Half a century of Earth Days: there are lessons in the history of this day, in the struggle and the fight, in the losses and the victories.
There is so much wisdom in Isabel’s words here: We must take care of nature, for we are a part of it. Rampant exploitation of the natural world, without thought or regard for consequences, in reckless pursuit of profit, has placed humanity in a terrible situation: global climate change, raising seas, failing crops, and pressures on the urban-wildland interface that puts us all at increased risk from diseases transferred from wild animals, like the coronavirus.
Fifty years of Earth Days, and while there have been gains, the struggle is more stark than it ever has been: when this day was first conceived, many had the thought that education would save us: polluters didn’t know that what they were doing was bad, people clearing rainforest didn’t know the global consequences of their actions.
Now, we know that is not true — the worst environmental disasters of our age have been committed knowingly, willfully, in the name of profits over people. Capitalism is destroying the planet, one oil spill, one flooded village, one open pit mine, one logged out forest, at a time.
Isabel has spent her life struggling to preserve the rights of nature and people, against incredible odds. She has fought against the coming of mining in the Intag Valley for decades. She has seen the climate change, and the mining companies pollute the rivers where she used to get her drinking water. She has a lot to teach us about what the world could look like, if the ideals of Earth Day are brought to fruition.
Let’s help her make that world. Because we are ALL children of Pachamama, the great Mother Earth.
With funding from the National Geographic Society and the American Orchid Society, Elisa Levy helped organize the Richer Than Gold expedition. This expedition brought together a team of scientists from all over Ecuador and the United States to conduct the first cross-kingdom biodiversity survey ever performed deep in the heart of the Los Cedros Protected Forest.
Braving torrential downpours, steep mountainous terrain, and the risk of confrontation with miners illegally entering the Protected Forest, scientists traveled by foot up into the cloudy heights of the Cordillera de la Plata, a full day’s hike above the small Los Cedros Research Station. There, they established a base camp where researchers would stay for more than a month, documenting the incredible diversity of plants, fungi, and animals found there. Every day, they made discoveries of rare and endangered species, and sometimes even species entirely new to science.
The Los Cedros Protected Forest is home to more than two hundred endangered species, according to the Ecuadorian government. It is one of the only places where all three species of monkeys found in the western Andes co-exist, including the Brown-Headed Spider Monkey, one of the most endangered monkeys on the planet, and the most highly threatened primate in Ecuador.
The researchers of the Richer Than Gold expedition documented hundreds of species of plants and fungi, collected thousands of insects, photographed and catalogued frogs and lizards, tracked monkeys through swaying the treetops, and logged hundreds of bird species. These records of such stunning diversity, deposited at the Ecuadorian National Institute of Biodiversity and including records of many species entirely new to science, serve as a foundation for the legal case to protect Los Cedros from mining development.
Expedition scientists included Roo Vandegrift (our own producer, far right) and his Ecuadorian colleague Jorge Flores (far left, center), both of whom study mushrooms and fungi; Gustavo Pazmiño (not pictured), who studies frogs and lizards; Elisa Levy (back row, secord from left), who is a specialist in butterflies; Marco Monteros (back row, fourth from left) and Chiara Correa (center row, fourth from left, in front of Marco), both orchid specialists from Ecuador’s National Botanical Garden in Quito; and so many, many more. The expedition was carried out in collaboration with the Ecuadorian Institute of Biodiversity (INABIO) and its National Herbarium, with support from their Curator of Fungi, Rosa Batallas (back row, third from left, with Elisa), who is an integral part of this mission of scientific discovery.
In an excerpt from an interview at the Richer Than Gold expedition’s field camp, high in the misty cloud forests deep in the heart of the Los Cedros Protected Forest, Jorge Flores discusses the importance of the Los Cedros and the Richer Than Gold expedition. Jorge is a mycologist (someone who studies mushrooms and fungi) from Quito, Ecuador, and part of what became affectionately known as MycoTeam, a diverse group of mycologists and volunteers focused on cataloging the diversity of rare and undiscovered fungi at Los Cedros.
Mega-mining has come to Ecuador: international mining companies have bought the rights to Ecuador’s endangered rainforests. Three women fight for their lands and way of life against immeasurable odds. Their stories will change the course of history.
