In southeast Ecuador, in the heart of its Amazon, stands an imposing mountain massif that stretches more than 160 kilometers in length: the Condor Mountain Range, which, once largely unknown, retains an expansive intact and unexplored territory.
In this area of vital importance for life, science and conservation, an open-pit copper mine known as the Mirador project, with an expected lifespan of 30 years, began operating in July.
The launch of the project marks the beginning of large-scale mining in Ecuador, with which the government intends to sustain the economy and leave behind its dependence on oil.
This is a sad novelty because large-scale mining involves the risk of enormous environmental damages, which are most serious in ecosystems of great biodiversity and proximity to water sources such as the Condor Range, where indigenous and peasant communities also live.
This impulse toward extractive activity contradicts the progress made in 2008, when Ecuador was the first country in the world to recognize the rights of nature in its Constitution.
As the Amazon burns in flames, and takes our future with it, Ecuador has a responsibility to change course. The nation must serve as an example for other countries of the Amazon Basin, and the world, of the effective protection of the rainforest and those who depend on it.
"This country lacks resources."
Based on these words, the Mirador project and the presence of the mining industry in Ecuador has been intensified without precedent. They were said by spokespersons of the Chinese company Ecuacorriente (in charge of the mining concession) and echoed, in turn, by government representatives.
But what will happen to the biodiversity and environmental services of the priceless Condor Range?
These Amazonian mountains protect cloud forests and páramos (high mountain wetlands), both natural carbon sinks. They are home to more than 2,000 species of flora, including one of the few carnivorous plants in Ecuador, and hosts 613 species of birds. According to studies, there are another 2,000 plant species to be discovered in this unique environment.
It is there that excavations of 300 to 500 meters deep will be carried out to access subsoil minerals, and where risky dams will be built to deposit tons of waste.
The damages are already occurring. The company confirmed that 1,422 hectares of forest have been cleared for the project. And local organizations have denounced serious legal and constitutional violations surrounding the project.
The discourse of large profits in store for the country from the exploitation and sale of subsoil resources has gained strength in recent months. Official data shows that currently 7.5% of the territory is concessioned for mineral exploration, and the government is analyzing the granting of new concessions. By 2020, the government plans to have a map of the new areas where mining will be permitted.
These plans ignore the perpetual impacts of large-scale mining, including impacts on the landscape and damage to water quality. In the case of Mirador, the project has already caused the diversion of the Tundayme River, just to name one of its impacts, recognized as irreversible by the company itself.
"Be coherent, stop using cell phones and bicycles and other objects made from materials extracted from the mines," challenged Vice President Otto Sonnenholzner, one of mining's biggest promoters, to those who oppose the projects. "I propose another challenge: you stop using water and food," replied Yaku Perez, a defender of water and prefect of the province of Azuay.
The above is the clearest metaphor of what is at stake with the blind advance of open-pit mining in Ecuador.
The accelerated move towards large-scale mining in Ecuador means acting negligently in the face of the global climate crisis, which forces us to change our development model this decade in order to achieve the goals of mitigation and adaptation.
The international scientific community warned in 2018 that we only have a dozen years to maintain global warming at a maximum of 1.5°C (with respect to the pre-industrial era) and that exceeding that limit would make the risks of droughts, floods and extreme heat worse.
This requires unprecedented transitions in sectors such as energy and industrial systems.
Boosting large-scale mining is reversing and deepening the development model that has caused the climate emergency. It means destroying natural carbon sinks such as those in the Condor Mountain Range and the Amazon as a whole.
Ecuador can and must take a new step forward. It must, as it did in 2008 with the recognition of the rights of nature, find a development model that effectively respects its obligations to the climate and to human rights.
Ecuador cannot continue to mortgage the present and future of entire communities and ecosystems under the pretext of the immediate and ephemeral profits of mining.
New paths are possible and, above all, urgent.