Letter from Ecuador - where defending nature and community is a crime

Wood lizard of the Ecuadorian cloud forest, Enyalioides rubrigularis. Photo: Santiago Ron via Flickr (CC BY-ND 2.0).
Wood lizard of the Ecuadorian cloud forest, Enyalioides rubrigularis. Photo: Santiago Ron via Flickr (CC BY-ND 2.0).

Secuity guards at the copper mine attack members of the Intag community. Photo: Elisabeth Weydt via Rainforest Concern.

Ecuador's president, Rafael Correa, has personally attacked eco-defender Carlos Zorrilla in TV broadcasts for resisting a vast new copper mine in a precious area of pristine cloud forest, and opposing the advance of oil exploration into the Amazon. Fearful for his life, Zorilla is now seeking international support for his, and his community's, battle for land, water and the natural world.
In spite of the death threats, the incessant stress, the economic hardships, the witnessing of so much injustice and apathy, the short-sightedness of politicians, and being vilified by the highest elected official of a nation, I think it's worth it.

I have been an activist in Intag's anti-mining struggle for two long decades. But it is impossible to understand my activism, without knowing where I live and what is at risk.

Knowing that I've lived in Ecuador's Intag region since 1978 and that my home is surrounded by primary and secondary cloud forests of incredible biodiversity, clean rivers, waterfalls and stunningly beautiful vistas, will help.

Intag is also populated with some of the nicest people I have come across, all living in small, tight-knit agricultural communities. Until the mining companies came looking for copper, the area was peaceful with very low crime rates.

It is in this setting that I've raised my children, learned how to farm sustainably, and deepened my love for nature. In other words, this is a place I love and care for deeply.

This is the reason why I, and others like me, have fought so hard and for so many years to oppose the open-pit copper mine threatening us.

The recurring nightmare

It is December 13, 2013, and the president of Ecuador, Rafael Correa, lashes out against me in a nationally televised address in which he falsely accuses me of destabilizing his government.

He makes accusations related to a manual I co-authored to help communities understand what they face when large-scale mining companies come knocking at their door. The manual includes steps communities can take to minimize or avoid the impacts of mining.

 At the end of his speech, Correa asks his countrymen to "react" to this threat. Feeling threatened, I went into hiding for a few weeks.

90 days earlier, Correa gave a televised speech in which he named and broadcast photographs of me and several other activists who oppose the proposed open-pit copper mine that Intag has been fighting for the last two decades. He implied that a few foreigners (I am Cuban by birth and a US citizen) were impeding Ecuador's development.

The December threats against me by Mr Correa attracted the attention of Amnesty International, prompting them to issue an International Action Alert to safeguard me.

But this was not the first time I had to go into hiding for my activism.

Flashback to 2006

Now it is dawn, October 17 2006, and 19 heavily armed police are breaking into my home. A minute before, I received a warning phone call from a neighbour and was able to melt into the nearby forest and avoid arrest. Had it not been for the phone call, I would not be alive today to write this*1.

After intimidating my teenage son and a neighbour, the police ransacked my room looking for evidence meant to land me in jail. The police found nothing, though they did steal cash and a few valuables. Ironically, it's been the only time I've been robbed in almost four decades of living in Intag.

Before the police left, a lone officer entered my home and 'found' a gun and a packet with something that looked like drugs. The planted evidence gave rise to another arrest warrant for illegal possession of a firearm: a serious crime carrying a minimum eight year jail term. Now I had two arrest warrants, and in order to avoid arrest, I went into hiding over a month.

In spite of the death threats, the incessant stress, the economic hardships, the witnessing of so much injustice and apathy, the short-sightedness of politicians, and being vilified by the highest elected official of a nation, I think it's worth it.

Seven months after the raid I received an email from an insider at the mining company who told me that the ultimate goal of the police raid was to jail me and then have someone kill me there.

Two years later, the courts ruled that the lawsuit that kick-started the incident was malicious; filed by an American woman paid by the mining company. The alleged crime had been to steal her camera and money and instruct people to beat her up.

This incident was purported to have taken place in a public anti-mining demonstration in Ecuador's capital amidst hundreds of protesters from Intag, with a squad of police looking on. Neither the District Attorney nor the judge involved in the case asked for a police report before ordering the arrest and search warrants.

