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For Ecuador, a litany of environmental challenges awaits in 2020

Banner image of an open-pit mine that is part of the Mirador project, courtesy of the residents of Tundayme, Ecuador.

  • For its size, Ecuador has the highest annual deforestation rate of any country in the Western Hemisphere.
  • Experts say they believe that slowing the spread of deforestation and improving water management systems should be national priorities in 2020.
  • In addition to oil exploitation, Ecuador is also facing the expansion of large-scale mining operations in high-biodiversity areas with large numbers of endemic species and in indigenous territories.
  • The country’s ongoing economic crisis and a dependence on fossil fuels will likely continue to fuel clashes with communities protecting their territories.

Looking back, 2019 was a year of mixed outcomes for Ecuador’s environmental agenda. The country’s ongoing economic crisis fossil fuel dependence will likely continue to fuel clashes with communities protecting their territories. Experts are now saying that national priorities in 2020 should center on limiting deforestation and improving water management systems.

Mongabay Latam has highlighted five issues that will be central to the sector in 2020.

Ecuador’s most deforested areas

Although deforestation is a top environmental concern for 2020, Ecuador does not officially publish deforestation data at periodic intervals like other Latin American countries. According to data from the Ministry of the Environment, Ecuador had 12.6 million hectares (31.2 million acres) of native forest in 2016; by 2018 it had lost 116,857 ha (288,760 acres). Between 1990 and 2018— just over 2 million ha (4.9 million acres) of forest were lost in Ecuador.

“The most recent data that I have knowledge of showed a deforestation rate of more than 70,000 hectares [about 173,000 acres], which is a very high figure for a country the size of Ecuador,” says Santiago Ron, an Ecuadoran biologist and professor at the Pontifical Catholic University of Ecuador (PUCE).

Ron says that for its size, Ecuador has the highest annual deforestation rate of any country in the Western Hemisphere, “which is disgraceful.” He adds that “changing that tendency should be the main challenge for this year. When forests are destroyed, it affects all organisms. We are talking about thousands, or hundreds of thousands, of species that could be affected.”

Manuel Bayón, a founding member of the Critical Geography collective, says that projects with a major impact on nature are promoted by the Ministry of the Environment, and that environmental education regarding Ecuador’s primary forests is very important. “The only policies that are established are restrictive — there are not only deforestation challenges, but also the abandonment of the populations that live in the most intact ecosystems,” Bayón says.

An aerial view of deforestation due to oil palm cultivation in Esmeraldas, a province in northern Ecuador. Image by Eduardo Rebolledo.

Carmen Josse, the scientific director of the EcoCiencia Foundation, says she believes deforestation will cause alarm in 2020. Although lower deforestation rates were achieved after a period of very high forest loss between 2000 and 2008, the rates are rising once again.

In addition to deforestation, Josse says she is also concerned about forest degradation, or the deterioration of a forested area in terms of soil function and the loss of plant and animal species. “There is a significant loss of forest biomass that does not necessarily end up being registered as deforestation, which can be degradation through selective logging. It is an issue that we want to focus on more,” Josse says.

Another issue is the continued weakening of the Socio Bosque program due to Ecuador’s economic crisis. Socio Bosque, which began in 2008, focuses on the conservation of forests and native páramos (alpine tundras) by providing economic incentives to villagers and indigenous communities who choose to make a commitment to conservation.

PUCE’s Ron says there are mixed opinions about the efficiency of Socio Bosque. Although some people received funding from the government to maintain certain forested areas, “the monitoring system is difficult because they were not monitoring remotely with satellite technology. Instead, they were monitoring in person using personnel from the Ministry of the Environment, and in some cases that did not work very well,” he says. However, he says he recognizes that some reserves have benefited from the program and that it has been an effective way of showing support for those who voluntarily protect their forests. “It is sad to see that the program has less and less funding, and that is not going to facilitate a reduction in the deforestation rate,” Ron says.

