(IPS) – The Ecuadorian government sent in the army to shut down illegal gold mining operations in the jungles of the northwest province of Esmeraldas, where the highly polluting activity is associated with drug traffickers and protected by armed militias and hired killers.
The gold-mining activity in eight areas of the cantons of Eloy Alfaro and San Lorenzo in Esmeraldas, which is bordered by the Pacific Ocean and Colombia, was “totally illegal” and violated the country’s mining, environmental and tax laws, Minister of Non-Renewable Natural Resources Wilson Pástor and Environment Minister Marcela Aguiñaga said in a press conference last week.
They also pointed to the serious damages to local populations and the environment caused by unregulated gold mining in those areas.
Aguiñaga reported that arsenic and heavy metals like mercury are found in the waters of tributary rivers that run into the Santiago River, the source of water for local residents in that area. “This will cause cancer and other diseases in the short term,” she said.
“Ecuador is not a no man’s land,” Pástor said indignantly. “Illegal mining has to stop. We have to put a stop to exploitation of the local workforce. We have to put a stop to drug money laundering. And we’re tired of the plundering of our natural resources.”
Illegal mining, he said, generates economic activities that are not controlled by the state and irregularities like tax evasion, smuggling of materials used in the industry, networks of illegal services, capital flight, money laundering, and imports of unregistered machinery.
The military incursion earlier this month in the northern part of the province of Esmeraldas was reported by the government on May 23, in a nationally broadcast report that showed at least six helicopters taking part in the operation, in which a number of large, modern backhoes and other machinery like diesel generators and suction dredges were destroyed in controlled explosions.
The cost of backhoe excavators runs from 100,000 to 200,000 dollars, depending on the size of the engine.
Over the last six months, the heavy machines have opened up dozens of gold-mining pits in remote jungle areas of Esmeraldas that are only accessible by river.
“In the last six months, 130 million dollars worth of gold has been illegally extracted. And one ton of alluvial soil must be removed to obtain 30 just grams of gold,” Pástor reported.
The televised footage filmed by the army showed from the air dozens of pits in at least eight different areas inland from the port of San Lorenzo, near the Colombian border.
In response to a question from IPS on the military’s legal authority to destroy the machinery, Minister Aguiñaga explained that the operation had been authorised on May 19 by a judge, who ordered that it be carried out immediately.
Aguiñaga also noted that a judge in Esmeraldas had banned all mining activity in that province in December.
The military operation “was kept secret” because in December information was leaked “and the illegal miners managed to hide their machinery,” Pástor said.
But some questioned the lawfulness of the operation. Former Ecuadorean president Osvaldo Hurtado (1981-1984), a political scientist, told IPS that President Rafael “Correa and his Defence Minister Javier Ponce should answer in court for the barbaric action.
“In a state with the rule of law, a judge can order the confiscation of assets, whose fate can only be decided by a trial. There is no legal justification for sending in soldiers to bomb assets, whatever their origin,” Hurtado said.
“The responsibility does not belong to the armed forces, which carry out orders, but to those who gave the orders,” he said.
In separate statements, Interior Minister José Serrano said “we aren’t talking here about an irregular or illegal activity, but about criminal activities: tax fraud, mineral smuggling, money laundering, and labour exploitation.”
Pástor said confiscation of assets was not possible in this case, as shown by the seizure of 12 backhoes in a similar operation carried out last year in the Napo River basin in the northeast of the country, where the government had “unfavourable experiences with judges or prosecutors.”
The minister said that in some cases judges or prosecutors have ordered that seized machinery be returned to the owner. “Even prosecutor Gordillo (no first name was given) ordered the return of backhoes when the trial was in its initial stages,” he said.
But lawyer Juan José Montero told IPS “it is a contradiction to justify the destruction with a court order, while at the same time lacking confidence in the justice system to conduct the prosecutions that should arise from these cases.”
The labourers who worked at the mines will be employed “in the clean-up of the environmental damages, which are extremely serious,” Minister Aguiñaga said.
Pástor announced that the eight areas in question will be granted in concession to the state-run mining company, Empresa Nacional Minera (ENM), which will be authorised to sign partnership agreements with small-scale and medium mining outfits.
The minister said he would be meeting with the associations of miners from San Lorenzo and Eloy Alfaro to explain the steps they should take in order to sign contracts with ENM, a process he said would take around six months.
Some 2,000 families depend for a living on illegal mining in the areas targeted by the army operation, Pástor said. “Some of the members of those families had been recruited by force and exploited for ridiculously low pay and under threat,” he said.
The ministers said the tributaries of the Santiago River polluted by the illegal mining activities are the Bogotá, Tululví, Cachaví, Huimbí, Palaví, Zapallito and Estero María Rivers. They also provided a list of 20 affected villages in the area.
With respect to the threat of legal action by the owners of the excavators, or those who were leasing them and complain that they are now in debt, Aguiñaga said “they will first have to respond to the lawsuits we will bring against them for the severe environmental damages caused.”
She said the mining activity had destroyed forest cover and the fertile top layer of soil, and polluted and altered the course of rivers and wetlands – impacts that will immediately begin to be assessed by the Environment Ministry for the purpose of launching a clean-up effort.
The divisions over the question of mining among families, organisations and even local authorities in Esmeraldas have seriously undermined social relations in the area, said the Catholic bishop of the province, Eugenio Arellano.
He also complained about the illegal activities that many local people have fallen into, and about the damages to the health of the local population. “They are poisoning my people,” he said.