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In Ecuador, communities protecting a ‘terrestrial coral reef’ face a mining giant

  • For nearly 30 years, communities have worked to conserve, restore and defend the cloud forests of the Intag Valley in Ecuador, in what locals say is the longest continuous resistance movement against mining in Latin America.
  • The Tropical Andes are considered the world’s most biodiverse hotspot, ranking first in plant, bird, mammal and amphibian diversity; however, less than 15% of Ecuador’s original cloud forests and only 4% of all forests in northwestern Ecuador remain.
  • Codelco, the world’s largest copper producer from Chile, plans to open a mine in the Intag Valley that would destroy primary forest and lie within the buffer area of Cotacachi Cayapas National Park — a plan that experts say would be ecologically devastating and not worth the cost.
  • Communities are using the presence of two threatened frog species — previously thought to be extinct — at the mining site to challenge the project under the “rights of nature,” Ecuador’s constitutional guarantee that natural ecosystems have the right to exist, thrive, and evolve.

INTAG VALLEY, ECUADOR — Hundreds of moths land on a white sheet, lit like a false moon in the still, dark forest. Elegant silver ones, fist-sized moths with spots on their wings, fuzzy little citrine fellows, some exquisitely camouflaged in neutral tones, and some announcing their toxicity in vivid colors.

For three nights, we lure them with bright lamps and watch as they emerge and dance on the property of Carlos Zorrilla in the Intag Valley, Ecuador — one of the most biodiverse places on the planet.

“On many nights, I see something I haven’t seen before,” Zorrilla said. “After all these years, I’m still finding new species that I haven’t seen in 20 or 30 years … You get a real sense of the biodiversity of a place when you do something like this.”

For decades, Zorrilla has been a leader in the effort to conserve, restore and defend the cloud forests in Intag, and of what he and other locals say is the longest continuous resistance movement against mining in Latin America.

Defending the Intag Valley: 30 Years of Community Resistance


Carlos Zorrilla “light sheeting” to observe moths on his property in the cloud forests of Intag Valley, Ecuador. Photo by Liz Kimbrough for Mongabay.

When Zorrilla greets us at the edge of his property on a sunny day in late November, his face doesn’t betray decades of struggle. He smiles broadly under a bushy white mustache, two golden retrievers prancing at his heels. “Welcome to paradise,” he says.

Paradise is an apt description.

Imagine a jungle. Now cool it down, add mist and waterfalls and drape everything in moss and orchids. Remove most mosquitoes. You’re in the cloud forests of the tropical Andes. This ecosystem, which runs through Bolivia, Venezuela, Colombia, Peru and Ecuador, holds nearly one-sixth of all plant species on Earth and more bird species than all of North America.

Past Zorrilla’s tidy white home and unruly garden, a patch of grass sweeps down to a stunning vista: a fortress of forest that rises in peaks across the valley. “Everything you can see is a private reserve. It used to be designated as a Bosque Protector [protected forest], but the government delisted it,” Zorrilla says, raising an eyebrow. “Nice people.”

Trees in the topical Andes are draped with moss, bromeliads, ferns and orchids. Photo by Romi Castagnino.
Trees in the Tropical Andes are draped with moss, bromeliads, ferns, and orchids. Photo by Romi Castagnino for Mongabay.

Ecuador’s relationship with its forests is complex. By the time Zorrilla moved here more than 40 years ago (he’s Cuban by way of California), much of the region had already been deforested.

In the 1960s, to encourage development, the government deemed forested properties with no human occupants “unproductive” and open to land grabbers. In turn, landowners were forced to clear at least 50% of the land to prove it was in use. These agrarian laws led to a flurry of deforestation that lasted into the 1990s.

As a result, less than 15% of Ecuador’s original cloud forests and only 4% of all forests in northwestern Ecuador remain.

Mongabay videographer Romi Castagnino and I came to visit the Intag Valley for our Conservation Potential series, which investigates established conservation efforts in places deemed by experts a high priority for preserving biodiversity.

The tropical Andes are considered the world’s most biodiverse hotspot (places with high levels of diversity that have lost more than 70% of their habitat). The ecosystem ranks first in plant, bird, mammal and amphibian diversity out of all 36 hotspots identified in the world to date, and more than half of its species are found nowhere else on the planet.

