Diego Arias at the Galapagos Islands


Pre-colonial times

The beginning of the exploitation of gold in the province of El Oro goes back to pre-colonial times. In Zaruma, located in the province’s highlands in Ecuador’s coastal region, the discovery of gold veins brought about a promising economic activity. During colonial times, the indigenous people formed the labor force.

The work was very hard and badly paid. The working day was from 6 am to 5 pm, with a rest from 10 am to 2 pm. Many of the indigenous workers died from diseases; one outbreak of small pox killed almost all the indigenous population in the area. Black slaves were brought to Zaruma, to replace the workers in the mines. The workers had to sleep with their crew, otherwise they were flogged. Women were not allowed. Each worker had to pay taxes to the state.

In the beginning, the mining was indiscriminate and without controls, driven by greed and leading to social and cultural disorder.

Colonial times

Spaniards that had settled by the port of the Tumbes River noted gold in its water. This is why they decided to follow the river upstream until they reached what today is Portovelo. From there they looked for better weather conditions and went up the mountain where they found the gold vein. They named it Vizcaya, after the Spanish Province of Biscay where some of the group members came from. Here at an altitude of 3,900 ft (1,200m), they decided to settle.

Post-colonial times

Zaruma gained its independence from Spain in 1820, same year as Guayaquil. In 1829, Simon Bolivar issued the Regulation for the Exploitation of Mines, and, after the formation of the Ecuadorian State, the Law for the Promotion of Mining was emitted in 1830.

In 1840 the population reached 1,000. Agriculture was becoming the main economic activity. Miners were now washing gold on the river’s shore instead of going into the mines. In 1862 there were about 30 of mills that would grind the rocks. The hard work of mining was thus stopped, especially because of the lack of workers and because of the many problems and diseases.

In 1876, the German geologist Teodoro Wolf was contracted. He found Zaruma to have a wonderful and healthy climate. He did geological studies of the mines in the area and concluded that Zaruma would certainly have a great future exploiting gold.

In the 1880s, the Great Zaruma Gold Mining Co. Limited was founded, with capital from England. It worked the mines recommended by Wold: Sexmo, Portovelo, Mina Grande, Jorupe, Bomba de Vizcaya, Bomba de Pachabamba, Toscón Blanco and Curipamba. A hydraulic mill was installed with 20 rammers that could grind between 20 and 30 tons per day. The first shipment of gold could be sent to London in 1886.

Zaruma stamp mill

However, in the following years, internal political problems and bad administration let the English dream fail.


In 1917 the first US-Americans came and founded the South American Development Company (SADCo), subsidiary of the multinational corporation Vanderbilt. They brought with them machinery and tools, supported by the railway that went from Puerto Bolivar to Piedras. From there, mules took the equipment to Portovelo. It took two years to complete the construction. The first tunnel was built for the extraction of minerals, the American Shaft Headframe, supported by a tower that looked like an oil well. It was called the Castillo, the castle. Its construction was really a challenge, as the iron parts had to be transported by the mules on narrow paths. It turned into a symbol for the miners of the region and improved the work of the extraction.

Once everything was working, the North-American company SADCo sent bars of gold and silver on mules to the train station of Piedras.

But the 1,000 miners complained about the working conditions, most of all the missing hygiene inside the tunnels: The wagons that transported the minerals were pulled by mules. These animals had to live underground and only got above ground when they were dead, causing hygienic problems with their excrements. The workers in the mines were men without families. Women thus became the object of fights and disturbances. Bars and taverns were placed in strategic locations. The company never indemnified their workers in cases of accidents, termination of contracts or the death of the miner, which left their family bereft of income and without any compensation.

A great event for Zaruma was in 1921 when electricity was installed in the town. In 1924, the construction of the church was finished, with the Virgin of Consolation as the guardian of the miners. The President of the Republic visited Zaruma in 1935, improving working conditions, salaries, sanitary installations and housing.

A disaster happened in 1946, when the ninth to fifth levels of the main mine were flooded. Each level was about 100 ft (30 m) from the next, following the vein. This event was one of the reasons why the company stopped its activities in Zaruma after 54 years.

Zaruma view of the town

In 1951 a new company was founded, Compañía Industrial Minera Asociada S.A. CIMA, which employs around 500 people. In the 1970s a new vein was discovered, called Agua Dulce (“sweet water”). For a short time it brought employment and well-being to the community, however as the local governments lavished the money and the company CIMA went bankrupt, the workers were once again left unemployed. Until today small-scale exploitation is undergone in Zaruma, by more than 50 mining associations.

Unfortunately the mills that were built along the river have left their traces, contaminating the waters and causing greed among the people. Bad organization unfortunately was one of the reasons that led to the end of the dream of Zaruma’s people.

•    Ampuero, Jorge (2014): “Nadie conoce mejor la historia de Zaruma como Gonzalo Rodríguez.” <>.
•    Murillo Carrión, Rodrigo (2000): ZARUMA, historia minera: Identidad en PORTOVELO. Quito: Ediciones ABYA-YALA.
•    Image “FiveStampMill” by Leonard G. <>

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