By Fernando Gimeno
Quito, May 31 (EFE).- Illegal and irregular mining continues to expand at an unprecedented rate in Ecuador’s Amazon region, with hundreds of heavy machines voraciously removing sediment from river beds deep in the rainforest in search of gold.
At least 1,660 hectares (4,100 acres) of jungle have been lost over the past five years, according to studies conducted on the basis of satellite imagery by the EcoCiencia Foundation, the Ecuadorian partner of the Monitoring of the Andean Amazon Project (MAAP).
Gold fever in that region began in 2015 and skyrocketed due to the Covid-19 pandemic, according to EcoCiencia, whose representatives have been threatened by illegal mining mafias and only agreed to speak to Efe on condition of anonymity.
The government attributes the expansion of gold mining to the economic power of drug-trafficking gangs. Although numerous pockets of that activity exist throughout the country, five in the Amazon are a source of particular concern because of their size and location within natural reserves.
Monitoring flights over areas cleared by illegal mining operations reveal large ponds where rainwater accumulates along with mercury – a leftover toxic chemical from gold mining processes.
At least 217 deforested hectares have been identified since 2019 along the Punino river that runs in the northeastern Amazon provinces of Orellana and Napo, according to the MAAP’s reports.
Most of that forest cover, however, was lost in 2022.
That area was the target of a large-scale police and military operation in early May, when 34 excavators were confiscated in the Guayusa sector.
That heavy machinery was not visible in high-resolution satellite images because miners hide them among the vegetation, according to EcoCiencia, which said the number of heavy machines in that region may be much higher than what has been detected.
No arrests were made during the Punino operation, one of the biggest since the government declared illegal mining to be a threat to the state.
“These actions reflect the government’s commitment to combating this activity,” the state-run Agency for the Regulation and Control of Energy and Non-Renewable Natural Resources, which in 2022 conducted 348 operations against illegal mining, said in a statement.
Although the heavy machinery was rendered useless by explosives, residents of nearby communities – despite declining to speak in public due to fear of reprisals – say the wildcat miners have returned to Guayusa from Colombia.
A similar operation in Yutzupino, the main mining enclave in Napo province, occurred in early 2022 when authorities seized more than 100 heavy machines and drove away over 700 illegal miners.
“We won’t withdraw until we see this place free of illegal mining,” Ecuador’s then-interior minister, Alexandra Vela, said then. But the heavy machinery returned just a few months later, MAAP analysis shows.
Illegal mining also affects several other areas of the country, including the Ecuador-Peru border region, where Peruvian authorities recently destroyed machinery that had been brought across the frontier; and a so-called “protection forest” in the far-southern Ecuadorian province of Zamora-Chinchipe, where the deforestation of 545 hectares has been documented since 2018.
Unlike in Brazil, Peru, Venezuela and other countries where illegal mining grew steadily, Ecuador has seen a sharp rise to a “very strong level,” according to EcoCiencia.
The foundation says that although that activity is not the main cause of deforestation of the Ecuadorian Amazon it is by far the most aggressive, destructive and contaminating. EFE