- Alex Lucitante and Alexandra Narváez are part of an Indigenous patrol protecting ancestral territory from gold mining.
- The duo are 2022 winners of the Goldman Environmental Prize for grassroots activism.
- They helped win a major lawsuit against gold mining on Cofán land in 2018, suspending 52 projects.
Along the banks of the Aguarico River in Ecuador's Amazon rainforest, 26 young members of the Cofán's Indigenous patrol grab their ceremonial spears, backpacks, and GPS devices several times a month, hunting for signs of trespassing gold miners.
The Cofán community established the guard, known as La Guardia, in 2017, to push back against miners' growing encroachment on their ancestral lands. As part of creating the guard, they wrote their own law, permitting patrol members to confiscate equipment and call in Ecuador's environmental police if they find trespassers in the area.
"We risk our lives to protect our life and our land," Alexandra Narváez, the first female land patrol member in Cofán's Sinangoe territory, told Insider in Spanish. "The Ai Cofán fight is about defending 73,000 hectares that belong to us — our home, our territory."
The roughly 200 Cofán people of Sinangoe, in Ecuador's northern Amazon region, depend on the forest and rivers in and around their territories for food, drinking water, and sacred medicinal plants, all fundamental to the Cofán way of life. "We wanted to get together and defend this sacred space that we as Cofán have lived in for millennia," Alex Lucitante, a Cofán patrol member and human rights defender who spearheaded the group's formation, told Insider.
The patrol's work, and subsequent legal success, have earned Lucitante and Narváez a 2022 Goldman Environmental Prize for grassroots environmental activism, known as the "Green Nobel."
"This acknowledgement isn't for Alexandra or Alex," Narváez told Insider, adding, "It's about the Cofán community's hard work. It's an honor to represent them."
Lucitante and Narváez helped end more than 52 gold-mining projects on Cofán land
In January 2018, the Indigenous guard used GPS devices, drones, and camera traps provided by the Ceibo Alliance — an Indigenous-run Ecuadorian non-profit — to document environmental damage from several machines mining the Aguarico, one of Ecuador's largest and most important rivers. They discovered the Ecuadorian government had granted mining concessions on their land without consulting the Cofán community. Some were already operating and leaking contaminants, including mercury and cyanide, which are harmful to humans and wildlife, to the community downstream.
"We've been very clear that we don't want mining near us," Lucitante told Insider, adding, "We want the government to respect our decision to live in a healthy, clean place — free of contamination."
They took the case to court, with the legal help of Amazon Frontlines, an environmental NGO, which focuses on Indigenous legal defense. Nearly a year of legal battles ended in a historic victory for the Cofán. Now, the Ecuadorian government must consult with the Indigenous community before a new mining project is slated on or near their territory. The decision also put the brakes on more than 52 gold-mining projects along the Aguarico River and protected nearly 32,000 hectares (79,000 acres) of land.
It was a huge win, Lucitante said. Some of the projects would have operated for up to 28 years, impacting not only Sinangoe, but other parts of the Cofán ancestral territory, as well as Indigenous peoples' territory downriver.
The Constitutional Court, Ecuador's most powerful judicial body, reinforced the ruling in early 2022, confirming that Indigenous communities have to consent to oil drilling, mining, and other extractive projects that affect their land. The decision gives them the final say over oil or mining projects on Indigenous land and forests, which previously could have affected huge swaths of their territory, according to Reuters.
'The fight continues'
Though the Cofán have successfully suspended dozens of gold-mining operations, Lucitante and Narváez stress that this is the beginning of a larger fight for the Indigenous community. The Ecuadorian government is still approving mining and oil drilling projects in order to advance the country's economy, they said. For instance, Ecuador's recently elected president — Guillermo Lasso — said he plans to expand mining in the coming years, despite environmental concerns from Indigenous groups, according to The Financial Times.
"The fight continues, because we're still seeing threats from mining," Narváez told Insider, adding, "As Cofán, we'll always remain vigilant."
Lucitante and Narváez hope that their legal triumph will inspire other Indigenous communities across Ecuador's Amazon, like the Waorani and the Shuar Arutam, to challenge the legality of mining operations on their own land.
"I want to invite other Indigenous communities in Ecuador and the world to join these collective fights happening in Amazonia," Lucitante told Insider, adding, "We're dreaming of a world where our communities — with their knowledge and culture — can keep living."