On Saturday morning a young Xinka leader, Julio Gonzalez was attacked and shot at his home near Mataquescuintla for his ongoing organizing and resistance to the Canadian owned mine in El Escobal. He is currently in hospital. Canadian mining companies are running rampant around the globe and there is no system to hold them accountable for human rights abuses and evnironmental degradation.
I have written in the past about the history of mining resistance in the Rio Intag region of Ecuador. Unfortunatly the Intag region is not the only beautiful and incredibly bio-diverse region under threat of being contaminated by resource extraction. Yasuni National Park is a pocket of pristine Amazon jungle in Eastern Ecuador. I visited a research station located in the park in 2011. The area is a natural paradise. The diversity of plants, insects and wild life is mind-blowing. The indigenous groups that live in the area encompassed by the park, still live much as they have for centuries. Granted, they now use guns to hunt and they do have some contact with government agencies, but they still live off the bounty that the forest provides.
There are no roads to navigate the park, so arriving there means taking a long boat ride along the Napo river. In a small motorboat we sped along the murky river, with the jungle draping over the shore in a dense curtain of vegetation. Along the banks of the river you can see turtles basking in the sun, some with butterflies resting on them. Yasuni is a magical place, which is why it seemed obvious to try and protect it from the threat of large scale oil drilling. Underneath the natural beauty of Yasuni, there lies Ecuadors largest remaining reserve of oil. We are talking about 46 million barrels, or 20% of the country’s proven oil reserve. This is where the idea behind the Yasuni ITT initiative emerged. In 2007 then president Rafael Correa made an offer to the world: if the international community gave Ecuador $3.6 Billion dollars (half of the revenue that Ecuador would get from exploiting the oil reserves) then Ecuador would protect the park. All the money from the initiative was to be invested in a transition to a sustainable economy and social equality. I know what you are thinking: the Ecuadorian president was indeed holding the Amazon hostage. After receiving almost $200 million dollars by 2012 the president announced they would go ahead with the Yasuni initiative. However, it didn’t end up working out. The following year they reversed their position and said that the economic contributions had been insufficient. They moved ahead with their plan to develop the oil extraction efforts. Drilling began in the Yasuni in 2016, and the second stage of the controversial project began was underway as of 2017, There are many groups and indigenous peoples that are still fighting to preserve this important area. The Amazon is referred to as the lungs of the world, due to the role the massive forest plays as a carbon sink and a cooling effect on the planet. Oil development will mean more roads, more deforestation and contamination of the water and soil. It will be a loss most felt by the indigenous people who depend on the ecosystem for survival, but the loss will impact the larger world through the global effects of climate change. Yasuni is not the only pristine natural park in Ecuador being opened up for resource extraction, so is Las Cajas.
Las Cajas National Park is beautiful: it’s an area high in the Ecuadorian Andes, dotted with lakes and mountain peaks. The park, aside from being a popular hiking and cycling destination, provides clean drinking water to the city of Cuenca. The park is high above Cuenca, the third largest city in Ecuador, and has a paramo ecosystem. This means it is above the tree line, so the main vegetation is a type of grassy shrub that covers the mountains. The government is considering developing mining in the park. This would jeopardize the water source for millions of people, who would then become reliant on drinking bottled water, whereas right now they have excellent tap water. We all know that water is essential for life, yet in a capitalistic system that values money above all else it is viewed as good idea to begin mining next to a cities water supply. There is another place in the south of Ecuador that is dealing with its own struggle against its own government. That is the Shuar tribe in the South-East corner of the country.
