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Date: Sat, 26 Jun 1999 19:59:13 -0500 (CDT)
From: rich@pencil.math.missouri.edu (Rich Winkel)
Organization: PACH
Subject: Intag People's Struggle In Ecuador
Article: 68710
To: undisclosed-recipients:;
Message-ID: <bulk.6198.19990627181652@chumbly.math.missouri.edu>

/** headlines: 211.0 **/
** Topic: Intag People's Struggle In Ecuador **
** Written 6:24 PM Jun 24, 1999 by econet in cdp:headlines **
/* Written 4:13 PM Jun 23, 1999 by sara@earth-art.com in saiic.indio */
/* ---------- "[Fwd: Intag people's struggle in Ecuador" ---------- */

Date: Mon, 21 Jun 1999 14:37:13 +0900 (JST)
From: ago@seinan-gu.ac.jp
Subject: Intag people's struggle in Ecuador

The struggle to save Intag's forests and communities from Mitsubishi

By Carlos Zorrilla
21 June 1999

A friend of mine got this letter from Ecuador. It contains very useful information on the struggle by the indigenous people against a giant Japanese corporation to protect their forests and livelifood. I think it may be of interest to all of you.

Dr.Kenji Ago
Professor of World Economy/
Development Studies
Seinan Gakuin University
Dept. of Economics
Fukuoka, Japan

Our struggle against one of the world's biggest corporation, Mitsubishi, was not, at first, planned. All we felt was this great need to stop a massive mining project that threatened our communities, our forests, our rivers, and our livelihood. This powerful need, was the main force that led to the series of events that culminated in the expulsion of the giant corporation from the stunning Toisan Range, situated in north-western Ecuador, and the total halt to mining exploration since May 1997. It was also, undoubtedly, the motivating force that led us to find and successfully promote sustainable economic activities in our region.

It was, in fact, the threat by this mining project that crystallised the formation of DECOIN -- Defensa y Cnservacion Eclogica de Intag -- the local grass-roots environmental organisation that I helped create in January 1995. And it has been DECOIN, made up wholly by people living in the Intag area, which has successfully led he struggle to halt all mining activities in the Toisan Range. However, it has been the communities involved in this struggle, that has made this struggle be as successful as it has.

The mining project in question goes by the name of "Junin", which is also the name of a tiny community tucked away in astonishingly beautiful corner of Northwest Ecuador. Both derive their name from a perfectly clear river born high up on the forested watersheds of the Toisan Range. The forests are primary cloud forests, belonging to one of earth's great biotic regions- the Choco Floristic Province. Being on the western slopes of the Western Andes, these magnificent forests also belong to the Western Ecuadorian Forests, likewise known for their extreme biological diversity and endenism. . Five hundred hectares of these forests harbour more species of hummingbird and orchids than that found in all of the USA and Canada combined. All but about 8% or 9% have been transformed into industrial banana and oil palm plantations, degraded pastures and second rate agricultural areas. Logging companies have made millions, while decimating one of our planet's great biological jewels. It is estimated that thousands of the approximately 10,000 species of plants that once thrived in Western Ecuador have become extinct. Now these last remaining forests are facing their greatest threat: open pit copper mining.

The Junin copper mining project was made possible by a treaty between the Japanese and Ecuadorian governments, signed in 1991. Under the terms of the treaty, JICA, (Japanese International Co-operation Agency), would fund exploratory activities to identify mineralized areas in the Toisan Range. JICA then hired Bishimetals (today, Mitsubishi Materials) to. carry out the actual exploration. The Ecuadorian cunterpart was CODIGEM, (Corporacion de Investigacion Gelogica Minera)- part of the Ministry of Energy and Mines. One of the objectives of this agreement was for the Japanese taxpayer to save Mitsubishi millions of dollars in exploratory expenses. As a Japanese representative for Mitsubishi told us one day in the Junin area when questioned abut this: "You don't understand, Japanese government and business, same thing".