Pumas (Puma concolor), spectacled bears (Tremarctos ornatus), mountain tapirs (Tapirus pinchaque), mantled howler monkeys (Alouatta palliata), the critically endangered brown-headed spider monkey (Ateles fusciceps fusciceps), and the colorful plate-billed mountain toucan (Andigena laminirostris) are just a few of the more charismatic threatened species living here.

3-Rupicola-peruvianus6-Ateles-fusciceps-fusciceps7-Andigena-laminirostris8-Sigmatostalix-eliae5-Alouatta-palliata2-Chamaepetes-goudotii4-Tremarctos-ornatusBellavista cloud forest

“Tropical cloud forests are the terrestrial version of coral reefs,” says Walter Jetz, professor of ecology and evolutionary biology and director of the Yale Center for Biodiversity and Global Change. “They harbor Earth’s greatest concentration of species diversity on land over an already small and continually decreasing area.”

Our first foray deep into this “terrestrial coral reef” is led by Roberto Castro, a local nature guide, environmental educator, and Zorrilla’s friend and neighbor. Roberto knows the forest the way that only someone who has spent a lifetime there could.

“Here is the Sangre de Drago tree … its red sap [is] a cure for many ailments,” he says. “Here is the Cecropia tree that lives in partnership with the ants.”

He shows us a white flower that shares its nectar with just one bat species and lets go of its seeds in a grand explosion once the nectar is spent. We see the sickle-winged guan (Chamaepetes goudotii), a large ground bird that lays only one, maybe two, precious eggs in a year. The famed Andean cock-of-the-rock (Rupicola peruvianus) cries out, its song somewhere between that of a parrot and a squealing pig. In the cloud forest, a single leaf is a stage for drama: ants farming aphids, lichens making their slow march against the moss. The forest drips with life.

Roberto Castro, a naturalist, activist, and farmer who has lived in Intag Valley for his entire life. Photo by Romi Castagnino for Mongabay.

We stop in a grove of massive elephant ear plants, twice as tall as a person. “These plants tell us water is abundant,” Castro says. The water trail leads us to a 10-meter (33-foot) waterfall. Castro stands in the stream below and pulls out a minuscule underwater castle made from pebbles.

“This is the home of moth larvae,” he shows us. “It is perfect nature that we can learn from.”

Back in the 1990s, Carlos Zorrilla recognized that protecting the vast wealth of life here was crucial. However, the “conservation for biodiversity” angle wasn’t particularly compelling for locals at the time. What resonated was water.

Cloud forests capture moisture from passing clouds, and that water drips down to contribute up to half of the total precipitation reaching the ground. The forest filters the water and keeps the soil from eroding as water moves downstream.

In the decades after most of the forests were lost here, locals reported a dwindling water supply, unreliable flows depending on the season, and dirtier, more polluted water. Zorrilla says the community, which relied heavily on small-scale farming, rallied around forest conservation once they made the link between healthy forests and clean, abundant water.

Roberto Castro under a grove of elephant ear plants, which grow where water is abundant. Photo by Liz Kimbrough for Mongabay.

Zorrilla and other community members started the environmental group Defensa y Conservación Ecológica de Intag (DECOIN) in 1995. It has since won the United Nations Equator Prize for its many accomplishments.

DECOIN helped communities establish 38 small-scale forest reserves that, altogether, protect almost 12,000 hectares (nearly 30,000 acres) of forest within the buffer zone of Cotacachi Cayapas National Park. Some of these reserves protect watersheds that benefit thousands of local people.

German organization GEO schützt den Regenwald e.V. and U.K.-based NGO Rainforest Concern helped finance the land purchases. Rainforest Concern owns one reserve, but the rest belong to the communities and parish governments.

In Intag, communities are self-defined administrative units, whose leader is nominated by its residents. It’s up to each community to decide how to best protect forests. Most include agreements prohibiting activities such as burning, cattle ranching, mining, hunting, cultivating crops, or harvesting things to sell.

In the 1980s, a Belgian government-funded expedition discovered potential copper reserves in Intag, so purchasing land was also a strategy to deter mining development. Even when land is privately owned in Ecuador, the government still has rights to the minerals underground. But occupied land, especially when it belongs to the community, can be much harder to invade.

Isuaro Bolaños holds soil from a forest he and others replanted. Photo by Romi Castagnino for Mongabay.

