Stopping a Capital Environmental Crime: The Rocket Frog and Intag’s Future
To the human eye, the mostly dark-green Confusing Rocket Frog is not as attractive as the Harlequin Longnose Frog. Both amphibians are found in a patch of forest in Ecuador’s Intag region and nowhere else on the planet. The Harlequin’s discovery in 2016 was amazing enough, since the it hadn’t been seen since 1989 (the IUCN still lists it as extinct). But, even so, quite a bit was known about it. Being endemic to an area which today is threatened by a large-scale copper mining project, the Harlequin shares the same potential fate as the much rarer Confusing Rocket Frog, which was rediscovered in August of 2019. The finding, by Ecuador’s Jambatu Center, is so recent, that nothing has been written up in journals yet*.
The name “Confusing” can be a bit misleading. It is not the frog that is confusing, but the taxonomists who, for years, confused it with a frog in another genus. One of the things that makes this amphibian so special is that it is the only species of the genus Ectopoglossus in Ecuador. Very little is known about this small 2.4 centimeter frog. Plug in Ecotopoglossus confusus in your web search engine and you get about 7 times less hits than the rare Longnose Harlequin. This Rocket frog is so rare that there is no information whatsoever on the IUCN Red List site. Which seems to indicate that, at some point, the world gave up on the species. But now that it has come back from extinction, just like the Longnose Harlequin, it is already mortally endangered by a mining project being developed by Chile’s Codelco — the world’s top copper producer, and Ecuador’s state-owned miner, Enami.
One of the things that set the two frogs apart, besides their looks, is that if confusus goes extinct in Ecuador, so will the genus. Which is a big deal if you are a biologist, an ecologist, or a thinking person. This is not the case of the Atelopus genus, which has many species in Ecuador.
Both frogs were found within the Llurimagua mining concession, located on the slopes of the wet, steep and biodiverse Toisan Range. To have an inkling of the biodiversity of this mountainous cloud forests region, only after a few days of investigation, a team of biologists contracted by the mining companies, discovered 22 species of animals facing extinction; with three of them listed as critically endangered: a spider monkey, a glass frog and a rare species of catfish. This tally did not include the Harlequin Longnose nor the Confusing Rocket Frog, even though they are found in the same mining concession. Nor did the investigation include other species known to inhabit these forests, including the Andean Bear, mountain lion, and several species of birds and other mammals. Miraculously, during the investigation, no endangered plants were reported, in spite of the fact that these forests harbor dozens of tree and other plant species in danger of extinction; especially orchids. A more thorough investigation by an international team of biologists in 2018 found nearly 300 endangered species in these, and nearby forests.
Any rational person would think it madness to develop a large-scale copper mine here. And not only because of the endangered species, but also because of the risks inherent to the site. These risks include: high precipitation (2 to 4 meters of rainfall), extreme topography; pristine rivers and streams, primary forests, plus a proven risk of earthquake. Add to that the fact that the ore is poisoned with lead, arsenic, chromium and cadmium and you have the makings of a world-class environmental catastrophe. As grim as these factors are, there many more reasons why mining will be especially destructive in Intag.
An open pit copper mine here would be the ultimate insult to one of the most threatened and beautiful ecosystems on Earth; an ecosystem much more threatened than most of the Amazon’s ecosystems. Besides being stunningly beautiful and biologically diverse, the upper watersheds of the Andes where, unfortunately, most of Ecuador’s mining concessions are found, play a crucial role in protecting water sources and preventing downstream flooding. They also provide safe drinking water to millions of Ecuadorians. As it is impossible for large-scale mines not to contaminate water sources, the frog’s extinction in the wild is guaranteed. That scenario is doubly tragic because the area is a prime ecotourism destination; especially for bird watchers and orchid enthusiasts. If that wasn’t enough, another important tourism attractions was discovered during mining exploration: large quantities of underground thermal springs.
The mine, thankfully, has not yet been opened. But it is not because of lack of trying. The communities and organizations in Intag have blocked development of the mine since 1995, the date opposition to the mine began. Two transnationals have had to abandon the area due to the resistance and, after almost 25 years, the communities are still resisting.
Codelco, the company bankrolling the exploration and impacts, is currently waiting for the country’s Ministry of the Environment to approve its Environmental Impact Study so it can resume exploration in a new patch of forest. The Study is exceptionally shoddy, lacking essential information to make intelligent decisions about the potential impacts of drilling 160 new wells in primary and secondary forests. Such shoddiness, however, didn’t prevent the first Study from being approved by the same Ministry five years ago; a Study that was blasted for its inaccuracy, mistakes and omissions by the nation’s Comptroller General in a March 2019 landmark report. Nowadays the Ministry of the Environment is little more than a cheerleader for the government’s pro-mining agenda. That agenda can be summed up in the words of Ecuador’s Vice President who, earlier this year, stated that “wherever there are minerals there will be mining”. In other words, human and nature’s rights; the country’s laws and Constitution, much more intelligent and sustainable development alternatives take a distant back seat. Mining overides them all. One can only wonder what the mining companies had to do in order to get that kind of support.
Right now, the situation is at a standstill. After thrashing 700 hectares of forest that was part of community ecotourism initiative, Codelco finished its first phase of exploration about 10 months ago. It has, however, been unable to resume exploration due in part to the challenge to its new Study presented by civil society; but also because growing resistance to mining in Intag and, indeed, all of Ecuador. Some of that resistance materialized this past September 20th, when over 1,500 residents came from all over Intag to an anti-mining Assembly and voted to demand that all mining companies leave Intag within 60 days. This includes not only Codelco, but also Australian BHP and Canadian-owned Cornerstone. Together, these companies hold tens of thousands of hectares worth of mining concessions, covering over 80% of Intag’s forests,agricultural lands, complete micro watersheds, and whole communities.
The expulsion of the companies may or not happen within the sixty day time frame. But that is not the issue. The larger issue is that it is clear that most people here are against mining, and that the companies cannot keep lying to their investors about the manufactured support they say they have, nor to governments. And, it is getting harder for them to hide the fact that their projects may lead to the extinction of dozens of animal and plant species. Yes, the mining companies can keep buying signatures and apparent support, but sooner or later the mask will come off and the truth leak out, as it did on September 20th.
We are very much aware that the mining companies are immeasureably more powerful than civil society organizations and communities. They, unlike the latter, have the ear of government and its full backing. The species facing extinction may not have a voice in this scenario, even though the rights of nature are guaranteed in Ecuador’s Constitution, but it is the people who hold the ultimate power. It is, after all, their home, their livelihoods and their future that is at stake. In other words, it is their inherit right to decide what is best for them, for their communities and their environment. It is also up to them to determine what kind of world they want their children and grandchildren to live in.
One key reason places and species like these are being ravaged every day and human rights trampled, is because of lack of information. These forests will not save themselves.
*The author is a member of the DECOIN and permanent resident of Intag
**Personal communication from Jambatu Center personnel
For more information visit www.decoin.org https://livingplanetalliance.org/sponsored-projects