If you’re a scientist, you might like to know that the Intag Cloud Forest Reserve is home to some of the most spectacular biodiversity on the planet—219 species of birds recorded, more orchid species present than in the entire United States. Even if you’re not science-minded, you’ll appreciate the fact that the Andean tropics contain at least 15% of the entire world’s plant species when you’re walking through the forest or stopping to admire the breathtaking views of rolling hills punctuated by the occasional plot of maize, yucca or banana. Locals in the pueblos surrounding the forest walk for hours to harvest food and visit family members in neighboring towns. The whole area isn’t a postcard for living in harmony with nature—there’s plenty of blaring radio music at all hours of the day and night, not to mention beer and rowdy games of fútbol. Spend the night in Plaza Gutierrez or any other town on the edge of the forest, and you’re likely to be woken at 5am by crowing roosters or the sounds of a pig being slaughtered. But the chaos of daily human life blends almost seamlessly with the natural world, and the area has an undeniable beauty to it, the kind that makes you want to pack up everything you own and buy a one way plane ticket to Ecuador.
Of course, if you’re a mining company, you see Intag in an entirely different way. In addition to its spectacularly biodiversity, Intag has been, depending on who you asked, blessed or cursed with mineral riches—copper, concentrated enough to justify extraction, in a world which has come to rely on the metal for telecommunications cables.
The fight in Intag started in the early 1990s, when Mitsubishi began exploratory work near Junin, one of the communities in the region. Initially, people were excited. The company meant jobs in an area where work was getting harder and harder to come by. But then wages were lowered and people started getting sick, skin irritated from the initial work being done. In 1995, Defensa y Conservacion Ecologica de Intag (DECOIN) was formed to fight against mining in the area. They tried to talk to the company and contacted government representatives asking them for help. When they received no reply, they burned down the mining camp, which convinced Mitsubishi that they would do better leaving the people of Intag alone. They left the area for good in 1997.
In 2002, the Ecuadorian government auctioned the mining claims in Junin off to another company, this time from Canada. Ascendant Copper tried to win people over with promises of schools, hospitals, computers and work, but by then, locals had done some research on mining in nearby areas and decided that the development projects weren’t worth the destruction of their forest. In the words of activist Marcia Ramirez, “Nosotros sabemos que la mineria no es desarollo” (we know that mining is not development).
The people of Junin had Mitsubishi’s original environmental impact statement, which stated that four communities would have to be relocated to make room for an open-pit mine, and that desertification of the mined area would occur. When he spoke to us, activist Carlos Zorilla wanted us to understand exactly what mining entails, because he says most people don’t know. He’s lived in Intag for years and has been fighting against mining since Mitsubishi first came to the area. He told us that the copper they wanted was buried 500 meters underground, and that the only way to get it out was to dig an open pit. The ore in Intag is 0.6% copper, which is high enough to make it worth the effort to extract in today’s market. The 99.4% of the ground that isn’t copper includes mercury, arsenic and uranium. The processing required to extract the copper from the rest of the earth would leave behind heaping piles of toxic waste, laced with heavy metals and radioactive elements. In addition, the mine tailings would almost certainly be leaking sulfuric acid, which is created when iron sulfide in the earth is exposed to air, oxidizes and combines with water. Tailings are generally left in ponds, lined with plastic, capped to prevent leakage. But they invariably leak. A quick glance at the list of Superfund sites in the United States will turn up hundreds of old mines scattered across the desert West. The list reads like a toxic apocalypse—contaminated groundwater, elevated cancer rates, neurological problems in surrounding communities. Carlos asks us what we think will happen if you take the same process and move it from a sparsely populated desert to a lush cloud forest full of flowing rivers and unparalleled biodiversity. No one answers. No one needs to.
When Ascendant Copper realized their development plans weren’t going to win people over, they began a smear campaign, accusing DECOIN activists of attacking them and saying Carlos was embezzling money from the group. When that didn’t slow the opposition, they sabotaged the local radio station and hired paramilitaries to come to Junin. When the people guarding the road into town wouldn’t let them through, the paramilitaries began shooting and spraying the people with tear gas. I watched a video of this attack, and in my mind, it would be dishonest to describe it as anything but a one-sided massacre. Efforts were made to contact police and convince them to defend Junin from further attack, but these requests amounted to nothing. Marcia told us that the government does what it wants, with little respect for human rights. “Lo que nosotros digamos no cuente para él” (what we say doesn’t count for him), she said, referring to president Rafael Correa and his pro-mining vision for Ecuador.
