In this essay, I examine the visual iconography produced by three different but overlapping anti-mining collectivities. The images and symbols produced between 2008 and 2018 comprise a visual discourse that challenges some aspect of mining activity in the county of Cuenca, Ecuador. A term originally developed by Deborah Poole, visual discourses are concerned with intersections of representation, power, and knowledge, which “constitute means of intervening in the world”—that is, they orient toward specific ways of viewing and acting in the world.1 In Ecuador, visual discourses are artifacts and agents in assembling collectivities against various forms of dispossession. A raised fist and Canadian dragon, the Andean chakana, and the image of pristine páramos offer an opening to analyze the composition of the heterogeneous collectivities, their political discourses, and actions.2 They are simultaneously cultural objects produced by activists and an actor that helped constitute collective action related to gold mining.
I examine the visual discourses as an entry point to reconsider homogeneous representations of ambientalistas (environmentalists) produced by the Ecuadorian government. When I began my research in 2008, the country was embroiled in heated public debates over the future of gold and copper extraction. Although Ecuador is not widely considered a país minero, the influx of investment resulting from a World Bank loan prompted the administration of Rafael Correa to pursue a neoextractivist agenda in which greater profit sharing of mining revenues would be reinvested in social welfare programs for the poor. The former president often made public declarations such as “we cannot be beggars sitting on a sack of gold” and “we cannot go back to the caveman age” to naturalize extraction and generate popular support for legislative reforms.3 Indeed, the president called environmental activists “turncoats,” who were extreme, irrational, and infantile environmentalists.4 Public debates polarized the country between those who supported mineral extraction and those who were against it. In small towns and rural parishes, residents had to navigate which grocery stores, taxis, or cyber-net cafés to patronize depending on “whether they are with us or not.”5 Designating populations as either ambientalistas or mineros worked as a governing strategy and a crucial step in the criminalization of environmental defenders.6
My research was conducted alongside a heterogeneous group of environmental activists, some of whom were personally identified and had their reputations attacked by the former president during his weekly radio show. Their activism was organized around two major mine projects, Loma Larga (then referred to as Quimsacocha) and Río Blanco, in the county of Cuenca. Both projects are located in the upland páramo wetlands and intersect with protected areas that provide drinking water for rural and urban residents. The Río Blanco project is within the Molleturo-Mollepongo protected forest and in the El Cajas National Park buffer zone. Loma Larga and Río Blanco are located within the United Nations (UN) designated Massif of Cajas Biosphere Reserve. Extraction in Río Blanco began in 2018; meanwhile, the Canadian company INV Metals awaits final permits to move the Loma Larga project forward. Redirecting attention to visual discourses produced by activists illustrates complexity within anti-mining movements and their relationship to the environment.
A RAISED FIST AND A CANADIAN DRAGON
In early 2008, men, women, and children gathered around the bandshell in the plaza of Montecristi, Ecuador. Environmental activists took their turn at the microphone simultaneously denouncing mineral extraction and invoking their resolve to defend life. Among the first, a lowland campesino proclaimed to the crowd, “We are not going to permit that our sovereignty continue to be negotiated by the same transnational [mining] companies that have been gobbling up our natural resources…. Long live the struggle of the organized people to defend water and life until death.” The man stood in front of a banner that identified the group: “The National Coordinating Committee for the Defense of Life and Sovereignty” with the image of a raised fist inside of a green water drop. Next to it hung another banner depicting a campesino with a machete in flames ready to slay a dragon wearing a hard hat with the Canadian flag.
The National Coordinating Committee for the Defense of Life and Sovereignty (CNDVS, by its Spanish acronym) was established in 2007 in the city of Cuenca as an umbrella group to unify place-based mining struggles, including campesinos affected by Loma Larga and Río Blanco projects. Across Ecuador, organized opposition to mineral extraction and exploration grew as people became concerned about the effects of gold and copper mine projects on agrarian livelihoods, watersheds, and indigenous territories. Although the CNDVS initially included an environmental NGO from Quito and community water system leaders, the organization became associated with two activists from the lowland group, the Coordinadora Campesina Popular (CCP), a militant pro-worker, pro-campesino group. They viewed the political field as a fight between el pueblo (the people) and a capitalist state who ruled in favor of “foreign invaders.”
