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Coffee in the clouds


‘Our land is not for sale’. Campesinos in Ecuador’s Intag Valley oppose foreign mining companies.


Polivio Pérez’s home is a majestic cloud forest in a remote corner of northern Ecuador, a tropical region of stunning natural beauty. More than 15,000 people live in the Intag Valley, flanked by the towering Andes and surrounded by pristine forests, mountain streams that carry clean drinking water, rare orchids and dozens of species of wild animals. Like Pérez, most residents are subsistence farmers growing maize, vegetables and fruits like papayas and pineapples, in one of the most ecologically diverse frontiers on earth.

But beneath this lush paradise are rich copper deposits that have lit up the eyes of foreign mining companies.

About 14 years ago a Japanese firm, Bishi Metals, discovered large copper reserves in the valley. Faced with the prospect of a destructive project on their land, an estimated 200 villagers burned down the mining camp, forcing the Japanese out of the valley. (The villagers first removed the supplies and equipment, which they later returned to the company.)

‘The stakes were high,’ reflects Pérez. ‘We weren’t going to avert our eyes to the destruction of our beloved valley so a foreign company could get its profits.’

More than 30 families now work in a thriving eco-tourism business

In spite of that victory, Pérez knew that there was more to come. To protect the valley he reckoned his community needed to find a sustainable economic alternative that it could develop quickly and promote over the long term.

Defensa y Conservación Ecológica de Intag (Decoin), a local grassroots environmental organization, became a key advisor. In 1998, Decoin helped create the Small Coffee Growers Association of Rio Intag (Aacri in Spanish) and soon Pérez and his community began growing organic coffee as an alternative to the mining threat. ‘It fits perfectly with our goal of conserving biological diversity in the region,’ says Decoin organizer Carlos Zorrilla.

Today, Aacri has more than 300 members and exports top quality shade-grown, organic coffee to Japan, Spain, Germany, Canada and the US.

The community has also developed ecological tourism, handicrafts and home gardens as part of its package of alternatives to mining. The nearby Cotacachi-Cayapas reserve, one of the world’s most biodiverse regions, attracts nature lovers from around the world. More than 30 families now work in a thriving eco-tourism business that offers hiking tours and guided horseback rides to the surrounding forest and to coffee and sugar plantations.

But the presence of those valuable copper deposits continues to threaten the Intag Valley. Recently, a Canadian mining company based in Vancouver (Ascendant Copper Corporation, now Copper Mesa Mining Corporation) mounted a public relations campaign to convince locals to support their project. According to the company, the reserve is the second largest unexploited copper deposit in the world, worth an estimated $32 billion.

Pérez says Copper Mesa embarked on an aggressive ‘hearts and minds’ campaign. ‘At one point,’ he laughs, ‘they even offered us chickens!’

But the people held their ground and that’s when things turned nasty. Pérez claims he and others were assaulted and threatened by company thugs. So, he and fellow coffee growers, Israel Pérez (his brother) and Marcia Ramírez, have launched a lawsuit against the company, its directors and the Toronto Stock Exchange (TSX).

The farmers argue that the company’s security agents were paid with money raised on the TSX. They also claim the TSX listed the mining company despite warnings that there would likely be violence: Polivio’s brother was shot in the leg.

The defendants filed a series of motions to dismiss the claim and an Ontario court struck down the lawsuit filed by the Ecuadorians. But Pérez and friends are appealing.

‘We want the world to know that we have the right to say, ‘no’ to the Canadian mining industry. We don’t want to live in fear. We only want to live in peace in our cloud forest.’

Roxana Olivera is a Peruvian-Canadian freelance writer who lives in Toronto.

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