A coordinated plan to neutralize opposition to mining

The raid, it turned out, was part of a plan to neutralize opposition to a copper mining concession in Intag. The plan was drawn up by Honor and Laurel, an international security firm. Two weeks after raiding my home, they sent in 50 paramilitaries with attack dogs, machetes and tear gas to try to access the mining concession.

The communities turned them back then, as they did again on December 2006 when even more paramilitaries came to the Junín community, this time armed with pepper spray, shotguns and .38 caliber guns. The confrontation was filmed and forms part of documentaries: 'Under Rich Earth', When Clouds Clear' and 'In the Open Sky - Rights Undermined'.

Though I am one of those most targeted by the mining companies, I am not alone. Another case is that of Javier Ramírez, a campesino anti-mining leader from the Junín community who was recently released from jail after serving ten months for a crime he did not commit. Almost a year later, his brother Victor Hugo is still in hiding accused of the same crime.

Since 2012 Ecuador's state-owned mining company, Enami, along with Codelco, the world's largest copper producer, have been trying hard to continue where Bishimetals and the Canadian company Copper Mesa failed.

 For three years the companies have pretty much been following the script used by most mining and petroleum multinationals for steamrolling opposition. Offer everything to everyone: high paying jobs to key people; offer to improve basic infrastructure (like roads), and so forth. When that fails, the tactics get nastier.

Thus, just as the Canadians sent in their armed security firm in 2006, the Ecuadorian government sent in a 300-strong elite police force to intimidate the hell out of the communities.

Similarly to the timing of the raid on my home and the sending of the security to the communities, the police assault took place a few weeks after the arrest Javier Ramírez, who was president of the Junín community at the time.

Why do I oppose the mining?

To understand the struggle you need to know what is at stake. The cloud forests of Intag are adjacent to one of the world's most biologically important protected area, the Cotacachi Cayapas Ecological Reserve, coming ahead of the Yasuní National Park in terms of irreplaceability.

Cloud forests make up less than 2.5% of the world's tropical forest. Nonetheless these fragile ecosystems are centres of endemism and biodiversity and play an important role in conserving watersheds and maintaining the natural flow of rivers.

Based on a preliminary study undertaken for a small open-pit copper mine, the proposed mine threatens the whole Intag region with profound environmental and social upheaval.

The study for the small mine predicted, in their own words: "massive deforestation" which would lead to a process of "desertification", contamination of rivers and streams with lead, arsenic and other heavy metals.

Subsequent impacts to primary forests would further endanger species already facing extinction; including jaguars, spectacled bears and brown-faced spider monkeys.

The study went onto say that the mine would impact the Cotacachi-Cayapas Ecological Reserve, the only protected area of any significant size in Western Ecuador, and one of the planet's most biologically important.

It also predicted some grim social impacts, including increased crime and the relocation of four communities. Junín, Javier Ramírez's community, would be the first one to be wiped off the map. The year after these impacts were published, many times more copper was found in the region.

If the copper mining is allowed to go ahead, given the exceptional steep terrain of the mining site, the composition of the mining deposit, combined with the area's high rainfall, the presence dozens of pristine rivers and streams as well as abundant underground aquifers and primary forests sheltering endangered mammals and other species, and the seismic risks, this would be one of the world's most environmentally devastating mining projects. The threat could not be clearer nor grimmer.

Why bother?

I am often asked how I can keep opposing copper mining after so many years and so much harassment. The thought of Intag's beauty, biological and cultural diversity vanishing, to be replaced by yet another open-pit mine haemorrhaging heavy metals is what sustains me.

In spite of the death threats, the incessant stress, the economic hardships, the witnessing of so much injustice and apathy, the short-sightedness of politicians, and being vilified by the highest elected official of a nation, I think it's worth it.

I find the question of how I can keep opposing the mine baffling. I find it baffling because it is impossible for me to grasp that anyone who feels part of, and loves his community, and values the incredible cloud forests of Intag, would do anything else but defend it against such a clear and imminent threat.

The alternative is to pack up and leave. And I'm not about to do that.



Event: Carlos Zorrilla will be giving a talk about his work on 15th April for the Anglo Ecuadorian Society at the Institute of Latin American Studies, London (Senate House, Room G22-26, Mallet Street, London WC1E 7HU). To book a place, please contact mpatlea@gmail.com. The cost is £5 (including wine and snacks) if paid in advance. Tickets also available on the door for £8, (£5 for students).

