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Date: 22.10.2018, 18:54 / Views: 74551

                    Pearls Before Swine: The Apalling Cost of Ecuador’s Extractivist Agenda                                                     Where are the voices of the international community in preventing this biological holocaust?

Carlos Zorrilla

The original title of this text was: Pearls Before Swine: The Troubling Fate of Ecuador’s Biological Diversity

However, as I wrote and reflected on the theme, I became convinced that the loss of biological diversity, as tragic as it undoubtedly is,  is but a minor actor, in this great tragic-folly. 

For, there are  times,  a madness so disjointed with reality, so grotesque in nature, that it is impossible to comprehend it. That is, unless you buy into the  notion that money comes before everything else, including life itself.

The Biblical phrase in the title conveys the idea that it is a waste of time to discuss sacred matters with unlearned individuals. To me, however, the image it portrays reflects perfectly Ecuador’s current craze for designating tens of thousands of square kilometers of the country’s primary forests, pristine rivers and streams, as well as indigenous territories open to large-scale mining.

Something to consider at the outset is that Ecuador is one of the world’s 17 Megadiverse countries, and it is the only Andean nation free of large-scale metal mines. To add to the madness, most of the new mining concessions are within the Tropical Andes Biodiversity Hotspot, the most diverse of the world’s 36 Hotspots.

To put all this in perspective, Ecuador has more orchids and hummingbirds than Brazil, which is 30 times larger. If managed sustainably, the country’s stunning biodiversity could easily guarantee the country’s future, plus provide significantly more employment than mining. In countries like Ecuador, mining´s rapacious nature destroys—virtually in perpetuity–a nation’s renewable resources, often leaving behind ruined landscapes, poisoned waters and social and cultural mayhem.  In the long run it also impoverishes developing countries that go down this path1,1a. Yet, the industry and corrupt governments are comfortable labeling this kind of desolation development.

But that is not all, as the Cat in the Hat would say. The mining concessions also overlap thousands of square kilometers of most of the headwaters of Ecuador’s major rivers. In fact, several of the headwaters where the concessions are situated feed rivers that are being dammed to produce hydroelectricity for export. Yes, you read that right. The sedimentation produced by massive mining projects will inevitably shorten the productive lives of these multi-billion hydroelectric projects.

Maybe it helps to put numbers to the madness: The Andean nation, has, in the last 18 months, handed over two million hectares—nearly 8% of its territory—over to mining companies. One million of those hectares are in indigenous territories. The recipients of what can only be labeled a criminal giveaway have been, for the most part, Canadian, Chilean, Australian and Chinese mining companies, enticed by the drastic deregulation and tax cuts offered by Ecuador.

Furthermore, 750,000 of these hectares overlap at least 39 protected areas called Bosques Protectores2 (Protector Forests). These can be private as well as public, and are legally designated by the government to carry out two primary functions: to conserve biodiversity and protect water sources. Precisely the resources that are most affected by large-scale mining in countries like Ecuador.

The Mining Imperative: By co-option if possible, but by any means

One of the most pernicious aspects of the mining imperative in places like Ecuador[,] is the utilization of all of a country’s institutions to support the government’s extractive plans. Support is too nice a word perhaps. When the offers of jobs, roads and clinics don’t convince local communities and Indigenous Peoples, the “support” morphs into outright coercion. It is then when human rights abuses take place. However, so as not to scare away investors, the governments and mining companies are especially good at creating a false sense of compliance with all laws, regulations and international treaties, plus of working hand-in-hand with local communities. It is part of the strategy of selling one of the biggest, best-funded myths of modern times: Responsible Mining.

In these kinds of extractivist regimes, and especially in those whose economies overly rely on exports of commodities, abuses are aided and abetted by a thinly-veiled totalitarian democracy, which concentrates all real power in the Executive Branch of government, typically the arm charged with implementing extractive policies and projects. The other branches, and all the ministries and other institutions under them, serve to accomplish not much more than to cover up violations and legitimize the illegitimate. The operating principle is, mining must go on. When the resistance to the projects starts to threaten the outcome of mining projects, the country will use its courts, army, police, intelligence units, and any other institution to divide, intimidate and coerce.3 Thus, in countries like Ecuador, it is a rarity when the police and military protect the protesters in socio-environmental conflicts. As for the judicial system, several Human Rights organizations have denounced the systematic criminalization of indigenous and campesino environmental and human rights defenders for their views and actions in protesting against environmental crimes4.

Such an extractivist State will do whatever it takes to keep investors happy, and to show the investors that the regime is serious about protecting their investments. In fact, countless human rights violations as well as unimaginable environmental devastation are not averted by governments precisely to comply with bi-lateral investment protection agreements. The consequences of not fully supporting the multinational companies, regardless of how many human rights abuses are being committed, can result in multi-billion dollar lawsuits against the country hosting the extractive projects.

Mining companies love to brag about their sustainable mining ideals, but they sure do cozy up to these types of governments. And they will do anything to elect them, and keep them in power.

