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Exploring the Parallel Economy That Illegal Gold Mining Created in Ecuador's Amazon

"Little Dubai" is in southern Ecuador.

Dollars are not used there and everything is purchased in grams of gold. Everything. With gold from illegal mining.

In the heart of the Podocarpus National Park, which occupies part of the provinces of Zamora Chinchipe and Loja, in the southeast of Ecuador, live 4,000 people who illegally extract gold which, in turn, is their currency.

Thirty pieces of bread: one gram of gold.

One pack of Maria cookies: five-tenths of a gram of gold.

One liter of an artisanal liquor known as siete Pingas puntas: one gram of gold.

A box of bubblegum: two-tenths of a gram of gold.

Two hours of internet daily: one gram of gold per month.

A skinned chicken: one gram of gold.

Here, the need and the forgetfulness come together. Poverty, luxury, partying, family, effort, fear, inheritance, risk, wealth, ambition, drugs, soccer, nature, cold, mercury, dynamite, sun and power.

Everyone knows it, everyone is silent. Or almost everyone.

José would share on his Facebook account how illegal miners work in the heart of that protected area, until his colleagues warned him to stop exposing them. José wants to be an influencer. Of course, José is not his real name and he doesn't know it, but he is a documentary filmmaker.

"There is almost no money used there, everything is in gold. That's why we say we are in little Dubai," José says while in a cafe in the city of Zamora. It's five in the afternoon. A reggaeton beat bounces off the table, the chairs, the wooden walls. A car with tinted windows waits for him outside during the interview. A recorder, two beers and a coffee are on the table. José has been in rehab for a year and three months due to drugs and alcohol.

José belongs to a second generation of miners. His father and uncles were miners. They first worked in Nambija, a large gold mine almost an hour from Zamora, where there was a gold mining boom during the 1980s and 1990s, until on Mother's Day in 1993, the mountain, empty inside, collapsed and buried more than 200 people. Despite this, says José, mining continues there since the gold is of excellent quality: 24 carats whereas in other mines you can find of 18.

Podocarpus National Park, Ecuador / Credit: Planet via MAATE, 2022, F. EcoCiencia.

In accordance with the Constitution and the Mining Law, this extractive activity is completely prohibited in protected areas. However, according to a report from the Monitoring of the Andean Amazon Project (MAAP), around 4,000 people mine within the Podocarpus in 222 mining camps on three fronts: San Luis, Aida and Tres Camas. In satellite images that the mapping project uses from the Planet imaging service, the camps are seen as small plastic houses built between wooden sticks.

They are known as ranchitos. They are plastic tents with a wood stove, wood for a bed and many blankets. Illegal miners sleep there. From there they monitor the mouths of the tunnels, where they enter with a pickax, sledge hammer and chisel to hit the earth and make holes up to 50 meters deep to extract pieces of rock with traces of gold embedded.

The pack of firewood for cooking at the small ranch costs one gram of gold.

“I don't have a ranch, but I go wherever I want to San Luis,” says José, with the confident voice of someone who feels popular. "I stay because they help me and the people are very good. I have blankets. I have everything. I have friends who tell me: 'Come and take anything you want,' because I attract gold. Even where there is nothing, I manage to take at least one gram."

One gram of gold, according to the Central Bank, was equivalent to 61.45 dollars in September 2023. In Zamora, illegal miners are given about 45 dollars.

With Bad Bunny in the background, José mischievously remembers when a miner was already throwing away the sand that was left as residue from a rock washing process. José told him to let him use that sand. “There is nothing there,” the man replied laughing, and gave him those remains of dust. José washed and rewashed the powder. “And I took out 1 gram and a few tenths of gold. My friend went crazy. The thing is, I'm lucky when it comes to gold."

How does a person settle on a ranch?

“There is space for everyone in the Podocarpus,” José continues. “It's a matter of placing yourself wherever you want as long as you don't bother others. Obviously, you have to ask if that area or corner where you want to stand already has an owner. I have a friend who just opened a well up there that has already has value," meaning he is already producing gold.