Carlos Zorrilla is co-founder and Executive Director of DECOIN (Defensa y Conservación Ecológica de Intag).

Editted by Sarah Fraser (Rainforest Concern).

DECOIN's work takes place within the cloud forests of northwest Ecuador, which form part of the most biodiverse of the world's 36 Biological Hotspots. He is the author of several papers on development, large-scale mining and its impacts on communities and the environment and was principal author of the guide 'Protecting your Communities Against Large Scale Mining and Other Extractive Industries'. DECOIN works in partnership with Rainforest Concern on cloud forest conservation projects in Ecuador.

Rainforest Concern is a UK Registered Charity, established to protect threatened natural forest habitats and the biodiversity they contain, together with the indigenous people who depend on them for survival. In its 21 year the charity has legally protected over 1.4 million hectares of threatened forest habitats, always engaging the local communities to protect their interests, and working closely with local conservation NGOs. Rainforest Concern has worked with 21 partner organisations in 12 countries: Ecuador, Peru, Chile, Colombia, Brazil, Romania, Costa Rica, Panama, India, Sri Lanka, Uganda and Suriname.



'Right of reply' response by Ecuador's Ministry of External Relations

Chronology of events:

  • In the weekly presidential address No. 351, on September 14, 2013, President Rafael Correa referred to the existence of a guide for community activists, a kind of manual on how to behave during riots and resistance, co-authored by Carlos Zorrilla. The President also states that Mr. Zorrilla is financed by Global Response and by the Global Justice Project of Minnesota.
  • The Government of Ecuador has always expressed its rejection to violence and all forms of incitement to violence. Mr. Zorrilla's Manual might lead to this result.
  • In a request for a hearing on the situation of Defenders of Wildlife requested to the Interamerican Human Rights Commission, Mr. Carlos Zorrilla's case is mentioned as a case where human rights are violated in Ecuador.


  • Regarding the alleged attacks that President Correa would have done against Mr. Zorrilla, it should be stated that the Government through the President, addressed in its Weekly Report of September 14th, 2013 specifically the limits of social protest and how this form of democratic reaction, contained in the Constitution of Ecuador (right to protest) sometimes turns into vandalism ways that threaten public safety.
  • This information displayed in the Weekly Report of the Government was aimed exclusively to alert the public against anti-democratic practices that endanger the rights of people, especially the most vulnerable population groups.
  • Within this context, in the Weekly Report the President addressed the issue of a citizen named Zorrilla as one of the four authors of a manual called "Protecting your community from Business Mining Companies and other extractive activities ". Within the frame of this document, the President of Ecuador warned about certain tactics recommended by the authors that included activities of social protest, clearly at odds with human rights respect.
  • In the manual, co-authored by Carlos Zorrilla, there are included, as references, some recommendations for activists and citizens who want to protest, which would not be acceptable given the fact that they would go beyond the right of citizens to publicly express disagreement with the government.
  • Therefore the public complaint of President Correa on the existence of acts of social destabilization above referred, clearly meet the standards set up by the International Law of Human Rights as to precisely guarantee the right to freedom of association, which, in spite of being an individual right, can only be done collectively provided it has lawful purposes, as stated in the American Convention on Human Rights and in the Constitution of the Republic of Ecuador.
  • From the above it should be understood that the concept of public safety is a notion legitimately associated to the right of free association, given two fundamental principles: The public order; and the rights and freedoms of others.
  • On the other hand, concerning the alleged absence of representatives of civil society in the design and implementation of public policies, suffice to say that in Ecuador the civil society organizations are supported by a clear and transparent legal statute which allows precisely to ensure their performance. 
  • According to the Unified Information System of Social Organizations (SUIOS), there are approximately 143 organizations registered in Ecuador. This demonstrates that organized citizenship and international cooperation are factors of high impact in the mechanism of public policies aimed to achieve the objectives of the Development Plan of Ecuador or Plan of Good Living.
  • After all these arguments, it is clearly inaccurate to say that there is a lack of citizen participation in establishment of public policy in Ecuador.
  • Finally, it should be stressed that the right to protest cannot be exercised violently in any democratic society.


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