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Collections / International and local conservation groups condemn Ecuadorian court’s decision to allow copper mining in Intag Valley cloud forests


A group of 12 international and local research, conservation and environmental organizations has condemned an Ecuadorian court’s decision to allow copper mining in Intag Valley, a biodiversity hotspot in the Andes mountains. In response to a request from a legal team representing local communities, the judge presiding over the case declined, on March 16 to issue a written explanation providing more detail on his reasoning behind the original February ruling. The legal team representing local communities in Intag Valley has argued that the mining concession violates the constitutional rights of local communities to consultation and the rights of nature, and it plans to appeal the Cotacachi canton court’s decision.

“The judge of Cotacachi didn't analyze the minimum standards for protection of humans and natural rights that we demand in this case, generating a serious violation of the rights enshrined in the constitution and judgments of the constitutional court of Ecuador,” said Gustavo Redin, a lawyer arguing the case on behalf of local communities.

The cloud forests of Intag Valley are home to dozens of critically endangered species, some of which are not found anywhere else in the world, and it includes the Intag-Toisan Key Biodiversity Area (KBA). KBAs are critical to the persistence of life on earth.

The longnose harlequin toad is one of the species found only in Intag Valley, and specifically in the Llurimagua mining concession. The toad was believed to be extinct until it was unexpectedly rediscovered in 2016. Despite being rediscovered in the Llurimagua copper mine’s concession, the longnose harlequin toad was not included in the environmental impact assessment for Codelco, the Chilean state-owned mining company leading the mining project, along with Empresa Nacional Minera del Ecuador, (Enami), Ecuador’s state-owned mining company.

An independent partial survey of amphibians living in the Llurimagua mining site by Jambatu Research and Conservation Center found 22 species of frogs living in part of the concession area, but the center believes that there could be closer to 100 species. After the rediscovery of the longnose harlequin toad in 2016, the Jambatu Center led a rescue effort to bring a few longnose harlequin toads into a conservation breeding program with the hope of one day reintroducing the species to the wild.

“If you don't fight, then you have already lost,” said Andrea Terán-Valdez, collections manager at Jambatu Amphibian Research and Conservation Center. “We have to try. We have to keep on trying. We are doing our part, the community is doing their part, and we need the courts to honor the rights of nature. Otherwise, we will all lose.”

The longnose harlequin toad was believed to have been driven to extinction in the late 1980s by climate change and a deadly disease caused by the chytrid fungus. The same has happened to many other harlequin toads, amphibians that breathe through their skin and are extremely sensitive to changes in their environments.

A brand new species of rocket frog, also discovered within the Llurimagua concession in 2019, has yet to receive a name and will be severely affected by the mining project. Local communities have selected two possible names for the new frog species and are asking people around the world to vote on them to show solidarity with their effort to fight mining in Intag.

One proposed name “rana cohete resistencia de Intag” means “Intag’s resistance rocket frog” and represents hope that the Ecuadorian government will recognize the rights of communities and nature by canceling the concession. The other name, “rana cohete condenada”, means “doomed rocket frog” and represents the Cotacachi canton court’s decision to destroy the frog’s home and endanger the biodiversity of all of Intag.

Intag Valley is home to thousands of species that are threatened with extinction in addition to amphibians like longnose harlequin toad and the newly discovered unnamed species of rocket frog. Those species include mammals, from the critically endangered brown-headed spider monkey to the vulnerable Andean bear; several species of birds, including the critically endangered black-and-chestnut eagle and the endangered ground band-cuckoo; and many species of rare orchids.

“The livelihoods and wellbeing of the communities in Intag depend on a conserved forest and healthy watersheds,” said Lina Valencia, Andean countries coordinator for Re:wild. “This mining concession will have detrimental effects to the forests, rivers and species that live there. Species don’t often get a second chance, especially harlequin toads. A mining concession would be disastrous for fragile species like the longnose harlequin toad.”

An environmental impact assessment conducted for Codelco and Enami EP, did not include all of the threatened and endangered species in the Llurimagua mining concession, nor did it include information on how mining could affect water sources that local communities depend on.

“Given the steep terrain of the mining area, the high rainfall, toxic makeup of the ore body, plus the primary cloud forests which protect dozens of endangered species and no less than 43 sources of rivers and streams, this mining project will turn out to be one of the world’s worst environmental catastrophes, if we allow it to go forth,” said Carlos Zorrilla, co-founder of Defensa y Conservación de Intag, which has been supporting local communities’ case against the Llurimagua mining project.