The conflict between the Shuar tribe and the government began when 41,000 Hectares of their land was ceded to a Canadian mining company called Corriente Resources. The company made its mining camp in the settlement of Nankintz. This land had been communal Shuar territory, however the government did not recognize their title because they had no structures built on the land. Such policies do not recognize the nomadic nature of the Shuar tribes way of life. Since the land was considered vacant, the Shuar tribe was ignored. The Shuar succeeded in expelling Corriente Resources from their territory in 2006, with support from the group Accion Ecologica. In order to protect the land from future mining development, the Shuar established a permanent settlement in Nankintz. Unfortunatly the concession was sold again to a Chinese mining company called EXSA. Since then the Shuar communities have faced criminalization, militarization and severe restrictions on their rights. In 2016 the conflict came to a head. The Shuar were evicted from the community in August and had their homes destroyed. On November 21st they retook their community from the company. The Chinese government complained to the Ecuadorian government about this. On December 14th the Ecuadorian police went and evicted the Shuar again. In the confrontation a police officer was killed, and seven member of the police, and two Shuar were injured. The government responded by calling a state of emergency and mobilizing the military. The Shuar are now being persecuted and are forced to flee deep into the jungle to avoid arrest and jail time. If the EXSA mining project goes ahead it would be the second largest copper mine in the world and generate $1.2 Billion dollars a year. As a consequence the Shuar tribe would lose a large portion of their ancestral territory, and their ability to hunt and forage to survive would be jeopardized. Again, large scale deforestation and environmental contamination would be the outcome, while a small group of people get rich.
There are a lot of environmentally damaging projects being pursued in Ecuador right now. They are also being pursued all over the world. There are so many environmentally sensitive areas being targeted for resource extraction that they could not be included in one article. Almost every single country has its own version of this struggle playing out. If it were just in Ecuador, you may be tempted to think that the situation in one small Latin American country are not of importance to you. But when that impact is being multiplied all around the world, it will affect every single one of us. What does it mean when all of these eco-systems are being simultaneously encroached upon? It means humanity is sacrificing the life sustaining natural systems we rely on, in exchange for industrial development. We need to smarten up. We need to think outside the box about how to support small enterprises around the world that are not based on environmentally destructive industries. We need to figure out how to make the leap to economies that are not entirely based on petroleum. We need to stop mining gold for the purpose of wealth creation and jewelry. Is making shareholders millions worth having chemicals like cyanide end up in your water? Copper should be recycled to a much greater degree, and we should definitely not open new copper mines in extremely bio-diverse areas. This is the struggle of our generation, and I hope that together we can begin to make the changes that we need to.
Many of the most bio-diverse places on Earth are being opened up to resource extraction, and that will have consequences for the future of life on this planet. Whether it is for oil and gas or for minerals, the thirst for the raw materials that fuel the global economy is having devastating effects on the environment. What got me thinking about this problem was years of interaction with a rural community in the Intag region of Ecuador. The name Intag refers to an interconnected series of mountain valleys in the province of Imbabura in northern Ecuador. The Intag region is on the western slopes of the Andes, and makes up a watershed. The rivers there all ultimately drain into the dense rainforest and then the Pacific Ocean. All throughout this valley, the water comes down from the mountains in crystal clear cascading streams and rivers. At the right elevation you can drink the crisp water right from the streams, before it has been touched by any human activity. The elevation is perfect for a type of tropical forest called a cloud forest, an eco-system that draws moisture from the clouds, and is perpetually lush and green. It is the last remaining coastal rainforest in Ecuador. The region straddles two of the worlds most important biological hotspots: the Tropical Andes and the Tumbes Choco-Magdalena hotspot. This extremely beautiful was where I lived for a few months in 2011 as part of a year abroad with my university. This cloud forest paradise was where I found myself on a sunny day back in February of this year, when I was visiting to meet with the farmers that supply my coffee business.
It is Sunday afternoon and I am in the town of Apuela, Intag. Two old men play guitar on a stage, singing songs about drinking moonshine and about their love for their hometown. They are singing about Intag, about what a pleasure it is to visit. People are dancing and sharing bottles of beer. Vendors on the street are selling everything from ice cream and fresh fruit to chicken and fried plantain. This was a party in the main square of the town, where people congregate every Sunday to socialize and make their purchases for the week. The town of Apuela is nestled between steep, lush green mountains. This was our last day in Intag, after visiting with coffee farmers and hiking in the cloud forest for a couple weeks. I have been importing coffee from a farmer owned cooperative here since 2014. It all started after visiting the community in 2011 as part of a year abroad with Trent University, studying international development. I wanted to help support the farmer led resistance against mining companies, through purchasing their coffee. The community has spent more than 20 years resisting mining companies that seek to create large open-pit copper and gold mines. The struggle continues: a Chilean corporation is the current mining company looking to access the mineral wealth. There are still people living around the proposed mining site who vow to struggle against this project until the end. At this point is necessary to give a brief summary of the history of mining resistance in the Intag.
