Ecuador has elevated nature as a legal subject in its constitution - and still allows harmful copper mining. A young woman learns to fight back
Cenaida Guachagmira digs her pink fingernails deep into the damp, black earth. Her cardigan glows pink in the mist, mud sticks to her rubber boots. She plucks out the sprawling greenery among the coffee seedlings, surveys the papayas and picks a tree tomato. After a month's stay in the next major city, she's back in her field, deep back on one of the many hills of the Intag Valley in northern Ecuador. "Here I forget all problems," she says, "here I'm just connected to the earth."
Tomorrow she will take her government to court. The Ministry of Environment, the Ministry of Natural Resources and the Attorney General's Office. According to the indictment, these, together with Codelco from Chile, which claims to be the largest copper company in the world, have violated the rights of the people and the rights of nature in the Intag Valley.
The dispute lies deep under Cenaida's rubber boots, it’s a hidden a copper treasure. Because her field, her little house, her village and the neighboring communities belong to the almost 50 square kilometers on which a copper mine shall be torn into the green. For almost 30 years this has caused a bitter struggle.
"Why can't they see that the real wealth is up here?" Cenaida says, looking down the steep slope at her three hectares of fruit and vegetable wildflowers and then into the green expanse that opens up between the cloud swaths. The Intag Valley lies at an altitude of 1500 to just under 3000 meters. The smallscale farmer in pink has taken on powerful opponents to defend the many birds, lichens, orchids and her own field. But she is not alone in this. Three men from the valley are taking to court alongside with her. And nature.
Ecuador is the only country in the world whose constitution has elevated nature to a legal subject. Accordingly, bees, rivers and forests are not only worthy of protection because they serve humans, but simply because they are nature. This means that in the small Andean state, not only people but also nature itself can file lawsuits - represented by human lawyers. In the case of Intag, the long-nosed harlequin frog, a species thought to be extinct and rediscovered in Intag, was doing just that.
The case has already attracted international attention, it is being covered in phd theses and law workshops, and even Leonardo DiCaprio has commented on it several times under the hashtag #Salvemosintag - Let's Save Intag.
With a machete, Cenaida unhooks some sugar cane. "To nibble on. For the meeting with the lawyers in a minute." She's never seen the frog with the long nose. But somewhere among the many hills here, he must be sitting. Tomorrow is their big day together.
In the cottage behind the field, Cenaida's protest sheet hangs over a shelf. "Drinking water gives us life. But drinking knowledge gives us water," it says, in washed-out blue. She has worn it to many demonstrations and even to parliament. When she was four years old, her father took her to events against mining. Today she is 27, "a year older than the conflict," she says. As if this was her trademark or a special trait.
Since the 1990s, various international mining companies have been trying to get their hands on the copper underneath the Intag Valley. But Cenaida and a large part of the local residents are against it. They have already fought paramilitaries, corrupt politicians, false accusations, bribes and death threats. Armed ex-militants tried to enter the area, there were riots between supporters and opponents of the mine. But no one has been seriously injured so far. Nevertheless the conflict has divided the community, worn down many and spread paralyzing fear. It has taught Cenaida to raise her voice.
At 14, Cenaida dropped out of school and learned so much more in life than in the classroom, she says. For example she didn't want to study about how great Christopher Columbus and the conquest of Latin America were.
So she contradicted her teacher. He threatened to give her bad grades and she stopped going to school. From an early age, her father had taught her that she should only learn what would really serve her in life, she says. Above all, she should know her rights. "If you can read, you can get information. If you can do math, you can handle your finances. And then you can figure out the rest," she recalls him saying. He himself studied a few semesters of law and then had to drop out because of money problems.
Poverty is still a problem today. Cenaida's one-room house is cold and wet. The floor is made of mud, the roof of metal, the stone wall unplastered. In the back on the left is a bed for Cenaida, her partner and their two daughters. One is five years old, the other four and with brain damage since birth. She cannot speak or walk. Cenaida calls her the most beautiful girl in the whole world. Always three times in a row, like a magic formula. She tickles the little girl with her nose and her long black hair until she gurgles with joy. Her fight against the copper mine is also for the future of her daughters, she says.