This is how the ranches are seen from satellite images in Podocarpus National Park, Loja/Zamora Chinchipe, Ecuador / Credit: MapBiomas Amazonia (2022). F. EcoScience.

José started mining with his father when he was 10. At the age of 14 he had already gone by himself to Nambija and San Luis and got between 400 and 500 grams of gold in 20 days of work, the equivalent, currently, of about 20,000 dollars.

"I came down here to Zamora and what I wanted was to have a good time with my friends. I paid for everything. I went to cabarets. I used to ask a woman how much she made per night when she got paid the best. She told me that she earned, for example, 3,000 dollars. Well, I gave the owner 10,000 to close the place just for me and my friends."

José’s mother told him to save the money, to buy land or houses. But, “who thinks about that at 16?”

José says that money from illegal mining cannot be easily put into financial institutions, so they must spend it quickly. José has had houses, pieces of lands, luxury cars. Weapons and a lot of gold. He has also slept on the street.

"So that has been my life and I am not ashamed," he convinces himself, while drinking his cup of coffee that, thanks to the humid heat of Zamora, has not cooled down. "When I saw myself here, in Zamora, sleeping under that bridge with my two dogs — José points to the bridge that can be seen in front of the bar — I told myself: I must change my life."

He says that mining gold is ill-gotten and since it easy comes, it easy goes, and just like in his own personal experience, most of the gold that is extracted in the Podocarpus National Park stays right there, among liquor, prostitution and drugs.

José believes that those who earn the most are those who sell things in that “improvised Dubai”: the owners of the stores and those who sell drugs and alcohol to withstand the cold of those 20 days when the miners stay on their ranches extracting gold.

The transaction is as follows: There are people who go up to the illegal mining area of ​​Podocarpus with food, chickens, firewood, medicine, liquor, bread, cookies, clothes, cigarettes, blankets, gas tanks and diesel. Everything miners may need. They also take specific requests. They buy these products in the stores of Zamora on a daily basis  in dollars. Loaded up, these informal suppliers take their products to that illegal town of 4,000 residents.

Transportation is also a business.

There are those who are dedicated to bringing everything from Zamora up to Podocarpus. Every 250 pounds that a mule carries, for four hours of travel, costs 30 dollars. After a while, the mules can no longer follow the narrow path. So, the owners of the mules carry between 100 and 120 pounds for six more hours on the road. Each one charges 150 dollars extra, José says. That's as far as money goes.

Up in the Podocarpus, the miners don't have dollars. They have gold. So, the suppliers charge in gold and when they go back down to Zamora, they exchange it for dollars. José gives an example: "In two weeks, I will go up with a friend who is new to this. He tells me that he is going to bring 2 liters of puntas Siete Pingas" — each liter costs three dollars in Zamora — "and a couple of chickens" — each chicken costs 15 dollars." José does the math. "Two liters of beverage are two grams; two hens, two grams. There you already have 4 grams, which is around 180 dollars. Subtracting the investment, my friend will be left with $144. You indeed make money!"

It is a kind of small-scale money laundering.

In Podocarpus there are also service providers such as internet, satellite television, billiard rooms, bars and a giant television that was installed on a ranch to watch the 2022 World Cup matches. Everything is paid in gold. Internet costs one gram per month, for two hours a day, from seven to nine at night.

There are also brothels. The services of a sex worker cost one gram of gold.

MapBiomas mining data 2021 / Credit: Ecociencia Foundation.

A week after the conversation with José, a regional mining meeting was held in Loja. Community members from Peru, Ecuador and Bolivia spoke about their experiences. There are people who want to speak, factors in common.

Marisol Zinanyuca is a Peruvian anti-mining activist, originally from the province of Espinar, in the department of Cusco. Marisol said that since the 1980s, when large private mining arrived in that area, prostitution increased. “Before there was none of that, now the towns are filled with pink houses, discos, brothels, where miners come down to socialize. Many come from other places, without family, and want to have contact with women,” she says.