The fist and dragon symbolically communicated the militant reputation earned by CNDVS. In 2007, the anti-mining coalition rejected the state-led Gran Diálogo Minero, which aimed to resolve national mining conflicts through a dialogue with transnational mining companies, rural communities, and artisanal miners. As leader Julia Salazar once noted, “We the Ecuadorians, we have no reason to dialogue with foreign invaders.” Mining companies did not consult local communities, as Julia argued, and so their actions constituted a territorial “invasion” and violation of national sovereignty. As an alternative, the CNDVS established the “Dialogue for Life,” which called on the government to declare Ecuador free of large-scale metal mining. The “Dialogue for Life” was a series of rotating community forums through which the CNDVS expanded its influence into new areas, bringing an anti-imperialist language and imagery to place-based mining struggles that had remained localized and marginalized to national politics until then. The forums were a political rally in which a militant pueblo was forged. Anti-mining sentiments were publicly performed through radical rejection of mining projects as “projects of death,” a loyalty to the cause, and criticism of the government.7 Terms like vendepatria were often used by CNDVS leaders and repeated by others to describe the president for selling out the nation to foreign companies. The assemblies were also spaces of consciousness-raising: campesinos were shown videos and images of sick children and polluted streams caused by industrial mining activity, reinforcing the language of life and death that accompanied mining-related activism.
Although the fist and the dragon overlap in their ideological aspects, they are distinguished by their different capacity to gather and assemble collectivities. The fist was easily reproducible and circulated widely on everything from protest banners to letterhead and leaflets along with the tagline “Get Out Transnational Mining Companies.”8 When placed on a banner and in a street full of marching campesinos and students, the fist gave visual coherency to a protest movement made of multiple place-based collectivities as campesinos would bring their own hand written signs that specified their community and the mining company they opposed (Figure 1). Symbolically, the clenched fist placed the heterogeneous campesinos and associated groups into an international and national history of militant political action. The raised fist first appeared in European strikes in the late nineteenth century and was adopted by the International Workers of the World and the Communist Party of Germany.9 In Ecuador, the raised fist enabled a broad-based anti-mining movement that united campesinos and indígenas with university students organized under the Federation of University Students of Ecuador and faculty affiliated with the Movimiento Partido Democratico (MPD)—both with Marxist, anti-imperialist political tendencies—and whose symbols bear a clenched fist. University students marched alongside the campesino and indigenous protesters holding the line in road blockades. Because the fist was widely recognized by Ecuadorian militant groups and already held political meaning, it worked well to “gather” a diverse group of allies.
In contrast, the dragon image requires artistic skill and attention to detail in order to reproduce. It did not circulate as widely, held no particular meaning in other political contexts, and had little power to gather allies. Instead, the dragon symbolically positioned activists as defenders of the nation, which was significant at a time when rumors circulated that the two visible leaders were, in fact, “outsiders” with their own political interests. The content of the rumors varied from clandestine accusations made by then Governor Oswaldo Larriva that CNDVS leaders had hidden motives to some community water system leaders in the parish of Victoria del Portete who believed that Julia was complicit with the international copper industry because her brother owned mines.10 The rumors placed Julia as a “betrayer” of the nation—a gendered accusation that undermines women's agency by positioning her as a morally corrupt woman who deceives men.
This theme was echoed in a comic published and widely circulated in 2008 by the Secretariat of Peoples, Social Movements, and Citizen Participation. In the comic titled “Mining in Ecuador: A Source of Hope,” an indigenous man and Afro-Ecuadorian women comment on a group of anti-mining protesters. He says, “We don't know if their position is sincere or if they respond to other interests. People say that there is a presence of foreign groups linked to the international mining industry who don't want to see Ecuador as a competitor.”11 In this semantic field, the dragon's appearance at CNDVS meetings, protests, and rallies flipped the script. It positioned visible CNDVS leaders like Julia as a defender of the nation while representing mining as a foreign enemy.