It all began in the 1990’s when a Japanese mining company discovered large copper and gold deposits beneath the pristine cloud forest by the town of Junin in the Intag valley. Since then, there has been a struggle between mining companies and their supporters, and the people who are opposed to the mine. Anyone in the area will tell you the worst impact of the arrival of mining companies in the area has been the social division of those who either support or oppose the mine. There used to be harmony, with neighbours working collectively to get things done. There was a culture of getting the community together to maintain paths and build new bridges. These shared work projects are called mingas. There was very little crime, and therefore little police presence. Everything changed with the arrival of Bishi Metals, a Japanese mining company. The Japanese began exploration but quickly contaminated the river that the village of Junin uses for all their water needs. Cattle drinking the water got sick, and children bathing in the river got rashes. The local population reacted furiously when they realized the mining company had contaminated their water source. The community did two things in reaction: they burnt down the mining camp and they started several organizations aimed to provide alternatives to mining. They needed to combat the idea that mining was the only way to create jobs and prosperity. They formed DECOIN, an environmental group that educates people on the risks associated to mining, plants trees and shares organic seeds with the community. They also started an organic coffee co-operative called AACRI. The coffee co-op supports farmers by providing seedlings, fertilizer and advice about coffee cultivation. It also allows the farmers to pool resources and market their coffee to far away places like Japan, Germany and Canada. Organic coffee is only one of the many products that are created locally by the community.
A womens cooperative from the town of El Rosal started making organic soap and body products. The cooperative, called Naturaloe, make soap using organic aloe and papaya that are grown in their gardens. Their soap is sold in stores across the country and internationally. My friend and I visited El Rosal this past year, and were welcomed by Jermania who is one of the core three women who run Naturaloe. She showed us how to make soap, using machetes to harvest the huge aloe plants in her yard and then boiling down a mixture on the stove. She talked about the ups and downs of running a business as a woman in rural Ecuador. Jermania and her husband Ramiro have an organic farm where they grow coffee and vegetables, and they harvest honey as well. They have a large pond where they keep fish to be harvested and eaten throughout the year. They tell me that they are far away enough from the mine that they won’t be immediately impacted by the activity. However, Ramiro says that eventually the contamination will spread everywhere if they develop all the mine sites that are proposed. The womens cooperative wanted to prove they could run a business selling the products they made with the products from their farms. They got a loan and built a production facility next to their homes. The community feels like a happy one. They grow most of the food that they need, through their own hard work they live well. All these groups reflected the belief that mining would not be a wise choice for the future development of the area. They offered real alternatives. The Japanese mining company was kicked out, but a few years later a Canadian mining company called Ascendant Copper arrived on the scene.
After the Japanese company left things more or less returned to the way they were. People lived as they had traditionally, peacefully cultivating a diverse array of products from the rich soil. Among the crops in cultivation are: tropical fruit, coffee, cacao, corn, beans, potatoes, tree-tomatoes, sugar cane and bananas. In 2008 the Canadian mining company, Ascendant Copper arrived in the Intag. The community blocked entrance to the mining concession, and refused to let prospectors in. They had by this point educated themselves on the risks associated with open pit industrial mining techniques. They even visited open pit mines in Peru and saw the environmental contamination first hand. They saw the examples of desertification caused by deforestation on mine sites. They did not want to see this happen to their farms. So the lines were drawn and a confrontation loomed.
