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Ecuador: using the Rights of Nature to resist mining

Citizen scientists use 'paraecology' to defend the Intag Valley



Communities of the Intag Valley are engaging in new tactics, using citizen science to resist mining through legal battles. A pioneering organisation, Ecoforensic, is training a growing movement of ‘paraecologists’ to gather the ecological data needed to win legal cases against mining companies – and it’s working.

‘In this course for paraecologists I learned many things, the role of the species and how we can take care of them. I think it is fundamental to share this knowledge with more people and to know that it can help us to stop mining.’ 

Erick is a paraecologist, trained in the collection of ecological information for legal purposes. He hails from Los Cedros, a community of the Intag Valley in the western foothills of the Tropical Andes in Ecuador. The Intag Valley lies within the ‘world’s most biodiverse hotspot’ but its wealth is not only ecological. Home to large copper deposits, the area has been in a historical battle against mining since Bishimetals (a subsidiary of Mitsubishi Corporation) arrived in neighbouring Junin in 1995.

But resistance to mining has been persistent and effective. In 1997, local residents drove out Bishimetals, and then Canadian mining company Ascendant Copper in a struggle which involved a number of serious clashes including death threats and attacks by paramilitaries. From 2012, the Junin concession was in the hands of Chilean CODELCO and Ecuadorian ENAMI.  

‘CODELCO Out’ reads grafiti on a local sign. Image: Ecoforensic CIC.

‘In the Intag area we are in this battle against mining but few people are telling the truth that it is not good,’ Erick tells the Latin America Bureau. ‘My work involves monitoring the flora and fauna; using camera traps and collecting data on amphibians and other fauna. All this information contributes to a biological database which is used to prove to the courts how mining is destroying our home,’ he explains. 

Science matters 

Communities of the Intag Valley have worked to defend the cloud forests for over 30 years, in what locals say is ‘the longest continuous resistance movement against mining in Latin America’. Yet despite Ecuador’s pioneering recognition of Nature’s rights in the 2008 constitution, making a legal case to end mining has proved to be far from easy. 

‘The lawsuits need to show that the mining company’s Environmental Impact Assessments (EIA) have overlooked critically endangered endemic species, ideally with important functional roles in the local ecosystem. The Ecuadorian Constitution requires the state to avoid species extinction and impacts to ecological function, so if we can show this, then we have a strong case under the Rights of Nature’, says Professor Mika Peck, founder of Ecoforensic and Professor of Conservation Ecology at the University of Sussex. 

In 2021, with the help of an alliance of global scientists of which Peck was a core member, communities of Intag were able to do just this. The landmark Los Cedros case saw the courts apply the ‘Rights of Nature’ (RoN) laws to protect the forest reserve from mining. This historical victory set a precedent for RoN to challenge mining; in March 2023, the court ruled to halt mining in the Llurimagua concession in neighbouring Junin. 

The amount of ecological data needed to win these cases, however, revealed the unsustainability of relying on the goodwill of scientists. ‘For Indigenous communities to successfully fight legal battles against mining corporations under emerging RoN legislation, they need the skills to collect the ecological information themselves,’ says Peck

A new chapter in the struggle 

In 2022 Peck, who has worked in the region since 2005, founded Ecoforensic, a non-profit working to empower Indigenous communities who have been at the forefront of struggles against extractivism to protect the Rights of Nature under law. 

‘We have been working since 1995 to conserve the area’s biodiversity, forest, and water sources but we came into paraecology the slow way,’ recalls Carlos Zorilla, environmental activist and co-founder of Defensa y Conservacion Ecologica de Intag (DECOIN). Initially experts were brought in to measure the impact of mining on water; they began teaching the local people to take samples and analyse them correctly. ‘The company knows the community should be monitoring the quality of water if there is mining…that way they have to be extra careful as the information gathered could be used in court’ he explains. In 1992, Zorilla founded the first local group to monitor the impact of mining on forest health. 

A waterfall in the Junin Community Reserve in Llurimagua Concession. Image: Ecoforensic CIC

But it was two years ago, when Peck offered to train people in Junin (the first community to be affected if mining goes ahead) in paraecology, that the movement really took off. ‘Now there is a group of 41 people who take turns monitoring the forest and the water. Out of the 41, three are trained so they take turns going into the forest with the group, especially those who are monitoring frog health or water quality,’ explains Sylvia Seger, DECOIN’s Director of Research.  

