‘Leave the gold in the ground’: Ecuador’s forest guardians mobilise against illegal mining in Amazon
The Indigenous A’i Cofán people invoke their ancestors and carry spears but also use drones, GPS mapping and the courts as they fight to protect their land from a rapacious gold rush
With short amulet-covered spears made of blackened chonta palm, GIS mapping phones, walkie-talkies and wearing black and green uniforms, the A’i Cofán seem to merge into the jungle as they march silently down a path through their land.
Calling themselves the Indigenous guard, the 27-strong group patrols a territory of 243 sq miles (630 sq km), stretching from more than 2,500 metres above sea level in the Andean foothills down into the Amazon rainforest.
They are on the lookout for alluvial goldminers, who invade their land with heavy machinery and tear up the banks of their sacred river, the Aguarico. High demand has pushed the international price for a troy ounce of gold to about $1,950 (£1,585), and the value has not dropped below $1,500 since the onset of the Covid pandemic.
The search for the precious metal has extended into the depths of the Amazon rainforest in Ecuador.
According to a report by the Organization of American States, illegal gold mining and gold exports have markedly increased in Ecuador in recent years, “facilitated by multiple factors, including high levels of informality and poverty, the presence of mineral deposits in remote areas, and the existence of illegal mining networks in neighbouring Colombia and Peru”.
The OAS added: “Corruption of public officials, particularly at the local level, and insufficient government presence in mining areas also contribute to illegal gold-mining activity.”
In the absence of any state enforcement, the A’i Cofán of Sinangoe, a community of 300 people who live by hunting, fishing and farming, have decided to oppose mining in their corner of the pristine Amazon. They now police their ancestral land, near the Colombian border in the northern Ecuadorian province of Sucumbíos, according to their own laws.
As elsewhere in the Amazon, the boom in destructive illegal gold mining lays waste to swathes of rainforest and poisons ecosystems with mercury, a neurotoxin used to bind with the gold to form an amalgam (the gold is then extracted by vaporising the mercury).
Sediment washed into watercourses through mining is also responsible for polluting 21,700 miles (35,000km) of tropical rivers around the world, according to a study published in the scientific journal Nature in August.
“We have a duty to our grandparents, our parents, who gave us this work to do,” says Alexandra Narváez, 33, the first woman to lead the A’i Cofán Indigenous guard and winner of the 2022 Goldman environmental prize.
“Despite our fears, the Indigenous guard was formed for this,” she says. “In our language, we are called the caretakers of our territory.”
In 2017, Narváez became the first woman to join the group of guardians. The Guardian joined them as they camped out on a boulder-strewn patch of sand between the dense overhanging rainforest and the Aguarico River.
They were equipped with state-of-the-art technology. Nixon Narváez, 26, flies a drone that maps the rugged jungle terrain that spans rivers and mountains.
“If it were not for this technology and our ability to learn, we would not know what is happening – the public bodies never told us that there were mining concessions,” he says.
Five years ago, the guards discovered miners digging up the riverbed for gold. That was when they found mining concessions had been given out on their land.
“Through technology, we get a lot of information about the territory, such as GPS spots, drone footage, camera traps – and the mapping itself has helped us to identify places, to locate threats. With this information, we can inform the state that it has to give us answers.”
If they find miners, the community meets to decide what to do. It usually begins with an eviction notice, but for repeat offenders it can end in equipment being confiscated and destroyed.
Using camera traps designed to capture images of wild animals, the A’i Cofán have been able to record secretive forays by miners into their land, which they have used as evidence in a series of landmark legal victories.
It was the culmination of a complex legal battle that began in 2017, blazing a trail for others to follow, says Jorge Acero, a lawyer for the enviromental organisation Amazon Frontlines, who represented them in court.
“There were many Indigenous or peasant communities that had considered that it was not useful to seek the protection from judges because they had not been successful for years,” Acero says. “But many more cases began following Sinangoe’s legal case.”
While Sinangoe set a legal precedent in successfully suspending mining in their territory, illegal gold mining has grown significantly in Ecuador’s Amazon. As of February 2023, it had devoured 1,660 hectares (4,100 acres) of forest, according to the Amazon Andes Monitoring Project (Maap).
In January, Ecuador’s president, Guillermo Lasso, declared the activity to be a threat to national security. At the same time, the formal sector has grown – the country’s mining exports grew 34% between January and November 2022 to $2.52bn, and the government has said it expects that to reach at least $4bn by 2025. While the emerging economic driver is catching up with the country’s main exports of oil, shrimps and bananas, land for biodiversity and Indigenous people is under threat.
“We don’t have to choose between gold and water,” says María Eulalia Silva, head of Ecuador’s Chamber of Mining. “We don’t have to choose between mining and the environment. When things are done right, we can have the best of both worlds.”
She argues that if formal mining investment is not promoted, then illegal mining will fill the gap, bringing with it more damage to the environment, social problems and organised crime.
But an eagerness to hand out mining concessions and lax state control of artisanal concessions also affects protected areas and Indigenous lands, says Wider Guaramag, leader of Sinangoe.
The A’i Cofán claim to their territory is more vulnerable as it lacks formal state recognition. The region falls within the Cayambe-Coca national park, which, as a protected area, is formally administered by Ecuador’s ministry of environment, water and ecological transition.
“We need the territory to remain A’i Cofán,” says Guaramag. “We always make use of its medicine. We use its food, from fish to fruit products. So it is part of us. That’s why we take care of it.”
The key to the A’i Cofán’s success was “being fully united behind one strategy, one cause, and really working together”, says Nicolas Mainville, who helped them as a land defence coordinator for Amazon Frontlines. “We’ve seen many communities facing similar threats but not succeeding.”
Young people are encouraged to join the guardians and continue the customs and the connection with nature, says Alex Lucitante, who won the Goldman environment prize alongside Narváez. “I come from a family of taitas [traditional healers], who have been good shamans, who have healed life, who have guided and harmonised our territories,” he says.
The spiritual connection with the territory and its sacred places pervades their relationship with the land. The “spirit people”, the ancestors, live in the forest’s depths and cannot be disturbed, says Narváez.
As for the gold in the riverbanks, it is just another part of their sacred territory inherited from their forefathers, says Guaramag. “We want it to stay there. We don’t want to exploit it.”