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Twenty-four Years an Environmental Activist

Carlos Zorrilla

Every so often, I get asked various versions of the following question: How does it feel to be an environmental activist? They are referring to my environmental activism in which I’ve participated for the past 24 years, protecting Intag’s forests, rivers, and its biodiversity. The answer varies according to the state of mind I happen to find myself at the moment. It is also surprisingly complex, due to to the many spheres of life affected by my activism.

A bit of background is in order. For the past 40 years, I’ve made the cloud forests of this part of Ecuador my home. During 24 of those years, I’ve been completely immersed in a campaign to stop the development of a large-scale copper mine which, according to experts in the field, would devastate our area’s forests, rivers and biodiversity, and cause major social havoc. The government sees it as indispensable to fuel economic growth.

This is not some far-off environmental conflict in which my involvement might consists of writing letters of support every once in a while, or sending $100 checks once or twice a year, but a conflict happening less than 20 kilometers away, and deeply affecting friends and neighbors; and with the potential of destroying one of the world’s true biological jewels, and the larger social and biological community which I feel to be an integral part of.

The Multiple Costs of Activism

The part of my life most impacted is life itself. That is, the time I have to set aside to fight the transnational mining companies and the government’s intent on imposing the mine at all costs. I am talking about thousands of hours devoted to raising money, denouncing to local, national and international entities, maintaining web and social media sites, preparing and giving hundreds of talks, hiring and dealing with lawyers, meetings with local communities and organizations. The time wasted on meeting with officials that I know all too well will almost certainly be futile.

The list of personal impacts is very long, specially for activists such as myself who feel to be inextricable part of a land and people threatened by this project. This is time which I could have devoted to other important pursuits; including the most important of all, parenting, but also writing, photographing, farming, visiting with friends and family, and building an economically secure future. You’d be shocked to discoverer how little income activists make from their activism. Many don’t make any money at all. In other words, we do not do what we do for the money. For many, their lives are so intricately connected to the land that activism is a survival response. Not responding is the equivalent of accepting a premature death sentence.

Inner

The inner impacts are very harsh and hard to describe, but include a great sense of loss. Loss of opportunity to follow one’s dreams, to develop one’s latent talent. A very difficult aspect for me is the terrible agnst that I feel when I look over this stunningly beautiful land and picture open pit mines. It can be absolutely heart-wrenching.

For many activists confronting powerful corporations it is common, after years of fighting, to feel despair. Especially when government institutions bend the laws to support the corporations. I’ts hard for me to, at times, not fall into despair, in spite of the fact that our activism has helped thwart two previous attempt by transnational mining companies to develop the mining project.

One of the hardest thing to deal with has been experiencing the petty professional envy from colleagues aroused by successful initiatives in which I’ve been intimately involved with. So has watching up close the raw greed that the promise of personal economic wealth evokes, and which have turned friends into mining proponents. I’m referring to the greed that firmly positions personal well-being above national interests and all other types of collective and pesonal wealth, including community well-being, as well as cultural, social and environmental wealth.

I’ve also not yet been able to come to terms to the gross lack of ethics shown by government officials who blatantly cover up illegalities of mining projects such as ours; thereby giving green light to, not only contamination of rivers and streams and illegal logging, but also human rights abuses. Closely tied to this feeling, which at times borders on rage, is seeing how corporations can so outrageously lie to authorities, the public and investors about what is really going on and get away with it. For the most recent example, CODELCO and the German car manufacturer, BMW, signed a “responsible copper” agreement, in theory, to supply BMW with sustainably mined copper: total oxymoron if companies open mines in places like Intag. In other words, it’s greenwashing, pur and simple;especially given the way CODELCO has operated so far in Intag’s Cloud Forests.

The Frustration Factor

The Modus Operandi of most mining companies and the injustices implied can add get on one’s nerves, to say the least. To mention one example, companies know they must obtain what is know as the social licence to operate; equivalent to the overall approval from local actors. Yet most don’t earn it, they manufacture it. They do so by buying “the right people” at all levels, starting with influential people at the communities, but also by financing political campaigns, promising high-paying jobs, providing public services which is the responsibility governments to provide and, when all fails, hard-core intimidation. Often, in spite of all the soft and hard tactics, there is still widespread opposition. However, due to their great economic power, they are able to convince the public, and especially the investors and regulators, that everyone but a “few radicals” is onboard with the project. Thus, it can be very frustrating knowing how the companies outright lie, yet being constrained economically to counter their false publicity campaigns.

