Mining concessions in the cloud forests are causing protected areas across the country to mount legal battles to protect communities and biodiversity
By Devin Murphy on March 23, 2022
The Tropical Andes snake through much of South America from Venezuela to northern Chile and northern Argentina, with many of the range’s highest peaks towering at nearly 20,000 feet above sea level. The cloud forests covering the Ecuadorian Andes’ steep slopes are like islands in the sky, filled with species found nowhere else, sometimes not even the next mountain over.
“If you have a mountain here, another mountain here, but you [also] have a deep valley, it’s perfect for speciation,” says Jaime Culebras, a herpetologist who studies and surveys amphibians and reptiles in Ecuador.
The Tropical Andes are one of only a handful of mountains with cloud forests in the world, and although cloud forests cover less than 1% of the Earth’s surface, collectively they contain about 15% of the planet’s known biodiversity, with more species yet to be discovered.
“We know there are so many new species that need to be described,” says Culebras. “The Tropical Andes is the most biodiverse hotspot in the world.”
Although the Tropical Andes is home to species found nowhere else, 70% of its forests have been destroyed for a myriad of things from timber logging to sprawling populations and road construction. One of the biggest threats to the Tropical Andes in Ecuador is mining concessions that threatens both its precious biodiversity and the health of local communities.
In 2017, the Ecuadorian government began granting new mining concessions across the country. Those concessions totaled more than 6 million acres and included all types of areas that do not have the same protections as national parks, such as conservation and sustainable use areas (Área de conservación y uso sostenible), protected forests (known as bosque protectores), private reserves and unprotected areas. The government technically owns all subsoil rights in the country, but the constitution guarantees rights to nature and to communities to protect them. The mining concessions have made the Tropical Andes in Ecuador a hotspot for Rights of Nature cases, testing the country’s commitment to protecting the wild.
Ecuador’s constitution, adopted in 2008, has given nature rights, intended to protect it from unscrupulous activities that would destroy it and to prevent species from going extinct. Several legal battles in recent years have tested the Rights of Nature.
The case of Los Cedros Biological Reserve, a private reserve known as a bosque protector, a type of protected area, was the first Rights of Nature case that Ecuador’s Constitutional Court, the highest court in the country, ruled on in December 2021. The Court ruled that mining concessions in Los Cedros, in Imbabura Province, violated the Rights of Nature and set the legal precedent for them to be upheld across the country.
The victory was celebrated by local and Indigenous communities, conservationists, researchers, scientists and environmentalists around the world, but it did not not end mining in the Ecuadorian Tropical Andes. Several other protected areas in Imbabura Province and Carchi Province are still grappling with mining projects. Each reserve holds similar irreplaceable biodiversity as Los Cedros, and mining in one area could have ripple effects across the Tropical Andes.
Several protected and unprotected areas that have been degazetted for mining are in Intag Valley in Imbabura Province. For decades, communities in Intag Valley have been resisting attempts to destroy its cloud forests for precious metals, such as copper and gold, that are locked inside Intag’s mountains.
In February 2022, the Cotacachi County court ruled that the Llurimagua mining concession in Intag Valley, which includes a proposed large-scale open-pit copper mine, did not violate the Rights of Nature or the constitutional right to consultation of local communities. The ruling came as a disappointment to local communities and conservationists.
A legal team representing the local communities is appealing the ruling. They argue that local communities were not properly consulted about the Llurimagua mining project, and that the environmental impact assessment for the open pit mine was incomplete and did not take into account many threatened species in the concession.
“Given the steep terrain of the mining area, the high rainfall, toxic makeup of the ore body, plus the primary cloud forests which protect dozens of endangered species and no less than 43 sources of rivers and streams, this mining project will turn out to be one of the world’s worst environmental catastrophes, if we allow it to go forth,” said Carlos Zorrilla, co-founder of Defensa y Conservación de Intag, which has been supporting local communities’ case against the Llurimagua mining project.
Several species of amphibians, the Critically Endangered Longnose Harlequin Toad, the Endangered Confusing Rocket Frog and a new species of rocket frog, are all living in the Llurimagua mining concession area, but were not included in the environmental impact assessment conducted for the companies leading the mining project.
Conservationists think that other equally imperiled species of frogs could be living in Intag Valley. A separate partial herpetological survey carried out by Jambatu Center in 2018 found 22 amphibian species living in the Llurimagua mining concession area, but estimated there could be as many as 100.
Local communities want to protect the incredible biodiversity in Intag. Many community members incorporate fruits and plants from Intag’s forests into their diets and use ancestral knowledge of the cloud forests in their farming practices.
“If the mining that is proposed here in Ecuador, here in this specific place, in Llurimagua, is allowed, for me it would be devastating because they have to remove the entire layer of soil from the place,” says Cenaida Guachagmira, who lives in Cerro Pelado, a parish in Intag Valley, and is against the mining project. “The mining that is proposed here is large-scale, open-pit mining, so that is indeed a conditioning factor to turn all the biodiversity that I know of and that my future generation would not know into a desert.”
