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Indigenous Peoples’ Rights Are Key to Environmental Protection, Says Ford Foundation Mason Fellow David Cotacachi

Published April 23, 2021

Reflecting on his passion for Indigenous peoples’ rights and environmental protection, David Cotacachi MC/MPA 2021, a Ford Foundation Mason Fellow at the Ash Center, provides the following example: Indigenous peoples rely on local rivers, lakes, and other natural water sources to grow gardens, farm, and source drinking water. When a municipal or industrial wastewater plant goes without repairs or wastewater is dumped without treatment, Indigenous communities get sick. When they seek treatment after drinking polluted water, they face many difficulties, from long distances to lack of transportation, to reach the closest hospital. Then, if they can reach a hospital, they face discrimination and cultural barriers, starting with the fact that their native language is not spoken in most urban areas.

It is a perpetual, frustrating configuration of environmental racism, Cotacachi ­­explains. These situations would not be tolerated in urban, non-Indigenous communities.

Cotacachi, a member of the Kichwa-Otavalo people of Ecuador, has seen this example play out in different forms not only at home but amongst Indigenous communities throughout Latin America. He recalls his childhood in Peguche, a community located in the Andean mountains of northern Ecuador, as being surrounded by mountains, forests, and lakes, but also coming to understand at an early age just how at-risk the natural ecosystem around him was. “I became very interested in environmental issues because, for Indigenous peoples, our land and territory are very important to our identity, and we depend on the natural resources that exist on our land. But when I was very little, I discovered deforestation and development projects that created significant environmental impacts, like polluting,” he explains.

Determined to better understand the environment and how to protect it, Cotacachi studied ecology as an undergraduate student at the Universidad San Francisco de Quito. As part of his studies, he worked in the Amazon rainforest, where he watched oil companies move into territories long inhabited by Indigenous peoples, resulting in oil spills, illegal mining, and coercion of Indigenous authorities who were not cooperative. Moved by what he saw, Cotacachi joined advocacy movements protesting environmental degradation and advocating for Indigenous rights.

Yet despite his and others’ protests against encroachment on Indigenous lands, nothing seemed to change. Cotacachi came to understand that a power imbalance was to blame for stymied advocacy efforts. Ultimately, the activists and Indigenous organizations would always have less power and influence.

So Cotacachi did something unexpected for someone so passionate about environmental justice and Indigenous rights: He took a job working for an oil company. Specifically, he began a career as an environmental consultant and Indigenous community specialist, helping to mediate conversations between oil companies and Indigenous communities. “I just saw that by working for these private companies, I could go inside the system and change the core — I could try and change in some way the DNA of these organizations.”

“Please invite Indigenous peoples, Afro-descendants, people of color, and ancestral communities to the table before making any decision. Listen to their voices and wisdom. They already know how to take care of the only planet we have.”

Cotacachi found success doing things markedly different from his predecessors. While prior non-Indigenous community relations specialists had often resorted to tools like bribery or pressure, Cotacachi was an expert at facilitating conversation. “I was very effective at changing the way these companies thought,” he explains. “I realized that some of these companies were damaging Indigenous peoples’ territories because they didn’t know how to speak to the different cultures.”

He later took up a post with Ecuador’s Ministerio De Ambiente Ecuador (Ministry of the Environment), with responsibility for enforcing environmental laws and regulations, including managing pollution control, environmental quality and monitoring, and forestry regulation. While working in the public sector was sometimes challenging due to Indigenous groups’ distrust of the national government, for Cotacachi, his goal to effect change exceeded any doubts. “I think that’s perhaps one motivation that I have is that I want to, with whatever I do, focus on ways to create better conditions for Indigenous peoples.”

He found an opportunity to again advance his work for Indigenous communities at the Inter-American Development Bank, an organization based in Washington, D.C. that finances initiatives for economic, social, and institutional development in Latin America and the Caribbean. There, he worked on investing in Indigenous communities as well as conducting research. As the only Indigenous employee in a predominantly white/European staff, though, he felt that he lacked the power to lead critical change. “I thought, what can I do in order to increase my influence to change this huge institution?” he reflects. “I was a very good technician and ecologist, but I realized that I needed strategic leadership, persuasive communication, and also some political skills to advance.”

Cotacachi came to the Kennedy School in fall 2020 with a mission to leave as a better leader. Now, months from graduation, he describes the experience as “transformative.” Whether learning about adaptive leadership, public policy, negotiation, or environmental politics, Cotacachi has taken advantage of Kennedy School scholars and experts, including those at the Harvard Project for American Indian Economic Development.

Still pondering his next steps after graduation, Cotacachi has a call to action for leaders around the world: “Please invite Indigenous peoples, Afro-descendants, people of color, and ancestral communities to the table before making any decision. Listen to their voices and wisdom. They already know how to take care of the only planet we have.” By truly hearing and including Indigenous voices, he believes we could solve many of our issues in Latin America and around the world, benefiting us all and our shared environment.

Written by Sarah Grucza, Communications Manager

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