Cristian Rusel Vargas, a young Peruvian leader from the Apurímac department, in the southern Andean zone of Peru, where the Las Bambas gold project has been developed since 2014, says that mining has caused the increase in brothels. If land in Ecuador is still not allocated for this activity, Vargas warned, the best thing would be for society not to allow it.

Michelle Báez, professor at the Pontifical Catholic University, political scientist and specialist in mining issues, speaks of a masculinization of the mining territory, which burdens men with high pressure that boils over into domestic violence or a high demand for sexual services promoting human trafficking for these purposes. The report on Organized Crime and Illegal Gold Mining from the Global Initiative Against Transnational Organized Crime confirms Báez's words.

José uploaded more than 31 videos to his Facebook account. In them he recounted, almost as if in an intimate diary, the life of the miners in the upper part of the Podocarpus. It showed how he enters deep into mines that he made with his bare hands, with the blows of a sledge hammer.

In another video, along with two other miners, he waited for the baker to arrive. They already had the gram of gold ready for the 30 loaves.

In another post, he shows his ranch and how they wait their turn to pulverize the pieces of rock they take from the mines.

One of the most watched videos shows the mining settlement of Aida, next to San Luis. José is at the top of the mountain, explaining that the number of miners has grown.

In another video he explains how the famous chanchas work.

The chanchas are rusty, horizontal, metal barrels, inside which there are large, heavy steel balls. There the miners introduce the pieces of rock that they manage to extract from the earth. The chancha is rotated by a belt that moves with a diesel machine, and it pulverizes the rock for three or four hours.

"During the last hour, the mercury that separates the gold from everything else is added to the chancha. Then, what comes out is dust and we pulverize it," says José. "That is, they put the crushed rock in wooden pans, stir it with water and a little more mercury until the sediment is floating and the gold, which is heavier, accumulates at the bottom."

This procedure takes around three and four hours and it costs one gram of gold.

"People are all very united in San Luis. Since there are no police or army, there is a well-organized delegation formed by a president, vice president and a treasurer. Everything is coordinated. They resolve conflicts,” says José. The car with tinted windows is still parked outside the bar.

At the end of 2022, about 50 people called José and asked him to stop exposing them by publishing those videos.

"They accused me of tattling, but everyone knows this: the authorities, the police, the military. We all know how it works, the only thing is that I record it because I like explaining things,” José states. However, as a precaution, he opened a new Facebook account where he now posts videos of helping people who beg on the street.

"I want to show that mining is not an easy job, not for anyone. We do it because it is what we have always known how to do since our grandparents. The conditions are difficult."

According to a report from the Pachamama Foundation in 2021, there are around 500,000 artisanal and small-scale miners in South America. In Ecuador, in 2020, between 11,500 and 20,000 people worked directly and indirectly in small-scale gold mining. A total of 10% were made up of women.

“The government prefers to take the money”

The bar is still completely empty. The Amazon rain replaces the endless reggaeton playlist.

"The government prefers to take the money, fill its pockets and give it to a foreign company to come, exploit the area and do whatever it wants with the gold, because we don't have money for the government, that's the problem! So, we do mining in our own way, a little at a time. That is not convenient for the government, so it dictates rules. Anyway, we keep fighting, we keep fighting. In San Luis there has always been a fight for that, for the right to mine. How many times have they evicted us! Right now, they are in this and they want to expel us again, but it's the same, about two or three months pass and people come back up, because they need to. It's like playing cat and mouse. This is how it has always been; this is how we fight."

According to the Escolhas Institute, 77% of the gold that leaves Ecuador is illegal.

And an investigation by the Department Against Transnational Organized Crime on illicit gold in Ecuador establishes that illegal miners sell gold at a price lower than the market price to legal concessions and gold processors with production permits that are found near mining areas. The majority are in Zaruma, Nambija and Portovelo, the three in the south of the country. These, in turn, make gold bars and sell it officially to the Central Bank or export it abroad through fake companies. For instance, in 2019 China received more than 99% of Ecuador's gold exports, whose official value was 76.6 million dollars. However, in import records, China notified that same year that Ecuador sold it gold for 339.2 million dollars.

