Fair trade, self-determination, and cloud forest conservation in Ecuador

On the northwestern slopes of the Andes in the South American country of Ecuador sits a collection of small farming communities in a region known as Intag. Intag is not a formally recognized political entity, but is a part of Cotacachi county that includes the watershed of the Intag River. The region is characterized by some of the most biodiverse cloud forests in the world. These are forests that hold tremendous amounts of water and allow it to run off into rivers slowly after the water has been thoroughly filtered and purified. The continued protection of these forests is essential to the livelihoods of the farmers in the region as their agricultural productivity depends on sources of clean water. Despite this fact, there have been repeated attempts by multinational corporations and the Ecuadorian government to establish huge open-pit copper mines in the region. Due to the extraordinary efforts of local community organizers, the region has resisted mining and has become a symbol in Ecuador and around the world for the power of local self-determination and for the importance of the fair trade movement.

Intag’s notoriety began in the early 1990’s when a World Bank funded mineral survey discovered large copper deposits in Intag. The copper attracted the attention of Bishimetals, a mining subsidiary of Japan’s Mitsubishi Corporation. Soon Japanese geologists were in Intag to collect core samples of rock and determine the quality of the copper ore. There was one problem: the Japanese did not consult with the local farming communities as stipulated in the Ecuadorian constitution. Fearing widespread contamination of their water supplies and other environmental damage that might ensue from a large, open-pit mine, Inteños (as Intag residents refer to themselves) formed their own environmental organization, named DECOIN for Defensa Ecologica y Conservacion de Intag, and proceeded to educate themselves about mining. They visited Peru where large scale mining has been done for centuries. The environmental devastation and social disruption they witnessed in Peru’s mining regions greatly disturbed the Inteños. They returned to Intag determined not to let Bishimetals open a mine in Intag. A group of activists entered the Bishimetals mining camp, removed all of its equipment and then burned the camp to the ground. Bishimetals could have pursued legal action against the activists, but instead decided that the copper was not worth the damage that its international reputation might suffer. Soon, Bishimetals left Ecuador.

While the fight against Bishimetals went on, DECOIN knew that the economic problems of Intag had to be addressed to counter the attraction of jobs promised by mining companies. The organization spearheaded efforts to establish cooperatives based on coffee, handicrafts, and tourism. The coops have achieved slow but steady growth with the coffee coop counting 150 families among its members, the women’s handicraft coop including some 43 women, and the community tourism network including 14 community groups representing more than a dozen small communities. All of the cooperative efforts depend heavily on principles of fair trade even when fair trade certification has not been achieved (it has been achieved in the case of the coffee coop). Through direct, internet mediated contact between consumers and Intag producers, Inteños are receiving relatively high returns on their efforts whether it be in growing coffee or offering tours of the region. Coupled with income from traditional agricultural activities, income from the coops allows Inteños to remain in the region without resorting to environmentally destructive mining. Thus, Intag is moving towards a sustainable economy that addresses social welfare needs and protects the extraordinary biodiversity of the region.

Although Intag’s coops were succeeding, the copper remained under Intag’s soils and the government controlled the mining rights. In 2004, another mining company, Ascendant Copper from Canada, bought the Intag copper concession from the Ecuadorian government. Ascendant was a small company that had never developed a full blown open-pit mine. Their intention was to gain access to the main copper deposit, demonstrate its quality, and then sell the concession to a larger mining company. However, the main deposit was located in a community forest reserve near the village of Junin, and Junin residents refused to allow Ascendant personnel into the reserve. Finally, Ascendant resorted to hiring armed paramilitaries who forced their way into the reserve after an armed confrontation with locals that involved shots being fired at Junin residents. Community activists from around Intag entered the forest reserve and surrounded the paramilitaries’ camp. Without firing a shot, they took control of the camp and arrested the paramilitaries. Faced with the fact of the armed intrusion by paramilitaries, the government finally condemned the action of Ascendant and revoked its mining concession.

The mining threat did not end with Ascendant’s ouster. The election of Rafael Correa in 2006 brought high hopes for a more environmentally friendly administration, particularly after Mr. Correa sponsored a constitutional assembly that crafted a new and very pro-environment constitution. However, as Ecuador’s economy has struggled, especially in light of recent drops in the price of oil (Ecuador is an oil exporter), Correa has again pushed the development of mining. In conjunction with the Chilean state-owned mining company, CODELCO, renewed exploration for copper is being carried out in Intag and plans for another open-pit mine are underway. Much will depend on international copper prices, which have dropped in recent months, and on the ability of local organizers to maintain community opposition to mining attempts.

Intag is not the only part of Ecuador to foster sustainable development through the action of locally controlled cooperatives. Another is Salinas de Guaranda where a Salesian priest began a dairy cooperative over thirty years ago that is still thriving and producing the best cheese in Ecuador. The cheese is now sold almost everywhere in Ecuador. Other cottage industries, e.g. a chocolate factory and a tourism coop, have been established that have expanded employment opportunities and reduced emigration to urban areas. Other communities are looking to Intag and Salinas as models and are beginning to replicate what they have done, e.g. the community of Principal in southern Ecuador and various weaving and textile cooperatives in and around Otavalo in the north. The potential for expanding the mix of small farms and coop-based businesses is huge, especially if the government were more supportive. Unfortunately, the administration of Rafael Correa remains committed to extractivist industires and has become increasingly autocratic in suppressing popular protest. Journalists have been harassed with lawsuits and at least one local organizer in Intag has gone to jail due to his opposition to government policy.

In light of the power invested in government officials and multinational corporations, it is clear that our commitment to fair trade and support for local community organizers are critical to sustainable development in countries like Ecuador. Fair trade enables rural communities to exist without further destruction of ecosystems, particularly forests, that are essential to the maintenance of ecosystems services such as water purification and the absorption of carbon dioxide, the most important greenhouse gas. As Pope Francis visits the U.S. to urge action against climate change, people must come to understand that meaningful action will not occur without fair trade and without international condemnation of governments and corporations who suppress protest and resort to violence to further environmentally destructive practices such as mining. If you are interested in more details concerning what is happening in Intag and the rest of Ecuador, go to www.decoin.org.

Submitted by Dr. Michael Melampy, Professor: Baldwin Wallace University

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