The Canadian mining company hired a paramilitary group to use force to push their way past the community barricade. Armed with pistols and pepper spray the paramilitaries attacked the barricade, spraying women in the face with pepper spray and firing shots at the crowd. The paramilitaries were ultimately unsuccessful. The community rallied and gathered in the hundreds to rid the area of the paramilitaries. The community armed themselves with machetes and rifles and hiked into the cloud forest where the paramilitaries were camped out eating breakfast. They surrounded them, forced them to hand over their weapons and then held them in a local church until the authorities arrived. The community was successful in defeating the Canadian mining company. Ascendant Copper changed their name to Copper Mesa because of the negative publicity, and they eventually went out of business. This particular stage in the struggle is well documented. Still, the struggle was not over. In 2012 it became clear that another mining company had been granted permission to mine in the area. The mining company, this time around, is a Chilean company called CODELCO.
This massive Chilean corporation partnered with the Ecuadorian government with the aim to extract the large deposits of copper and gold from the Intag. The companies experience is in mining in the Chilean desert, very different from the tropical cloud forest. In May 2014 the company entered the community with an escort of more than three hundred police officers. People from nearby communities who wanted to support the resistance were blocked access on the only road into the village. A heavy police presence was established to intimidate the locals, with dozens of officers stationed in the tiny town of Junin.
The town of Junin is tiny – there are only about fifteen houses in a circle around a communal square. There is a historic church, a volleyball court and a community house. The church was briefly used to detain the paramilitaries that the Canadian company hired. Junin is deeply divided on the issue of mining. A banner on the house of Javier Ramirez proclaims: “No a la Mineria.” Say no to mining. Javier Ramirez was the president of the town, before he was arrested and imprisoned for opposing mining. I have visited the town twice in the last few years. I stayed with a kind old couple, Don Segundo and Donna Carmelita. Last time I was there I asked them how they have been. They answer that things have not been good. They eplain, they are ecologists who are surrounded by miners. Their reality is a difficult state of elevated tension and misery. They seem hopeless and defeated. They feel constantly intimidated, knowing that mining is being forced on them. The company is doing exploratory work right now: building roads, clearing forest, drilling holes for samples and building mining camps. They have not actually started exploiting the mine yet: but it looks increasingly likely that they will. Not only that, but it now looks like an even larger section of land is in danger of being handed over to mining companies.
It’s a swelteringly hot day, and I’m sitting in the office of DECOIN in the town of Apuela. DECOIN stands for Defensa y Conservacion Ecologica de Intag. They are showing me a large map of Intag. The area that makes up Intag is around 115,000 Hectares of land, roughly equivalent of two Prince Edward Island’s. Out of that, 95,000 Hectares is in risk of being sold off to mining companies. This is not vacant land, there are approximately 17,000 people living on the land, farming to grow their own food. Family farms could be either expropriated or bought at a low price, and then the families who live there now will be evicted. Some people have title to their land, but others do not. If they do have title to their land they can try to negotiate a decent price to have their land bought off them by the company. If they do not have title, then they risk being evicted from the only home they have with no reimbursement. The government of Ecuador does not buy peoples property, so they could simply end up with nothing. That is to say: a hundred thousand Hectares of rich soil, clean water and tropical forest could be destroyed to extract gold, copper and molybdenum (which is used to make steel alloys.) If mining happens to the scale that is being proposed in the Intag, farming will be devastated and the ecological value of the region will be compromised. This would be a net loss for not just the people living there, but for the whole world. The resources would be extracted, some locals would get low paying jobs for the duration of the mines life cycle and most of the wealth would flow to elites in Chile and Quito (the capital of Ecuador.)