Driving along the highway, my friend and anti-mining activist points out which houses are “with us” and which ones are not. There is no mistaking where Chemo's loyalties lay. He has a single-story home with wooden doors and a flag hanging from the front. The blue flag tattered and worn with wind and time bears an Andean chakana (Inkan cross) inside of a blue water drop with the words “No Minería en fuentes de agua Kimsacocha.”12 The faded chakana flag is an artifact of a national water law debate, and its display was a common practice among rural households. When hung in front of their homes, the chakana flag assembled campesinos from across neighborhood, parish, and social lines into a community of activists. The flag identified Chemo as part of a water defense movement in which Pre-Columbian iconography was used to defend the Río Irquis watershed from mineral extraction.
Chemo does not consider himself indigenous. In fact, his relative wealth as a mid-scale dairy farmer with some of the best pasture lands, along with his last name and light skin, place him in a locally “white” racial category. Chemo was among the first to question controversial plans to extract gold from the Río Irquis watershed, which provides irrigation and drinking water to rural residents downstream from the proposed mine site. As an irrigation board member, he banded with others in the parish of Victoria del Portete to lead scientific water-quality studies. After petitioning various levels of the government and when the municipality failed to respond, he and others radicalized their measures and shut down elections in the parish in 2006. By 2007, Chemo and his fellow board leaders participated in some CNDVS events, but would eventually join Carlos (now Yaku Sacha) Pérez Guartambel, then president of the Sistema Comunitario de Agua Tarqui-Victoria del Portete, who turned community water boards into a political force against mineral extraction.
The chakana became widely incorporated into activists' repertoire in 2009 when the government released a draft water law that sparked opposition from the national indigenous movement and rural community water systems. Considered “progressive” legislation by some sectors, the new water law centralized state control over water, defined water as a human right, and explicitly prohibited water privatization. However, indigenous leaders pointed to loopholes that allowed the monopolization of water in the hands of private sector entities. Community water systems also denounced the draft law on two grounds. First, it allowed mineral extraction in watersheds and environmentally sensitive zones when such projects were declared in the national interest, and second, it placed previously autonomous community water boards under government regulation thereby treating community systems as private interest groups.
The use of the chakana as a protest icon and symbol coincided with the reorganization of the relationship between campesinos organized against the Quimsacocha mine project and the national and regional indigenous movement. If the CNDVS's use of the clenched fist constituted a militant coalition around a color-blind nationalism, the chakana visually aligned water users with the national indigenous movement bringing into view watersheds and landscapes as life-generating entities. Unlike the Canadian dragon that visually framed landscapes as a site through which national sovereignty is constructed and disputed, the chakana is a visual discourse that references indigenous cosmology bringing to bear a new layer of meaning to these densely coded landscapes.
Easily reproducible, the chakana's political life was multiple: it appeared in upland rituals to conjure the pachamama, on banners and letterhead, and as emblems on clothing and jewelry. When the chakana was used in lakeside rituals in the upland páramo, activists underscored the Inkan cross as a symbol for harmonious human and nonhuman relationships. As part of the activism against the proposed water law, water board leaders and users traveled to the upland Río Irquis watershed where the Quimsacocha mining project was located. Indigenous and catholic ceremonies were repeatedly performed during the water law debates, transforming Quimsacocha into Kimsacocha—a space of life, which connected campesinos directly to the upland watershed. In daily conversations, campesino activists referred to Kimsacocha as the pachamama (mother earth)—a place-based entity whose bodily integrity was crucial to their reproduction. Referencing long-standing Catholic beliefs with new indigenous iconography, in 2010 activists erected a stone virgin holding a water vessel with a chakana at Kimsacocha (Figure 2). When etched in stone and placed at the Kimsacocha alter, the chakana demarcates an ethical politics of place-based specificity off-limits to extraction.
