"We Don’t Choose to Be Land Defenders, We Are Born Land Defenders"

Kichwa activist Leo Cerda discusses the crucial role of national and global alliances in transitioning from extractive fossil fuels to greener alternatives.

December 19, 2023

Kichwa activist Leo Cerda at an anti-mining march on Black and Indigenous Liberation Day in Tena, Ecuador. (Eliana Lafone)

Representing a huge win for Ecuador's Indigenous groups, this year the country held a referendum on extractivism, the first of its kind worldwide. On August 20, citizens headed to the polling stations to choose whether to halt oil exploitation in the Yasuní National Park in the Amazon and prohibit mining in the Chocó Andino region in the Andes. The historic victory for the rights of nature on both accounts came after a decade of tireless campaigning from grassroots groups across Ecuador, including far-reaching and strategic digital campaigns.

But these are not the only ballot papers citizens were handed in August. The turbulent general election competed for headlines, alongside the worsening security crisis which largely overshadowed it. The first round witnessed anti-corruption candidate Villavencio assassinated in broad daylight, followed by the surprise victory of center-right candidate Daniel Noboa, heir to a banana empire, during the second. Yet to be answered is whether Noboa will honor the referendum result in the face of competing economic demands and the urgent security situation, closely linked to environmental issues the country is facing.

In this interview, we speak to one of the people at the heart of the Sí Al Yasuní campaign, Kichwa activist Leo Cerda. Leo grew up in the Ecuadorian Amazon, in the village of Serena. He has spent most of his adult life protecting this territory from intensifying threats posed by legal and illegal mining. Leo has spoken at the United Nations and COP26, and leads several Indigenous-led initiatives such as the Hakhu media foundation and its offshoot, the sustainable fashion brand Hakhu Amazon Design. He is also the co-founder of BILM, the unprecedented Black and Indigenous Liberation Movement which aims to create Americas-wide alliances to tackle issues of identity and extractivism.

Leo talks to us about his personal journey as an activist, the 10-year-long Yasuní campaign, and the key role digital storytelling played in winning the vote. He also talks about the threats his community in Serena faces and the importance of national and global alliances in pushing forward agendas to transition from fossil fuels to green alternatives.

Rebecca Wilson and Eliana Lafone: What does the referendum result symbolize for you?

Leo Cerda: I think the referendum result is a small step in the right direction. It sets an example for other countries around the world about the rights of nature, the rights of Indigenous people, the guardians of the forests.

But also it demonstrates to the government that Ecuadorian people want something different. They are seeking alternatives to fossil fuel extraction and the systematic destruction it inflicts on our economy. Seventy years ago, in 1969, when the first barrel of oil came from the Ecuadorian Amazon, they promised us development, they promised us prosperity. And in 70 years this hasn’t been achieved for communities. Instead of development, prosperity, access, the government has created pollution, contamination, violence, extinction in the Amazon. Communities don’t even have potable and clean water and yet still they think they can lie to us.

So the communities are saying "no more." We don’t want any more of this type of "development." We want our own development, we want participatory democracy, we want to shift from extractivism to green energy, green jobs.

RW & EL: A lot of people argue that the $1 billion in revenue provide by the oil drilling is critical for Ecuador's economy. How do you respond to these arguments?

LC: First of all, we know that for every $100 the oil industry is bringing to the economy, only $1 stays within Ecuador to invest in education, healthcare, and rehabilitation and remediation of the land after their operations. That is not cost-effective for our country.

Nor do I think it’s cost-effective for the oil companies to drill in the Amazon. New environmental regulations have increased operating costs. So it's becoming less and less attractive for companies to invest in new oil drilling.

Instead, we need to start thinking of alternatives.

RW & EL: We are talking to you in your beautiful home in Serena, seated by the river running through your garden which for the moment is free from contamination. However, we know this part of the Amazon has been devastatingly impacted by extractivism. Can you tell us a bit about how your territory has changed over the past few decades?

LC: I was born here in Serena at a time when there was no electricity, no construction, no bridges. It’s changed a lot over the course of my life. Just the introduction of electricity has changed the dynamics of the village significantly; before when there was no electricity, we’d go to bed very early, 6 pm or 7 pm max. It has made us more connected to the world, but it’s also taken a toll on our ways of life and the culture in our village.

Before we didn't have to worry about mining or oil companies, but now that’s the thing we have to focus on the most because we need to protect our land, our territory, our language, and ourselves from the state and companies that want to exploit our natural resources.

In 2020, during the Covid pandemic, the Ecuadorian government handed out 148 new gold mining licenses for companies to extract ore from the Napo River. This happened without any free or prior consultation process, without any communication with the community, they just gave the concessions away without asking us. And that really shook us and the way we organize as a village. Instead of farming and taking care of our families, we were forced to start thinking about how we were going to protect ourselves as a village, as a community, as a culture.

RW & EL: The recent elections were overshadowed by security concerns, and the growing presence of armed groups in Ecuador is linked to a rise in illegal mining. What impacts of this violence have you seen across Ecuador?

LC: Illegal mining began on the coast, but it has now spread across the country. It’s the same mafia groups operating all over, they go from the Amazon to the Andes to the coast, and it’s even transnational because the same illegal miners come from Colombia and Venezuela. They're operating transnationally in Peru. The state needs to take control of the issue because it’s not only mining, it’s drug trafficking, and people trafficking too.

RW & EL: What impacts have you felt in Serena?

LC: Along the river, they have destroyed communities. Only a kilometer from here, communities are poisoned by mercury that miners dump into the river. The kids continue to swim in that water, the women have no choice but to continue using the water from the river for cooking. We fish in this river, we bathe in this river.