When he watches his videos again, José laughs again at his jokes and his original phrases. He says he will continue mining. Why? Because it's what he knows best, because he says he's lucky to find gold, because he doesn't deny that, even though it's illegal, he makes lots of money out of it. He says that and making videos is what he wants to do the rest of his days. That he has already played too much Russian roulette. He has made mistakes, such as losing all the money he earned in mining on drugs and alcohol, getting involved from a young age in the violence that all illegal activity entails and now he only wants to do things well with the only and best thing he knows how to do according to him: mine.

What does the state say?

Mining is linked to other crimes, such as human trafficking. Gender violence is a part of everyday life.

Getting to this place takes hours of hiking through dangerous rock. Through satellite images, the three mining fronts within the Podocarpus were detected. There, 24.8 hectares of forest have been affected, according to the MAAP project — an area similar to 35 professional soccer fields — between 2019 and 2021 alone.

The illegal miners come, for the most part, from the city of Zamora itself, although recently people have also arrived from the provinces of Napo and Imbabura, and even from Colombia, Peru and Venezuela.

The Ministry of Environment sent an email to this journalistic alliance in which it assured that the largest inter-institutional eviction operation that took place in this area was carried out in 2010 and that, currently, "due to the fact that it would be impossible to protect the integrity of personnel who entered into the illegal mining sites, there have been no judicial processes.”

The entity also confirmed that, starting in 2010, eight more inspections were carried out from places close to the mining areas, where officials were safe, to look at the environmental effects, but that the controls have been limited due to "violence by illegal miners towards our park ranger personnel.”

It did not answer whether there are criminal groups involved or where the gold that leaves the protected area goes.

A poisoned Gruyere cheese

Pedro (protected name) has always lived in Zamora Chinchipe. Everyone knows him and he knows everyone. He filed a couple of complaints 10 years ago about what happened in Podocarpus and, in general, in the province. The mining in this jurisdiction represents 67% of the mining practiced throughout the Ecuadorian Amazon, according to the mapping of the MapBiomas Ecuador initiative. Most of it is illegal. They threatened to kill Pedro and, since then, he preferred to lower his profile.

Pedro knows by heart the names of all the governors, prefects, community presidents. He has many mining friends and always cites his sources. A friend of a friend of his has more than 10 chanchas in San Luis; his sister, seven; and his cousin, five. A friend of a friend confessed that with his work as a miner in another area of ​​that province earned more than 3 million dollars.

"Almost everyone is a miner here. I had the opportunity to study and then have a stable job, but, if I had my children barefoot, without food, without education, maybe I would be just another miner," Pedro confesses during a hot afternoon in another restaurant in Zamora.

Pedro assures that one of the problems is that “Ecuador ends in Cuenca, from there on down, we are the periphery of the periphery. What happens to the south is not even known in Quito." And although illegal mining has skyrocketed since the pandemic, no authority is doing anything about it.

Pedro remembers that at one time more than 600 backhoe machines were found throughout the province to extract alluvial gold. He assures that there are municipalities that charge for the entry of each machine onto their land. Also, for the installation of each zeta. The zeta is a type of Z-shaped metal tower in which minerals are classified. They are separated from gold in river mining.

This coincides with José's version. In Ecuador, a lot of mercury is used in gold extraction, despite the fact that the Mining Law prohibits it since 2015. In 2013, Ecuador was the fourth country that emanated the most mercury in Latin America. However, there is no valid prohibition. In Zamora Chinchipe you can easily find mercury. After being used to recover gold in its purest state, that mercury is discarded along with the tailings water and goes to rivers and water sources.