When the chakana was adopted into protest banners and official letterhead, the chakana brought together national indigenous organization with campesino water users who had not considered themselves indigenous. A multicolored chakana that frames a water drop was adopted as the emblem for the Federation of Indigenous and Campesino Organizations of Azuay (FOA)—a group previously known as the Federation of Campesino Organizations. The campesino advocacy group became a “base” organization for ECUARUNARI and CONAIE in 2012 and includes users of the Sistema Comunitario de Agua Tarqui-Victoria del Portete. Relations with indigenous politicians and national organizations allowed water users to scale up their struggle, placing anti-mining politics squarely into the agenda of the national indigenous movement and transformed campesinos into members of the indigenous movement. When worn as a piece of jewelry by visible leaders like Yaku, the chakana came to symbolize a direct challenge to the dispossession of identity and history that accompanies colonialism.13 As recounted by FOA leaders, campesino families embraced the tenets of mestizaje as a form of cultural whitening making it difficult, if not impossible, to organize campesinos along racial/ethnic lines prior to the water law debates. The chakana was a small, but potent symbol that bridged water defense with indigenous identity politics.
The images of pristine páramos recently appeared in campaign efforts of municipal officials to safeguard city drinking water supplies. Neither randomly selected nor an unmediated representation of the Andean landscape, images of the pristine páramo constitute a visual discourse that links water with life, conjuring a specific kind of urban environmental movement that questions the legitimacy of mineral extraction in watersheds.
On 27 August 2018, the mayor of Cuenca, Marcelo Cabrera, tweeted a 48-second video from his social media account: “My position has always been to defend water and life. We are peaceful people and together we will protect nature.” Animated photos invite the viewer to soar above páramo lakes, peek through dewy purple flowers, and traverse jagged Andean peaks. Each photo with its own caption spelled out the message “This is what we defend. Our vital liquid. Our páramos. Our county is located in a privileged place. We are surrounded by wetlands and páramos. The best water in the country, is the one we have. Its care is our responsibility. Water is life.”14
The Ecuadorian mayor did not need to directly reference the contentious Río Blanco gold mine operated by the Chinese firm Ecuagoldmining S.A. for Twitter users to understand the significance of the video. One person tweeted in response: “Cuenca's water already has a law that protects it as a Protected Area, all of this is pure politiquería … and if you want to talk about #RíoBlanco, you more than anyone else should know it is not inside Cajas [National Park]. Another tweet read: “Congratulations Mr. Mayor @MarceloHCabrera for defending our water before gold.” The mayor's video was tweeted in celebration of a campesino-led legal victory that suspended gold extraction in Río Blanco. Campesinos, many of whom were originally part of the CNDVS group, filed the successful legal petition with Yaku Sacha Pérez Guartambel.
When journalist Jennifer Moore and I conducted interviews with municipal agencies in 2009, it was unimaginable that officials would align themselves with, let alone celebrate the victory of, campesinos. Officials were concerned with potential impacts of large-scale metal mining, but believed that mining could be compatible with water conservation. They echoed the perspectives of the environmental manager at the municipal water agency ETAPA who believed that it would be “easier to regulate one company rather than two hundred” small-scale miners who may do more damage. Back then, officials largely viewed anti-mining activists as radicals. However, once the mining problem was reframed as a city problem, municipal institutions began to act. Silvia from the Yasunidos-Guapondélig (Cuenca) chapter explained how urban politicians became anti-mining activists. Yasunidos, an environmental coalition to protect the Yasuní National Park from oil extraction, turned its attention to local environmental struggles. The UN Declaration of the Massif of Cajas as a Biosphere presented an opportunity to “develop a new discourse from ‘anti-mining’ to ‘defending water.’” The declaration allowed activists to talk more generally about mining effects on water and include the El Cajas National Park in the discourse to defend Cuenca's water supply. Through Silvia's connections, Yasunidos was able to contact municipal council members. She recounts, in an interview on September 5, 2018: “So, we started talking about mining's effects on Cuenca's water supply. People get it because it is their water. People see Molleturo or Victoria [del Portete] as distant, but when it is about their water they start to act. At the same time that we were working with the council members, ETAPA said that the city drinking water was secured only for a limited amount of years … and that also helped bring attention to the issue of Cuenca's water supply.”
