Police operations in Ecuador this year have uncovered shocking levels of environmental damage caused by illegal mining in the far-flung province of Napo, showing how the practice continues to proliferate in remote corners of the Amazon rainforest.
The latest revelation came on November 24 when six people were arrested, including a former official from Ecuador’s natural resources agency, for operating illegal mines in the northern province of Napo.
This sparsely developed and difficult-to-navigate part of Ecuador’s Amazon reign has seen gold mining expand by a catastrophic 21,000% in the last two decades, according to figures released by the Monitoring of the Andean Amazon Project (MAAP) in August. Up to 556.8 hectares in the province were taken over by illegal mining in 2020.
And this growth shows no signs of slowing. The watchdog found at least 120 mining sites operational in Napo in 2021.
The breakneck speed of illegal mining’s expansion has profoundly affected the environment. The use of heavy metals and deadly chemicals to extract gold from the sediment on the province’s waterways, including the 1,130-kilometer-long Napo River, has wreaked havoc on local ecosystems, MAAP stated. A 2020 report by Ikiam Amazon Regional University in conjunction with Ecuador’s Ministry of the Environment and Water (Ministerio de Ambiente y Agua – MAAE) backed this up, revealing that roughly 90% of the rivers tested in Napo displayed toxicity, pointing to “chronic contamination” that threatens wildlife and local communities.
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Napo’s environmental damage, while highly worrying, is not all that unusual within the Amazon context. It is part of a growing list of remote areas across the Amazon region that are being exploited for their resources, with their isolation offering almost strong protection from scrutiny.
InSight Crime recently reported that pockets of highly concentrated illegal mining and logging are increasingly being revealed across the Amazon basin.
In southern Peru, illegal gold mining activity has continued to find new pockets to thrive despite years of intense government crackdowns. In 2019, Operation Mercury sought to remove 5,000 illegal miners from La Pampa in the Madre de Dios department. While the operation was largely successful in moving miners on, those miners simply pushed further into unfamiliar areas of the Amazon, ravaging the environment as they went. Indigenous communities near Madre de Dios registered a 128% increase in mining deforestation following Operation Mercury, MAAP showed earlier this year.
And in Suriname, the Brokopondo Reservoir is now a hotspot for illegal gold mining, which infringes on protected areas like the Brownsberg Nature Park. For decades, law enforcement officials have been unable to displace small-scale miners in the remote park due to a lack of state resources.
In Roraima, northern Brazil, barely accessible parts of the Yanomami reservation have become highly profitable for garimpeiros (illegal miners). Clandestine runways have been built for the delivery of heavy machinery and to remove the extracted minerals. Impunity for the garimpeiros is such that they can invade Yanomami territory with gas bombs and gunfire to gain access to potential mining sites.
In the Javari Valley, a remote Indigenous territory in western Brazil at the border with Peru and Colombia, illegal logging, illegal fishing, and drug trafficking have all thrived for years. The zone came to worldwide attention earlier this year due to the murders of British journalist Dom Phillips and Brazilian Indigenous activist Bruno Pereira.
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