70 years old, Isabel is a powerful Afro-Ecuadorian writer and activist, who was born in the infamous Intag valley, where generations of her family have lived. She gave birth to six children, and buried two in the fertile valley soil where she and her husband farm. Now, she has more than a dozen grandchildren, who often make her home — a beautiful handbuilt masterpiece of timber and riverstone, incorporating their story and lives as art within the very walls — ring with laughter. Isabel and her husband have watched the rainy season become dry, and the Intag river become polluted from the towns upstream. She has given her life to fighting for environmental justice, and is passionately invested in protecting northern Ecuador for generations to come.
33 years old, Elisa is an Ecuadorian biologist who has worked in conservation her entire adult life, most recently focusing on environmental activism around mining in Northern Ecuador. She and a group of friends created the organization OMASNE, which supports local communities all over northern Ecuador in fighting against the recent mining concessions. She also is a biologist studying butterflies, and took part in the National Geographic-funded Richer Than Gold expedition to Los Cedros. Behind José DeCoux, the director of Los Cedros, she is the backbone and force pushing to protect the Reserve, and has done extensive work to support the Awá community in their fight against recent mining concessions. Elisa is a powerhouse who is deeply dedicated to supporting communities in Northern Ecuador in fighting against mining.
48 years old, Filomena is an outspoken indigenous Awá elder in the community around El Baboso. She has four daughters, the youngest which is 18. When her girls were still young, she had to leave her native lands for Quito, because there was no school in the community, but also because her husband had a medical emergency and was hospitalized for twelve months. Her children are studying at university and live away from her now, but her nest is not empty. She is caring for family from Colombian Awá territory who are fleeing violence from FARC. She has witnessed decades of destruction from palm oil plantations and illegal mining, and is deeply committed to defending her community. Filomena is deeply poetic and outspoken, and harshly realistic about the future of her people.
The Awá people are an indigenous group native to the mountainous regions of northern Ecuador and southern Colombia. Theirs is the closest indigenous territory to the threatened Reserva Los Cedros. 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 most recently, an oil spill in Colombian Awá territory destroyed an entire community.
In 2017, 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 a number of major rivers are born. This protected forest is run collectively by the surrounding communities, and the majority of the Reserve is currently under mining concession. Though the President of the community has expressed pro-mining interests, the Awá community has publicly voiced that they are against mining.
In a valley to the west of the Intag is the Los Cedros Biological Reserve, a 17,000 acre preserve founded in the early 1990s by José DeCoux. This forest represents some of the last un-spoilt primary cloud forest on the western slope of the Andes in all of Ecuador. It is home to a vast array of rare and endangered species including some of the last wild habitat for the Brown-Headed Spider Monkey, the most endangered primate on the planet. All told, there are more than 178 endangered species known to live at Los Cedros, including jaguars and spectacled bears, orchids and birds.
The Canadian mining company Cornerstone bought the mineral rights to more than two-thirds of this protected forest in 2017, without consultation or consent from the reserve managers or the surrounding communities. They have already begun the initial stages of mineral prospecting within the reserve, despite ongoing legal challenges, including the protections for the Rights of Nature built into the Ecuadorian constitution. Forests like Los Cedros, known as ‘Bosques Protectores’, are wildlands that are protected by the Ecuadorian government from logging and other disturbances. However, in 2017 the government decided that these forests were not protected from mining, and sold the mineral rights to these lands.
The Intag Valley is the center of mining conflict in northern Ecuador, and home to some of the most outspoken activists against mining expansion in the country, including Isabel Anangono and Carlos Zorilla. The people who live along the rushing waters of the Intag river have witnessed 20 years of struggle with mining companies in this region, and now find huge chunks of their territory — encompassing entire townships — sold in mining concessions. In the early part of the new millennium, the community banded together and fought against abuses by Canadian mining company Ascendant Copper, which used paramilitary force, pepper spray, and bullets to subdue the community. Residents of the Intag Valley refused to allow mining in their region, and locked up the miners and paramilitary security in their local church until authorities came to apprehend them. Despite this resistance, though, the amount of land granted to international mining companies has only increased in recent years, and many corporations are actively engaged in prospecting within the valley, in direct violation of the wishes of the communities that live there.