The Tropical Andean cloud forests are created by hot humid air blowing from the Amazon in the east, rising and then cooling and blanketing the forest-covered mountain tops in fog and rain. The many streams, rivers and creeks that dot the Tropical Andes, including places like Intag Valley, are sources of clean water for local communities, totaling 59.7 million people, and they are also critical to other areas in South America like the Chocó and the Amazon. But the forests are key to creating and trapping the belt of humid air that engulfs the Andes.
“What happens if we destroy the tropical forests in the Andes?” asks Culebras. “The water of the Amazon is born in the Andes. If we cut the forest of the Andes, if we contaminate the water of the Andes, the Amazon and the Chocó are going to be affected a lot…and the Andes has huge biodiversity, so if we lose all these species, we are breaking the equilibrium of the ecosystems. And if we destroy the Andes, we have lost the water that feeds the Amazon and the Pacific coast.”
Beyond Intag Valley
Two other reserves in the Ecuadorian Tropical Andes are facing similar struggles with mining: Dracula Reserve and Rio Manduriacu Reserve. Fundacion EcoMinga manages Dracula Reserve and is one of the organizations managing Manduriacu, but the two reserves are in different parts of the country. Manduriacu is near Intag Valley and EcoMinga staff think the outcomes of legal battles in neighboring Intag Valley will likely affect mining concessions that cover about 90% of Manduriacu.
Although it is part of the Cotacachi Conservation and Sustainable Use Area, it’s not a national park. The hope is that the ruling from the Los Cedros case will help provide a legal foundation for private reserves, like Manduriacu, to resist mining in its equally biodiverse forests. Manduriacu has been a hotbed of discovery for new species, like the recently described and an Endangered glass frog (Hyalinobatrachium nouns).
In 2019, EcoMinga wrote about mining in Manduriacu on its blog saying, “We cannot and should not oppose all mining. We use copper just like everyone else, and the people of the region do need jobs. But neither should open-pit mines be dug indiscriminately in the region; the long-term consequences of such mining can be serious. A reasonable balance would be to avoid affecting the region’s privately and publicly protected ecological reserves, especially when those reserves contain unique species not found anywhere else in the world.”
Dracula Reserve is much farther north of Intag Valley, but is gearing up for a similar showdown with mining projects. It’s in Carchi Province on the border with Colombia, but gold mining is creeping further and further into Dracula. The 5,300-acre private reserve, about 60% of which is covered with mining concessions, is hoping the designation of new Key Biodiversity Areas, the Rights of Nature, and a change in the land-use policy for the reserve will give it more protection. EcoMinga and its partners are asking the Tulcán County government in Carchi Province to change its land use policy to conservation only.
“We would be a lot more nervous if mining is allowed to go ahead in other areas,” says Javier Robayo, executive director of EcoMinga. “The legal precedent of Los Cedros is helpful.”
In August 2021, an expedition team with EcoMinga and its partner, Reserva: The Youth Land Trust, discovered areas in the reserve’s Cerro Golondrinas protected area that showed signs of early mining exploration. It appeared miners had accessed highland forest and dug out vegetation by hand, looking for any shiny flecks of gold in the soil below. The discovery was worrisome.
“The stability of these mountains are very low,” says Javier Robayo, executive director of EcoMinga. “The increasing mining activities at higher elevations will have a huge impact on communities at lower elevations.”
When tracts of forests in Dracula are destroyed at high elevations, it increases the potential danger for landslides. Last year, a landslide knocked out the only road to Ecuador’s capital, Quito.
EcoMinga has increased patrols as a result of the mining incursions and has asked the government to provide them with information about five mining cosations for their community consultations that companies hosted about their mining projects. However, the request was rebuffed. EcoMinga said the government claimed they didn’t need to consult communities for the projects.
Local communities, many of which are extremely remote and struggle with access to basic necessities like adequate health care, have told EcoMinga that they have been offered large sums of money to sell their land to the mining companies.
Dracula Reserve is famous for the many species of orchids it contains. It’s estimated that there are about 380 different species of orchids in the reserve, but more importantly, the total number is the number of endemic orchids, many of which are in the genus Dracula.
The endemic species don’t stop at orchids. Dracula also has a new genus of rodent, multiple new species of frogs, and a new species of anole. And every new expedition is uncovering more species that have yet to be described.
Dracula is a rare haven especially for frogs. The Carchi Andes Toad was thought to be Extinct until it was rediscovered in Dracula in 2017 respectively. And a brand new species of Andean treefrog (Hyloscirtus conscientia) was discovered last year. There are thriving communities of every group of frogs.
“It’s one of the last places where you can see that type of integrity,” says Robayo.
Large mammals, however, are increasingly hard to find in Dracula. It’s likely that deforestation from agriculture and road construction, and hunting are driving Dracula’s monkeys, Pumas and Andean Bears out of the reserve.
Despite Dracula facing similar challenges as many other reserves in the Ecuadorian Andes, there is a lack of awareness, even in nearby lowland communities, about the mining projects there.
“It’s still very hard to not feel that we are alone in this situation,” says Robayo. “We want to build more legal support to protect endangered species through the rights of nature.”
Devin Murphy is Re:wilds’s senior communications specialist and helps Re:wild and its partners tell stories about the work they do to protect wildlife and wildlands around the planet. Her favorite stories about conservation include fascinating and little-known species and the dedicated humans protecting them.