Pocho Álvarez is an Ecuadorian filmmaker and activist, specialized in documenting the impacts caused by the extractive industry on local territories and towns. In the interview, he talks about the false promises of mega-mining, the colonial influence that annihilates the claims of the affected communities and his concern that in the near future the cities will no longer have potable water.
While most of the Ecuadorian people are confined or restricted by the red or yellow traffic light, depending on their province or canton, the extractive industry seems to have a green light. Since March, a road has been under construction in the Yasuní National Park to link oil platforms and in the south of the country multinational mining companies are ignoring any local security measures. But, in addition, there is a persistent attempt by these companies to access new deposits in protected areas.
The last example is from Pacto, a parish in the north of Quito, which lives off agriculture and ecological tourism. A few years ago, this region was declared by Unesco as a biosphere reserve; However, in recent months it has been the scene of intervention by a mining company -the Melinachango- that intends to take the materials that are underground. In fact, this company has already been sanctioned by the Mining Regulation and Control Agency (Arcom), as declared by Ivonne Ramos, from the NGO Acción Ecológica, in a recent interview with the Coordinator of Popular Community and Educational Media of Ecuador. According to Ramos, Melinachango does not have environmental impact studies and has not consulted with the local inhabitants. In fact, they were the ones who prevented the trucks from passing several times, denouncing the destruction of nature.
One of the people who has closely followed the country's extractive processes is Pocho Álvarez. The Quito filmmaker and documentary maker documented oil contamination in the Amazon, approaching the logic of the industries and governments of the day.
Since 2007, he has also been involved in documenting the dispute in the Northwest Intag Valley, where the Ecuadorian government and the Chilean state company Codelco want to build a copper mega-mine. To counteract this situation and show what causes large-scale mining, Álvarez put together the short film “Hatun Pandemia” -La Gran Pandemia- available since mid-July on YouTube.
Pocho Álvarez, in his short film more than twenty explosions related to open-pit mining are seen. Why this storm of explosions in a video of less than fourteen minutes?
The idea of this short is to show the people of Ecuador in detail what large-scale open-pit mining is: mega-mining.
Why? Ecuadorians don't know?
They do not know. Ecuadorians have never had experiences of industrial mining and do not know what it implies.That will happen in the future,they say, but we are not in that future: these explosions are already happening in the country. And as the mining industry, especially during these months of pandemic, has proven to be the lifeline and the only way out of the crisis, we must tell what it means for the country. Because, in reality, there is a whole kind of deception between the government and the mining transnationals.
In what sense?
Neither this government nor the previous one have clearly stated what large-scale mining means, but what it really means is the massive destruction of the environment, ecosystems, water sources and, ultimately, wealth. By impact and destructiveness, mining is the most dire expression of what progress means. And Ecuador in this area is like a baby who is fooled with sweets and tinsel. It is like a new conquest. Governments act on the lack of the people, on the lack of young people who live in the countryside, that historical lack that implies a profound need to get out of poverty.
What do you mean?
Young people, for example, aspire to have motorcycles and cell phones, let's say, the benefits that this civilizing system usually gives or promises. Mining enters with this type of proposal, but not only does it make promises, it also makes it possible for young people to access these motorcycles via credit. To give you an example from Intag: when I entered the valley, the guys didn't have motorcycles. But now, since there is mining, the boys have motorcycles and work in the company. It is obvious that they are going to fold mining and erase what is called protecting the environment from their head. The miners act on the immediate needs of the people, not to mention what is going to happen in the future. They do that with the communities, as with the rest of the country.
One of the main arguments of the mining companies is that they bring progress: a narrative that is convincing for a good part of the Ecuadorian population. You, who for years have been accompanying and documenting the consequences of the extractive industry, what answer do you give to this argument?
There are two points to consider: first, destruction. It is inevitable, although mining never talks about destruction and what destroys first is water, it is water sources, aquifers, springs and rivers. Because mining needs water and people don't know that: without water there is no mining. This issue must be alerted to people because the need for water makes us aware. The moment rivers are polluted and there is no clean water for cities, we will have urban survival problems. That is the first aspect.
And the second?
