TENA, Ecuador (CN) — Every Monday, local activist groups meet in the center of Tena, a town of about 34,000 inhabitants in the northeastern corner of the Ecuadorian Amazon.
At the main traffic light, they use every break to step in front of cars with banners showing how once roaring rivers have transformed into small puddles scattered between piles of rocks and sand.
"They are polluting our rivers, and nobody does anything," the activists shout in megaphones.
In just three years, everything has changed in the region, said María Andrade Cerda, a local activist from the group Napo Resiste.
“Mining threatens our home. It pollutes the rivers, destroys the jungle and kills the animals. The water I drink and bathe in has changed,” she said in an interview.
From a nearby viewpoint called Mirador El Ceibo overlooking the crossing between the Anzu and Jatunyaku rivers, it is easy to see how mining has changed the area.
The water is almost gone, and mercury, used to extract gold, discolors what is left of the rivers, said Cerda. She added that there used to be kitchen gardens, or chakras, along the riverbank, but they are now gone because the soil has been contaminated. Most of the trees are gone too.
"It was a beautiful place in 2020, but now everything is destroyed,” she said.
Meanwhile, unknown actors are moving in with excavators and turning the soil upside down. Courthouse News rafted down the river together with the local activists and witnessed the massive machines at work.
Although illegal mining was paused in early February last year when a joint police and army operation seized 107 excavators, Napo Resiste accuses the authorities of corruption and claims they warned the miners so they could hide their equipment.
Activist Pepe Moreno from the group Napo Ama La Vida said in an interview that the government is legally required to hold a public hearing and obtain free and informed consent from native people before beginning any extraction projects.
”But they haven’t done either, so all concessions and later licenses are de facto illegal,” he said.
Mining in Ecuador used to be concentrated in the southern part of the country. Now it has moved northwards, and the Napo province – where Tena is located – is the epicenter.
According to a report by the conservation nongovernmental organization Monitoring of the Andean Amazon Project, mines in the Napo province have grown by over 200 times in just over two decades. Now, the MAAP estimates there are nearly 300 mining operations in the region.
But because it is illegal, it is difficult to prove who operates there. When activists get too close and try to document the mining activities, it can be dangerous, said Cerda.
Miners now settle along the riverbanks, move through the Amazon basin and the Andes in northern South America, and exploit areas with gold. According to locals, gold mining is becoming more entrenched in criminal organizations that have moved into Napo from surrounding provinces.
The organizations play a significant role in the purchase of gold in Tena - potentially for use in money laundering of proceeds from drug trafficking, prostitution and other illegal economic activities, according to a report from the Organization of American States.
But the situation is complex, and neither activists, local lawyers nor regulators can prove whether the miners are immigrants, locals from the areas around Tena or shady representatives of international companies seeking licenses to mine in the area.
The Ecuadorian government has seemingly given concessions for international companies to explore large-scale mining opportunities around Tena, but no permits have been given yet, according to lawyer and ombudsman Andrés Rojas, who works with the activists and has begun legal proceedings against several agencies, including the Ministry of Environment, Water and Ecological Transition.
Rojas said that the Ecuadorian state has failed to safeguard the rights of nature and indigenous people, referring to the current national constitution, passed in 2008, which declares the Amazon a special region in the same way as the Galapagos Islands are.
"According to our constitution, nature must be respected and therefore there should be no extractive activities here," Rojas said Rojas, referring to Article 71, which states that nature "has the right to full respect to exist and regenerate."
He also referred to Articles 72 and 73, which state that "nature has the right to restoration." Ecuador was the first country in the world to grant such rights to the environment.
"The environmental obligations resulting from mining in Napo have not been respected. Water samples show that rivers are already dead. They have levels of heavy metals 500 times higher than the permitted limit, and they have not been cleaned and reforested," Rojas said, pointing to a report from Ikiam Amazon Regional University.
He added that the Ecuador Constitution basically forbids any extraction in the Amazon, as it has the same protected status as the Galapagos Islands. In addition, the government is legally obliged to make amends for any contamination of rivers and protect the rights of native people. But so far, nothing has been done.
"By polluting rivers with mercury, removing soil and leaving them without vegetation, and eradicating entire ecosystems that are part of mining, the existence of nature is not fully respected,” Rojas said.
For now, people in Tena keep protesting on a weekly basis in hopes that their court case will eventually result in a permanent and effective ban against illegal mining in the protected Amazon regions.
Mette Mølgaard Henriksen contributed to this report.
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