Alirio Ramirez seemed liked a nice guy, but was a little hard to get a read on. After a quick hello, we jumped into his pick-up truck to make the journey to Junin. His disposition struck me as a bit unusual for people living in the “campo.” Whether friendly or reserved, unlike the majority of city people, country-folk are generally direct in their presence. Rarely do I get the sense that their mind is elsewhere, taken with stress or worry.
Soon after we arrived at the guest cabin outside Junin, we discovered the source of Alirio’s pensive mood. We were greeted by a woman from the community and the lone other visitor, Lindsay, a volunteer for DECOIN who was conducting research on environmental and social issues. Lindsay informed us that the day before our arrival, a young girl of 18 or 19 years old had been found dead in the village, from mysterious circumstances involving the ingestion of toxic agrochemicals. In a small village like Junin, an event such as this is a tragedy for the whole community. Needless to say, the timing of our visit proved to be less than ideal. As such, we tried to keep a low profile and settled into our room for an afternoon of reading and charango strumming.
Traveling further into the Intag from Apuela, we expected to find ourselves in more remote and less developed countryside. Instead, to our surprise, we found the lower Intag from Apuela to Junin to be largely slashed, burned, and cleared for agricultural use. We saw a great deal of plots cleared for corn, yuca, sugar cane, and other staple crops. We also saw plenty of people walking around with small tanks strapped to their backs, spraying chemicals onto their fields.
Junin was largely the same, with the exception of the land currently in use to grow organic coffee, in partnership with AACRI. The only areas we saw left unused were on slopes too steep for cultivation and increasingly, even those are being turned over. Although quite scenic and tranquil, if we are to be honest in our post, it needs to be said that the portions of the Intag region of the Ecuadorian cloudforest that we visited are not exactly a model for conservation. Unlike the Madidi region of Bolivia, where small groups of indigenous people have lived for many generations more or less in harmony with the surroundings, the Intag region has only been settled for about 60 years and in that short time, agriculture has had quite a destructive effect on the environment. Although several hectares of sugar cane are nothing compared to a single open pit copper mine, neither are a friend to conservation.
Having said all of this, the bravery and solidarity exhibited in Junin are to be admired and we were happy to support their efforts to protect their village from the reopening of copper mines. The second day of our visit, we were shown around town by one of the farmers, including the spot where the people of Junin stood in unison and blocked the road before a group of armed “security” personel hired by the mining company. Although we haven’t seen it yet, there is a film about Junin called “Under Rich Earth” that includes footage of the stand-off mentioned above.
Today there are eight different mining projects under consideration in the Intag region, including Junin. A range of tactics are being employed to divide communities and coerce local leaders. The region is imperiled by the incursion of hugely destructive projects and the people of Intag most certainly deserve more support from their federal government and the international community than they have received. However, from an environmental point of view, one also needs to question the unregulated expansion of slash and burn, chemical-instensive agriculture in an area of unique biological diversity.