Extractive activities and large-scale agroindustry

Another ongoing environmental issue in Ecuador is the expansion of extractive activities. Oil extraction has been going on for decades, but the large-scale mining industry has been growing in recent years and will likely be discussed widely in Ecuador in 2020.

Esperanza Martínez, the founder of the environmental organization Acción Ecológica (Ecological Action), says that “although [Ecuador] has improved regarding the rights of nature, and environmental discussions have permeated government entities, the intention to accelerate extraction is entirely present.”

According to Martínez, the problem with the oil and mining industries is that they are still present in vulnerable areas like Yasuní National Park and other places with páramos or indigenous territories. “What is at stake is the expansion of the [extractive activities] toward places where logic and laws prohibit them,” Martínez says. The palm oil industry is also growing in Ecuador, especially in the north.

Water used for mining pours back into a river while children from the Shuar community swim. Image by Carlos Medina.

Experts say they believe extractive and large-scale agricultural projects will continue to grow this year. Many Ecuadorans say they feel there have been obvious shortcomings in several environmental studies presented by the companies that want to exploit natural resources, according to Andrea Encalada, an aquatic ecologist and director of the Biosphere Institute at San Francisco University in Quito. To Encalada, the mining boom in Ecuador seems more urgent than oil extraction. “In Ecuador, the oil tanker moved into the background, but what’s coming are large-scale mining projects in the south. It is highly concerning to see mining concessions in southern Ecuador, because we know that many of those projects received poor environmental assessment reports,” Encalada says.

Southern Ecuador is extremely biodiverse, but not many studies have been conducted there.

“The destruction of an entire mountain or an entire river cannot be environmentally friendly from any point of view,” Encalada says. She adds it seems as though the reason the Ecuadoran government does little to stop these extractive projects is because most of its attention is focused on the country’s economic crisis.

Bayón adds that miners working at the Mirador, a large open-pit mining project in the province of Zamora-Chinchipe, have already begun to extract copper, but the area has no roads or ports to transport it.

The Mirador mining project. Image courtesy of EcoCiencia.

Josse, from EcoCiencia, says that mining leaves “tremendous” environmental liabilities. Mining concessions are scattered throughout Ecuador, and “there were cities that had most of their territory covered by mining [concessions],” she says. One of these cities is Zamora, the capital of Zamora-Chinchipe province. “The government has proposed a mining map, but it is not available yet,” Josse says.

Pressure on Yasuní National Park

A popular consultation regarding Yasuní National Park remains a pending issue in 2020. Two years ago this month, Ecuadorans were asked if they agreed to increase the area of the intangible zone of Yasuní for indigenous peoples in isolation by at least 50,000 ha (about 123,600 acres) and reduce the area of oil exploitation authorized by parliament from 1,030 ha to 300 ha (about 2,550 to 740 acres). The citizens were in favor.

The issue is still unfolding because the decree that President Lenín Moreno followed up with to comply with the referendum result has several problems, according to social and environmental organizations. First, the decree would allow oil exploitation in the buffer zone of the park’s intangible zone. The second problem is that such an expansion would be made within the Waorani indigenous community’s territory. A response to the proposed decree is expected this year.

Organizations like YASunidos and Acción Ecológica insist that a new consultation should be conducted, such as the one they intended to do before the government held its referendum in 2018. They want to explicitly ask Ecuadorans if they want oil to be exploited in Yasuní or if they prefer that it stays underground.

The National Electoral Council (CNE) has not pursued this proposal because, according to Martínez from Acción Ecológica, the lawyer who signed off on the proposal, Julio César Trujillo, died last year. “[A]nd that is why the CNE states that there is no right to consultation. We argue in a complaint that this process is backed by more than 600,000 signatures, not just by a lawyer,” Martínez says. A decision on this matter is also expected later this year.

A view of the forest in Yasuní National Park, located in the provinces of Pastaza and Orellana. Image by José Schreckinger.