The destruction of the social fabric, of culture. One of the things that we have to take into account in a diverse country like Ecuador is that both the culture and the territory are intimately linked. You, as you are from other latitudes, surely find the reasons why the Ecuadorians of the Sierra are completely different from those of the Coast and it is obvious, because we are biotic: we respond to geography, to climate. So, if you are removed from the territory where you are from, change the geography, change your way of being, your imagination and your relationship with the spirits of your land: with that spirituality that has been giving knowledge and explanations and answers to life.
The third aspect that comes to mind now is that Ecuador is a “laboratory country” and I say that because I am a filmmaker and I have had to work in international productions. What they most admire about Ecuador is this possibility of being in Quito two hours from the moor and the snow, on the one hand, and two hours from the jungle - not by plane or helicopter, but by car - on the other. It is a laboratory where biodiversity is synonymous with life. But of course, this scenario is not free. This scenario is an expression of the magic of the planet and of this magic of the interpellation of diversity.
Taking into account the diversity that characterizes Ecuador, how has the industry managed to separate the people from this magic?
I believe that there are several factors that have to do with our history marked by domination, dispossession and colonization. Here there was another conception of the native peoples in terms of their relationship with the environment. Europe arrived and this conception changed. It destroyed those imaginaries and imposed a new conception of the world from within religion itself, which also became the dominant conception. And this conception was later transferred to the national state because, once the ties of dominance with Europe, with Spain, were broken, the national state was established, reproducing the same stupidity of the European empire. The first Constitutional Charter of Ecuador of 1830 is an absolute disgrace!
What does it say?
Recognize slavery as normal. Apart from that, it points to citizens of different classes, reproducing a colonial model. To be a citizen you had to prove your financial capacity. You had to have properties to be a candidate and be elected. That's stupid! To this must be added the omnipresence of the Church. Ecuador in its beginnings was a clerical state where the Church defined what was the political sense. That was broken with the Liberal Revolution of 1895, but from then on, instead, Ecuador was tied to the development of capitalism in the world. The liberal governments wanted to break the ideological shackles of the church and be closer to a market capitalism. The salary, for example, was an economic mechanism of the Nation that aroused the greed of those who discovered over time the value of gold, the value of metals. In the imaginary of the peoples of America before the arrival of Europe, metals were not precious metals as they are called now. Metals were metals and they were used for ornaments ...
... or for the rites
Exact! For a lot of other things, but they had no economic value. In fact, when the Spanish arrived, they couldn't understand how people here used gold like anything else; On the other hand, in Europe it did have real value and that is why they cast all those wonderful gold masks. The little that was left is today in the Gold Museum in Bogotá, Colombia. And in Ecuador - according to the 19th century Constitution - you could not be a citizen except through greed. What did that mean? "With my properties I become rich and I am a citizen." The worst destruction of the territories - and we are not aware of this - has been as a result of the formation of the nation state, that is, of ourselves.
Can you elaborate on this point a bit more?
The nation state pulls a colonial conception, a conception of domination generated by Europe with all the exclusions that that means. But - and that is the difference that makes it even more perverse - it applies it with local power. That has been much more violent and, therefore, the destruction has been greater. In Ecuador we destroyed the Amazon in 50 years, something that was not done in the previous 500 years. And who destroyed it? It was no longer Europe! We did! But we don't want to acknowledge thatU.S.
By "we" you mean the nation state?
Yes, although it is a construction that demands a hypocritical imaginary. It is proper here to say that "all the fault belongs to others, not ours." We never assume our responsibility for who we are as a collective, as a plural. The history of the country is a history of oblivion. It is a country that does not cultivate its references, its belongings with respect to the other. Ecuador is deeply racist, xenophobic, and exclusive with itself.
Perhaps it has to do with the diversity of peoples in Ecuador, which makes it difficult to identify with a single flag that would be that of the nation state
I believe that the difficulty of identifying with the nation has to do with our historical process, rather than with the characteristics of diversity. Ecuador was formed as a country from the exercises of domination of what we call the local oligarchies, which were landowners in most cases colonial. They had all the burden of the coloniality of Spain and the civilizational reference was Europe. We were not ourselves and there was no generosity to mix with the other. The other, the Creole, the Indian, the one from here, was at least ten steps below. We are a tremendously racist country that is being obstructed with permanent exclusions. And because? Because Ecuador was the result of an agreement between the oligarchies of Guayaquil, Quito and Cuenca.