The worst part is these people don’t pay taxes. They come here, take the gold, and move away. They leave our forests destroyed, our river destroyed, our way of life destroyed.

How are we going to live? We depend on the water, we depend on nature. If they destroy that, we have nowhere to go and no way to live. We have legal miners, illegal miners. We consider them all illegal miners because we haven't been asked if we want this activity. We have the right to free, prior, and informed consent processes.

Kichwa activist Leo Cerda at an anti-mining march on Black and Indigenous Liberation Day in Tena, Ecuador. (Eliana Lafone)

RW & EL: Tell us a bit about how your community is organizing against this threat of both legal and illegal mining.

LC: The women have organized themselves and are leading the village. They are at the forefront of the fight against mining. They have been creating alliances with communities from across the country, from across the continents, because the problem is similar everywhere. What is happening here is happening to other communities across Ecuador, across the planet, across Latin America.

We are all being attacked. So I think we, as communities on the ground, should unite because we need one single front to influence policy, to make demands to the government that they stop extractivism and instead start thinking about a just transition for the communities.

RW & EL: In 2020, you co-founded the Black and Indigenous Liberation Movement. Can you explain how BILM is working to create alliances across grassroots groups?

LC: The Black and Indigenous Liberation Movement is a network we are building of grassroots groups from across the Americas facing similar struggles. We hosted our second-ever congress last month attended by leaders from 22 countries responding to the threat of mining and to demand climate justice and racial justice. We brought together Indigenous writers, poets, journalists, storytellers, cinematographers. We created a space where communities could feel heard and where these experiences could be turned into fruitful strategizing. Because we need to start thinking about local strategies with a global impact.

RW & EL: Mining communities often spend millions of dollars on their communication campaigns. How do you contend with that?

LC: I think the Yasuní campaign is a good example of how we are able to compete with this. The oil companies were investing millions of dollars in their communications so we had to go big with our campaign.

The campaign began in August 2013 when they first expanded their oil exploitation into Yasuní. We began collecting signatures to call for a national referendum so the citizens could have a say on whether or not oil should be kept in the ground. For 10 years, we walked around the country telling the people of Ecuador that we as citizens should be deciding the future of our country, for the future of the Amazon, and the future of our planet.

So when finally this year our demands were met, we launched our digital campaign to secure the "no" vote. We focused on bringing the stories of the Amazon to the rest of the country. Because here in Ecuador, most of the people on the coast haven't been to the Amazon. So we brought our voices, our stories, our narratives to them through digital campaigning. This meant they could connect with our experiences and with the Amazon, and understand why it’s important that we all as Ecuadorians protect our ecosystems, our water, and our rivers, and why it matters for the global climate crisis.

We even did a song with a group from the coast where they were singing "SíAlYasuní." We connected with them through our shared experience of the destruction of our ways of life. Because as kids, we all have the same memories; we were free, we were in nature. What are we going to leave for the future generations if we don’t protect our way of life?

RW & EL: This year Global Witness reported that Latin America accounted for 88 percent of assassinations of environmental defenders in 2022. Do you and your community ever feel at risk?

LC: Yes, we've been threatened by the miners and by other communities who support the mining. The mining industry creates violence and it has divided our communities, divided families.

What the miners and the oil industry want is to find more oil, more gold and they'll do anything to source it, without any consideration for the people or species who depend on these forests, these rivers.

We have lost a lot of nature over the years and we need to protect what we have left because if we don't, who is going to do it for us? What are we going to leave for the next generations? How are they going to breathe? What water are they going to drink and what nature are they going to enjoy?

The thing is, we don’t choose to be land defenders. We are born land defenders. We are always aware that we have to protect our land from those who try to exploit the territory. We have this intrinsic relationship with the territory because without the river, without the forests, we are no one. If our territory is contaminated, then we are contaminated.  

RW & EL:  Tell us about your personal journey as an environmental defender

LC: I grew up here and I have always felt that as an Indigenous person, you have to be aware of what’s happening with your territory because Indigenous territories are disproportionately targeted for extractivism and mining.

I was sent off to school, first to Quito to study International Relations and then to South Korea where I studied Public Administration. I chose to study International Relations because I needed to understand how policy worked and I wanted to know why the policies that my government is making are affecting my people more than the rest of the population. [Leo also has a PhD in Public Policy.]

RW & EL:  Was there a moment where you felt a shift in your activism?

LC: Yes, when the mining began in my territory, I shifted the focus of my activism to protecting our land. The experience I had developed while away meant I was ready to move back and fight. I was ready to support my community.

It's a journey. I’ve gone full circle. I grew up here, then I went to school and then I needed to come back and give that capacity back to our community, because a lot of people do not have that possibility. And that's what community is, what collaboration is, what movement building is.

RW & EL: Finally, what message would you give to others who want to protect their communities or the Amazon more broadly?

LC: We need to demand more protection for the guardians of the forest. Because everyone talks about conservation and the conservation of the forest, but they don't mention the people who are protecting these territories. If we don’t protect these guardians, there won't be any forest left.

But the main thing I would say is that you need to start your activism in your community. When people tell me, "Oh, I want to go out and support the Amazon," I always say you need to start in your community because then our communities can join forces and then slowly we can create a global movement that works to protect the rights of nature, the rights of Indigenous people, the rights of the guardians of these territories. Because a movement is built by many, not by one.

Eliana Lafone is a British-Uruguayan documentary filmmaker and journalist based in Colombia. Her work focuses on human rights, mining and the environment, and she has worked for outlets and NGOs including: BBC, Channel 4, WWF, Red Muqui, Children Change Colombia.

Rebecca Wilson is a journalist and translator based in Bogota, Colombia. She is Managing Editor at the Latin America Bureau, which has reported on social and environmental issues in Latin America since the 1970s.

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