This is part of a series of think pieces reflecting on the importance of bringing the social dimension back into discussions about green economy and sustainable development.
A community in Ecuador has found ways to improve its livelihood and well-being through ecologically responsible actions. Responding to local manifestations of global crises, community members have developed creative solutions that balance economic, social and environmental concerns.
is Professor of Global Studies, Women’s and Gender Studies at the Winona State University. For over two decades, she has conducted research with the Intag community in Ecuador, on which this think piece is based.
Women and men in the Ecuadorian region of Intag—an extremely diverse cloud forest area in the northwest of the country—have found ways to improve their livelihoods and well-being through ecologically responsible actions. Responding to local manifestations of global crises, they have developed creative solutions to balance economic, social and environmental concerns. These stakeholders have also built political and economic capacities within the local context by prioritizing grassroots democratic participation and including vulnerable groups.
When their environment and way of life were threatened, these women and men—known as Inteñas and Inteños—increasingly collaborated with each other and outside groups to shape green economy. First, they acknowledged—and sought to protect—linkages between human and environmental security, which became the legal framework for development in the 2001 Ecological Ordinance of Cotacachi County. As smallholder farmers, they formalized their participation in fair trade and forest governance to protect ecosystems, watersheds, biodiversity, and their own economic and cultural survival. These actions generated social institutions to safeguard water security, food sovereignty and cultural values while preventing deforestation and degradation. The stories of these people provide a template to conceptualize social dimensions of alternative development that includes gender and culture. In this case, the sociocultural dimensions of green economy reaffirm traditions in ways that mutually enhance human and ecosystem security.
Intag is a region covering some 1,800 square kilometres. It is located in the western part of the county of Cotacachi in Imbabura Province, on the occidental flanks of the Andes. Parts of Intag are set in two of the world’s biodiversity hotspots—the Chocó and the Tropical Andes. Intag also borders the Cotacachi-Capayas Ecological Reserve. These regions together make up the largest remnants of Ecuador’s northwestern forests, 90 per cent of which have disappeared in the last half-century. These forests are significant because they contain vast amounts of biodiversity, with plants that are adapted to absorb moisture from clouds. In addition, because Intag’s cloud forests function as a sponge that supports the hydrological cycle, these subtropical zones are critical for mitigating climate change by regulating the water cycle in global ecosystems. These ecological advantages translate directly into livelihood benefits by providing food, agriculture and water security—some of the fundamental principles adopted by Ecuador’s 2008 Constitution of Montecristi, known as the Right to Well-Being/Sumak Kawsay /El Buen Vivir
, and the Rights of Nature and Mother Earth/Pachamama
. These principles integrate basic human and environmental rights within the context of a plural society.
Decentralization, democratic openings and civic participation
The county of Cotacachi is comprised of parishes and is governed by a municipal mayor, parish and community presidents, as well as various issue-based committees. Indigenous Mayor Auki Tituaña (1996–2009) reorganized the county’s government at the beginning of his first term, and citizens’ committees were formed in each parish to debate issues and elect leaders to the Cotacachi County Assembly for Unity. This assembly was structured as a form of co-governance whereby parish committees assembled each year in the county seat to consider issues that affected them. By building local institutions, the Inteños and Inteñas formed organizations to better the quality of their lives. Rather than weakening the government, decentralization strengthened it by broadening civic participation while affording citizens opportunities in a green economy.
Globalization in Intag: Emergence of diverse social actors and new forms of civil society
By the early twentieth century, Intag attracted landowners and colonos
, or homesteaders, who farmed sugar, sisal, timber (for outside markets) and subsistence crops. Currently, most of the 14,000 mestizo, indigenous-Kichwa and Afro-Ecuadorian residents are subsistence farmers, and local economies depend largely on cattle, agriculture, migration, timber, ecotourism and a growing service economy. Physical mobility is a constant challenge as landslides are not uncommon on the gravel road that cuts through steep Andean slopes which descend rapidly to the Pacific. Most people get around on foot, horseback or mule, in the back of a truck or by bus.