Exposure to mercury, through water, fish or directly (even in minimal quantities) can cause health problems, affecting the nervous and immune system, skin and kidneys, with consequences that can be fatal. According to the Pan American Health Organization, inhalation of this metal can also cause tremors, memory loss and neuromuscular damage.

An investigation published in the newspaper Expreso revealed that in 2016, 50 tons of mercury were released into the environment in Ecuador each year. The World Health Organization includes it among the 10 most dangerous substances for human life.

In Bolivia, mining contaminated several rivers with these heavy metals for decades. It happened with the four communities of Tacana II. Rolan Mejía is the president of the headquarters of four communities that have demanded 346,000 hectares because their ancestral lands where they have rivers were contaminated with mining that used mercury. The community members wanted to implement a project for a fish products and meat processing plant (paiche). They invested thousands of dollars to build the semi-industrial plant. When everything was ready, they did an analysis and the fish had more mercury than allowed. That ruined the entire community project.

Results of the analysis of mercury in fish. *These samples are numerically close to the allowed limit ** These samples are above the allowed limit / Credit: Roland Mejía.

The mother and sister of Marisol Zinanyuca, from Peru, have heavy metals in their body. Laboratory tests reveal the presence of cadmium, mercury, arsenic and lead. In 2013, after the Peruvian Ministry of the Environment released the results of the Participatory Health and Environmental Monitoring, these pollution levels were confirmed. Recently, in 2021, Amnesty International presented another report revealing high levels of arsenic, lead, mercury, cadmium and manganese in 117 people, out of a sample of 150, taken in Espinar.

Samples results from the National Health Institute / Credit: Marisol Zinanyuca.

According to the United Nations Environment Program (UNEP), between 5,500 and 8,900 tons of mercury are emitted into the atmosphere each year. Only 10% is generated naturally. 90% of emissions are a consequence of human activity, mainly small-scale artisanal gold mining.

Pedro says that setting up a farm in San Luis, back in Podocarpus, costs around 2,500 dollars. That includes transport by mule and assembly of machinery in the mining camp. The profit can reach around 15,000 dollars every 20 days.

Untreated mercury is dumped inside the chanchas, and then goes directly to the ground and spreads to the rivers, just like other products, such as gasoline.

Diesel is also transported by mules to San Luis. They buy it at gas stations and sell it for double the original price.

Pedro is convinced that, of all the gold that is produced in Zamora, nothing stays there. Alcohol consumption is very high and people don't know what to do with so much money, so much so that, in the end, they waste it.

The renowned Loja historian Galo Ramón explained, at the Regional Mining Summit in Loja, that ancestrally, gold had a dimension of ritual and ostentation for the people of this region. The extraction method was artisanal, without mercury, and gold nuggets from the rivers were used. In 1580 mercury began to be used.

For Ramón, Loja and Zamora could never play a role as a supplier of labor or food to the colonial mining companies. People from other parts of the country arrived in Zaruma, another mining town in southern Ecuador. Currently, the same thing happens in Zamora.

The historian assures that the two large-scale mining companies that are currently operating in southern Ecuador, Mirador and Fruta del Norte, have foreign technicians and that, from Zamora Chinchipe, they only hire cheap labor “for low positions” such as security services, cleaning and direct work in the mines. They do not consume local products and even the catering services come from outside, "so it is not surprising that many inhabitants of Zamora think that it is better for me to be a miner," he concludes.

Pink Floyd, handwritten letters and social pressure before social media

How did more than 4,000 people come to mine in a protected area? How did everything get out of control?

Five years after Podocarpus was declared a national park, the state handed over a mining concession to Ecuanor, a Dutch company, and then to the English company Río Tinto Zinc, for exploration and mining exploitation within the protected area.

In parallel, in the 1980s the first environmental movements began in Loja. The young members of a group called Arcoíris listened to music and talked about caring for nature. Arturo Jiménez and Fausto López, founders of Arcoíris, started a campaign against mining in Podocarpus. They started collecting signatures.

