not the only issue facing Cofán Bermejo Ecological Reserve. When reviewing the Ecuadorian Mining Registry, Amazon Frontlines noted that there are currently 23 gold mining concessions pending along the Bermejo River on the southeastern border of the reserve.
The pending concessions are for small-scale and artisanal mining. Biologist Mainville said he believes that the communities and reserve will be directly impacted by such activity because the Bermejo River flows through the reserve and stands to transport upstream mining contamination—such as mercury, a neurotoxin—thus affecting flora and aquatic fauna, as well as fishing and drinking water for many communities.
“There are more than 5,300 hectares of mining concessions in process just above the Bermejo River, and another one nearby—concessions that were entered into the Mining Registry without any prior consultation. It is a very similar situation to what happened in Sinangoe four years ago,” Mainville said, referring to the Sinangoe Cofán Indigenous Territory within Cayambe Coca National Park. In 2018, the Sinangoe community discovered miners illegally extracting gold from along a portion of the Aguarico River within the territory, and their activities had affected upwards of 20 hectares of forest.
When members of the Sinangoe community investigated further, they learned that mining was set to be legalized in their territory, with 20 concessions approved and 32 more pending per Mining Registry records. The community members claimed they were not consulted about the mining concessions intended for what they consider their ancestral land.
The Sinangoe launched a legal battle to repel mining from their territory, which resulted in revocation of the 52 concessions in October 2018. In February 2022, the Constitutional Court ruled in favor of the right to prior, free and informed consent of Indigenous communities, for which it used the Sinangoe Cofán decision as precedent.
When questioned about the legality of the concessions in and near Cofán Bermejo Ecological Reserve and Indigenous territories, MAATE said that “per the Mining Registry, updated to Aug. 31, 2022, the mining concessions to which reference is made are in the process of being granted to the respective mining owners in the sectoral ministry, which is why a regularization process in this government department has not been launched.”
This is a translated and adapted version of a story that was first reported by Mongabay’s Latam team and published here on our Latam site on October 13, 2022.
Banner image: Heavy machinery allegedly engaging in illegal gold mining along the Bermejo River in Cofán Bermejo Ecological Reserve. Photo courtesy of a private archive.
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