Even in the exploration stage the mining company has caused significant pollution. When we walked through the community ecological reserve on our trip there in February 2017, we saw evidence of this pollution. One waterfall had been turned to a rusty orange/brown colour due to sulfer contamination. This is because the gold and copper are not alone in the ground, there are a myriad of other minerals that get released when you extract them. Apparently a technician from the government came and said that the change of color in the water is “natural” and not related to mining. Then again, the government has a vested interest in the mine and will mostly likely not enforce the environmental regulations they themselves have put it place. The company has also violated many of the guidelines set out in its environmental impact assessment. For example the company has made roads that are way wider than that is permitted. Road construction in the tropical forest has a huge effect on the forest as a whole. They have also cut down trees that are hundreds of years old, which is against their own rules. The environmental impact assessment was done in 2015, and has already been violated on numerous fronts. They have also built entire mining camps that do not exist in their assessment. All of this has happened before they have even extracted a single ounce of copper from the land. So the question is not whether there will be substantial environmental destruction caused by mining in the region, it is a question of when.
Despite all this, the people who resist the mine and call themselves the ecologistas have hope still. They believe that with the change in government happening that there could be a change in approach to Intag. The corruption is rampant they say, but a change in government could help. This was before the 2017 general election in Ecuador that saw Lenin Moreno elected president. Moreno is the successor of Rafael Correa, who was considered one of the left wing Latin American presidents. However Correa aggressively pursued mining to fund his social programs. Whether or not Lenin Moreno will have a change in approach to mining in the Intag remains to be seen. The members of DECOIN still believe that by spreading the word within Ecuador and internationally, by organizing events, that they can stop the mine. However, a concern in the community is the militarization of mining zones that has already started happening. Hundreds of heavily armed police often accompany the mining company when they enter the community. There is criminalization of environmental activism, with community leaders often facing jail time. The government attempts to weaken resistance to mining by blocking financial donations to environmental groups. They block transfers of money from NGO’s from getting through to groups like DECOIN. The money is badly needed in order to do analysis on water to check for contamination. It is important to have vigilance so that when the company does break the law they can be held accountable. With no money to get soil and water analysis done, this is next to impossible to do.
Nobody knows what the future has in store for the Intag. One farmer I was speaking to, Don Jorge, commented that he wished he could live 50 years longer so he could see what would happen to his farm. There are two paths for the development of the area. One is that the mine goes ahead, and potentially many mine sites would be developed, and much of the valley would be deforested and contaminated. The other option is that the mine does not go ahead and people continue to grow agricultural products, raise cattle and grow their entrepreneurial enterprises. They already have many impressive small enterprises such as the soap and body products, the coffee cooperative. An even newer co-operative is marketing organic plantain flour, which is being sold as far away as Europe. There is also a huge eco-tourism potential, with horseback trekking, mountain biking, hiking, rafting and hot springs among some of the draws for tourists. In a world where climate change is an existential threat to the future of our species, does it make sense to pursue projects that will cause deforestation of environmentally sensitive areas? In a time where water scarcity already affects millions of people, does it make sense to contaminate fresh drinking water? Intag is not the only place that is facing this dilemma. Just within Ecuador many incredibly beautiful and important wilderness areas are being faced with large extractive projects. In the next article I will explore other examples such as Yasuni National Park in the Amazon, Las Cajas in the Southern Highlands and the Shuar tribe’s struggle against mining.
We arrived in the magical Intag valley, walking down from the mountains through various levels of cloud forest and down into the sub-tropical jungle. We rode on horseback until the path became too steep and muddy. We continued on foot, slipping and sliding in the mud. Admiring the incredible biodiversity of plants and flowers, it felt great to be in the cloud forest again. We were able to drink straight from the crystal clear river that was descending from the mountain, not yet having been contaminated by the activities of humans. We crossed many rivers, and were all sweating profusely in the hot sun as we walked for several hours.
We arrived in Cuellaje, which is a small town in the Intag, which was where we said our goodbyes to our guide who had ensured we made it down the mountain in one piece. We met up with Ivan Saurez who runs the trekking company that organized the trip. He took us to his property to stay, which is a paradise set on the river with a bamboo cabin built to shelter visitors. With hammocks strung up and the sound of birds singing and the river rushing by, this is the kindof place you get the feeling you could stay while. He was excited to roast coffee with us, he had a little roaster he had recently bought in Colombia. He also grows his own organic coffee and we were able to spend some time harvesting fresh coffee. We roasted a few batches of coffee, and enjoyed the rich blend out of a stove top espresso maker.
