When Bishi Metals, a subsidiary of Mitsubishi, first came to northern Ecuador’s Intag cloud forest in 1990, the area’s residents welcomed the Japanese multinational.
The mine developers promised the locals a stable income, free meals and transportation and other benefits before settling in to exploit the resources of a forest where it rains almost all year long. The air is so moist, a cloud drops into the canopy in the afternoons.
In 1995, Bishi Metals took away the perks. That’s when the marches and anti-mining campaigns began.
Bishi Metals eventually abandoned its project in Intag. Since then, the area has been the target of a rotating cast of mining companies. But a group of determined women is fighting to stop the area’s celebrated biodiversity from being devastated in the quest for copper. And today, their main target is Codelco, a Chilean company getting ready to start construction in the forest.
The Coordination of Women is an umbrella group of 13 local collectives that focuses on everything from anti-mining work to reproductive rights. Its members speak about ecological contamination, labor violations and exploitative economic models with the fire of those committed to a lifelong fight.
“We don’t fight as individuals or as a community or as a territory, but as organized women, with a clear objective,” says Silvia Betancourt, the group’s president.
Betancourt starting organizing anti-mining campaigns with the group DECOIN – the Organization for the Defense and Ecological Conservation of Intag – when Bishi Metals was still in the area. The women of DECOIN gathered intelligence on the company’s alleged environmental violations, trained their neighbors on how to defend their rights as residents and women and set up roadblocks on the narrow roads that Bishi Metals’ vehicles needed to access the exploration zone.
The Japanese left for good when their campsite was burned to the ground in 1997. A group of Intag residents, many of them organized by DECOIN, had occupied the site, dismantled it, set aside some equipment and burned the rest. The Ministry of Energy and Mining sued some of those responsible in 1999; the case was later dismissed.
But DECOIN’s victory was brief. Seven years later, Canada’s Ascendant Copper Corporation (now called Copper Mesa Mining Corporation) moved in. But, unable to gather the necessary approval from residents to build a mine, Ascendant left in 2007. Five years after that, Codelco arrived.
Marcia Ramirez was 18 when she joined DECOIN to campaign against mining in Intag. When Codelco came to the area, Ramirez, now 34, traveled to the company’s headquarters in Chile to protest and brought her 6-month-old daughter with her, in the hope that she, too, would grow up to fight the mining giants.
“One is born with the vision of helping others,” Ramirez says. She now leads a women’s anti-mining group in Junin, the town in Intag that’s closest to Codelco’s mining project.
Ramirez says protecting the environment is a women’s issue because “women spend more time taking care of nature.” Their daily errands of cleaning and cooking make them more vulnerable to slight changes in the water. She’s already detected arsenic in some areas and expects all of Intag’s nine rivers to end up contaminated.
But her fight goes beyond the home: “It’s a fight to win space, to claim our rights and proclaim that we, too, are capable of leading.”
There has been a rift in her family ever since four of her uncles accepted jobs with Codelco. But she tries to work with pro-mining women, because their lives are also affected when mining companies move in. When a husband gives up farming to work in the mines, Ramirez says, his wife doubles her workload to maintain the crops and support the family.
Ramirez says the evolution of a mining town tends to follow a familiar pattern. When a mining project moves into its development phase, many people who worked on the exploration phase are laid off, left to come home to fallow fields and poisoned water. The migrant skilled workers who take their place are often followed by brothels – two are already in planning stages in Intag – and with them, STDs, she says.
Residents worry that Codelco’s project could lead to the evictions of hundreds of families, although the company says the mine will remain secluded enough that it won’t affect the population. The environmental impact could also be devastating, residents say.
Carlos Zorrilla, cofounder and director of DECOIN, says Mitsubishi’s Environmental Impact Study (which isn’t published but which the residents have seen) found that had the company’s project gone ahead it could have impacted 4,025 acres (1,630 hectares) of forest – and further exploration later on found five times the amount of copper initially thought to exist in the region. The study also found that 12 species could face extinction if a mining project were to commence in Intag; DECOIN estimates that in fact more than 30 species could die off.
As Codelco wraps up its exploration phase to begin construction, some women want to prove that they can be as commercially interesting to the Ecuadorian government as an industrial mining project, while preserving the cloud forest and finding employment for women – chronically neglected by mining companies.
Mini collectives, entirely run by women, have sprung up over the past few years, producing an array of local organic items from blackberry pulp to handwoven hats to shower loofahs.
The women started the collectives “so that [we’re] not enslaved by another person, so that all can decide and opine,” says Germania Itaro, president of Women of El Rosal. She has launched a business with her neighbors selling aloe vera-based cosmetics.
Itaro says the women of Intag will keep fighting the mines, keep challenging every violation they find and keep working to lift up local women, until their collectives outlive the corporations.
“We will never back down,” she says.