The legal team representing communities in the case against Codelco and Enami EP had hoped that the legal precedent set by a case involving another protected forest in Intag Valley would affect the Cotacachi canton court’s decision about the Llurimagua mining project. Los Cedros Reserve won an historic victory in Dec. 2021 that determined mining concessions in that protected forest violated the rights of nature, which are protected by Ecuador’s constitution.

However, in February, after 75 hours of hearings over 9 days and 42 amicus briefs totaling 37,000 pages submitted to the judge, the Cotacachi canton court ruled after less than a day of deliberation that the neither the Llurimagua concession nor the planned mining activities violated the rights of nature or communities’ right to consultation about projects that could affect the environment. In its decision, the court decided that communities were not entitled to full reparations for any damage caused by activities within the concession. It also ruled that Enami and Codelco don’t have to stop the project.

The Llurimagua mine is the latest in a long history of mining projects in the region. Intag Valley has been the target for mining since the 1990s when a Japanese company initially planned to mine the area for copper. In the 27 years since the first mining concessions were granted without prior consultation, local communities have been fiercely opposed to mining. They have said that they were never consulted about Enami and Codelco’s mining plans, which is required under Ecuador’s constitution. Community resistance to mining in Intag Valley is the longest in Ecuador’s history.

Due to the predicted environmental impacts and lack of prior consultation, the Cotacachi canton court’s recent ruling on the Llurimuga concession has angered community members.

“If the mining that is proposed here in Ecuador, here in this specific place, in Llurimagua, if allowed, for me it would be devastating because they have to remove the entire layer of soil from the place,” said Cenaida Guachagmira, who lives in Cerro Pelado and is against the mining concession, and whose parents protested against earlier concessions. “The mining that is proposed here is large-scale, open-pit mining, so that is indeed a conditioning factor to turn all the biodiversity that I know of and that my future generation could not know into a desert.”

Additional quotes

Ariadne Angulo, IUCN Species Survival Commission Amphibian Specialist Group
The longnose harlequin toad was an abundant species until its disappearance in the 1980s. Considered Extinct after intensive search efforts, it was rediscovered in 2016 but with a tiny population size, making it extremely vulnerable to any disturbance. If this mining project goes ahead, the species may indeed become truly extinct.

Candace Hansen, Amphibian Survival Alliance
We are in a race to save amphibians, especially harlequin toads, from extinction. We will stand with Intag’s communities and support their efforts to protect all the incredible species in its cloud forests.

Juan Carlos Valarezo, Aves y Conservación
Because of its proximity to the Cordillera de Toisán, the Llurimagua mining project could impact areas of vital importance for Ecuador’s endemic hummingbird and black-breasted puffleg (Eriocnemis nigrivestis), whose largest populations in Ecuador were recorded in Intag Valley in 2019. We still do not know the entire distribution of the species in the upper part of the valley. Therefore, it is critical to avoid extractive activities that threaten the habitat of this threatened species and the diversity of birds generally in the region. Intag has enormous potential to develop bird-watching tourism as a sustainable economic alternative for local communities. Giving way to an open pit mining like the Llurimagua project would be devastating for the region, its biodiversity and the future of the vast majority of the local population.

Simon Stuart, chief scientific advisor, Synchronicity Earth
It is not often that we rediscover a species that we were pretty much certain was extinct. The longnose harlequin frog was once widespread in the northwestern part of the Ecuadorian Andes, but its populations were devastated by the chytridiomycosis pandemic, with the last record being in 1989. But then, in 2016, a tiny population was rediscovered in the Intag Valley. However, this population is now at severe risk of being lost due to planned mining, and it is down to Ecuador’s judiciary to save this species from extinction. The rights of nature are recognised in Ecuador’s constitution, so maybe the longnose harlequin frog still has a chance.

Tarsicio Granizo, director, WWF-Ecuador
WWF stresses the importance of ensuring the democratic participation of local communities and respect for human rights and nature, which are fundamental to inclusive conservation and just environmental governance. Therefore, we call on the authorities to guarantee the rights of the Intag Valley communities to decide on the future of their territory.

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Photo: A new species of rocket frog, discovered in the Llurimagua mining concession area in Intag Valley, Ecuador. Local communities have proposed two choices to name the species and are asking people around the world to vote on the names. (Photo by Centro Jambatu)

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