Of course, the main goal was to identify promising mineral reserves and exploit them. Back in 1991, the Intag area around the Toisan Range had several advantages from the miner's and the government's perspective. One big one was that there are no indigenous communities. This cut down considerably the chance of organised resistance, as has been the case in Ecuador's Amazon with the petroleum companies. Two, since the area is largely made up of "colonos" (settlers) from different parts of Ecuador, and their offspring, the area lacks a strong cultural or ethnic identity. This "pioneer" culture, as well as the geographical isolation (the communities are widely dispersed) and poor road and communication infrastructure, has historically made it extremely difficult for organised groups to succeed. Finally, the mainly subsistence economy and very poor level of education , added to what should have been ideal conditions for the mining interests to win the day. But, as we shall see, it didn't turn out that way.

When I first found out abut the presence of "miners" in the Intag area from Father Geovanny a young, liberal, catholic priest, I knew almost nothing abut who they were and what they were doing. The extremely dispersed and wildly mountainous nature of the Intag area, poor roads and almost inexistant telephones, made it difficult t find out and keep track on such going ons (Intag's population is about 15,000 spread out over 1500 square kilometres). However, Father Govanny's concern with the miner's activities and my own interest, were enough to coalescence into what is today DECOIN. With some young adults I had helped organised into a local conservation organisation a few years prior, another youth group from a nearby community and a handful of concerned and curious individuals, the seed for DECOIN was planted one January morning in 1995.

Our first job was gathering information and seeking funds to finance our environmental work . The first was easy compared to the second. We talked with our neighbours and asked many questions. Until the church sent Father Geovanny to Cuba two years ago, he never missed a opportunity to "spread the Green Word" and win over supporters. We journeyed into the Junin area to talk with the people to learn what their experiences were. We also got in touch with a Quito based activist environmental NGO, called Accion Ecologica, which, as we later learned, had been also "snooping" around the mining project gathering information. They helped us get more information, and organize a few events, which helped us reach more people and educate them abut the mining threat. Little by little we gathered and shared information, some of which detailed a host of illegal activities perpetrated by the miners in Junin and specially by Ecuadorian mining officials.

November 1995, eleven months after the founding DECIN, we were able to organised the first environmental congress in our area (also the first in our province). The congress attracted over 200 participants from 20 communites. Also present were some very high government officials (including the # 2 at the Ministry of Energy and Mines, the governor, and a congressional representative) and representatives from several mining companies, including Bishimetals and the giant RTZ (Rio Tinto Zinc). Something extremely important was clearly at stake in Junin. This was a watershed event, for it not only brought the mining issue t the forefront, but more importantly, it was here for the first time that DECOIN publicly opposed the Junin project and mining in the Toisan Range. The battle lines were drawn, so to speak.

In this uneven fight against one of the world's largest corporation backed by the Ecuadorian government, we have received many lucky "breaks". Our first one was getting TV coverage of the Junin issue by of the most popular TV programs at the time. The show was aired at prime time Sunday night and was watched by hundreds of thousands of people. This, as you can imagined saved us a tremendous amount of time in informing and seeking backing from the national audience. We have also used this same TV program in many occasions with our work with the communities and with outside organisations to seek support. After the television coverage, newspapers were more willing to publish our articles and news releases, which have been numerous (more than 30 in the past almost 4 years). We have also been fortunate in that several of DECOIN's members have been good writers. All this media coverage not only helped spread the information and gather support for the anti mining campaign, but it also gave us some level of protection from possible harassment from government officials. This has not, however, prevented some of us from receiving death threats on more than one occasion from "pro-mining" interests.

The next main event was obtaining a copy of the Environmental Impact Study, which for years we tried to obtain. By this time our work with the communities in environmental education, workshops in fishculture and our working with women's groups, had greatly increased our popular support. The release and consequent dissemination of the Environmental Impact Study was another watershed event, and it served to coalescence opposition to the project by those who had doubts or who were misinformed about our organisational work. It, in short, made our work easier. And no wonder.