Zorilla, who has worked alongside the community since his arrival in 1978, says that the rise of ‘citizen science definitely represents a new chapter in the struggle. It gives the members a deeper understanding of their environment which they never had before. They had never looked at frogs closely, they never knew what was going on with the water. That has changed. And the deeper understanding has brought a deeper commitment to preserving what we have.’ 

Between local knowledge and the Western legal world 

The ecological data collected by the community is critical to keeping the mining companies out. 

‘Just last night we received reports that the group found many different species of frog. At any moment they could find a new species for science or one that is becoming extinct. So citizen science does matter when it comes to proving the rights of nature will be impacted by an extractivist project’, explains Zorilla.

But there are still barriers preventing the local communities from making the legal case. For example, the paraecologists are unable to submit the ecological data to the court themselves. ‘The data needs to be checked and verified by scientists’ says Seger. ‘It’s the stupid bias that you need a degree to identify things’.

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Environmental activist Carlos Zorilla at work. Image: Ecoforensic CIC

Organisations such as DECOIN and Ecoforensic are playing a vital role in bridging this gap between local knowledge and the Western legal world. Seger is in charge of putting together a list which details which species have been documented by the paraecologists. The ecological data is then checked by scientists who ensure all the details are correct. 

Despite these challenges, none of this is possible without the community. ‘Nature is part of their life, to be used, they give and take from nature, pure reciprocity, because they are part of nature as well. That is key to making citizen science happen,’ explains Seger. 

More than resistance to mining…

Citizen science is proving to be more than just an effective tactic for ending mining; it is providing employment and hope to the young people of Intag. 

‘For young people in the countryside it is a bit complicated to know what to do with their lives. Mostly because of the economy’, explains Erick. Rural areas in Ecuador are some of the poorest, with 46 per cent Ecuadorians living in poverty compared to a national average of 27 per cent, as of June 2023. 

Erick was working as a groundskeeper in a reserve when he was invited to attend one of Ecoforensics paraecology trainings. ‘I learned many things. Then I understood how it all worked and it filled my heart to know that I was doing something good. I knew I needed to work in ecology’, he tells LAB. 

But finding work outside mining without formal education is difficult. ‘I didn’t know if you can or can’t work in ecology because I don’t have a degree and everything is complicated if you don’t have one. Luckily, in this case, to defend nature you don’t need a degree’, explains Erick, who has now been with Ecoforensic for nearly two years. 

Bespectacled bear spotted in the reserve. Image: Ecoforensic CIC

Providing alternative forms of employment is critical to sustaining the fight against mining in the region. ‘It is not that people are interested in mining because they like it, it’s because young people think that it’s the only option to get a job’.

Informing others that ‘there are ways to generate money other than mining or big industries which destroy nature’ has become central to Erick’s work as a paraecologist. ‘I have conversations with other young people and spread the word whenever possible’. ‘Because I am young they say “he is super young, why can’t we too be like him?”’. Erick knows that ‘it is fundamental’ to the struggle against mining to keep sharing his knowledge and training paraecologists.  

An ongoing struggle 

Although mining activities are currently suspended, history dictates that the mining companies will come back – and the ecological data will be critical when they do. 

‘At any point the companies can submit a new EIA which could potentially overturn the court’s ruling which is why it is important to gather the ecological evidence in advance’, explains Peck. 

But communities of Intag, newly invigorated by paraecology, are in the struggle for the long run. In Erick’s words, ‘We can’t just win here [Los Cedros/Llurimagua], we need to win in lots of areas and support the rest of the people who are now living what we lived.’ 

For more information see: 

Under Rich Earth

Defending the Intag Valley: 30 Years of Community Resistance

Investor State Dispute (the tribunal)

Maozya Murray is a journalist, researcher and activist, currently based in Brighton. Her work focusses on visibilising struggles for social and environmental justice in Latin America.

LAB’s 2023 book ‘The Heart of Our Earth: Community resistance to mining in Latin America’, by Tom Gatehouse, charts the activities of multinational mining companies in Latin America, the effects on local communities, and the ways in which they are resisting and fighting back.

LAB’s Environmental Defenders Series documents some of the work of environmental defenders in different Latin American countries, highlighting both the dangers they face and their achievements in defending their habitats and communities.

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