In addition to protecting intact forests, communities also restored forests. They did that mostly by keeping cattle and invasive grasses out of pastures and then letting nature take its course. As long as there are forests nearby, birds and mammals will spread seeds to the pastures, and, given time, the forest will regrow. This process is known as natural or assisted regeneration.

Some communities restored forests more actively by planting trees. All told, they planted more than 75,000 trees, restoring 70 hectares (173 acres) of land. Since these efforts began in the early 2000s, there has been a net increase in forest cover of 3% in the Intag region.

“Strikingly, after restoring communal land, many people began planting trees and allowing forests to recover on farms, and forest cover increased around waterways, roads and farms,” said a report by Restor and Forestoration International shared with Mongabay. “These activities were not directly supported by DECOIN but tended to arise organically when people saw the benefits of planting trees.”

Mongabay visited the largest of these active reforestation sites, near the town of Peñaherrera. There, we met Isuaro Bolaños, a farmer who led efforts to replant the forest.

Bolaños and fellow community members planted more than 60,000 trees on slopes that were originally forests but had been converted to pasture decades ago. Working for six months each year between 2008 and 2013, dozens of community members planted 22 native species and one exotic, in what Bolaños describes as “very difficult labor.”

Near Peñaherrera, Ecuador, communities planted more than 60,000 trees (right), reforesting a former pasture (left). Photo by Romi Castagnino for Mongabay.

The result is dramatic. Now, a lush forest stretches across the ridge. Lizards scurry in the leaf litter under large trees, and frogs hide in the clean-flowing streams. That freshwater supports 14 family farms, Bolaños says, but everyone downstream also benefits, including more than 200 homes and the local school.

“Everyone thought I was crazy,” Bolaños says. “But now we have this forest, and we have clean water.”

Three decades of resistance

However, Intag’s richness aboveground is rivaled by a different kind of wealth below: copper.

You’re probably closer to copper than you think. Copper is used in wiring, plumbing and gas tubing, climate control systems, aircraft parts, automotive parts (increasingly in electric vehicles), tools, gears, bearings, furniture, coins, crafts, cookware, and more. Some predict a 300% increase in copper demand by 2050.

In 1996, the Japanese mining company Bishimetals, a subsidiary of Mitsubishi Corporation, found evidence of massive copper deposits in the Intag Valley.

The company published a preliminary environmental impact study showing that even a small-scale mine here could cause large-scale deforestation, contaminate rivers with toxic heavy metals, and would require the relocation of hundreds of families from four communities.

In 1997, local communities reacted to these scenarios by burning Bishimetals’ mining camp to the ground. No one was harmed in the incident, but it was enough to make the company pull out.

The Intag resistance movement against mining has been the subject of dozens of articles and six documentaries, including the award-winning Under Rich Earth. The story is complex, so here we hit the highlights.

Community members block security guards hired by the mining company Copper Mesa Corporation from entering Junin Reserve in 2006. Photo by Elisabeth Weydt.

After Bishimetals retreated in 1997, things calmed down until the Canadian mining company Copper Mesa Corporation (formally Ascendent Copper) entered the scene in 2004.

The company tried for five years to develop the project and used paramilitaries and violent force, Zorrilla tells Mongabay. He recounts how, during this period, he hid in the forest as men with machine guns (allegedly the police hired by the Canadian mining company) raided his home.

His neighbor, Norma Bolаños, a local leader in the women’s crafts association, tells Mongabay she saw them on the road with their guns headed toward Zorrilla’s house. She called his house phone.

“It was a miracle his phone rang, and he was near it,” Norma says. “He only had a few minutes to get away.”

But ultimately, the communities ousted the Canadian company, which “had to abandon the project due to strong resistance from the community,” Zorrilla wrote in a 2022 post for DECOIN’s website.

This resistance took place in the streets but also in the courts. DECOIN helped residents file a lawsuit against both the mining company and the Toronto Stock Exchange for complicity in human rights violations based on Copper Mesa’s actions. As a result, in 2010 the Toronto Stock Exchange delisted Copper Mesa Mining Corporation.


Now, the communities face the world’s largest copper producer, Chile’s Codelco, which has partnered with Empresa Nacional Minera (ENAMI EP), Ecuador’s state-owned mining company, and invested millions into advanced mining explorations across Intag — in particular within the 5,000-hectare (12,400-acre) mining concession known as Llurimagua.