Record-Shattering Contradictions

These are, by far, not the only contradictions and hypocrisies associated with Ecuador’s endearment toward the mining industry. Small farmers, private landowners, as well as social, productive, and environmental organizations, plus local governments, have taken pains to protect hundreds of Protector Forests in Ecuador from environmental degradation for decades. The law explicitly prohibits agriculture and ranching within these biodiverse sites, and before Correa government-introduced changes to the legislation, mining was also off limits. Now, the government expects these actors to sit by and watch them being given over to one of the most environmentally destructive activities on Earth. And, the shortsightedness doesn’t end there. These sites are the sources of drinking water for hundreds of thousands of Ecuadorians. Many are also being used by communities for ecological tourism.

In fact, the prospect for Ecuador in this field is much greater than for countries like Costa Rica, whose economy is significantly enriched by the activity. Costa Rica prohibits large-scale mining, yet its citizens enjoy a much higher standard of living than Ecuadorians.

To illustrate some of the social and environmental costs of Ecuador’s extractivist agenda, consider the following two examples. Nearly all of the 311,500 hectares of the Kutuku-Shaimi Protective Forest in the Amazon basin has been concessioned to mining companies. All of it, without serious previous consultation with affected communities and local governments. This, in spite of the fact that more than five thousand Shuar indigenous use the forest. And, as is the case in several other protector forests, the Kutuku-Shaimi harbors species only found at this location. In the Intag region, a forest imperiled by the exploratory activities of Chilean-owned Codelco, a frog thought extinct was “rediscovered” in 2016.5 It has not been found anywhere else on Earth. The forest is currently being used by two communities for ecological tourism, an activity that would end were mining to begin; thus affecting the area’s future sustainability.

The environment and local communities are not the only ones being steamrolled by the mining imperative. Democratic values and institutions are also under siege. Prior consultation is a Constitutional right granted to communities and indigenous peoples. According to indigenous organizations, community leaders and local government officials, none of the communities within the hundreds of new mining concessions have been properly consulted to determine if mining harmonizes with the people’s livelihood. Mining also often goes directly against local government development plans; and local governments are rarely, if ever, consulted. Of the hundreds of local governments, only a handful have planned for large-scale mining in their territories.


Why would Ecuador, want to sacrifice its most important wealth; its biodiversity and cultural wealth, and curtail or ruin the opportunities for an economy to be based, at least in part, on a sustainable economic activity such as ecological tourism?  The answer lies in the greed for power, in corruption and unimaginable government waste.

Although things seem to be changing somewhat with the new government elected in April of 2017, the previous regime, led by President Rafael Correa, was characterized by enormous increase in revenues from the sale of petroleum, and subsequent wide-scale public works projects. And an almost unimaginable amount of government waste and corruption. Some of the corruption cases have lately begun to surface, but they are the very tip of the iceberg. (As I write this, Jorge Glas, Correa’s Vice President, is in jail and headed to court6, accused of taking over 16 million dollars in bribes from a Brazilian construction firm, and being a key part of a huge corruption network involving- so far- 12 other government functionaries).

To pay for the new roads, hospitals, universities, etc., the government had to go deep into debt. As the Chinese are taking most of the exportable petroleum in partial payment for deals struck with the Ecuadorian government, the arrangement is making it very difficult for the current government to use revenues from the country’s black gold. Also, and crazy as it may sound, Correa’s government asked for advanced payment for royalties on couple of the largest mining project, thus drying up that source of revenue for the new government!

It’s also a fact that the Asian giant consumes about 50% of the world’s copper thus, many of the new mining concessions are for large copper mines, several Chinese-owned. And China is, incidentally, Ecuador’s main creditor. Those credits, needless to say, do not come without strings firmly attached.7

If There is no Justice, There Will be no Peace.

The extractive path was well laid out before the current government—whose representatives are from the same political party as Correa’s—took over. In fact, most of the changes to the laws and economic incentives favoring mining corporations were already in place two years before Mr Correa made off to Belgium at the end of his term. The extreme de-regulation pushed through by his government prompted the mining industries’ feeding frenzy that led to the concession giveaway. The hundreds of mining concessions given out just before, and right after, the change of government without previously consulting with communities, inevitably will lead to numerous social-environmental conflicts. With very few exceptions, this has been the typical reaction in Latin America for centuries, and there is no reason to think it will change now or in the foreseeable future. In fact, lately the conflicts have heated up, especially around the Intag area in the north, in the province of Azuay, as well as in the Cordillera del Condor in the south. Here communities have started to push back more aggressively against what they perceive as a grotesquely unjust system in which they don’t have a voice and the government is not seen as impartial.  This is especially the case with the concessions within indigenous people’s territories, where the government, so far, has made a farce of their right to Free Prior and Informed Consent.

Money and Politics

Correa and his merry band of phony “socialists revolutionaries” so indebted the country that in spite of campaign promises to go “beyond” extractivism, they did the complete opposite: they greatly expanded it. The difference from past governments is that the Correa government focused on mining and much less on petroleum. They also needed money to keep their “socialist revolution” alive.

