By Fernando Gimeno
Quito, Jun 2 (EFE).- Residents of the Choco Andino, a UN-designated biosphere reserve just 90 minutes from downtown Quito, have secured a referendum on a proposal to ban mining from the territory where Andean spectacled bears frolic and more than 3,000 different species of plants flourish.
Encompassing an area of 286,000 hectares (1,104 sq mi) on the western edge of the Andes, the reserve ranges in altitude from 360 m (1,181 ft) above sea-level to 4,480 m (14,698 ft).
The resulting wide array of microclimates fosters an amazing biodiversity, with 150 mammalian species, 700 species of birds, 140 species of amphibians, and 40 species of reptiles.
“It’s a paradise in Quito and part of the world’s heritage,” one of the people behind the anti-mining referendum, Teolinda Calle, told EFE.
Calle grows organic coffee on a terraced hillside graced by multicolored hummingbirds that are so accustomed to visitors that they practically pose for photographs.
The view from her plantation is of a towering Andean peak that is the site of a proposed mine.
Authorities have granted 12 mining concessions inside the biosphere and are considering applications for another six. Taken together, the 18 proposed mines would occupy 27,000 hectares.
No mine has opened yet and most residents want to keep it that way.
The organization Quito Without Mining managed to collect more than 200,000 valid signatures on petitions calling for a referendum on excluding mines from the Choco Andino, which has a total population of around 880,000.
Though there is no firm date, the referendum is likely to be held on Aug. 20, coinciding with the early general elections called by President Guillermo Lasso.
“It is absurd that we have to ask if it’s necessary to protect the Choco Andino, because it is a biosphere reserve, on the same level as the Galapagos Islands or Yasuni National Park (in the Ecuadorian Amazon),” Calle said.
“This is also part of Quito and there are many of us here who live from tourism. Who will want to swim in the waterfalls if they know there is a mine nearby? Neither will there be organic cacao or organic coffee with mining,” she said.
The plebiscite will mark the culmination of a decades-long battle to keep mining out of the Choco Andino, which received a major boost in 2018 when the region was designated under the United Nations Educational, Scientific, and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) program, Man and the Biosphere.
The rainforests and cloud forests of the Choco Andino annually trap some 266,000 tons of atmospheric carbon dioxide and the reserve supplies drinking water to the inhabitants of Ecuador’s northern Pacific coast.
Besides its natural riches, the Choco Andino boasts at least 300 archaeological sites of the Yumbo culture, which pre-dated the Inca empire.
“For me, to save this territory is to save the life of my family, of my neighbors, but also to create alternatives that permit us see a more promising future as human beings,” Inti Arcos, coordinator of the Mancomunidad Choco Andino alliance of local governments, told EFE while showing visitors around a sustainable cattle ranch that supplies beef and milk to Quito.
“We have our own water here. We don’t have to bring it from somewhere else. We have tourism without the need to invest because it’s nature, so, in a word, the Choco Andino is paradise,” Mancomunidad president Julio Flores said. EFE fgg/dr