The Llurimagua concession includes 43 headwaters of rivers and streams, and both primary and secondary forests. It lies within the buffer zone of Cotacachi Cayapas National Park, an internationally recognized biodiversity hotspot home to dozens of threatened species.

“Now, 28 years later, here we are. We’re still resisting mining development,” Zorrilla says.

Codelco has also resorted to violent tactics to stake its claim on the land. Officers hired by the company, “violently went into the community reserve in May of 2014, after arresting a local protester and leader of the resistance,” Zorrilla says. According to several community members Mongabay spoke to, around 400 military and police officers used force to ensure the presence of Codelco and ENAMI in the mining concession.

“They stayed for months and violated fundamental human rights,” Zorrilla says.

Javier Ramirez was the president of the Junín community in 2014 when he was arrested for “sabotage and rebellion against the state.” He was sentenced to eight years in prison but released after 10 months because of public pressure.

“I had never left my community, never left my wife, my four children … Never in my family’s history has a family member been imprisoned. It was like in the novels,” Ramirez said in an interview with Re:wild. “We could not believe that I was imprisoned without committing a crime, just for being a defender of nature.”

Codelco persisted and set up camp in the Junín Community Reserve, a patch of primary, old-growth forest covering 1,440 hectares (3,558 acres) within the buffer zone of Cotacachi Cayapas National Park. The community reserve is owned and managed by the Junín residents for research and ecotourism.

Roberto Castro and his son look towards Junin, where Coldeco wants to open a copper mine. Photo by Romi Castagnino for Mongabay.

Here, Codelco has intensified its search for copper, cutting trees and allegedly contaminating water by digging deep into the forest floor to look for copper deposits.

“Codelco, with the proven complicity of state regulators, polluted virgin rivers and streams and deforested ancient forests,” Zorrilla wrote in a 2022 post for DECOIN.

On our walk with Roberto Castro, we climb from the primary forest above Zorrilla’s house to a higher-elevation ridge. From there, he points down the valley. “That’s Junín. If they open the mine there, it will contaminate the water. Do you feel the breeze from that direction? It will pollute our air. It will change everything.”

Junín and the mining camp

The next day we hop into the car and head to Junín, a community about two hours by car from Zorrilla’s house, and ground zero for mining exploration in Intag. We pass hot springs, cross the river, and zoom past dozens of cabañas and sites for tourists eager to explore this green paradise.

As we near Junín, the landscape becomes more agricultural, forests mosaicked with pastures and crops. The town of Junín is small, home to fewer than 50 families. We pass a tidy blue-and-white schoolhouse.

“Codelco painted the school,” says Orlando Villalba, our driver.

“The mining companies will make improvements like this to win over the communities,” Zorrilla says. “But it’s all bullshit.”

We arrive at Ecocabañas Junín, a two-story bunkhouse built and managed entirely by the local communities of Junín and Chalguayacu through an association that redistributes the benefits to its member families. Its wooden walls gleam, and hummingbirds abound.

Here we meet with community members Marcia Ramirez and Israel Pérez. Ramirez joined the resistance in its early days, when she was 12. She has since become a strong, vocal advocate for the forest. Today, Ramirez tells us about the growing division that Codelco has caused in their community.

The company promised jobs and training, she says, but these are short-term, hard-labor jobs. It’s convinced people to sell their homes and land for far less than they’re worth, she adds, leaving them unable to relocate with similar lifestyles. Codelco made some improvements to the town, such as painting some buildings, but according to Ramirez, this has come at a great cost.

“Our territory was super peaceful until this mining company arrived,” she says. “Before this, there was peace, now there is mistrust.”

Community members in both Junín and Apuela tell Mongabay that mining has caused divisions in their communities. “We are worried,” Pérez says. “It is dividing families.”

One of at least 90 drilling platforms within the Junin reserve. Some of these deep perforations reached hot thermal waters which, polluted with arsenic and other toxic elements, made its way to ground level affecting the ecosystem around the platforms. Photo by Romi Castagnino for Mongabay.

A group of master’s students rolls in that evening from Simón Bolívar Andean University in Quito, and the atmosphere becomes jubilant, like a summer camp for adults. The group is led by William Sacher, professor and researcher in the university’s Department of Environment and Sustainability. He’s studied large-scale mining and its impacts from interdisciplinary perspectives for more than 15 years and has written numerous books and articles on the topic.

In the morning, we all pack into the back of a truck like cattle and head to the Junín Community Reserve. Even though the community owns the land, Codelco has us sign in at the gates, and two of its employees accompany us on our hike.

