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a) prepare for a major court hearing in April 2021, where the Ecuadorian Government will appeal a 2020 'Rights of Nature' ruling that protected two critically endangered frogs from the destructive impact of a proposed copper mine
b) work with local government and communities to set up the "Intag Santuario de Vida' (Sanctuary of Life) initiative, promoting protection of the region's vulnerable biodiversity from mining and the setting up of sustainable economies.
An 8-minute immersion into the spectacular wildlife of this region and the decades-long resistance against mining by the local communities. Made by volunteers from The Rainforest Information Centre and narrated by John Seed
Made by local conservation groups, this introduces the new community initiative "Intag Santuario de Vida"
The Intag valley, high up in the Andes of north-west Ecuador, should be a peaceful place. Forested mountains are blanketed so thickly in fog that the sub-tropical rainforests are known as cloud forests.
These forests shelter a biodiverse treasure in the plants and animals found here – many of which are critically endangered or at risk of extinction. Some are found nowhere else on earth. A study in 2018 found 287 endangered species in the Intag area alone. That number keeps going up as new species are discovered.
These include emblematic animals such as the Andean spectacled bear, the coastal jaguar and the brown-headed spider monkey, as well as birds, orchids and many of the rarest amphibians in the world.
The region is the buffer zone for a UNESCO world biodiversity hotspot - the Tropical Andes Hotspot - which also includes the famous Cotacachi-Cayapas National Park and the Los Cedros Reserve.
On the valley floor, farmers hold small plots of land, growing coffee, bananas and other sustainable crops. Yet beneath the subsoil lies bright seams of copper. To get to it, chunks of the valley and the mountains must be torn apart.
The Intag region has been a hotbed of conflict since the early 1990s, when miners exploring for copper discovered the valley’s mineral riches, and the community first voiced their opposition. Since then, communities in Intag have denounced mining companies for violations of permits and licenses. Two mining companies have since been forced out by peaceful, but determined community resistance.
Backed by local government, communities have presented evidence of serious human rights abuses, contamination of the Junín river, illegal logging, unauthorised land-use, and demanded the area be recognised as a mining-free zone, highlighting the region’s other sources of wealth, including its biological diversity and ecotourism potential.
This initiative has now evolved into the Intag Sanctuary of Life campaign, which is working to secure legal protection for the region, its sustainable economies, and its unparallelled biodiversity.
The fight for two frogs
In September 2020, a very unusual legal precedent was set.
Two frogs won a constitutional injunction at a local court.
These are the Longnosed Harlequin Frog and the Confusing Rocket Frog, both IUCN-listed as critically endangered, and both endemic to a tiny patch of water which is slated to be destroyed by one of the world's most destructive open cut mines, should the mining go ahead.
The judge ordered that the Ecuadorian Ministry of Environment and mining companies Codelco and ENAMI conduct additional environmental assessments to prove that the Llurimagua gold-copper project would not destroy the habitat of the two frogs. They were given three months to do this, under community oversight.
Long-nosed harlequin frog, picture by Carlos Zorrilla
Predictably, the ministry and companies appealed the decision. In April 2021, judges will be hearing the case at a higher court and making a decision that will decide the future of mining in the Intag region.
If the case is lost, the Llurimagua mine will be one step closer to opening its operations, and mining companies who own concessions over the entire surrounding region will be encouraged to bulldoze their way in. If the case is won, there is a high chance the mine will be stopped - and other investors in the region will be forced to reconsider their options.
Community mobilising and the Sanctuary of Life Initiative
Legal cases like this one, and the ongoing fight to save the nearby Los Cedros Reserve, would not have been possible without the effort of dozens of community and environmental groups.
But such cases are expensive and high-stakes. Whether they are won or lost, it is community mobilising and alternative economies that will ensure a future for the region's incredible biodiversity and fertile farmlands.
Very recently, in early March 2021, several local conservation groups presented legal ordinances for the Intag Sanctuary of Life initiative to the county government of Cotacachi. Local government is excited about this project and is backing it.
But a lot of work is needed to ensure that this excitement gets grounded in actual legal protection. And there needs to be adequate resourcing of local communities to protect their environment on an ongoing basis and develop their sustainable economies.