That agreement made it possible to build a country whose name was borrowed from an abstract: the equatorial line. The French Geodesic Mission came to discover that this imaginary line that divides the earth into two hemispheres existed here. It was the only possibility for Guayaquil, Quito and Cuenca to come together, because the nation was built from an imaginary. The nation state does not respond to an identity, a tradition or a local language. That is why I love the poem by the Ecuadorian writer Jorge Enrique Adoum (1926-2009) that says:The geography. It is an unreal country limited by itself divided by an imaginary line ... (Serie).
You say that Ecuador was built from the exclusion and from above, that is, ideal conditions for the large extractive industries that work together with the oligarchs that rule the country.
Gringos, North Americans, Europeans have always been welcome here because they are synonymous with wealth. All those who have the possibility of leaving money have been welcomed. For the mining industry it really is a very interesting scenario because there is a deeply corrupt State, a State that you can buy and that has a reserve of “wealth”: minerals. It means that these riches can be uncovered and exploited at a certain time.
And at this moment do we meet?
The oil in Ecuador was uncovered in the sixties, but they came to explore much earlier, in the 1920s. But why were the oil wells not opened at that time? So is the situation with gold and copper. There always were here. The discovery of the Amazon River was motivated by the search for gold, from "El Dorado" that was born with the Spanish conquest. Europeans thought that gold was a vegetable that grew on trees(Serie). But at the industrial level, as the large projects currently in the country suggest, it was only exploited a few years ago.
To understand him well: did the industry - having knowledge of the mining deposits in Ecuador - wait for the right moment to remove the metals from the earth?
Somehow yes. The advantage of Ecuador being a small country, which does not paint much in the world, is that here the phenomena of neighboring countries arrive late and we have learned certain lessons. Then, mining came when other communities were already alerted to what was happening with mining in Colombia or Peru. It was governments who led the way to large-scale mining, but communities have resisted and continue to resist. One of the emblematic struggles in Ecuador, along with the fight for pollution in the Amazon, is the fight against mining in Intag, which has more than 20 years of resistance. The one who defeated Intag, bringing in the army and the police, getting directly involved, is Rafael Correa. I'm sure Correa was a mining agent for the Chinese. I have never seen a president - like bishops - so imbued in mass costumes to convince the faithful not to sin. This is what Correa was looking for: that mining be heaven. He was and continues to be a nefarious character, because he was a direct mining agent who used the power of the state to break the resistance, when the role of a president is the opposite: to establish dialogue so that the people are the decision-maker.
The majority of the population today lives in cities or urban centers, not only in Ecuador. What importance do you see in the fact that many territories are dispossessed and that people have lost contact with the land and, therefore, the awareness of what contamination by the extractive industry means, in this case mining?
Ecuador is a country whose reality has distorted itself. Ecuador stopped being rural and became urban precisely because the countryside was completely abandoned: a very precarious reality, without any opportunity or qualification to grow as humanity. Being a peasant here was the ultimate, even more so an indigenous peasant. The exercise of the exclusion that we have for the countryside and the preferences for the city, is that civilizing exercise of comfort, of comfort that exists in cities. That was the vision of the State and of society and it still is.
At the end of the short "Hatun Pandemia" the field is shown where two children are helping the peasant. Why?
Because the future is not ours, but of these children. If one must fight for the future, one must think and realize the imaginary that is not the big, hollow, empty house. It is the same house, but with a hope and a new, different color, like a different dawn that are the children, that are the grandchildren, that is tomorrow. That means commitment to this dream and to these rights. Because the rights are not for the usufruct and the exercise of now. It is the projection that tomorrow is tomorrow. Only in Ecuador the rights are made of plasticine, as if it were the weather: today it dawns cloudy, tomorrow with rain, the day after with sun. They interpret them as they please, according to interest, but they are not! Rights are a principle of existence and these children have the right to a different life and to a life that is seen there in these shots.
Text: Romano Paganini
Edition and Production: Vicky Novillo Rameix & Mayra Lucia Caiza
Main photo: Immense and long-term environmental impacts: a large open pit mining in West Virginia, USA.(Screenshot / Hatum Pandemic)
Networks:María Caridad Villacís & Victoria Jaramillo