Coldeco employees accompany us on our walk through the Junin reserve to one of many large waterfalls. Image by Liz Kimbrough for Mongabay.

Our steep 8-kilometer (5-mile) hike takes us to the base of four spectacular waterfalls and through dense primary forest. We come to a large clearing, where mounds of earth are covered in vines and shrubs. Sacher explains that this clearing resulted from a landslide caused by mining exploration.

“Miners and state officers will say that it was a consequence of heavy rainfalls,” Sacher says in a message after the visit. “I say that there is no sign anywhere of a recent event of this kind in the whole catchment, and given it happened right after they started drilling in this particular area, the landslide is likely a direct consequence of slope perturbation and vibrations linked to drilling and other mining exploration activities.”

Codelco has installed at least 90 drilling platforms within the reserve, digging down to depths of 1,200 meters (3,900 feet). Some of these deep perforations reached hot thermal waters under high pressure, Sacher says, and this hot water, polluted with arsenic and other toxic elements, made its way to ground level, affecting the ecosystem around the perforation platforms.

Codelco is currently waiting on the approval of a new environmental impact assessment to expand exploration within the Llurimagua mining concession and nearly double the number of drilling platforms.

Sacher and the community have been conducting independent community monitoring of the surface water quality in the reserve since 2015. “Water tended to acidify during the exploration campaign,” he says. “[H]eavy metal concentrations especially zinc concentration, copper concentration, and arsenic concentration rose significantly during the time the company was doing the work in this area.”

Mongabay reached out to Codelco for comment but didn’t receive a reply.

After several mining wells were drilled upstream of this waterfall in Junin reserve (2018) the water turned from clear to red, locals say. Image from DECOIN.

A terrible place for a mine

Copper is mined in open pits. This means trees and vegetation must be removed and large machinery brought in to excavate massive amounts of earth to access the ore. Processing the copper ore into pure copper requires a lot of energy and water and creates toxic waste that must be stored.

The environmental and human costs of mining, especially if anything goes wrong, can be catastrophic, as recent disasters in Brazil, the Democratic Republic of Congo and Mexico have shown.

Beyond deforestation, large-scale mining can lead to air, soil and water contamination. When water flows through mines and picks up harmful substances like sulfur and heavy metals, this is known as acid mining drainage, and can happen at abandoned or active mines if they aren’t carefully managed.

“All these contaminations [are] well documented, and all the people here are going to suffer from that,” Sacher says.

There’s also the problem of the abundant waste from the mines, often stored in large pools and waste pits known as tailings dams. Not a great idea in a steep, wet, seismically active region, Sacher says. “This is really the worst cocktail you can get to implement this type of activity.”

A copper mine in Romania. Image by Cristian Bortes via Wikimedia Commons (CC BY 2.0).

Mining in Ecuador, especially in the Intag Valley, is just a bad idea, Sacher says. Aside from the earthquakes, rainfall and steep slopes, the infrastructure for large-scale copper mining just isn’t there. And it’s a country with a wealth of other options for development.

“It’s really a poor choice to develop large-scale mining in such a rich country,” Sacher says. Ecuador is rich in soils, ecosystems, agricultural potential, genetic diversity, tourism potential, and even in the pharmacological or medicinal potential of its plants.

“If you actually do the math just in terms of cost and benefit, if you take into account the costs of large-scale mining,” Sacher says, “they outweigh the benefits.”

The U.S. nonprofit Earth Economics did this exact cost-benefit analysis in 2011 and determined that “the social and environmental costs of copper are much higher than the value of copper itself.”

It valued ecosystem services in Intag, such as water, food, climate regulation, soil retention, pollination, waste treatment, recreation, and scientific research, at $447 million per year in 2011. That’s higher than the projected revenue from copper mining in the region, especially when environmental remediation is included in the bill.

“Ecuador doesn’t need to be a mining producer to develop itself,” Sacher says. “And large-scale mining is an activity that is [going to] destroy all this richness.”

Frogs, hope, and the rights of nature

At the base of a waterfall, we stop to catch our breath, and Zorrilla steps forward. “This is close to where they found the frogs,” he says.

And here enters hope.

