Artisanal and small-scale gold mining in Portovelo-Zaruma, Ecuador

This ASGM district is the oldest and largest of its kind in Ecuador. Mercury/cyanide pollution, earth's subsidence, transboundary water issue. Conflict related to regulation and civic resistance.


The artisanal and small-scale gold mining (ASGM) district of Portovelo-Zaruma is the oldest and largest of its kind in Ecuador. Gold mining has occurred in this region since the Incan conquest in the 15th century, scaled up by the Spanish crown in the 16th century and consolidated by the presence of South American Development Company (SADCO) from the beginning of the 20th century. Currently it is home to a diverse mining activity consisting of numerous, local artisanal and small-scale miners as well as a few foreign companies, especially ELIPE S.A, which is a sub-company of the Canadian Dynasty Metals Inc. The conflict is, first of all, due to a serious and long-standing environmental degradation of the area, especially about cyanide and mercury contamination of the Puyango River Basin, which eventually enters Peru further downstream. Moreover the conflict is about the deployment of power relations on the  divergent claims to the gold deposits, that is about a local opposition towards the dominance of foreign mining companies in terms of mining concessions and production volume. Additionally, the nature and praxis of ASGM here as elsewhere produces outspread environmental consequences and enormous regulatory challenges for the Ecuadorian State.  Local miners perceives the State to give unfair privileges to the largest, foreign companies, especially ELIPE S.A, which produce a resistance towards both control/regulation and foreign actors in the name of autonomy. 

Basic Data
NameArtisanal and small-scale gold mining in Portovelo-Zaruma, Ecuador
ProvinceEl Oro
Accuracy of LocationMEDIUM regional level
Source of Conflict
Type of Conflict (1st level)Mineral Ores and Building Materials Extraction
Type of Conflict (2nd level)Tailings from mines
Mineral ore exploration
Mineral processing
Land acquisition conflicts
Interbasin water transfers/transboundary water conflicts
Pollution related to transport (spills, dust, emissions)
Specific CommoditiesWater
Project Details and Actors
Project DetailsThe ASGM district is composed of 10 000 miners, the majority local, the dominant minority outsiders. The type of mining is subterranean tunnels from which the minerals are extracted. Yet, a special trait about this mining district is the fact that it holds 85 processing plants along the rivers of Calera and Puyango. These plants process ore, not only from its surrounding mountains, but also from other ASGM districts, especially Ponce Enriquez (Azuay province) and Namibia (Zamora Chinchipe). Due to poor handling of cyanide and a long-standing tradition of using mercury in the processes, the rivers are heavily contaminated making its water totally unsuitable for human consumption and agriculture downstream (including Peru).
Type of PopulationSemi-urban
Potential Affected Population40000
Start Date01/01/1600
Company Names or State EnterprisesELIPE S.A/Dynasty Metals Inc. from Canada - The largest mining company in place
Relevant government actorsARCOM - Agency of Control and Regulation

INIGEMM - National Institue of Geological and Mineralogical Mining Research

Ministry of Environment

Ministry of Work

Ministry of Mining

SENAGUA - Secretary of Water

Municipality of Zaruma/Portovelo

Gobierno Autonomo Descentralizado de El Oro (Provincial administration of El Oro)
International and Financial InstitutionsGlobal Environment Facility (GEF)
The United Nations Industrial Development Organization (UNIDO)
Environmental justice organisations and other supportersComité de Defensa de Zaruma
The Conflict and the Mobilization
Intensity of Conflict (at highest level)MEDIUM (street protests, visible mobilization)
When did the mobilization beginPREVENTIVE resistance (precautionary phase)
Groups MobilizingArtisanal miners
Local government/political parties
Local scientists/professionals
Forms of MobilizationStreet protest/marches
Resistance towards mining itself is very much absent because mining is the dominant source of livelihood. The local protest are largely directed towards the dominance of the largest companies and state regulation, which are both seen as obstacles to the profitability of local mining. The case is complex however, and most recently there has been widespread concerns expressed by inhabitants in Zaruma after an elementary school was swallowed by a hole in the ground due to illegal mining underneath the city of Zaruma.
Environmental ImpactsVisible: Air pollution, Biodiversity loss (wildlife, agro-diversity), Loss of landscape/aesthetic degradation, Noise pollution, Soil contamination, Soil erosion, Deforestation and loss of vegetation cover, Surface water pollution / Decreasing water (physico-chemical, biological) quality, Groundwater pollution or depletion, Mine tailing spills, Other Environmental impacts
Potential: Reduced ecological / hydrological connectivity
OtherSubsidence of earth's surface ("hundimientos")
Health ImpactsVisible: Accidents, Mental problems including stress, depression and suicide, Health problems related to alcoholism, prostitution, Occupational disease and accidents, Deaths, Other Health impacts
OtherMercury exposure.
Socio-economic ImpactsVisible: Increase in Corruption/Co-optation of different actors, Specific impacts on women, Violations of human rights, Loss of landscape/sense of place
Potential: Increase in violence and crime, Loss of livelihood, Militarization and increased police presence
Project StatusIn operation
Pathways for conflict outcome / responseEnvironmental improvements, rehabilitation/restoration of area
Institutional changes
Negotiated alternative solution
New legislation
Technical solutions to improve resource supply/quality/distribution
Fostering a culture of peace
Do you consider this as a success?No
Why? Explain briefly.Paradoxically, no major environmental NGOs has given this case attention, perhaps due to its complex nature. Despite two decades of attempts to solve the problem of environmental degradation, the problem seem to increase rather than decrease. My argument, as I put forward in my thesis, is that the governmental intervention has failed to address power asymmetries which is a major cause here. And in relation to that, that the intervention is dominated by the discourse of natural science focusing on a technological fix, while leaving out the socio-political dimension of the conflict.
Sources and Materials

Mining Law of 2009
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Meanings of Mining: A political ecologist approach on the regulation of artisanal and small-scale gold mining in Southern Ecuador. Master thesis (2016). Noragric, Norwegian University of Life Science.
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News article about the recent collapse of an elementary school in Zaruma.
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Presidente Lenín Moreno suspende operaciones mineras en Zaruma. El Universo. 14 Sept. 2017. Las actividades mineras que se efectuaron durante decenas de años al interior de la ciudad de Zaruma han puesto en peligro la ciudad, que es Patrimonio Cultural de la Humanidad.
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Media Links

Short film about the mining in Zaruma-Portovelo
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A historical perspective
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A BBC documentary
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A political contextualization of mining in Ecuador
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Septiembre 2017, Plantón en Quito (Ecuavisa) de Comité de Defensa de Zaruma
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Other Documents

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Source: El Universo, 14 Sept. 2017
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Source: El Universo, 14 Sept. 2017
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Other CommentsThere is a growing literature on this case, especially natural science deriving from University of British Colombia. A search on Google Scholar, or a review of the reference list in my thesis, reveals them at large. In September 2017, President Lenin Moreno of Ecuador enlarged the zone of exclusion for mining in Zaruma and Portovelo.
Meta Information
ContributorGard Frækaland Vangsnes, Independent, [email protected]
Last update16/10/2017