The seriousness of the social and ecological impacts detailed in the environmental study, (which was prepared in Japan (Metal Mining Agency of Japan) speeded up the process of opposition to the mining project. Of all the impacts, the threats to the communities was probably crucial in the increased level of opposition.

These impacts identified in the environmetnal impact study include:

  1. The relocation of 4 communities and 100 families
  2. Massive deforestation
  3. Local climatic change, leading to "desertification"
  4. Impacts to the Cotacachi-Cayapas Ecological Reserve (one of the world's most biodiverse protected area, and equivalent to a Wilderness reserve)
  5. Dangerous levels of contamination of rivers with lead, arsenic, cadmium, chrome, copper and nitrates.
  6. Increase in crime
  7. Impacts to several endangered species, including: Jaguars, Pumas, Ocelots, Spectacled Bears, Howler and Spider Monkeys, Plate-billed Mountain Toucans, and about 7 other identified species (Our estimate is approximately 30 species of threatened animals by the project).

It is worth repeating that the above listed impacts are all to be found in the environmetal document, and are only the most important, there being a lot more serious impacts not listed above.

We took this information and quickly made it available to the communities by copying it and producing a simple to understand summaries of the study. We then spread its content internationally via the Internet to our contacts overseas. The campaign quickly prospered and acquired strength. The study itself became a powerful tool for our local, national and international campaign. Part of the successful campaign involved letter writing from people in Europe and the USA, through such organisations as Global Response in the state of Colorado, and Rain Forest Action Network, in California, USA, and Rettet Den Regenwald in Germany- who has helped us greatly from the start. An integral part of the campaign included the frequent use of the Internet in order to keep NOG's informed and for seeking support and funding (obtaining enough funding has been a constant struggle). The result of the campaign was thousands of letters sent to Ecuadorian government and Mitsubishi officials, which, we firmly believe, played a important part in the favourable outcome.

The threat to the communities rallied the opposition, and not too long after the release of the study representatives from seven communities in and around the mining project area decided to form a committee to confront the project and save their communities. Besides backing the committee, DECOIN also facilitated contacts between community members and government mining officials, with the intent of finding a peaceful solution to the community's growing opposition to the mining project. Somewhere along the way, a handful of campesino went on a trip to mining areas in Peru, a trip which was made possible with the help of Quito-based Accion Ecologica. This trip played an important part in educating the people of mining's real impacts.

In light of the total lack f response from government officials to meet in the mining area and discuss the project, the newly formed committee decided, after an assembly attended by over 60 persons, to "take" the mining camp in the area, in the hope of forcing mining officials to talk with community representatives. Again the mining officials failed to respond, and this led to the unanimous decision to burn down the mining camp as a gesture of the rejection of the project. This was done with the participation of approximately 150 persons from 7 communities and included the presence of women and children. After careful removal and inventorying of all equipment and goods in the camp (which was owned by Bishimetals) the goods were all transported on the back of 60 mules to the nearby community of Junin. Later (after a 5 hour mule trip), they were carefully turned over to Municipal authorities, and much later, handed over to Ecuadorian mining officials. It needs to be pointed out that the Mayor of our County (Canton Cotacachi), in general, has backed the community's decision to reject the mining project and has, at times, served as a go-between between the government and communities.

Government officials finally responded to events in Junin by criminally charging three of the movement's leaders with "sabotage and terrorism"- which in Ecuador, carries a minimum 16 year prison sentence. The charges were made against two leaders of the committee Polibio Perez and Luis Torres, and a member of DECOIN, Luis Robalino, who also took part in the collective torching of the camp. Only recently, and after constant pressure from church leaders, national human rights, and other international organisations, was the criminal process suspended.