As a result, Ecuador has never been more in debt,8 and more unable to pay it off. The country’s embrace of mining helps to assure new creditors that the country can pay off its debt in the future based on the nation’s mineral wealth. Even if such an outcome is mostly wishful thinking.  

Concrete Craziness

Just to have a more concrete idea of the extractive craziness, in the region where I live, the Intag area of Northwest Ecuador—one of the biodiversity gems of the world, the central government has issued concessions covering about 80% of Intag’s 1500 square kilometers. In fact, my home and forest—which happens to be a Protected Forest—is within a concession!  Just in the Intag area, the concessions include within them 54 towns and villages; hundreds of streams and rivers, and thousands of hectares of primary forests. In Ecuador as a whole there must be well over one thousand towns and villages that, all of a sudden, find themselves inside mining concessions.

It is worth a pause here to reflect on the monstrous arrogance implicit in a government issuing mining licenses which include within them whole towns and villages, without previously consulting with the inhabitants. The same goes for the government’s stance toward Indigenous Peoples and their ancestral territories. You would think that any “responsible” mining company, if responsible mining companies indeed exist, would stay as far away as possible from such a mad scheme. Yet, many of the companies buying into this perversity consider themselves to be paragons of responsible mining.

Then, there is the issue of mining in super biodiverse areas. To better put the country’s biodiversity in perspective, the small environmental organizations I work for, DECOIN, has identified, to date, 105 species of mammals, birds, frogs and other animals on the IUCN list of endangered species recorded in, or in habitats like, those found within the 4,839 hectares of Intag’s Llurimagua mining concession. And this doesn’t include trees and other plants. The project, now in advanced exploration, is being developed by Chile’s Codelco, the world’s largest copper producer.

If the above are not enough reasons to question the government of Ecuador’s dysfunctional mining policies, then consider that most of Intag’s mining concessions are within the conservation buffer area of one of the world’s most important protected areas: the Cotacachi-Cayapas Wilderness Area. This official protected area is the only one of any significant size in all of Western Ecuador, and one of the most biologically important in the world.9 All of this points to the unwillingness of Ecuador meeting its international responsibilities for protecting and enhancing its biological diversity.

The Deafening Silence of the International Community

One of the mysteries of this debacle is why the large international organizations, such as Conservation International, Flora and Fauna International and the ICUN, as well as the United Nations, are not saying, or doing, more about Ecuador’s blatant disregard for its international commitments to protect its biological diversity and endangered species. The more so because some of these organizations have funded management plans for some of the protective forests now earmarked for mining. This is the case for the Kutukú-Shaimi Protective Forest´s management plan, which was funded by CARE International. As mentioned above most of its 311,500 hectares is covered in mining concessions.


On the other hand, some European countries as well as international foundations, have made it possible for Ecuador to launch and pay for the innovative Socio-Bosque program. The conservation initiative pays land owners a set price per hectare not to degrade their forests. A peculiar situation and seeming total waste of funds, given that hundreds of thousands of hectares of Socio- Bosque forests are now within mining concessions. The current head of the Ministry of the Environment in Ecuador, Tarsicio Granizo, at one time headed a conservation department for WWF, and had nothing but praise for the biodiversity bounty of the Kutukú at the time. His silence these days is particularly deafening.

On September 26th, Ecuador’s environmental, indigenous, and human-rights organizations asked the government of Ecuador to include in an upcoming national referendum, a proposition to stop mining projects that would impact the nation’s water resources, and most of the nation’s biodiverse forests and other key ecosystems. The new government, however, decided to limit the scope of the question only to officially protected areas—such as National Parks—and urban areas. The decision reveals that the current government’s extractivist agenda, so far, is not much different than that of the last regime.

The pearls being thrown before the swine are too precious, too rare. The international environmental community must find its voice and use it firmly to try to stop this travesty. Now, before it is too late.

Title Updated January 15 2018

Carlos Zorrilla is a resident of the Intag area of Ecuador. He is the Executive Director and co-founder of DECOIN, a small, environmental grass-roots NGO conserving Intag’s environment, resisting mining development and supporting sustainable alternatives in the Intag region of Ecuador since 1995.  DECOIN was one of 15 organizations from around the world awarded the United Nation’s 2107 Equator Prize in New York on September 17th 2017.



  1. For a brief introduction to the Resource Curse see   

1a. See also

  1. “Roo Vandegrift, Daniel C. Thomas, Bitty A. Roy, and Mierya Levy; 2017.11.05 v1.0; The extent of recent mining concessions in Ecuador; Rainforest Information Center, Nimbin, New South Wales, Australia.”
  2. The recent case of the police and army assault on Shuar Indigenous communities in the Cordillera del Condoris just one example. See:      



  1. The protected area ranked 161 in irreplaceability importance out of 173,461 evaluated worldwide



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