Report shows loss of natural land cover in Ecuador — and where it can still be saved



 on 17 January 2024

  • More than 30% of Ecuador’s total area today has been impacted by human activity, with much of that loss coming at the expense of the Amazon Rainforest over the past 37 years, according to a new report.
  • The report also records reductions of glaciers and land-cover changes triggered by expanding human activities such as agriculture, forestry, aquaculture and mining that have affected the country from the coast to the Andes.
  • In the Ecuadorian Amazon, mining has expanded at an alarming rate in recent years, but it’s agriculture that has really driven deforestation in the rainforest.
  • Protecting the remaining 66% of the country’s area still covered in natural vegetation should be now the priority of policymakers, working in partnership with local communities, researchers say.

Humanity’s footprint in Ecuador now covers more than 30% of the country’s total area, at the expense of coastal ecosystems, the Andes, and forests across the country. But it’s the Amazon Rainforest that has seen the most losses over the past nearly 40 years, according to new research by local environmental NGOs EcoCiencia and MapBiomas Ecuador with other independent investigators.

Where the Andes meets the Amazon in Ecuador. Photo credit: Rhett A. Butler / Mongabay
Where the Andes meets the Amazon in Ecuador. Image by Rhett A. Butler / Mongabay.

The researchers analyzed satellite images between 1985 and 2022 and found that Ecuador lost 1.16 million hectares (nearly 2.9 million acres) of natural land cover during this period. This includes the reduction or disappearance of glaciers, and more direct human-induced changes like increasing agriculture, forestry, aquaculture and mining. The researchers also created an interactive map of their results to show this transition over time.

“For Ecuador, since it’s a small country, this is a significant area,” said remote-sensing analyst Maria Olga Borja from EcoCiencia, who coordinates mapping initiatives with MapBiomas and the Amazon Georeferenced Socio-Environmental Information Network (RAISG).

“Half of these transformations are happening where most of our forests are, so I think we should be looking into that more deeply,” Borja, an Ecuadorian native, told Mongabay in a video call.

The report analyzed five biomes — the Galápagos Islands, the Amazon, the Andes, the coastal Pacific tropical rainforest, and the equatorial dry forests — to see where natural vegetation cover had changed and why.

It found that forestry activity increased by 77% in the Andes over the 37-year time span, where native flora and local ecosystems were replaced by logging plantations, mainly eucalyptus and pine. On the coast, aquaculture increased by nearly 90%, mainly due to the expansion of Ecuador’s shrimp industry, which today generates more income for the country than oil. It has also led to the destruction of 16.4% of the country’s mangroves.

In the Andes, 33% of glacier cover was lost, mainly due to climate change, the report noted, which is an irreversible loss of freshwater sources for local rivers and the ecosystems and communities downstream that depend on them, Borja said.

The Amazon bears the brunt

One of the more alarming findings was how much the Amazon Rainforest, which covers nearly half of Ecuador and is an important carbon sink, has been impacted, Borja said. EcoCiencia and MapBiomas have long been monitoring satellite images of the Ecuadorian Amazon, but even they were surprised when they saw just how quickly the rainforest was being lost compared to other biomes across the country.

Road in the Ecuadorian Amazon. Image by Rhett A.Butler.

“Before we were only looking at half of the picture, just the Amazonian part, and now we got the entire picture,” Borja said, adding, “The changes in the Amazon are happening faster right now, and in the last [few] years, than what is happening in the rest of the country.”

The most surprising aspect, she said, is the rapid rate at which mining, both legal and illegal, has increased. Part of this is due to the establishment of two large-scale mines, El Mirador and Fruta del Norte, both officially opened in 2019 in the southern Amazonian provinces of Zamora Chinchipe and Morona Santiago.

Mining continues to expanded rapidly. In 2021 alone, the country’s total mining area expanded by 1,405 hectares (3,472 acres), or the size of more than 2,600 football fields.

Ecuador’s last three governments have promoted the expansion of its relatively young mining sector, as its oil economy flounders. Mining currently accounts for about 1% of GDP, and President Daniel Noboa, who took office last November, has continued to promote the sector, promising to create employment by incentivizing both national and international investments.

Andres Tapia, communications director of the Confederation of Indigenous Nationalities of the Ecuadorian Amazon (CONFENIAE), said the intensification of mining in the rainforest over the past five to 10 years has put major pressure on Indigenous people living in these areas.