We went to Apuela the next morning, which is the largest town in the Intag. We stopped along the way to admire some beautiful views of Cotocachi Volcanoe and the Intag valley. We went to visit AACRI which is the coffee cooperative that we source all of our coffee from. They walked us through their process: receive the coffee from the farmers, do grading and quality control, dehusking and then drying. After getting a tour of their facility we did a coffee cupping, which is a fancy way of saying that we drank more coffee.
From Apuela we hopped back in Ivans truck and he drove us the short distance along the river to the Arias family farm. This is where I have stayed everytime I have visited the Intag. It is a very beautiful farm, along the river with a variety of banana, papaya, guava, coffee and corn plants (among many others.) It was a trip down memory lane for me, we stayed in the same cabin by the river that I had lived in for three months in 2011. We relaxed by the river for awhile – watching the river flow quickly while sitting on the smooth rocks. We had a nice family dinner with them, and then played some card games. We passed a nice evening by the river playing guitar, with the only event being a run in with the dreaded Botson Fly: a huge flying insect that is attracted to light bulbs and terrorized the women for awhile before meeting its end under Simons boot. Yikes!
We woke to another beautiful day in the Intag, with blue skies and sun shining. We walked to the pools and took a dip in the hot springs, enjoying the wonderful view of the mountains from the water. We met a German girl there named Lucy who was volunteering in a nearby town called El Rosal that has a womens cooperative that makes organic soap, shampoo and skin cream. We arranged to visit the community through her, and parted ways. We went to town again that afternoon and I met with the coffee cooperative to have a business meeting. Direct trade relies on having ongoing dialogue between the farmers and us: the people who sell their coffee in the north. These types of meetings are crucial to what we do, and what makes the difference between us and large coffee buyers that never bother to visit their suppliers.
The next morning we said goodbye to the Arias family who had hosted us for the last few days. We caught the bus to another town in the Intag: Garica Moreno. From there we caught a “ranchero” which is an open concept bus common to South America. This was the school bus really, but we were tagging along to save a few dollars. It was interesting watching all the kids get out from school. The freedom that they had between school and home making them hyper active. Kids of various ages spraying each other with cans of spray foam and bursting water balloons on each others backs. We rode on top of the bus on a winding mountain road, the bus in front of us kicking up dust making it necessary to shield our eyes as we sped along. Finally we arrived at our final destination of Junin. We stayed at the eco-cabanas there, a very nice bamboo building set in the primary forest near the town of Junin. We met Rosario there – who was our host for the time we had there. There were lots of hammocks everywhere – we made a french press of Rio Intag coffee and played Scopa, and Italian card game.
We walked to the community ecological reserve the next day, a section of primary forest that is abundant in wildlife and fauna. We marvelled at the magnificience of nature – our guide pointing our various plants that are poisenous, and then usually another plant that is the antedote that happens to grow next to the other one. We walked to the waterfall with Ernesto Ramirez, our guide. He spoke to us about the struggle against mining in this area. Although the soil is extremely rich, there is another even more valuable resource under the dirt: copper. Ernestos brother Javier spent 10 months and 10 days in prison for daring to lead the resistance against the mining company. As we walked through the forest Ernesto told us about why he was opposed to mining. He stopped by a large tree and told us that in the time of the Japanese mining company his father had been called upon by his uncle to help him because the mining company workers were trying to trespass on his land. Ernestos father had come to the aid of the uncle and a confrontation ensued. In the midst of it all one of the workers drew a gun and fired a bullet through Ernestos fathers heart. He died there, and the Ramirez family has been staunchly opposed to mining since then, although they were opposed before that to. They believe the mining would contaminate their land – the very land that has given them everything they have in life. Losing your father to the struggle makes selling out to the company an unlikley option, even two decades later.