Eventually, DECOIN was able to get Ascendant Copper to leave Intag, largely because an Ecuadorian court ruled that the mining concessions had been granted illegally. But for the people of Junin and the surrounding communities in Intag, the fight is far from over. Rafael Correa, president of Ecuador, is deeply invested in mining as a form of development, and has said, “We can’t afford to be beggars sitting on a pile of gold.” While the new Ecuadorian constitution (written in 2008 under Correa’s administration) was the first in the world to give rights to nature, in practice, the government’s policies have been very pro-extraction. Correa believes that the country’s rich mineral resources, combined with a socialist platform of high taxes and wealth redistribution, can bring Ecuador a more prosperous future. His vision is one of responsible mining, where companies comply with strict environmental regulations and pay high taxes on the wealth they do extract—10 or 15%, according to my academic director. This money is substantially more than a company pays to mine on US federal lands, where regulations written in the 1870s allow companies to acquire gold mining claims for $5 an acre and pay no royalties to the government for any gold extracted. But for Carlos Zorilla, Correa’s vision is incompatible with the rights laid out in the Ecuadorian constitution, which says that people have the right to a good life.
The mining issue has been deeply divisive in communities in the Intag area. During my time there, I spent three days with a family in Plaza Gutierrez, one of the poorest pueblos in the forest. My host mother told me that the mining question has turned families and towns against each other. Plaza Gutierrez is rare, because almost 100% of the people who live there are opposed to the project. But the town where she grew up, Garcia Moreno, is almost 100% in favor. She told me that she’s opposed to mining, as is one of her sisters, but that her mother and another sister are very much in favor. Communities in the interior want the mining companies to come, because they think they will get jobs. She’s not convinced, she told me. The poorest people in Intag are the ones most opposed to the mining, so what does that tell you about their supposed “development?” There might be jobs at first, but then the company will hire outsiders. It’s not worth the loss of the environment. People just need to work harder, tend their crops, find other ways to get by. But mostly, she said she doesn’t want there to be any more fighting. She described the conflict with the paramilitaries as a guerra—a war. She said that if the government wants mining, they’ll probably get their way, because after all, they’re the government. She doesn’t want to see her home divided, fathers refusing to talk to their sons, pueblos full of bitterness and hatred. She wants her home preserved, but more than that, she wants peace.
Now, the Ecuadorian government is once again trying to open Intag to mining. This time, they’re working directly with Codelco, a Chilean mining company which extracts 12% of the world’s copper annually. The government has asked Codelco for technical assistance in developing Ecuador’s mineral resources, which means that if armed men come to Junin again, they will do so with the full force and power of the state supporting them. Carlos said that in recent years, Correa’s administration has been consolidating power in the executive and criminalizing protest—blocking a road now carries a five year minimum sentence, and 95% of people who are arrested on this and similar charges are activists opposing mining and extraction. When Carlos tried to register DECOIN as an NGO in Quito, he wasn’t able to, because legally recognized groups in Ecuador have to comply with the government’s development plan, which includes mining. Another NGO representative told Carlos, “Get this through you head—the state is going to control everything. Find something else to do.”
Carlos and Marcia seemed confident that they can defeat the latest incursion on their home. I wish I could share their optimism, but I’ve read this story so many times in so many places after the epilogue has been written. Sometimes the activists win, but mostly, they don’t. The documentary screen fades to black, and solemn white text appears to list and catalogue the precise tactics the company used to finally get their way. Sometimes, the decision is still being appealed, but the filmmakers know that including this fact is the only way they have to let themselves fall asleep at night; their thin, inadequate shield from the brutal reality that is power. I want a better story for the people of Intag. I want to go back and talk to more people, try to figure out how one-sided Carlos’ account of the struggle is, meet those who live in Intag and aren’t opposed to mining and see what they think needs to happen to allow the people there to live better lives. I want to tell this story to the rest of the world, in the naive hope that in truth, there is at least a glimmer of power. I want people to understand that the technologies in their lives are not without a cost, and that this story has been repeated thousands of times all over the world in the name of cheap oil, necessary resources, development and profit.
Meanwhile, I will honor Carlos and Marcia’s requests for help. If you’re compelled by this story and want to learn more, the DECOIN website has more information. If you’d like to make a donation to support the legal defense fund and the other work DECOIN does, more information is here. And if you have any old computers or cameras that you’d be willing to donate, the people of Intag need them to document their struggle, get the word out, and help improve the quality of education in local schools.