An illegal gold-mining operation along the shores of the Nangaritza River in southeastern Ecuador. Image courtesy of Alejandro Arteaga.

Tapia said several communities have already been displaced by both legal and illegal mining activities. For example, the community of San Marcos in Zamora Chinchipe province was evicted in 2015 to make way for El Mirador, a copper mine. In the central Amazonian province of Napoillegal miners have been tearing up the Jatunyacu and Napo riverbeds with large dredges, drying up streams and spilling contaminants into the water in their search for gold. This has forced communities to travel farther to fish or even move into the nearby cities, Tapia said.

“Mining in particular becomes a totally irreversible issue for the communities,” he told Mongabay by phone.

Agriculture has also taken over large swaths of the rainforest, causing deforestation. According to the EcoCiencia and MapBiomas data, total pasture and agricultural area in the country grew by 1 million hectares (2.5 million acres) since 1985, with 46% of this expansion occurring in the Amazon.

In most cases, these are small-scale plots for subsistence agriculture, but they also include larger plantations of oil palm and balsa wood, particularly in the northern Amazonian provinces of Orellana and Sucumbíos.

Researchers say government policies have contributed to this expansion, as land reform and sustainable agrarian programs in the 1970s encouraged people to migrate from other parts of the country and clear the rainforest for farming. While these policies are no longer in place, the migration and agriculture expansion that they triggered continue.

Ibon Tobes, a biologist with the Biodiversity and Climate Change Research Center at Indoamerica Technological University in Quito, said these migrants, known locally as colonos, generally establish their small-scale plots near water sources or roads, sometimes in Indigenous territory, causing conflict with local communities.

But even Indigenous communities, who generally live off chakras, their collective community fields for subsistence farming, have started to create small plots to cultivate commercial crops, like cacao, malanga root or balsa wood, as they often have no other source of income, Tobes said.

In either case, he said, the longer the thin Amazonian topsoil is exposed for monoculture crops, the harder it is for it to regenerate and for the forest to grow back.

Ecuador mining
Disruption of the river for mining activities. Image courtesy of the Critical Geography Collective.

But the biggest threat to the Amazon, he added, isn’t necessarily mining or agriculture, but the building of roads, which allow these two activities to expand deeper into the jungle.

“You can clearly see that pattern in their maps,” Tobes told Mongabay, referring to the Ecociencia and MapBiomas report. “If you open a pathway, you allow all extractive activities to be viable, because now you can sell them easily, legally or illegally.”

The remaining 66%

Ecuador is a signatory to a number of international agreements to stop climate change and deforestation, including the New York Declaration on Forests and the Convention on Biological Diversity. It’s also targeting a 4% reduction in its greenhouse gas emissions from land-use changes under its commitment to the 2015 Paris Agreement.

But, Borja said, “the map shows you that those policies are not transforming into realities.”

She said she remains optimistic, however, that with the right planning and policies, the 66% of Ecuador’s natural land cover that remains intact can be preserved.

“There’s definitely still a lot to protect. That has to be our lesson from this,” Borja said. “Knowing where your forest and your natural ecosystems are helps you understand what are those places that we need to work on if we want to conserve biodiversity.”

She said the answer lies in better integrating civil society in conservation efforts, especially local communities, so that conservation makes sense for them and their livelihoods.

An Indigenous man navigates his boat through the Ecuadorian Amazon. Image courtesy of Amazon Watch.

Tobes said the government needs to take a more active stance on protecting the Amazon, which could include creating alternative sources of income for communities to end their reliance on agriculture; supporting community governance of Indigenous territories; and working with communities to monitor and protect the forest.

But it has to be done fast, he said.

“When you look at the data set and compare it [over the years], and see how fast the changes have occurred and how deforestation has accelerated,” Tobes said, “you realize that if it continues like this, in a few more years there will be very little of the Amazon left in Ecuador.”

Banner image: Ecuadorian Amazon. Image courtesy of Sacred Headwaters Initiative. 


Viteri-Salazar, O., & Toledo, L. (2020). The expansion of the agricultural frontier in the northern Amazon region of Ecuador, 2000-2011: Process, causes, and impact. Land Use Policy99, 104986. doi:10.1016/j.landusepol.2020.104986

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