First publications of the Arcoíris university organization / Credit: Arturo Jiménez, Arcoíris Foundation.
Credit: Arturo Jiménez, Arcoíris Foundation.
Credit: Arturo Jiménez, Arcoíris Foundation.
Credit: Arturo Jiménez, Arcoíris Foundation.

The bar of the Private Technical University of Loja (UTPL) is full of students with their computers and cell phones. Arturo, a tall, smiling, affable man, remembers among that bustle that when he was the age of those young people, he also believed in changing the world. It was then that he joined López's initiative to collect signed petitions and letters to ask that they stop the mining exploration process before it was too late.

Fausto López used to go to Quito to visit some lawyer friends. In one of those meetings, he told them about his intention to collect signatures and they offered him help. That's how it came to be that in 1991, the Defense Corporation for Life (Cordavi) presented a lawsuit on behalf of Arcoíris and before the defunct Court of Constitutional Guarantees that demanded respect for the “right to live in an environment free of pollution” and to free the Podocarpus National Park from mining. In addition, they denounced that those extractive activities were prohibited in protected areas.

López smiles, remembering those times. His profile picture is of Pink Floyd. “We began to make flyers and exhibits summarizing the ecological importance of Podocarpus and its threats due to mining. We held student marches. Some exchange students came and the news spread to other countries.”

It was the 1990s. On another of his visits to Quito, together with his friends from Cordavi, he delivered several letters of support to reverse the mining concession in Podocarpus. “I was wearing jeans and a Pink Floyd t-shirt; I didn't think we would be so well received. Immediately, media outlets like the newspaper Hoy and Expreso called me to ask me about the campaign promoted by the Arcoíris Foundation,” he says.

At that time, Arcoíris did not have legal status. However, public pressure was so strong that during the two years that the lawsuit process against the State lasted for failing to comply with its obligation to care for the protected areas, they managed to obtain recognition as an NGO.

Afterwards, hundreds of letters arrived at the Court of Constitutional Guarantees, in Quito, from Canada and the United States; a group of scientists from Germany, students from England, international NGOs. Arcoíris' fight was reported on in magazines and articles in Norway.

“The pressure was a lot,” recalls Jiménez. In the end, on March 12, 1993, the Court of Constitutional Guarantees ruled in favor of Arcoíris. Months before, the miners had chosen to leave the country.

But the problem was far from over. During the years in which foreign companies explored, they detected the amount of gold that was in the heart of Podocarpus and began to train some local inhabitants.

After the departure of the Ecuanor mining company, the most important mining invasion took place in the Podocarpus National Park. It happened in 1993. Around 800 miners who were unemployed and the Zamoranos who inherited the knowledge about mining decided to mine, with pick and shovel, and extract gold on their own to make their own money. The first invasion of illegal miners had occurred only four years earlier, in 1988, just as exploration was being carried out, but they were quickly evicted. This time, the recently created Arcoíris Foundation and 26 other organizations created the Interinstitutional Committee for the Defense of the Podocarpus National Park and achieved a peaceful agreement to avoid invasions. The Association of Small Self-Employed Miners of San Luis fulfilled its promise not to invade the ecological park and, in exchange, the National Mining Directorate (Dinami) would give them a concession of 1,200 hectares outside the protected area. In addition, the Ecuadorian Institute of Forestry and Natural Areas and Wildlife (Inefan) would archive the trial against some unionist miners.

First illegal miners / Credit: Arturo Jiménez, Arcoíris Foundation.
workers in the field
First illegal miners / Credit: Arturo Jiménez, Arcoíris Foundation.

But gold kept calling. Other mining groups emerged that wanted to take over the Podocarpus, such as the Sentinel Miners Association of Ecuador and the San Luis Cooperative. With these groups there were also invasion attempts and new negotiations. All the miners would go to that area called Exodus 1, in the neighboring province of Morona Santiago, where they could work in specific places. But this never happened. Rather, the war with Peru arrived and the military left behind  the steep entrance of more than 12 hours to climb to the highest part of Podocarpus, which to this day attracts miners, mules, porters, and people who sell all manner of things: bread, water, chickens, drugs, alcohol, blankets, diesel, pool tables, chairs, televisions.

