In 2020, we spent international women’s day with a mother who had just lost her son. Guido Ortiz, only 19 years old, was trying to earn money for school by working at the Buenos Aires illegal mining site. Many people from the community — particularly the indigenous Awá members of the community — have worked there to overcome the economic disparities of the region; it is some of the only work available.
The area is steeped in conflict, with the military and the police both in the region, but unable to fully control the large-scale, unsanctioned mining activities. This is, in part, because of widespread corruption: Members of the military and the police are involved in the illegal mining industry in the area, taking bribes for protection during extraction and transportation, and extorting miners operating illegally for a percentage of their profits.
And the involvement of the police in the unregulated mining activities in the region seems to have led directly to this young man’s death. It appears that Guido was being held for payment, for part of the profits from the gold mine, which he did not have. When it became apparent that no one could pay for his release, he was murdered, and his body dumped in the river.
To date, no legal action has been taken on behalf of the victim or his family. No one has been charged with the murder, and no investigation seems to be happening.
No mother should ever have to go through this. No mother should have to outlive her children; no mother should ever have to see her pleas for justice go unanswered. So today, we want to bring this story back to the front of our collective attention, and ask: where is the justice for Guido Ortiz?
One of the most troubling aspects of Ecuador’s mining crisis is the way communities are systematically excluded from determining their own fates. The government recently sold the mineral rights for huge swaths of the country without consulting or gaining the consent of the people living within them. This happened in closed-door sessions with politicians—some with corruption convictions. Many communities are still unaware that the lands they occupy are available for mining.
The government of Ecuador has a controversial human-rights track record when it comes to the mining industry: activists have been jailed or just disappeared, entire villages have been forcibly relocated, and indigenous people have been gunned down in intertribal conflicts fomented by oil companies with little to no accountability from the State. Currently, new legal action proposes to restrict the ability of local governments to ask their people if they want mining.
We understand the complexities involved and have seen the damaging effects of highly polarized media on both sides of the issue. In contrast, our film clearly delineates the costs of mineral extraction in environments like Ecuador’s Chocó rainforests. We build empathy for those who work in mining to support their families, while we also examine the ethicality of mining companies and governmental bodies perpetuating the current crisis. We critically examine the implications of their actions, not only for Ecuador, but for the entire world.
A clear overview of the current situation in Ecuador, showing maps of current mining concessions and how they interact with remnant forest throughout the Andes. This is why we are making Marrow of the Mountain.
Directed by: Dylan Stirewalt & Solange Yépez
Cinematography by: Antonella Carrasco, Clay Kruse, Dylan Stirewalt & Solange Yépez
Produced and Edited by: Roo Vandegrift
Music by: Ben Hamilton
Additional Footage from: David Nicastro, Jacky Poon & Carlos Zorilla
GIS data provided by: OMASNE
Cartography by: Roo Vandegrift
This video made possible with generous support from the National Geographic Society, the Rainforest Information Centre, OMASNE, MiningWatch Canada, and the generous support of all our backers on Kickstarter.
Early in 2021, José DeCoux, the founder and manager of Reserva Los Cedros, announced that he has been diagnosed with an aggressive form of lymphoma cancer. He is doing well, and receiving treatment at a private hospital in Quito. José indicated that he will not be stepping back from any of his duties as manager of Reserva Los Cedros, saying “it takes more than a little cancer to slow me down.”
With eco-tourism at an all-time low due to the global COVID-19 pandemic, friends and family have begun a grassroots fundraising effort to support DeCoux’s treatment and care during his recovery. Donations can be made here: gofundme.com/f/mhvqcb-help-jose-beat-cancer
We wanted to honor José during this difficult time, and give everyone that’s never had the pleasure of meeting him in person a glimpse of his incredible personality and drive. José has been the driving force behind conservation at Los Cedros since he help found it in the late 1980’s, and the work that he’s dedicated to saving this last remnant of Chocó rainforest is beyond comparison.
[One footnote: Jose forgets to mention that the Australian non-profit Rainforest Information Centre was integral to the founding of 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.
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.