by Jessica Barragan
Cornell undergraduate Martin Zorrilla ’13 has found himself at the head of the class, teaching a course on the struggles of his home community in Ecuador and preparing his peers to participate in the Intag Project, a sustainability movement that seeks to conserve the natural resources of Intag.
Zorrilla developed the Fall 2013 course called “Experience Latin America: Ecuador Edition”, which is housed in the Department of International Agriculture and Rural Development. The class seeks to prepare an interdisciplinary group of students for a three-week service-learning trip to Ecuador in January of 2014 that is dedicated to sustainability, conservation, and social justice with the people of Intag, Ecuador.
When reflecting on his motivations for starting the course, Zorrilla said, “I have always felt this tension and lack of opportunity between what happens on campus and what happens in the real world. I wanted to link the world of hardworking community members with limited access to resources that we take for granted at Cornell, with students who then can gain immeasurably from the experience of interacting with real-life people who are doing practical work.”
To prepare for the trip to Ecuador, three teams of five students are set up to partner with community practitioners in order to gain experience in creating a deliverable that will further the community goals, which will enhance the student’s experiential learning skills. Combining both a practical component and an academic component will prepare the class well before arriving to Ecuador. Students interested in design will be assigned to a women’s handicraft cooperative called Mujeres y Medio Ambiente. Students interested in ecoagriculture will be paired with an organic farmers association, and students interested in conservation will be working with a local conservation NGO in Intag called Defensa y Conservación Ecológica.
A really important part of this class is that the community members see a benefit from this relationship,” Zorrilla said. “What I want to avoid is something that historically occurs a lot with service learning or international development where our benefit is too short-term, too top-down or too ill-informed to benefit the people we’re working with. Throughout the process, it has been really important for us to reflect on the processes and how difficult it is to do this sort of participatory work and do it right.”
Intag is an area in northwestern Ecuador, valued for its high biodiversity and strong community structure, with approximately 2,000 square kilometers of cloud forests and small farms. The Intag region also includes a rich deposit of copper, which has been targeted by transnational mining companies around the world.
Interest in the mining of Intag was also endorsed in the mid 1990s by the Project for Mining Development and Environmental Control (PRODEMINCA) and financed by the World Bank. The main objective of the PRODEMINCA project was to increase industrial mining in Ecuador by modifying Ecuador’s mining laws to make it much more proindustry and producing maps of Ecuador’s mineral deposits so that mining companies could get more access to specific locations.
Local community members have sought to fight against the intervention of mining companies and the open-pit cooper mining of their land since 1995. During the over two decade long fight, community organizing resulted in two transnational mining companies, Mitsubishi Metals and Ascendant Copper, being rejected from opening new mines in the Intag region.
While some community efforts have been successful, it remains urgent to create alternative sources of income and model of development that seeks to make Intag a center for community-run sustainable development for its inhabitants.
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Check out updates on the class blog: theintagroject.wordpress.com
Jessica Barragan is a junior at Cornell University studying Government and Sociology.