In the early 1990s, copper deposits were identified in the Toisán Range near the hamlet of Junín in García Moreno parish. This became part of a plan to map out mineral locations—a plan commissioned and financed by the government of Ecuador, the Japan International Cooperation Agency and the World Bank. As extractive industries attempted to establish a mine that would process mountaintops to obtain the less than 1 per cent of copper present, locals and global allies started to create sustainable options and establish broad coalitions (see below). With increased global support, and along with the emergence of bimonthly editions of a local newspaper that focused on environmental justice, a regional green identity was created. Popular protests succeeded in preventing the mine from opening. However, social conflict over natural resources continues to impact ecological communities in Intag, in some cases leaving social and environmental scars. Residents remain on guard because, as a woman remarked, “like a nightmare, the minerals are still in the soil”.
Building coalitions, transnational alliances and gendered environmentalism
After copper deposits were identified close to the hamlet of Junín, Inteños and Inteñas developed a socioecological discourse that generated support from outside groups. In
1996, the first non-governmental organization (NGO)—known as the Ecological Defense and Conservation of Intag (DECOIN)—was formed under the leadership of a Catholic priest, a Cuban-American expatriate and a few others. DECOIN quickly disseminated information and raised political awareness about environmental rights and the value of ecosystem biodiversity for residents’ livelihoods. Through transnational communication, global ecologists and other activists kept their focus on Intag and raised revenue for conservation and green income-generating projects in the region. In retrospect, several Inteñas and Inteños point out that the extractive threat catalysed efforts and motivated them toward green economies of scale, from households and farms to communities and watersheds. Local initiatives were aimed at improving socioecological well-being and were linked to national and global priorities. The following section uses specific events to illustrate a model where women and men work together to meet their cultural and material needs without getting into ecological debt.
Emergence of green economy
Since the mid-1990s, NGOs stepped in as government services were reduced. In Intag, international NGOs supported a fair trade (and shade-grown) coffee cooperative, fostered democratic participation and supported projects on ecotourism, agroecology, reforestation, cooperatives, education and small-scale fisheries.
The inclusive discourse that emerged meant that women’s perspectives and interests were considered, as well as the ecological and spiritual bases of life that involved Nature and Pachamama
. In 1996, the first women’s group was formed in the parish of Plaza Gutiérrez—adjacent to an ecotourism reserve—to create economic alternatives that were culturally, socially and environmentally just. The women began producing handicrafts from sisal, a local succulent plant used for rope-making. They received design and sales assistance from an artist from the United States and created fair trade commercial networks. Leaders recount that some of the women’s husbands were not supportive of their participation outside the home. However, as the women generated revenue for their households, and developed more confidence and ideas about resource management, gender norms became more flexible. Their roles expanded in households, sometimes temporarily due to migration, or as co-partners who helped provide food and other necessities for their families. The women’s group also agreed to host visitors and students in their individual homes, which put them on the cusp of intercultural exchanges. Not only did this help the women revalue traditions and learn about biodiversity, it also provided many personal exchanges with mostly young women studying, volunteering and exploring their potential. In several cases, this translated into empowerment for Intag girls and women, and increased self-worth through education, more sustainable income-generating opportunities, and peace through greater social equity and ecosystem health.
In April 2009, I participated in a minga
, a traditional and cooperative work party in the community of El Paraíso. The goal was to reforest areas unsuitable for pasture because they were too steep. Community leaders coordinated with local, regional and international organizations, and received funding from German conservationists to purchase and title their watershed and other forests. Part of the project involved women and men beginning a tree nursery of native species, which they then planted. Digging was done by men, and women gathered saplings in cloths on their backs, carried them up the steep mountainside and planted them. One woman with little formal education, but a sustainable vision for the future, told me that she participated in the project because “we have to correct the errors of our ancestors”.
According to her, justice meant securing water and food through sustainable practices
rather than those that led to environmental degradation. They had already experienced
water scarcity at the community school, and their efforts to reforest were to remedy that
These and other stories form a mosaic where relationships have shifted and expanded to include Nature and Pachamama.
Human and natural resources complement each other, and women are key in leveraging an inclusive approach to green economies that value and protect those resources. By protecting environmental rights, habitats are also protected for the shared benefit of all.