This type of work is also very dangerous. In 2017, for example, 197 land and environmental activists were killed as a consequence of their activism. Most of the murders took place in Latin America. This is only the number officially reported. I have little doubt that the number is much, much higher. I too have found myself on the cross-hairs of both transnational mining companies as well as the Ecuadorian government. Death threats are part of baggage that comes with our line of work. It’s a established strategy to try to intimidate the resistance into silence. On one occasions my family and I had to sleep out in the nearby forest overnight due to a credible death threat; one of many I’ve received. On a much more memorable occassion I had to be on the run from Ecuadorian “justice” for over a month as a consequence of a made up judicial set up, which included a dawn raid by 19 heavily armed police on my home. The Canadian mining company that paid for the set up meant to land me in jail and then pay someone there to kill me, according to a company insider. I was saved from that outcome by a call from one of my neighbors about a minute before the police stormed my home. That raid, and the time spent on the run, took place twelve years ago, yet it left a long-lasting scars still affecting me today, including an inability to sleep the whole night through.

Seven years later, Rafael Correa, then president of Ecuador, flashed my image in a national televised address to the nation and accused me of wanting to destabilise his government. He then asked millions of Ecuadorians watching to “react”. The still hard-to-believe slanderous accusations stemmed from a manual I wrote with other colleagues, informing communities of typical strategies used by mining companies and ways to counter them peacefully. The accusations were enough of a concern that Amnesty International launched a campaign to safeguard my life.

Endless Activism?

Our activism in Intag is different to many others in the sense that many activism is undertaken for a specific time and goal: to pass a certain law, for example. Once that goal is achieved, you celebrate and can allow yourself the luxury of feeling a sense of final accomplishment; of closure. Our activism, on the other hand, has been active and intense for 24 years, and there’s no end in site. This, in spite of having driven out two transnational mining companies from our land.

We can win our battles over and over again, but the government and corporations just have to win one big one; and they have the resources to wear down most activists. And they know this.

Even with our victories, the copper under these biodiverse hills doesn´t disappear, and neither does the company’s nor the government’s greed. Thus, we are currently facing the third attempt to develop the mine in the midst of Intag’s primary forests and pristine rivers and streams, and with the same predicted outcome of displacing hundreds of families from several communities. Except this time we are facing Chilean-owned Codelco, the world’s largest copper producer and Ecuadorian State-owned Enami. Unlike previous attempts, this time the project is fully backed by the whole machinations of the Ecuadorian State; a scenario in which institutions meant to safeguard human rights and the rights of nature, are complicit in covering up violations.

In spite of the power and greed of our adversaries and personal hardships of all of us involved in this struggle have no intention of giving up. This is our land; our future. So far, the people of Intag have kept what would have been the first large-scale metal mine in Ecuador from opening for the last 24 years. Ours is but one of several struggles for life and for human rights raging on in this multi-cultural and biodiverse country.

Outer

A good part of the outcomes in places like Intag depends on what goes on outside our territories; from the wasteful consumption of materials- especially by the citizens of rich nations- to international trade agreements, which pressure countries to open themselves up for pillaging. Thus for us to continue, it is essential to keep counting on the international support we’ve received from organizations and individuals. That support not only has made it possible to successfully confront the mining companies successfully, but also has helped DECOIN, the organization I work for, conserve approximately 13,000 hectares of primary and secondary forest harboring hundreds of threatened and endangered species. The support has also made it possible for us to create a model of conservation and economic development to counter the devastating models now taking apart Earth’s life-support systems. If there is one outstanding silver lining to this very dark cloud we’ve faced for nearly a generation, it is that our success has inspired many other communities in Ecuador and other parts of the world to stand up for their rights, and to find ways to conserve their land. And that, on most days, is more than enough, to counter the effects of the dark cloud.

Has it been worth it?

The other often asked question. And there is no simple answer. What I can say is that not to have stood up and fought in defense of this land, these forests and these communities- my community- would have meant betraying who I am, and being unforgivably irresponsible for the health and well-being of the land and people that sustain me; and which I hope will sustain many others to come.

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