Municipal council members adopted a resolution in September 2011 which demanded that President Rafael Correa “immediately suspend mineral exploitation.” In January 2017, the municipal council met again and emitted a second resolution in which it declared the entire county of Cuenca—and in particular, the Biosphere of the Massif of Cajas—as “free of large-scale metal mining.” Furthermore, it “exhorts that the Central Government through the Ministry of Mining suspend exploitation and exploration of metal mining in the Río Blanco and Loma Larga (Quimsacocha) projects” (original in bold). The latter declaration emerged at the behest of Mayor Cabrera. The mayor had become embroiled in a battle with the national government, which refused to supply the municipality with permission to enter the mine site or information necessary to conduct an independent hydrogeological study.
As a visual discourse, the circulation of the “pristine páramo” image challenges national law, which prohibits extractive activities within National Parks, but not in buffer zones. Images that circulate of the “pristine paramo” show the rock outcrops of the Massif of Cajas and the lakes that characterize the upland part of the Massif. Pictures do not indicate whether they are inside or outside El Cajas National Park blurring the boundary between the park and the buffer zone (Figure 3). This allows activists to visually represent the páramo as part of a single hydrogeological system that spans across the county of Cuenca, and which includes Loma Larga and Río Blanco. This implies a scalar shift in the campaign away from treating each mine project as distinct to a regional campaign to protect the Massif of Cajas.
The UN Declaration brought new visual strategies to bear on extractive problems. For some Cuencanos, the term Cajas refers to the National Park. However, the declaration of the Biosphere helped activists stretch the discursive meaning of Cajas from a park to a broader area that includes its buffer zones. Of course, this strategy has its detractor as seen in the angry response to Mayor Cabrera's Twitter post in which the person reasserts the boundaries between Cajas as a National Park designated for conservation and the buffer zones which allows mining under the current legislation.
In August 2018, Silvia, Nelson, and I reminisced while cleaning up after a Yasunidos meeting. Both Julia and Nelson were once prominent members of the CNDVS undertaking a role in supporting and organizing campesino activism. I was just starting my doctoral research when I met them in January 2008. Nelson said, “Do you remember that sign with the machete all aflame?” We laughed. We all remembered it well. It was the one with the Canadian dragon that said “Fuera Mineras Imperialistas.” Silvia said, “People don't respond to that language. It doesn't work. It doesn't have to do with the reality of people.”
An examination of the iconography of environmental movements reveals the heterogeneity of mining activism in the county of Cuenca. When governments, activists, and journalists frame movements as two dichotomous sides—as mineros or ambientalistas or as friends or enemies of development—they flatten out important divergences among anti-mining activism. The dragon and the fist, the chakana, and the pristine páramo are visual discourses that when attached to certain materials such as banners, stone virgins, or jewelry make possible certain alliances and claims. They draw our view to different entities (Pachamama or Cajas); to different scales (national territory or place-based specificity); and to different political traditions (Marxist movements or the indigenous movement). While multiplicity is a key part of this story—and one that challenges government representations of activists as terrorists or turncoats—the conversations between Nelson and Silvia also underscore convergence and growth in activism.
Critical anthropology is often positioned against activist research methods, with the implication that politically positioned research cannot capture the complexities of traditional academic work. Research aligned with anti-mining activists captures the tension, multiplicity, and continuous change that enliven anti-mining movements. In challenging homogeneous representations of activists as simply ambientalistas, the analysis raises questions that fall outside of the scope of this essay: What are the relations and dynamics among the diverse groups, and do their strategies ultimately undermine the others' efforts? For instance, while municipal officials have aligned themselves with campesinos, in their visual strategies such as the Twitter video sent by the mayor, campesinos disappear from view. If saving Cajas requires making campesinos absent, what does that imply for municipal ability to respect campesino claims to territorial autonomy?