Among the dozens of threatened species in the tropical Andes, two have been found in this reserve and nowhere else on Earth: the longnose harlequin toad (​​Atelopus longirostris) and the Intag resistance rocket frog whose name was chosen through a contest. Both were presumed extinct until they were recently found again in the Junín Community Reserve. Now, the frogs are listed as endangered by the IUCN, the global wildlife conservation authority.

Finding these frogs has given the community a strong argument to try to legally stop mining development under what’s known as the rights of nature.

Longnose Harlequin frogs (Atelopus longirostris) in amplexus. This species was presumed extinct until found again in the Junin Reserve. Photo by Luis A. Coloma.

In 2008, Ecuador’s new Constitution became the first in the world to recognize the rights of nature. This means that natural ecosystems, and natural elements such as rivers and mountains, are recognized as having the right to exist, thrive, and evolve. The Constitution also established the right for individuals and communities to defend these rights on behalf of nature.

There have been two notable cases in Ecuador that successfully invoked the rights of nature, showing they could be used as a legal tool to protect the environment and the rights of communities.

Over the past few years, DECOIN worked with lawyers to argue that the mining development would violate the rights of nature by threatening the habitat of these two near-extinct frog species.

In September 2020, the Intag communities won one of the few cases upholding the rights of nature in the lower court. But the case was overturned in the higher provincial appeals court due to a procedural error.

They presented another case in 2021, arguing for the rights of nature and attesting that the communities were not consulted about the mine, which the Constitution also guarantees. The communities lost this case and then appealed.

The case is now before a three-member appeals court. After months of delay, a new judge was appointed in December. The new judge wants to have all of the evidence presented again, essentially starting the process over. The next court hearing is scheduled for Jan. 23.

Zorrilla expresses his frustrations with this setback and the time and money it would take for them to continue the fight. But he says they will persist.

“The mining companies can put a lot of pressure on the judges,” Carlos Varela, a lawyer representing the communities, tells Mongabay. “So it would be a surprise if we actually receive a positive ruling. But because of the strength of our arguments, and based on the evidence, we think it is possible.”

“It shouldn’t be difficult to imagine the kinds of pressure that judges hearing mining cases are being subjected to in countries like Ecuador,” Zorrilla wrote in 2021 for The Ecologist. “My hat’s off to judges that can withstand these pressures and choose to uphold Constitutional Rights over thug intimidation, especially rights so novel as the rights of nature.”

Conservation over coffee at the Sunday market

On Sunday, we head to the town of Apuela for the weekly market and to visit DECOIN’s office. The door rolls open to one room, essentially a garage open to the street. Inside, among educational posters, plaques and awards, banners and books (including Protecting Your Community Against Mining Companies and Other Extractive Industries and a Guide to Reforestation written by Zorrilla) community members come for coffee and conversation.

Carlos Zorrilla in the DECOIN office in Apuela, Ecuador with Jesus Prado, one of the four litigants in the rights of nature case. Photo by Romi Castagnino for Mongabay.

A local farmer arrives and complains about a bear attacking his cow. He shows us a gruesome photo of bloody slash marks across the rump of a tan cow. The bear also eats his corn crops, he says.

The slashes look more like a puma attack, people in the office agree. But either way, the problem is the lack of forest, Zorrilla explains. When animals are pushed into smaller fragments of forests and have less to eat, they’re more likely to attack livestock and spread disease. It’s illegal to kill an Andean bear, he says. Better to put up a fence and buy a donkey that will make noise and scare it away. One of the men in the room says the parish may be able to help install electric fences, and passes along the phone number.

Sometimes, this is how conservation is done: a simple chat over coffee at the Sunday market. Conservation potential, beyond a map of biodiversity distribution, relies on community endurance; a strong grassroots movement that lasts for decades is built on relationships.

Edison Quilca, a young naturalist and part of the ecotourism guild Guardabosque Intag-Toisan, stops by the office. He’s eager to tell us about his job and some economic alternatives to mining in Intag.

Ecotourism is a clear one. Cotacachi Cayapas National Park, just north of Intag, is Ecuador’s second-most-visited protected area.

This region also produces cacao and some of the most prized coffee in the world. The Association of Small Coffee Growers Rio Intag (AACRI as it’s known in Spanish), started with the support of DECOIN and other organizations, has provided a source of income to many farmers, as well as an incentive to plant more trees for shade-grown coffee.

Norma Bolаños shows one of the bags she created from cabuya. Photo by Romi Castagnino for Mongabay.

