Ecuador. Alexandra Narvaez & Alex Lucitante. “We are people, who care for the earth”.

Two young leaders from the A’i Cofán community of Sinangoe in Ecuador led a movement to protect their people’s ancestral territory from gold mining.

Their leadership resulted in a historic legal victory in October 2018, when Ecuador’s courts cancelled 52 illegal gold mining concessions, which were illegally granted without the consent of their Cofán community. The community’s legal success protects 79,000 acres of pristine, biodiverse rainforest in the headwaters of Ecuador’s Aguarico River, which is sacred to the Cofán.

The ancestral territory of the Cofán of Sinangoe, located in northern Ecuador around the Cayambe-Coca National Park, covers more than 1,500 square miles of rainforests, wetlands, glacial lagoons, and snowcapped mountains, including the Cayambe volcano. The area is home to 3,000 species of plants, 50 mammal species, 650 bird species, and 100 types of reptiles and amphibians. Additionally, the region is among the most carbon-dense pockets in the Amazon.

The Cofán territory lies inside a biodiverse tropical forest at the headwaters of the Aguarico River, a tributary of the Amazon River. The Cofán are a small nation, numbering just 1,200, and their culture is deeply connected to the land and water. Their way of life depends upon the rivers and forests, with a reliance on subsistence agriculture, hunting, and wild harvesting.

Despite Cofán land titles, the Ecuadorian government has not completely recognized the ancestral lands of the Cofán community, which has protected the territory for thousands of years. The rainforest located within Cofán territory is continuously under threat from illegal logging, small-scale illegal mining, and poaching. Instead of advancing further protection of this biodiversity hotspot, the government has pressed for opening the area up to large-scale gold mining.

Alex Lucitante, 31, and Alexandra Narvaez, 32, are two young Cofán who felt a profound responsibility to protect their ancestral territory and the source of their culture and livelihoods. Alex comes from a family of traditional healers and is a member of the Ceibo Alliance, an Indigenous coalition that unites various groups to protect their territories, rights, and cultures. He hopes to become an attorney to be able to continue to help the Cofán and others defend their territory and way of life.

Alexandra grew up knowing that her role was to defend women and her territory, and to lift the voices of the voiceless. Along with Cofán youths and elders, she formed a forest patrol called La Guardia in 2017 to monitor and halt illegal activities taking place in their territory. Alexandra is also part of an association of women called Shamec’co, of which she’s been the president since 2019. The group seeks to safeguard Cofán territory for the next generations.

In 2017, La Guardia began spotting makeshift mining encampments along the riverbanks in remote parts of their land and within the national park, with loggers, poachers, and illegal gold miners operating actively.

Soon after, in January 2018, during land patrols along the Aguarico River, the Cofán discovered heavy machinery designed to excavate on a large scale. Upon further investigation, they learned that the Ecuadorian government had issued 20 large-scale mining concessions with 32 more concessions pending. The concessions were granted in Cofán territory on the periphery of the national park—without informing or consulting the community.

Upon the discovery of mining operations and concessions, Alex and Alexandra first sought to unify the Cofán and develop a plan to protect their land. The duo supported the community in the development of a strategy to monitor the area affected by the mining. They stepped up patrols by foot and boat to spot and report illegal mining, logging, and fishing in the territory.

They placed camera traps along remote trails to photograph illegal incursions, used GIS tools to map threats to the land, and operated drones over rivers and creeks to document illegal activities from above. The patrols and evidence-gathering led to a meticulous archive of images, footage, and maps that would become critical evidence in the Cofán legal challenge of the mining concessions.

While Alexandra organized the patrols and served as the spokesperson for the community of Sinangoe, Alex spearheaded the legal and media strategies. He coordinated legal trainings, organized downriver communities to join the campaign, formed a media campaign to generate national and international support, and helped bring on more than 60 national and international organizations and 14 local communities into the campaign.

In early 2018, the duo led the Cofán community in the filing of a lawsuit against Ecuador’s government for violating their rights as an Indigenous community and illegally granting mining concessions without free, prior, and informed consent.

In July 2018, Ecuador’s provincial court nullified the 52 mining concessions that the government had granted in violation of the Cofán right to consultation. The Ecuadorian government appealed the ruling and court proceedings continued for three months. The duo organized delegations of Cofán and neighbouring Indigenous groups to demonstrate in front of the courthouse.

Then, in October 2018, the court ruled again in favour of the Cofán. The Court also ruled that the concessions violated the right to a healthy environment and clean water, calling for remediation of the area damaged by previous mining activity. All current mining operations were halted and pending concessions were canceled. The decision closed the door to gold mining in their homeland.

Alex and Alexandra led the Cofán community of Sinangoe to a landmark legal victory that protected the headwaters of the Aguarico River and 79,000 acres of primary rainforest from gold mining. The victory has set a key precedent in Ecuador, where the country’s Constitutional Court is using the case as an example—with a public hearing in the Amazon in November 2021—of how to respect the rights of Indigenous peoples and guarantee free, prior, and informed consent.

In 2022 they received the Goldman Environmental Prize – known as the ‘green Nobel’ – for their efforts. “Now the survival of our people is guaranteed,” says Lucitante.

Narváez believed their victory was something for the whole world to celebrate. “All Indigenous people and nationalities won, so this represents a historic moment for all,” she says. “We all walk on the same land so let’s unite. Because the future that we are fighting for belongs to all of us.”

(The Goldman Environment Report – Photo Goldman Environmental Prize)



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