The park rangers

“What can we do? There are only 33 of us,” says one of the park rangers with a plaintive tone, while receiving a group of tourists at the cabin at the entrance to the Podocarpus National Park. It is in the lower area, where you can't see anything, where the rain washes away the blame and forgetfulness. The abandonment.

Although he has worked here for more than 10 years, his passion remains alive as he talks about the park: “In the Podocarpus National Park there are 629 birds. There are a lot of hummingbirds because the color of the flowers is special. In 1998, a species of bird that is unique in the world was discovered. There are also tanagers, toucans and wild turkeys. We do not close throughout the year. There are between 3,000 and 4,000 species of plants. Remnants of Cinchona officinalis, known as cascarilla, the plant used to cure malaria and malaria. During the colonial era, cascarillas trees, which are part of the coffee family, were felled. Cascarilla is the national plant of Ecuador and is found on the flag of Peru [where the tree is known as cinchona]. They are 800 to 1,000 years old, 35 to 40 meters high, 2.5 to 4 meters in diameter. In Podocarpus, 23,000 hectares are considered a Ramsar site. There are 105 lagoons.”

All this biodiversity is in danger.

But then, as we walk under the heavy rain that allows us to gossip about what everyone knows and no one says out loud, the park ranger confesses his helplessness.

"Come on, the 33 park rangers, we are nothing to the almost 4,000 people who mine," he says, now without his previous energy of experienced guide.

What is the current situation?

"This spreads like wildfire. They have threatened us with death. It gets out of hand. We verify, we even get to see from afar. We warn, but nothing more. The people of Buenos Aires, the 'city of plastic,' came to us here,” he says, referring to the area of ​​the province of Imbabura, where illegal mining groups related to criminal gangs operate and where the State has not been able to exercise control either.

In Buenos Aires, there are tunnel mines that were evicted by the police in a large operation carried out in 2019, which identified more than 5,000 illegal miners.

Despite these isolated controls, at the end of 2022 officials from the Ministry of Energy and Mines confirmed that illegal miners had returned to the “plastic city.” They presume that the criminal gang Los Lobos would be behind this illegal activity.

“Up there, there are organized crime groups,” confirms the park ranger, returning to the topic of Podocarpus. “I participated in three evictions, in 2012. They always come back. During the pandemic it increased. In San Luis there is human trafficking, prostitution. We have been told that a group of five people takes out between 400 and 500 grams of gold every 15 days, that they open the forest through tunnels, that the mining is 100% artisanal, that there is no control of anything."

Other tourists approach and the statistics once again become light: Podocarpus receives 8,000 people a year and is one of the 59 protected areas in the country. Spectacled bears live there.

Dynamics of mining activity in the period 1996-2021. Podocarpus National Park, Loja/Zamora Chinchipe, Ecuador / Credit: MapBiomas Amazonia (2022). F. EcoScience.


“This is the same as drug trafficking, but with gold,” José said that afternoon in the café in Zamora. 

He assured that there are specific people to whom the gold must be sold and who give them the money in cash, no one puts it in the banks because they know that it is an illegal activity. They know that they are laundering money through gold: big time, taking out 500 grams per week; or in minimal consumption, such as sweet María cookies.

Even so, with gestures of regret, José also said that there are rumors that organized crime would be entering the Podocarpus National Park.

The rain never stopped in Zamora. It is dangerous when it rains. The mine mouth becomes moist and the earth softens. “Always praying, you have to go in because at any moment the rock falls on us and crushes us, kills us. There are always risks, but death surprises you wherever you are. If it means being crushed to death there, then one must stay there. “We never know where we are going to die.”

This story was produced with support from the Earth Journalism Network. It was first published in Ecuador Chequea on September 4, 2023. It has been lightly edited for length and clarity.

Banner image: Miners / Credit: Fundación Arcoíris.