The 37-year-old scientist has become a specialist in studying the fragile existence of the resilient rocket frog (still without a scientific name) and the long-nosed harlequin (Atelopus longirostris), a species that has since been thought to be extinct. 30 years.

The discovery, a few years ago, of these two amphibians which measure a maximum of four centimeters, has become the central argument to oppose a mining project of 4,829 hectares in a native forest in Junin, in the province of Imbabura, three and a half hours north of Quito.

Atelopus longirostris appeared, or reappeared, for the first time in 2016. “It was a frog coming back from the dead,” explains Andrea Teran, whom AFP accompanied on an expedition to this remote forest area after hours of walking.

“If the water is contaminated (by mining), the last populations of this frog are lost,” says the biologist from the Jambatu Center, dedicated to research and conservation of amphibians.

– Legal battle –

The sunken harlequin is “extinct” according to the Red List of the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN). But scientists have found traces of survivors in this forest where mining, conceded to the Ecuadorian public companies Enami and Chilean Codelco, must begin in 2024 to extract 210,000 tonnes of copper per year.

In Ecuador — which embarked on large-scale mining in 2019 — there are at least 12 advanced-stage projects to explore in estimated reserves of some 43.7 million ounces of gold, 46.156 million pounds of copper and 183 million ounces of silver, according to consulting firm Grupo Spurrier.

And the discovery in 2019 of a new species of rock frog then unknown only increased the desire to preserve intact this forest habitat, Andrea Teran being transformed the following year into the spearhead of the legal challenge to stop the mining project.

Although a judge ruled in her favor at first instance, she lost on appeal.

But the mining concession is also attacked by a group of residents of Junin who denounce the lack of environmental impact studies, in particular the omission of a protection plan for the two species of frogs, explains lawyer Me Mario Moncayo , in charge of the file.

“There are so many mistakes,” he breathes. “The rights of nature were violated, moreover the documents were never properly communicated to the inhabitants and there was no environmental consultation” with the villagers, the lawyer told AFP in his office. .

But the judge did not find any lack. There now remains one last hope for the defenders of the frogs with a general call that has yet to be made.

Asked by AFP, government authorities and representatives of the mining company declined to comment.

– Resilient –

When scientists at the Jambatu Center discovered the new species of rocket frog, they thought it was the “confounder” (Ectopoglossus confusus).

However, an anatomical difference in its tongue and genetic studies determined that it was a totally unknown species of the genus Ectopoglossus which they then dubbed the term “resilient”.

“The conditions in which she lives are unique, with the sound of the waterfall, we don’t know what her communication mechanisms are, we don’t know what her reproductive biology is,” explains the biologist.

Their skin, which has great medicinal potential, makes them extremely sensitive to environmental changes. They are therefore considered as bio-indicators: if the ecosystem is affected, they can begin to disappear.

Ecuador, whose Constitution enshrines the protection of nature, has 650 listed species of frogs, of which nearly 60% are endangered or critically endangered. But the country derives 6% of its GDP from oil and mining production, according to the Central Bank…

“We are in a megadiverse region and the decisions to be made must be megaresponsible,” says the biologist.

In Junin, the controversy divides the inhabitants just as much.

For Hugo Ramirez, a 40-year-old farmer, “if the authorities give importance to the species that live here, we must put an end” to the mining project.

But for Pedro Vallejos, a 63-year-old carpenter, environmental activists have no strength in alleviating poverty: “In the countryside, there are no jobs, there are no alternatives”.