We arrived at the waterfall, an impressively high cascade of water coming out of the cloud forest. We crossed paths that the mining company had cleared along the way. There is evidence of the pollution that the company has caused already, despite the face they have not even started to exploit the mine yet, they are just doing sample drilling. Ernesto points to one waterfall that has an orange colour to it, more evidence of contamination.
I bathe under the clean waterfall and we have lunch at the top of the falls. Ernesto tells us that they will have to clear all this primary forest if they go ahead with the mine. He explains his concerns that to mine copper you must excavate large amounts of dirt – there would be a lot of debris that has to be sorted through to get the polished final product. This by-product is called “tailings” and in a place that is as steep and mountainous as the Intag: there is nowhere flat to keep these tailings ponds. So these tailings will inevitably leak into the watershed and impact the communities down stream who rely on the river for all their water needs.On our way back we had to cross a creek that is covered in a grey slime. The slime is another impact of mining exploration. Ernesto becomes visibly upset just thinking about the fact that the mine is not even operating yet and the water is already being polluted.
Despite the evident contamination, the coud forest reserve is extremely beautiful. The sounds of exotic birds and insects fills the air, and life seems to protrude from every corner here. Orquids and air plants dangle fromtrees, and humming birds dart around from flower to flower. We walk back down to the cabanas – with Ernesto talking to us about life here. He says mining is a lazy choice for people, that they would be better off farming in the long run but they think working for the company is easier. But once you work for them and stop growing your own food you have to live from the store, he says, and the store is more expensive in the remote villages.
We relax in the hammocks and have coffee when we get back. After we walk into the tiny town of Junin, which is comprised of maybe 15 houses. There is a historic church that was breifly used to keep captured paramilitaries inside of when the community was resisting against a Canadian mining company. However, Junin is now deeply divided. A banner on Javier Ramirez house proclaims “Say no to mining!” while workers from the mine mill around after getting home from work. We say hello to a family that I stayed with last time I was visiting. They tell me life has been hard with the mine going ahead. Imagine dedicating yourself to an ecological struggle to protect your home, and having the struggle fail and being submitted to enviornmental degradation. We reflect on the story of Javier Ramirez who was arrested for resisting mining. To go to prison for almost a year for the crime of protecting your community from environmental devastation, seems so clearly wrong. IF we lived in a world that made sense then the primary forest that covers these hills would be conserved. Instead the entrepreneurial project of people could be supported: they grown and sell a multitude of agricultural products such as: beans, coffee, plantain flower etc…. This represents a problem in the world. People are immensely creative and imaginative but if they are not supported, if the investment is made into mining instead – then we will be left with a bleak future. Are we choosing to sacrifice the environment that future generations will depend on, so that companies can profit right now?
We catch a ride back to town on the “Ranchero¨ the light rain misting us as we bump our way down the mountain roads. For the school kids, it is just another morning. We reflect on all we have seen in our short visit to Junin. The people were kind, and their stories left a deep impression on us. We also leave feeling a deeper connection to the hard working farmers who, through their labour of love, provide us with the coffee what we love so much. So from us to them: a big thank you!
We arrived in Quito to a beautiful sunny morning after 24 hours of travel time and having visited 4 airports. We spent a nice day in Quito visiting the Centro Historico, which is full of ancient architecture hinting at the colourful history of the city. We walked around the city, visiting several parks, stopping from time to time to get fresh juice and snacks from street vendors. In the afternoon we hopped on a bus to Otavalo.
Upon arriving we contacted Lionel who owns a farm where we would stay the next couple of days. His place was recommended by a friend and upon arriving we could see why. He has a cabin perched on a hill side in the village of Pucara, over looking the small city of Cotocachi with a view of several Volcanoes including Imbabura. He has llamas, chickens and bunnies and a farm where he grows organic Quinoa.
The next day we met up with Ivan, who coordinated our trekking adventure that we had lined up over the past few weeks. He took us to his home in Otavalo where we were fitted with rain boots and ponchos, as we were heading up into the mountains and rain was a certainty. We did yoga and went to bed early to prep for what was to be a challenging beginning to our hike the next day.