The burning of the camp did a number of things: First, and foremost, it stopped all mining activities in the area. Second, it solidified the communitie's opposition, and strengthened the committee for the defense of Junin and the Toisan Range. Fourth, it created damaging international publicity both for Mitsubishi and the Ecuadorian government (who had been handling the whole situation incredibly ineptly). Third, it scared the government and Mitsubishi officials, leading to the temporary suspension of the government to government agreement to explore for minerals in the Toisan Range. So far, this treaty has not been extended a further two years, as it would have been under normal circumstances. Perhaps more importantly, it showed the communities that by being organised they can successfully defend their environment and their basic human rights, even against such powerful players as the Ecuadorian government and a giant multinational corporation.

Coffee VS Copper

It is very important to point out that all the while this was on, DECOIN made some fundamental changes in its strategy. We did not "get stuck" in the merely opposition and resistance mode, but quickly started looking for viable sustainable economic alternatives to offer Intag's residents. Along these lines, and with very little funds, about a year ago DECOIN helped create and partially fund, the first ever region-wide association of shade-grown organic coffee (called: Cafe Rio Intag). The association has quickly grown to over I00 members, with new members joining all the time, and offers one of the best alternatives to mining. The association has lately received a powerful helping hand from two Japanese organisations: Japan Brazil Network (JBN), and Organic Coffee, Inc. JBN organized and funded a trip to Japan with 2 community leaders and the mayor of our Municipality to promote organic coffee and to educate the Japanese public about the threats our communities mining were facing by the JICA (Japanese Agency for International Cooperation) funded project. Organic Coffee Inc. is a fair trade organisation from Fukoka. Its founder recently visited the Intag area to establish personal and business contacts. The very positive visit resulted a deal to start exporting our coffee to Japan.

Besides coffee, and our permanent contacts with the communities, we are also involved in the following community-based projects: community ecological tourism (in the mining area), native tree reforestation (6 communities); school gardens; and helping organise women's groups to work in handicrafts, and home-gardens. We also are going ahead with a brand new project aimed at creating community-administered forests and watersheds. All of the projects have had wide acceptance and have been elaborated based on real needs and in close consultation with the communities; two essential ingredients needed to guarantee success.

Besides the various projects mentioned, we have spent a lot of time and energy in environmental education. One of our latest production has been the publication of a book on the social and ecological impacts of mining. The book, titled in spanish : "Un Monstruo Grande Que Pisa Fuerte", written and published by DECOIN, has had an mayor impact on the national scene, and is, as far as we know, the only book in Latin America published by a grass-roots environmetal organization that details the environemtal impacts of mining, especially in developing countries.

Our struggle here in the Intag area is far from over. At any time the Junin mining concession can be given to another mining company, or a rise in the price of copper could increase the pressures to mine in this Eden. We also fear that the new proposed mining law, if approved, will make it much harder and dangerous to keep carrying out our campaign and our work with the communities. The proposed law, in effect, is a shameful strategy to "make mining safe for multinational corporations", by violating community and individual basic human rights; eliminating all royalties; and seriously eroding environmental legislation and local government rights. DECOIN is also on the forefront of the struggle to modify or repeal the proposed law. Our little book on the environmental impacts of mining, will play a significant part in educating the average Ecuadorian and policy makers about the real implications of mining for this extraordinary biodiverse country, in a similar way that our struggle against the mining project has inspired other communities to resist mining plans.

The so-far successful struggle in Intag against the Junin mining project, forced an issue which government and mining companies have been neglecting for years and secretly hoping it would not surface in Junin: the community's inherent right to have a say in the use of their natural resources and to oppose projects that threaten their rights or environment. A burning issue, which may determine, to a great degree, and in the very near future, the nature of natural resource extraction world-wide. We are hopeful that the struggle in the Intag area will serve as yet another model of resistance and hope in the struggle to secure those rights, and make them prosper.

Carlos Zorrilla
Casilla 18 Otavalo, Ecuador

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