There is a third issue awaiting a government response. The projected rate of deforestation within the park if Moreno’s decree passes in its current form would exceed the 300 ha approved during the referendum, according to reports from several entities, including the Critical Geography collective and the Monitoring of the Andean Amazon Project (MAAP).

While the government must respect the decision of Ecuadorans to not exceed 300 ha of deforestation by the oil industry, Ron, the biologist, says he believes the most serious issue lies elsewhere: “The impact of oil expansion will come later, after the [completion of the] roads that are currently being opened. There is a good precedent for what could happen, and it is the same as what is happening today inside the park with a road that opened in the 1990s for the extraction of what was produced in the northern blocks,” he says. “The road of more than 100 kilometers [60 miles] was said to be environmentally friendly, as it would not allow colonization or deforestation, but that was not the case.”

Ron says he is convinced that the most serious impacts will be seen in the future and that they will be linked not only to deforestation, but also to the risk of oil spills. That risk “is something that cannot be quantified for now. These are medium- and long-term impacts,” he says.

A focus on water

Ecuador, a megadiverse country, not only has the challenge of conserving its water sources, but also of reducing pollution by treating its wastewater. Encalada, the aquatic ecologist, says she believes a lot of work must be done on this issue. “How can a country that, until recently, boasted that it was very good at every economic issue not have wastewater treatment plants in its main cities?” she says.

Ecuador’s capital, Quito, dumps all of its wastewater into the Machángara River, which flows into the Guayllabamba River. According to Encalada, only 2% of the water is treated at the Quitumbe plant.

Near the cities of Lago Agrio and Coca, the tributaries of the Napo River basin are in a critical state. Image by Pierre Lesage.

This triggers a domino effect, since the wastewater from some cities ends up in the Esmeraldas River, which thousands of people, who live in areas with very poor access to water treatment plants, rely on as a source of water. “In Quito, we are lucky because we get our water from the páramo, which has excellent quality, and then we filter it through excellent water treatment plants,” Encalada says. “But from then on, the rest of the chain is disastrous. We are lacking a national initiative to care for our rivers.”

Encalada says that another issue threatening Ecuador is the plastic pollution found in the country’s rivers, which eventually ends up in the ocean. She says river pollution is the reason behind about 80% of the garbage in the world’s oceans.

Climate change and how it affects rainfall and the hydrological cycle is another concern. Encalada points to studies that indicate that much more rain will fall in the Ecuadoran Amazon, which will bring important economic changes. “For example, a road that was built less than five years ago — which goes from Quito to Tena and had a large investment — is already destroyed by the high amount of rain we received in the area last year. We are not prepared, and we are not investing in understanding how we are going to adapt. Our agriculture and our way of life depend on that,” Encalada says.

Making territorial decisions based on popular consultation

In March 2019, Ecuador held its first popular consultation regarding a mining issue in the canton of Girón, in the southern province of Azuay. Residents of Girón had rejected the Loma Larga project, a gold-mining venture in the Quimsacocha páramo. The site sits at an elevation of 3,600 to 3,900 meters (11,800 to 12,800 feet), only 35 km (22 mi) from Cuenca, the third most important city in Ecuador. Loma Larga was close to the mining stage; the third exploratory phase had already been completed and the operators were only waiting for an environmental license.

However, these citizen participation initiatives, in which people decide on the future of extractive activities in their territories, have a long and difficult way to go. Bayón, from the Critical Geography collective, says the government publicly questioned the popular decision.

Members of different communities in the canton of Girón hold a protest in opposition to mining in Quimsacocha. Image by Bolívar Quezada.

“The government was trying to delegitimize the consultation, but they cannot do that because it has all its legal procedures in check,” he says. “It started as a popular initiative but soon reached the level of the National Electoral Council, which authorized it, and then the consultation was carried out with massive participation. Even though the government does not like the ruling, it is very difficult for them to legally delegitimize it.”

Banner image of an open-pit mine that is part of the Mirador project, courtesy of the residents of Tundayme, Ecuador.

This article was first published in Spanish by Mongabay Latam on January 16, 2020.