We speak with Norma Bolаños about Mujer y Medio Ambiente (Women and the Environment), a group of nearly 50 women in Intag who make products out of cabuya, a fiber they produce from the agave plant, and color with natural dyes. Women earn fair prices for their work, and, Norma says, they’re proud to contribute to their households. She says the collective has strengthened the community.

“We are more in communication with other people,” she says. “We share ideas and before we were only in the house doing chores.”

Conservation projects that involve women and those that address gender from the planning and design stages have better outcomes, according to a 2017 report on gender and sustainable forest management.

Women have been a vital part of the planning, planting, and resistance movement in the Intag Valley.

Hope for the future

In Cotacachi, we visit the home of Cenaida Guachagmira. She’s 28, the same age as the resistance movement, and has known this fight her whole life. She recalls looking after her younger siblings at age 12 while her parents and older brother went to block miners from entering the forest. Her father was arrested, and her brother came back bloodied.

Guachagmira wears many hats. She’s a farmer, entrepreneur, mother, and activist. But when we ask her what to call her for this story, she says, “I would say my title is a defender of life.”

She tells us that many young people are protecting the environment in Intag and that local organizations have done a good job including and educating youth. Now, some of those young people are becoming leaders.

“We are also grateful that the new generations already have a vision of consciousness, a vision of unifying nature with humanity,” she says. “Not feeling more than nature, but rather feeling part of nature.”

Progress has been made in Intag regarding women entrepreneurs who have started their own businesses, Guachagmira adds. “Even though it takes effort, work and sweat, we are fighting for women to be seen, so that women are valued for what they do.”

Overall, her message is that they will continue to fight.

Cenaida Guachagmira, an activist in Intag. Photo by Romi Castagnino for Mongabay.

“The companies have their weapons and we have our dignity,” Guachagmira told Re:wild in an interview earlier this year. “We fight with the constitution, the truth and with our conviction. We are not fighting only for ourselves but for all life on the planet.”

Both Guachagmira and Zorrilla say local organizations and communities need money to purchase land and protect forests, as many more community members want to be involved in creating forest and watershed reserves. They could also use funding to continue their environmental education campaigns. But for now, most of their money goes toward the legal defense of land and communities.

The best-laid plans for major conservation and forest restoration projects like this and others worldwide can be undermined and threatened by unexpected setbacks years after initiation, such as mining, illegal logging, land theft and fires.

Funders who want to sustain conservation over time need to be flexible and understand that not all money can go toward activities like tree planting and events that make for good photo ops. Often, grassroots organizations need money to keep the lights on in their offices, pay lawyers, hire guards, and pay themselves for years of tireless labor.

“Many of us don’t get paid a dime,“ Guachagmira says. “But we are here with the conviction and vision of knowing that we are doing good for humanity, knowing that we are taking care of the water and rivers, for our children … That is what sustains us. Money is an important part, but also willpower. If we have lasted 25 years, it has not been only for money. They don’t pay me a penny.”

Carlos Zorrilla and his dogs walk through the forest in Intag Valley, Ecuador. Photo by Romi Castagnino for Mongabay.

We end our trip where it began, back in paradise, at the home of Carlos Zorrilla. I sit with him to review some of his story’s details. His memory is encyclopedic: names, places, hectares, organizations, dates. But amid the details, he trails off.

“It keeps me up at night sometimes,” he says, “wishing I could do more.” We fall quiet, except for the distant sound of birds and the mist-laden winds.

“I’m surprised you haven’t burned out after 30 years,” I tell him. “What’s your secret?”

“Well,” Zorrilla says, “I’m part of a community. But my community isn’t just people. It’s these trees and those birds and all of this. I’m part of an ecological community. And that keeps me nourished … And, that’s just what you do when you’re part of a community. You just help.”


Banner image: Roberto Castro by Romi Castagnino for Mongabay.

Liz Kimbrough is a staff writer for Mongabay. Find her on Twitter @lizkimbrough

Update: Community members in the Intag Valley have won a court case to stop the Llurimagua copper mine, with the court ordering the revocation of mining licenses from Chile’s Codelco and Ecuador’s ENAMI EP. Read more here:

Ecuador court upholds ‘rights of nature,’ blocks Intag Valley copper mine

Conservation Potential: View more information about the series this article belongs to here:

Mongabay’s Conservation Potential series investigates: Where do we need to protect biodiversity?

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