Ecuador: Rising death toll from landslides highlights mining risks

Photos of the devastation caused by landslides in Ecuador
At least 28 people have died and dozens are still missing after landslides in Alausí. Photos: @LeonidasIzaSal1

Landslides in the highland town of Alausí, in Ecuador’s Chimborazo province, have left at least 28 people dead, with dozens still missing.

Despite the region’s steep topography and vulnerability to earthquakes and landslides, companies are seeking to exploit the area for large-scale copper and gold mining. Australian-based mining company SolGold has two pending mining licences in the area under its subsidiary Valle Rico Resources.

Liz Downes, from the not-for-profit research and advocacy group Rainforest Action Group, warned about the dangers of mining in the Alausí region, and Ecuador as whole. “The tragic loss of life after these disasters demonstrates the extreme risk posed by any mining activity in this area,” Downes said. “For example, the deadly accidents in Brazil in 2015 and 2019 have shown us what happens when mining waste containments are breached.”

Hundreds of people died and millions were affected after the failure of mining giant Vale’s tailings dam in Brazil in 2019. The joint owners, Vale and Australian mining company BHP, knew the high risk of the dam’s failure but refused to act, and following the disaster refused to take responsibility.

“Climate change is causing an annual increase of natural disasters in a mountainous and seismically active country,” Downes said. “If mining-related deforestation and tailings dams had been involved here, the impacts may have been catastrophic.”

“Despite this, SolGold and other Australian mining companies are continuing to invest heavily in Ecuador.”

Nearly 8% of Ecuador’s total land is covered by mining licences, with most in the exploration phase, several at the advanced exploration stage and two mines in operation. SolGold owns the most licences (75), which are spread across the highlands and south-eastern Amazon.