The Intag Valley: The Defender Of Life

The Intag Valley, vastly biodiverse and a cultural mecca, has become a hotspot for mining expeditions. Resistance and protest has been growing amongst locals for decades, but the fight for their land’s protection is nowhere near finished.

“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.” - Carlos Zorilla  

The Intag Valley in Ecuador is one of the most densely biodiverse environments on the planet and for over 30 years, communities have banded together to protect, conserve and restore these areas from external threats. Locals describe these efforts as the longest mining resistance in Latin America, and now their efforts have to be accelerated. Codelco, Chile’s largest copper mining company, has partnered with Empresa Nacional Minera, Ecuador's home mining company, to fulfill mining explorations across the Intag Valley. They plan on opening a mine in the valley that would send the forest into a severe state of devastation. 

But, there may be a saving grace for this hotspot—two threatened species of frogs were located at the upcoming mining site. The discovery of these frogs has pushed advocates to legally challenge the mining project and has gained international traction with universities willing to learn about the species.

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The Intag Valley And Surrounding Areas

Within the past few decades, many locals have found their water supply dwindling due to the heavy deforestation of cloud forests. Cloud forests are dense, vegetative, and mountainous regions that capture moisture from the passing clouds, contributing to the total ground precipitation and aiding the water supply for the wildlife and locals. The heavy water traveling downstream also prevents erosion of the soil, holding foliage in place. The communities in and surrounding the Intag Valley rely on small-scale farming, and since the loss of vegetation, unreliable flows of water have become a regular occurrence. Depending on the season and changing weather conditions, their water supply often becomes polluted. 

Only 15% of Ecuador’s original cloud forests and only 4% of all forests in northwestern Ecuador remain today. These statistics have ignited protests against the growing discussions of mine developments.

Deep History

"Tropical cloud forests are the terrestrial version of coral reefs. They harbor Earth’s greatest concentration of species diversity on land over an already small and continually decreasing area," states Walter Jetz, Professor of Ecology and Evolutionary Biology and Director of the Yale Center for Biodiversity and Global Change.

The dense ecosystem within the Intag Valley functions on a healthy balance—each living organism lives in a harmonious cycle with each other. From an abundant white flower species that provides nectar to a rare species of bat, to large birds using the robust ground debris to cushion their eggs—every inch of the forest is literally crawling with life, breathing beauty into the world. 

The dense ecosystem within the Intag Valley functions on a healthy balance—each living organism lives in a harmonious cycle with each other.

In the 1980s, a Belgian government-funded expedition discovered remnants of copper reserves within the soil in the valley. This was when the idea of building a mining site within the valley was raised. Purchasing the land would potentially deter the development of mine sites, while occupied land by locals is more difficult to invade. The only defect is that the government “owns” the minerals underground, even when the land is privately owned. 

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Impactful Protection

Carlos Zorilla has been a leader in the fight for the valley's protection for decades now upon his move to Ecuador from Cuba about 40 years ago. With his house and property nestled within the forest, Zorilla has a front-row seat to the incredible wonders that the land offers. 

“On many nights, I see something I haven’t seen before. 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,” stated Zorilla. 

Back in the 1990s, with the beginning of deforestation and the chats of possible mining development, a spark of conservation started. Zorilla and the local community members started an environmental group called Defensa y Conservación Ecológica de Intag (DECOIN) in 1995. DECOIN has helped communities protect almost 30,000 acres of forest within the buffer zone of the Cotacachi Cayapas National Park, set within 38 small-scale forest reserves. Many of these reserves hold and protect watersheds that provide for thousands of locals. 

The Intag culture holds high in Ecuador by connecting the people to nature and allowing the environment to bring truth to humanity.

International environmental organizations helped DECOIN finance and purchase said reserves, giving 37 of the reserves to communities and parish governments in the area. The Intag culture holds high in Ecuador by connecting the people to nature and allowing the environment to bring truth to humanity. The local communities are self-defined administrative units, meaning that each community nominates a leader and integrates their ideas to create agreements that best help the forests. Most agreements include prohibiting the activities of burning, cattle ranching, mining, hunting, cultivating crops, and harvesting transactional goods. They view these actions as disrespectful to the land and the inhabitants within. 

Under DECOIN, communities have restored 173 acres of land by planting more than 75,000 trees. They have also kept land restoration in check by monitoring assisted regeneration among the birds and mammals, and keeping cattle and invasive grasses out of the pastures. Assisted regeneration is the spread of seeds into the pastures, giving time for trees and other plants to grow. Since restoration efforts began in the early 2000s, there has been a 3% forest coverage increase.

