By Francis Bueckert
The first time I visited the lush cloud forests of the Intag was in 2010. The region is so remote that most Ecuadorians have not heard of it, so you have to explain that the Rio Intag region is located in the municipality of Cotacachi, in the province of Imbabura.
The area is characterized by incredible biodiversity, steep mountain sides and small communities of hardworking farmers living in harmony. I use the word ‘communities’ because the region is made up of many small villages located along a long meandering river that cuts its way through the mountain valley.
For generations, these peaceful and autonomous communities were living in harmony with the Earth, and with one another. Far from the bustling cities of Ecuador, the villages were mostly left alone, and they lived their lives – raising their children, tending to animals, and growing crops in the rich soil. All this changed, however, with the arrival of foreign mining companies.
You see, under the fertile soil of the Intag there are large deposits of gold and copper. In the 1990s, mining concessions were granted to a Japanese subsidiary of Mitsubishi Motors without the consent of the local people.
This was a clear violation of the Ecuadorian constitution, a fact that would help the community later in their struggle against the company. The immediate effect of the mining companies’ entrance into the communities was social division.
The company would throw around money to give little things like chickens, dirt bikes or a basketball court in order to sway the local population that mining development was the best course of action for them.
This tore at the social fabric of the Intag. Some people were convinced that mining would be the best course of development. However, the majority of the people who lived and farmed the fertile lands of the Intag were opposed. We should keep in mind that communities are rarely ever of one mind, especially since the temptation of easy money is dangled in front of people who have had to work hard their entire lives for very modest incomes. It is important to approach this issue respecting the nuance of the reality of life there.
The anti-mining faction began increasingly opposed as they educated themselves about the risks of large-scale open-pit mining. They learned that the rivers that they depended upon would likely be contaminated with arsenic, cadmium, lead and other heavy metals.
Community activists even organized a trip to an open-pit mine in Peru to see first hand the devastating environmental consequences of mining.
The People Did Not Trust the Government
The people did not trust that benefits from the mine would be enjoyed by the local population, they knew that the vast majority of the wealth generated from the project would fill the coffers of the government and the mining company. Tensions escalated over time, and some community members became more militant. They decided to take matters into their own hands. They torched the mining camp and sent the workers packing. Nobody was injured, but the message to Ecuador’s elite was clear – the people who actually live in the Intag did not want mining, and would resist attempts to impose it upon them.
And thus was peace restored in the Intag, but alas, it was not to last long. In 2006 a Canadian mining company named Ascendant Copper bought the mining concession, giving them legal claim to the rich precious metal deposits. They proceeded to make all the same mistakes that the Japanese had made. They did not consult the community in any meaningful way – they clearly intended to plow ahead irregardless of how the people of the Intag might feel about it. What came next is the phase of the struggle that is most famous. I will not go into great detail about this part of the story, as it has been well documented, most famously in the amazing documentary. “Under Rich Earth” which I highly recommend to anyone wishing to learn more about the struggle against mining in the Intag.
Briefly, what happened was that Ascendant Copper brought even more social division and violence into the community. They hired paramilitaries in order to force their way past community blockades. They used the Ecuadorian police as their personal militias, and plotted to use police to frame community leaders with drugs and guns.
All this chaos and violence was funded by Canadian investors, as the stock of Ascendant Copper was traded on the Toronto Stock Exchange. Although Canadian cities may feel like another world from the pristine cloud forest of the Intag, and its rustic way of life, it’s important to realize that the connection.
The Canadian financial industry finance mining corporations that are sowing seeds of division, environmental destruction and violence in far away places. The story of the Intag is not unique. As long as I’ve been alive, Canadian mining companies have been plundering Latin America. Nor is i It doesn’t take long if you look into the history of mining companies that they have also carried out terrible atrocities in Canada and the U.S. as well. Yet mining is almost never discussed in Canadian mainstream media. Mining is never an issue that politicians talk about during elections. The greedy capitalists who reap the spoils of these rapacious deeds don’t want you to know. They want to keep all of the devastation that they’ve wrought upon the world out of site and out of mind.
What makes they all the more heinous is when you realize that it is the Canadian government that allows them to act with impunity in countries with weak regulations and governments who are more concerned with making money than human rights.
In the end, the people of the Intag were successful at kicking out the Canadian mining company. Even with all of their dirty tricks, the company was not able to overcome the will of the people who live on the ground.
The People Have the Power
The story of the Intag is inspiring. The people of the remote proved that the people do indeed have the power. “Under Rich Earth” ends on a triumphant note, as the community did indeed triumph in their fight against Ascendant Copper.
Unfortunately, the story does not end there. I wish that I could say that everyone lived happily ever after, and that the Intag is now free from the menace posed greedy mining corporations – but that is not the case.
In 2012, the largest copper mining company in the world, CODELCO, which is owned by the Chilean state, signed a deal with the Ecuadorian government to exploit the mining concession in the Intag.
The Struggle Continues
And so, the struggle continues. As of this writing, the mine is still not operational. Within the mining concession they discovered a small frog called the long-nose Harlequin that was thought to be extinct – and community activists sought a court order to stop mining to protect the habitat.
They succeeded in delaying the project, but on February 11th, 2022 the court ruled that the mine could proceed, frogs or no frogs. Yet there remains another obstacle – as of this year the mining behemoth CODELCO and the Ecuadorian government are entering arbitration because of disputes regarding the details of their partnership.
So there is still hope. Perhaps in the end the greed of the different parties involved will cause the project to fall apart. That would be the best case scenario. The Intag is a jewel of biodiversity on this planet, and it should be cared for by the people who know best how to protect it – the farmers who live there.