UO biologist calls for protection of Ecuadorian forest reserve

Brown-headed spider monkey

A legal brief filed by environmentalists with the Constitutional Court of Ecuador to halt all mining concessions in the Los Cedros protected forest is backed by a petition signed by more than 1,200 scientists, including 29 current and former University of Oregon researchers.

The forest, considered one of the world’s most biologically diverse sites, has been the focus of nine published research projects led by the UO’s Bitty Roy, a professor emerita in the Department of Biology. Her projects have allowed numerous UO undergraduate and graduate students to travel to the South American nation.

The petition, initiated by Roy, also urges the Ecuadorian government to stop mining at other protected forests in the country. Among the signers are famed primatologist Jane Goodall, biologist E.O. Wilson and botanist Peter Raven. The forest, they say, is home to 207 species of plants and animals on Ecuador’s red list of endangered and threatened species, and most are globally endangered as well, according to the International Union for Conservation of Nature.

That list, Roy said, includes frogs and numerous orchid species not found anywhere else in the world except Los Cedros. Roy is an international expert on the nation’s Dracula orchids.

“I fell in love with Los Cedros the first step I took there,” Roy said. “I have traveled and done research all over the world, including in tropical Africa and Asia, but nowhere else is as biologically rich.”

The brief before Ecuador’s highest court calls for using the country’s constitutional provision on the “rights of nature” to protect the forest from mining. Two-thirds of the reserve is now covered by mining concessions granted to the Ecuadorian state mining company ENAMI and its Canadian partners, Cornerstone Capital Resources and BHP. The Constitutional Court agreed in May to hear the case.

“We, and others, think the concessions in the protected forests are illegal because it is illegal to cut trees in these protected forests, and you can't do mining exploration and exploitation without cutting trees,” Roy said. “Mining in protected forests also is a violation of Articles 57, 71 and 398 of the constitution: the collective rights of indigenous peoples, the rights of nature and the right of communities to prior consultation before environmental changes, respectively.”

The issues involved in the legal action, Roy said, emerged in 2017, when a financial crisis led Ecuador to borrow heavily from other countries, particularly China, to build roads and other infrastructure as oil revenues were going down. Millions of acres were opened to mining, with much of the Reserva Los Cedros, indigenous territories and headwater ecosystems included.

The brown-headed spider monkey, found in Los Cedros, has lost more than 80 percent of its original area of distribution in northwest Ecuador, according to the environmentalists. In 2005 it was estimated that there were fewer than 250 brown-headed spider monkeys globally, placing them among the top 25 most-endangered primates in the world. About 20 percent of its population is in Los Cedros forest, Roy said.

A separate petition with more than 17,000 signatures, including 38 Eugene residents, also was submitted to the Ecuadorian court by the Center for Biological Diversity. The petition, which mostly was signed by non-scientists, also was initiated by a request from Roy.

Ecuador was the first nation to formally recognize the rights of nature when its constitution was revised and approved in a national referendum in 2008.

“Ecuador must now uphold these rights in earnest, including by protecting the Los Cedros forest from devastating mining concessions,” said Constanza Prieto Figelist, Latin American legal lead at Earth Law Center in a news release. “Enforcing the rights of Los Cedros forest will also protect the human right to a healthy environment and rights of future generations because we all rely upon healthy, functioning ecosystems for our very survival.”

A hearing by the Ecuadorian court is pending.

—By Jim Barlow, University Communications