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Growing Concerns And Unnecessary Interference

Decades of resistance have been underway. The threat of mining for copper has been a significant cause of conflict for the communities. Copper is very abundant deep within the Intag Valley and many countries have made expeditions in an attempt to excavate it. 

In 1996, well after they concluded the Belgian expedition, Japanese mining company Bishimetals found the same copper deposits and decided to take further action. They set up mining campgrounds within the valley, completing environmental studies and tests. A year later, after publishing an impact study, concluding that building of a mining site would be catastrophic to their areas and cause the relocation of hundreds of families, the locals stepped in. Strong reactions were upheld and the local protestors burned the Bishimetal campgrounds, no one was injured but the company pulled out of the potential project. 

All was quiet for almost a decade until Canadian mining company, Copper Mesa Corporation, entered the lands in 2004. Their approach to subdue the local protesting efforts was more forceful than previously seen. Zorilla recounts that dozens of military police officers would use violent force to push back community members—meeting them with machine guns, pepper spray, and other equipment. Many officers raided Zorilla’s house, as he watched hidden within the trees of the forest. Ultimately, the CMC had to abandon the project due to the strong resistance and a threatened lawsuit from the locals. 

Now, the threat of Codelco invading the preserved areas is underway. The mining concession is planned to take place in Llurimagua, which is home to 45 headwaters of rivers and streams, and both primary and secondary forests. It’s also located within the buffer zone of the Cotacachi Cayapas National Park, home to dozens of endangered species, which would cause mass destruction and ecological turmoil for both areas. 

Codelco has now resorted to violent tactics in order to claim hold of the land. In 2014, hired officers went into reserved lands and arrested protestors and leaders of the resistance. Now, in 2022, Codelco has tightened and intensified their efforts in the Junin Community Reserve, even though it is owned by Junin residents. They have deforested the general area and their continuous digging has polluted the waters. 

If Codelco’s project commences in that exact area, the mining site will contaminate the surrounding water resources, soil, air quality, and destroy the homes of its inhabitants. Deforestation will either send the wildlife to another area, increasing the possibility of becoming an invasive species, or solidify the chance of extinction. Waste from the mining sites will be stored in large pools, allowing hazardous sludge to seep into the already wet and malleable region. 

“All these contaminations [are] well documented, and all the people here are going to suffer from that. This is really the worst cocktail you can get to implement this type of activity,” stated Professor and Researcher William Sacher from Simón Bolívar Andean University in Quito. Sacher led a study group of master students through various locations in the valley.

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The Future Of The Valley

The Intag Valley is home to thousands of diverse species, a diverse community, and a strong culture. There are dozens of conservation projects, old and new, that frame the knowledge of that area. The Association of Small Coffee Growers Rio Intag has provided a source of income to many farmers with the production of cacao and coffee, as well as a reason to plant more shade heavy trees for higher efficiency. The Women and the Environment group consists of 50 women that make products out of cabuya, a fiber produced from the agave plant. Group member Norma Bolaños states that they’re proud to contribute to their households and the collectivity has strengthened the community. 

As previously mentioned, an endangered species of frogs have been found in the Junin Community Reserve. This gives the communities a strong legal argument for objection. With validation from the updated Ecuadorian Constitution, the first constitution in the world to recognize nature as receiving the rights to exist, thrive, and evolve, the Intag community can build a strong case to save the land. The constitution will cover the right for communities to defend lands and wildlife as they see fit. 

The Intag Valley is home to thousands of diverse species, a diverse community, and a strong culture.

Young conservationist leader Cenaida Guachagmira was born into the resistance and has shaped her life around fighting for her land’s protection. According to Guachagmira, the younger generation has gained enormous interest and knowledge in environmental protection. Local communities and organizations still stay optimistic that their efforts will push out the unwanted destruction. These establishments need funding in order to continue on with land and forest purchases, campaigns, and restoration projects. From local business efforts, organization funding, governmental assistance, and educating outsiders on the land, gives the communities the extra foundation they need to succeed. 

“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,” stated Guachagmira.

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Key Takeaways
  • Communities have the power to make a significant difference. The size of the resistance clearly doesn't matter, it’s the amount of passion they have that is seen.
  • The Codelco mining company has not broken ground for the mining site, but they are still active within their smaller project in the Junin Community Reserve.
  • Leaders such as Zorilla and Guachagmira still fight for the freedom of the valley and will keep pushing until their home can take a winning breath.