Interview by Linda in 2008
Linda – Recently a large mining company has been expelled from Cotacachi. How has that result been achieved?
Leonardo - Mining in the Intag was very dangerous. Stopping the mining there has been a very long process for us. The government of Ecuador has recently signed papers for the miners to leave.
Linda – Is it dangerous for us the mention in this article the name of the mining company?
Leonardo – No. The name of the company is Ascendant Copper, a Canadian mining company. It would be very helpful for the people of Cotacachi and Ecuador if you tell what happened, because what happened is true.
There are now many people from Canada who know what has been happening. Hundreds of Canadians have sent us letters of support.
We can show you the big bags of letters we have received. They tell us, “Keep fighting! Don’t stop!” If you want to see them, we can show you the documents that tell the story of the mining enterprise.
The people here have been fighting for their lives against the mining. If you write about it, it’s supportive to people here and we will be very happy for your help.
Linda – Tell us some of the history of mining in the Intag.
Leonardo - In 1994 a Japanese mining company, Mitsubishi Metal, was mining here. The people saw that the rivers and land were becoming very polluted. People were getting sick.
They reacted very strongly and burned down the Japanese mining camp. Then they went to the Japanese Embassy and dumped the burned mining equipment in front of the embassy door.
The people of Cotacachi began to understand that they needed to study ecological alternatives. The experience with the Japanese mining company was a good one for us because it trained us in environmental issues and social activism.
The Japanese saw that it was impossible to work here so they sold their mining rights to a Canadian enterprise, who later sold them to Ascendant Copper. Over the years, the name of the company was changed many times as a legal trick to get around Ecuador laws.
Linda – What was the role of Ecuador’s national government in this situation?
Leonardo - The government of Ecuador didn’t support the Intag at first. In fact, the government made judgments against the leaders of Intag. They sent policemen to arrest and jail them, they penalized the campesinos, and used media and legal resources to support the mining in the Intag.
Ascendant Copper paid authorities in the national government so they could do what they wanted in the region. There were ten years of legal fighting and activism and the media finally began to help.
Correa’s new government made the final signing of papers possible, but the fighting was long before. Information channels that belonged to power groups didn’t tell the truth, but activists, courts and the local media helped us.
During these legal battles, we learned many things, things that can now help our Constitutional Assembly to make good laws for Ecuador and the people. We can remove harmful enterprises through social pressure and organization. That’s the key.
(The Constitutional Assembly is a group of national representatives elected a few months ago to write a new constitution for Ecuador.)
For 12 years the Cotacachi assembly has been preparing and collecting documents. We wrote a detailed report of our activities and what we learned. We gave this document to each delegate of the Constitutional Assembly, which is just now beginning to address the mining problem in Ecuador and create environmental laws. Now, because of our experience with mining in the Intag, we are able to recommend new laws.
There is a party this Saturday at the hot springs in the Intag, to celebrate Ascendant Copper’s leaving the area. The celebration will last all day and night, until 6 a.m. Sunday morning. This is a party to celebrate a huge victory for the people.
Linda – Describe your views about socialism in Ecuador.
Leonardo – In the ‘60’s, ‘70’s, and ‘80’s, there has been a movement of people from the left, socialists, who have tried to change the world, to take power through violence and war. This has been going on globally.
This brand of socialism was a political movement to create change through violence and coercion. We are finding that the same thing can take place, but through good will and peaceful means. The result is that people can have good feelings about social change. Then deeper changes take place, without the use of bullets.
Linda – This is an important distinction to make, because I think many North Americans have a negative reaction to hearing that Correa and Auki Tituania, the mayor of Cotacachi, are socialists. Perhaps you need a new name other than socialist, for the kind of socialism that is being practiced here and now in Ecuador.
Cesar – This is unbelievable! This is not the old socialism! In Ecuador, we have so much social change happening. It is occurring fast in women’s rights. South America has two presidents who are very supportive of women’s rights. The violence of the old socialism is not for this time.
Now we fight, but it is a war of ideas!
We call it socialism, because the focus is on “social,” the society of the people. This is the most important thing. Socialism in Ecuador revolves around the rights of the people. It encourages the people’s ability to get involved in the creative process of government.
Gary – Perhaps participatory democracy is a more fitting term for what you are doing than the term socialism is, and with less negative associations.
Leonardo – Yes. Participatory democracy is not just to meet with the people to tell them what to do or to force them. It is to educate them, to train them, to give them the skills and knowledge to help them to make the best decisions possible for the good of the community.
Linda – There is a picture of Auki Tituana, the mayor of Cotacachi, and Fidel Castro on the front of the municipal building in Cotacachi. What is that all about?
Leonardo – Auki was a student in Cuba. He knows Fidel Castro personally. There is international cooperation between Ecuador and Cuba in the areas of health, medicine, and literacy education.
Castro sends excellent doctors to Ecuador. Cuban doctors work hard and are very concerned for the people.
Our system of literacy education came from Cuba, their system of teaching people to read. We use their trainers. The Cubans ask for nothing, they just give. We have no political agreement with them.
Auki doesn’t necessarily support Castro’s politics. We have a working relationship and a friendship with Cuba.
Ecuador cooperates with other countries, too, like Italy, Spain and Germany. We are open with no strings attached. Our relationship with Cuba is like our relationship with Spain and many other countries.
Ecuador checks the “rules” of other countries to see if they want to “handle our opinions” for us, and if they do, we don’t accept their help. Sometimes other countries say, “We want to help you,” and our people say, “Yes!” and then end up selling their souls.
We try to check first. We want useful support, not harmful.
Cuba gives Ecuadorian students free scholarships.
Linda – What is Ecuador’s relationship with the U.S. like?
Leonardo – We have a good relationship with the U.S. Working with Youth Aid is one project that is successful in Cotacachi. There is a Texan named Gary who gives workshops in Cotacachi in social participation. He works with leaders here.
We also have students coming here from the U.S. and Canada for two-month programs to study our participatory democracy system. We teach by sharing our experiences.
Linda – Cotacachi is a very important cog in the wheel of Ecuador politics. The process of participatory democracy is a process that is working. The people of Cotacachi are happy with the results of that process, which is very visible in the cleanliness of the town’s streets, the successful health care programs underway, the excellent and continually improving infrastructure, and the increasing literacy rate.
After our interview with Leonardo, Gary and I realized that our perceptions about socialism and Auki Tituana’s involvement with Castro were incorrect. What we had concluded, based on our own culture, biases and education, did not apply, and I, for one, am relieved to stand corrected. Understanding the situation more clearly leaves me feeling a lot of hope and excitement for the future of not only Ecuador, but of the world.
A new form of democracy has been born in this small town in the north of Ecuador. And the world is beginning to find its way here in recognition of that fact.
Gary - In the U.S. and in many other democratic countries in the world we employ a form of electoral democracy; the people elect representatives who make the laws and decisions regarding the operation of government. If the people do not like the actions of the elected officials, they elect new one.
Here in the canton of Cotacachi, high in the Andes, participatory democracy begins with the premise that the purpose of government is to fulfill the desires and goals of the people, which are expressed in an annual meeting.
Operating through the Assembly, a loosely-knit collection of grass-roots organizations, the people set annual goals and objectives for the municipal government, and then monitor the activities of government to insure that their goals are carried out.
The elected officials and government staff are truly employees of the people and facilitators of the people’s wishes. They know this, and act accordingly. This is what the people of Cotacachi call “socialism.” This is the socialism that is spreading throughout Ecuador. I call it democracy.