At 64 years of age, Isabel is an accomplished writer, proud lifelong farmer, and social justice activist. She was born in the Intag valley, where her ancestors have lived for generations, and where she continues to sow her crops. Over the years, Isabel and her husband have watched the rainy season become dry, and the Intag river become polluted. She has worked for over a decade as a community leader, advocating for the rights of rural women against a neoliberal government that seeks to disempower them.
She has witnessed 26 years of sometimes violent resistance to mining in the Intag Valley, and the continual destruction caused by such exploitation. Now, international mining companies threaten to destroy the forests that remain, buying the mineral rights from beneath the lands of her home and her community.
The hope I have is… if I fight from today I leave a legacy, which is care of the environment, water and land. What little we have, we have to take care [of it], and deliver it to other hands.
34 years old, Elisa is an Ecuadorian biologist and environmental activist who has worked extensively in wildlife conservation. Born to two activist parents, she was raised at the crossroads of the Awá territory and Colombian border, witnessing at a young age the indigenous movement by the Awá to gain their land rights. She, in turn, grew into her parents’ shoes to support the Awá community in their current fight against international mining companies.
Working with like-minded colleagues, Elisa helped create the watchdog nonprofit organization OMASNE, supporting and educating communities in northern Ecuador on their right to consultation and the impacts of large-scale mining on the environment and the watersheds these communities rely on.
Elisa — a specialist in the study of butterflies — helped to organize the National Geographic-funded Richer Than Gold expedition into the heart of the Los Cedros Protected Forest. Along with José DeCoux, the founder and director of Los Cedros, she is the backbone and force pushing to protect Los Cedros. Elisa is an activist powerhouse who is deeply dedicated to fighting for justice and raising up the voices of rural communities.
How can you put at risk the last remnant of forest we have, prioritizing big-scale mining income for a transnational company over the lives, the well-being, of Ecuadorians?
Filomena, at 49 years old, is an outspoken elder in the indigenous Awá community, an environmental activist, and a passionate community leader. She was born and raised on her ancestral homelands on the northern border between Ecuador and Colombia. She has witnessed decades of destruction from palm oil plantations and illegal mining on their territory, and has for decades fought to protect their lands and way of life.
By day, she is a crafter and vendor, selling homemade food and souvenirs on buses and in the streets. At night she is studying to become a nurse, to bring better healthcare to her community. With few jobs available in the area, the Awá have been heavily impacted by nearby illegal mining at Buenos Aires, the only source of income for many, but at times, at the cost of their lives. Filomena is deeply poetic and outspoken, and harshly realistic about the future of her people in the shadow of large scale mining.
The Awá nationality are people, equal to other human beings. But others mistreated us, saying that we are Indians, we are Indians…
The Awá people are an indigenous group native to the mountainous regions of northern Ecuador and southern Colombia. Theirs is one of the closest indigenous territories to the threatened Los Cedros Protected Forest. Since their official recognition by the Ecuadorian government in the 1980s, the Awá have been outspoken and politically engaged. Their position on the Colombian border, however, has put them in harm’s way: in 2009, more than two dozen Awá, including women and children, were massacred in the conflict between FARC and the Colombian army in the southern Colombian province of Nariño. And more recently, an oil spill in Colombian Awá territory destroyed an entire community.
When the Ecuadorian government decided to push for mining expansion, the Awá saw 70% of their lands included in mining concessions. Though many of these concessions have been “unofficially” relinquished, mining companies are still visiting and trying to influence smaller villages, and prospecting has begun in the bordering protected forest of Cerro Golondrinas Reserve, within which are the headwater of major rivers upon which the Awá rely. This protected forest is run collectively by the surrounding communities, and the majority of the Reserve is currently under mining concession.
Awá people have publicly and repeatedly voiced that they are against mining in their territory. However, because of the lack of economic opportunities, some in the community seek work in the nearby illegal mines of Buenos Aires, one of the most heavily contested mining sites in Ecuador. Widespread corruption, lack of oversight, and the involvement of organized crime makes this an extremely dangerous place to work, forcing many Awá to choose between their own safety and the ability to feed their families.