The following morning we woke up at 5:00 AM to leave for the trek. The idea was we were hoping to beat the rain by taking advantage of the clear mornings. Unfortunatly it was already raining when we got up. We had breakfast and packed Ivans Toyota Land Cruiser and drove from Pucara to where we would leave from to start our hike. As he drove us up into the mountains, Ivan explained what our Trek would be like. We would start at the beginning of the Paramo, which is an eco-system in the high Andean mountains where no trees grow and the only vegetation is shrubs and grass. We would hike up into the high mountains up to an elevation of 4100 M. above sea level, which is the highest point in the mountain pass we were crossing. From there we would descend to the village of Pinan, which is situated at a lofty 3200 M. above sea level. After that we would begin descending into the cloud forest, and then after that into the sub-tropical jungle.
We drove up into the mountains as far as we could, and reached a point where the road went no further. This was around the town of Urcuqui, where we met our guide for the trip: Luis Alfredo. We began walking up the mountain path, with three horses and us walking leading the way. Two horses were for our cargo, and the third was for in the event of an emergency. About 1 hour after we began the hike it started to pour rain. We were prepared with: rain boots, waterproof pants, rain jackets and ponchos. We continued hiking high into the paramo, a harsh but beautiful landscape where its often wet and always cold. We ate in the rain, scarfing down a quick pasta lunch before moving on. Still it rained, we would later find out that this was the worst weather that our guide had ever experienced when guiding a group. We began descending from the paramo – slipping and sliding through the wet grass and mud. We had to cross rivers, which we did on horseback one at a time. As the day wore on the rain became a challenge, we were cold and wet. Eventually we arrived in Pinan after 30 kms of trekking through the mountains. A few young women met us at the entrance to the town and welcomed us. Pinan is an entirely unique village, unlike any other that I have visited. All the houses are made of adobe and have thatched roofs made out of paramo grass. The village of Pinan is located on a hacienda, which was the Spanish plantation system that woud usually involve a wealthy Spanish land owner and indigenous workers that were more or less slaves to work the fields. In this situation the hacienda spanned 35,000 Hectares, a massive amount of land. The people who worked the land in the past were allowed to build their own homes on the land and thus the village of Pinan was born. However all these years later, the descendants of those workers still live there but they are not allowed to grow their own crops or have livestock or even renovate their houses. This is because the land all is owned by one rich Hacienda owner who lives in Quito and has no interest in sharing the land with the community. To make matters more complicated the area now also falls within the limits of the National Park Cotocachi-Cayambe.
So basically the people of the town live in limbo – unable to work except by seeking jobs elsewhere or having tourists come visit. All this due to the greed of one Hacienda owner and a government that does not care about them. I asked our guide if any one goes hungry because of this situation, he said unfortunatly they do. For his part the Hacienda owner is willing to sell the whole piece of land for $2 million dollars, an absurd amount of money for the locals that is completely unatainable. So the community is locked in the past, living in adobe huts with an uncertain future.
We arrived at the Refuge where we would stay in Pinan. It is a very nice and large building, with a fireplace and kitchen. After getting into dry clothes and eating dinner we went to bed early, exhausted from the long day.
In the morning we visited the school, where they have about 60 children. We ended up giving an impromtu English lesson to the class, and they all seemed happy and eager to learn. We then had a relaxing day of playing cards and drinking coffee. We went for a walk and watched the sun set into the mountains. We had dinner with a fire blazing, and Luis and I shared a few beers and talked into the night.
We were lucky enough that we were greeted with a crystal clear blue sky and the sun shining the next day. This section of the trip we got to ride horses up into the mountains. We had great views of the Cotocachi volcanoe as well as Pichincha and Cotopaxi. We got to a point where it was too steep of a descent and we had to get off the horses and walk. It was walking that we arrived into the cloud forest region, the wonderful valley of Intag. We were picked up by Ivan and stayed at his coffee farm in Cuellaje, Intag. It felt great to be back!