The lawsuit against the government is about their livelihood, that of their neighbors and that of thousands of animal and plant species. The copper mine would tear a toxic hole the size of a small town in one of the most biodiverse regions left on earth. But the concessions now belong to the state mining agency Enami. It has a contract with Codelco to get the copper out of the ground. In 2014, they entered the Intag Valley with police violence, built roads, camps and a few houses, and carried out test drilling. The lawsuit has stopped the construction work until further notice.
On the way to the meeting with the lawyers in the largest village of the Intag Valley, Cenaida looks through the passenger window. Her partner steers the pickup truck over medium landslides and through small watercourses. The humid heat and fertile soil of the tropical Andes have allowed a dripping web of mosses, ferns, lianas and giant trees to grow. Here and there, the coffee and banana fields of the farmers draw a few rectangles in the green wild growth.
"We humans have lost our connection to nature and our spiritual values," she says. All that matters, she says, is the material. Cenaida, on the other hand, believes in Pacha Mama, in Mother Earth and the interconnectedness of all living beings. "According to the indigenous worldview, we humans are also part of nature and cannot harm it at all without harming ourselves. Pacha Mama is everything to me, my center, my spirit, the earth!
Pacha Mama" exists in almost all indigenous languages of Latin America. The different peoples worship her in their own way. Cenaida does not belong to any of the 14 indigenous groups in Ecuador. From which one exactly she descends, she does not know. From peoples from Peru, Colombia and Ecuador, her father has told her. She certainly does not have any Spanish blood in her, only indigenous. That is why she is not afraid, she says. Of nothing and no one. Pacha Mama is also mentioned in Cenaida's favorite article of the Ecuadorian constitution, Article 71:
The Ecuadorian constitution of 2008 is extraordinary; some call it revolutionary, even a possible solution to the mass extinction of species and the climate crisis. It is the first and so far only constitution in the world in which nature is considered a legal subject.
Since then, 56 lawsuits have been filed in Ecuador claiming that the rights of nature have been violated. This is according to a survey by CEDENMA, a legal observatory in Quito, to which several non-governmental organizations belong. A large number of cases are still in the process, but of those that have been concluded, the majority have been decided in favor of the rights of nature.
Many of the lawyers who now advocate for the conservation and regeneration of nature’s life cycles have taken Adriana Rodriguez's course. She teaches the Rights of Nature at the University Andina in Quito. In her office, pictures of Rosa Luxemburg, Che Guevara and Sigmund Freud hang on the wall. The fact that nature was included in the Ecuadorian constitution as a legal subject is mainly thanks to the indigenous peoples here, she explains. "In their belief system, trees can feel and rivers can speak. That's why they protect nature, because it's considered a living being." Some were part of the constitutional assembley and found allies in the more Westernized stakeholders. Not least in the then-president of the Assembly: Alberto Acosta. In the court case about the copper mine of Intag, he takes part as an advocate of nature rights.
"But it's not like single animals or plants are legal subjects here now," says Adriana Rodriguez, "it's about entire ecosystems." One of her former students, Gustavo Redin, is one of eight lawyers representing Nature's claim in the Intag lawsuit. The money for the lawsuit comes from NGOs, including CEDENMA and Amazone Frontlines.
Cenaida also started a course with Adriana Rodriguez a few weeks ago. 200 hours on the rights of nature for community leaders, via Zoom and on site, paid by different non-governmental organizations. She was chosen among the 74 participants of the course and is a bit proud of it.
At the preparatory workshop with the lawyers, almost 20 people from various Intag villages sit in a circle in a community center, with rubber boots or sneakers. On the floor, earth-colored tiles, the door frames and ceiling beams of dark wood. Cenaida soaks up the professionals' words and passes on her own knowledge.
They all are prosecutors, witnesses or advocates for the rights of nature and the rights of the people from Intag. Cenaida is the only woman besides the two lawyers from Quito. Her partner has come along to watch the daughters, and her father is connected via Zoom on his cell phone. He recently had an accident and is still in the hospital. Neither of them speak once during the seven hours of the workshop, letting Cenaida do all the talking. And she talks and asks and talks and asks. "You can say you never got an invitation to an information session," she suggests to an older gentleman who nervously keeps stroking his knees and gets confused with all so many questions. "But it was all about jobs and not about environmental destruction!" she reassures the other gentleman.
The indictment lists two constitutional rights that the state is alleged to have violated. First, there had been no prior information and consultation of the population before the construction work started, and second, the state had not taken precautionary measures to prevent the extinction of species.
The farmers who today are apprentices of law role-play the expected questioning with the professionals. "What might the other side ask?" "Don't let them confuse and provoke you. They will try to discredit you and make you uncomfortable!", "You don't have to be the president of your community to speak in court." Local environmental organization Decoin is donating sandwiches, drinks and lunch.
Because of Covid, the trial is not to take place in the courtroom, but via Zoom. After the workshop, Cenaida and her family set off for the next larger city: Cotacachi. The Internet is safer there. They live half in the country and half in Cotacachi. There, they are currently trying to set up an Internet startup and bring wifi to remote regions.
On the first day of the trial, her partner has to go to an outside appointment, and Cenaida is alone with her daughters and the court. The little one holds her in her arms; the big one sends her off to watch TV.
On the screen of her laptop are 25 tiles, half with heads, the other black with names. In total, 122 people are tuned in. When the judge gives someone the floor, their head appears large. On the first day of the trial, only the lawyers speak; it lasts six hours. During the lunch break, Cenaida goes shopping and takes her daughters to a fast food restaurant.
On the third day, it is her turn. She is allowed to make a statement and is then to be questioned. In the very first minute of her statement, a lawyer of the other side interrupts her. Her childhood memories had nothing to do with the case today. Cenaida had started to tell about the first companies that had come to the valley by force. How they had therefore insisted on their rights with the current company. The judge agrees with the lawyer. So she tells about the construction workers who did not want to tell her for whom and why they were on the site. Her explanations become incoherent and unfocused. She has lost the clarity from the workshop. Then she catches herself again, "And don't tell me I didn't go to college or have technical training! What I know about the impact of an open copper mine in a region like Intag, especially on the many water sources here, that's common knowledge." A fellow activist applauds.
Cenaida's questioning lasts a good hour, the entire trial ten days. As one of the plaintiffs, she has to be present the whole time. There is no compensation for expenses, she cannot work and cannot really take care of her daughters.
The decision of the provincial court of Cotacachi comes a week after a landmark ruling by Ecuador's highest court. That had ruled that the country's indigenous communities should have a far greater say in oil and mining projects than they do now. After all, that is what’s written in the constitution the court said.
That gives Cenaida hope. "We are not an indigenous community, but our rights are also in the constitution," she says. The judge from Cotacachi, however, rejects their complaint. No rights have been violated, he tells the 100 or so people in the audience via Zoom, neither those of nature nor those of the communities. Rather, it is very surprising, he says, that a frog species thought to be extinct has appeared in the area of the allegedly environmentally harmful mining.
Cenaida sends a voice message. She is angry but confident: "Actually, we knew beforehand how this would turn out. And the judge's arguments had no legal basis at all. We're going ahead and hope that the next court will decide differently."
The judge had actually already ruled against nature in another case in the Intag Valley. There it was about the specially protected area of Los Cedros. His ruling was overturned by the Constitutional Court two months ago, and mining operations there had to be stopped. The mining of copper and gold there was considered unconstitutional, violating the rights of nature.
Ecuador ranks 105 out of 180 on Transparency International's corruption list, and a recent survey of the population says 83 percent have no confidence in their judicial system.
Cenaida believes in this path nonetheless. After 26 years of resistance to the copper mine, she says, a few more rounds in the justice system are still ok. "The faith and the truth, that's all."