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This project consisted of democracy promotion through self-sustainability by empowering the people in the Valdivian Community. The aims included: better organization of the business groups, exploitation of legal opportunities, and socio-economic development of the Community. As many communities on the coast of Ecuador, Valdivia’s economic assets include: fishery, shrimp farming, craft work and tourism.
The participants of this project are the Valdivian Community and Javier Barragan, an environmental lawyer. Valdivian Community decision-making body is called “Cabildo” and it is yearly elected by the 150 representative of the entire Community (5000 people). Javier Barragan is the only manager of the project, who worked closely with the community and also represented them in court cases.
The issue comes in a direct and indirect way. The Community for years has been affected by the contamination of a fish-canning factory that resides in Valdivian land without legal permission. It affected not only the health of the people but also their integrity and main sources of income: tourism and fishery. The factory, however, provided for 40% of the jobs in the Community. The mayoralty, instead of helping the Valdivians (as they are not directly required by the law), accepted bribes from the factory. The Valdivians were trapped in their own economic hardship without any support and guidance. The law, however, does provide them with legal support to find resources. They have the possibility to apply to many different government grants depending on the area.
The approach Javier took was to immediately help them sue the company but also guide into a self-sustainable life so as to not depend on any type of factory for jobs. The road for sustainability brought two important democratic outcomes. Firstly, Javier helped them become aware of these legal resources. Secondly, he taught them the process to appeal for grants to benefit the development of the community and in this way empowered the people to have their voice heard in the government.
On the Ecuadorian coastline a number of independent communities have been abandoned by the mayoralties. They haven’t had any incentive to take care of or provide resources to these communities, as the law does not require them to do it. Their role with the law concerns aspects such as road infrastructure between the communities and education in the communities. However, the mayoralties do not give the communities resources for other aspects that are of equal or higher weight.
The socio-economic development of the communities is pivotal for their growth and good living. The mayoralties do not provide any resources for aspects of business development such as know-how training, infrastructure, machinery and market opportunities exploration. Business for these communities means many things. From food products such as fish catching and shrimp farming to tourism and craft work, all exploitable assets due to their coastal location.
In addition, the mayoralties have not support the communities with organizational and legal advice. Instead, lack of accountability have rendered for corruption. Communities have been faced with private companies polluting their water and environment, giving unfair agreements, or even taking over their land. Land along the coast of Ecuador that the government assigned to each community many years ago. Mayoralties have remained silent in exchange for bribes with the justification that they provide jobs for people in the communities.
The Ecuadorian law, however, does provide the communities with a source of legal support and funding. It is specified in the New Constitution that each community has the right to:
• Live in a healthy environment
• Preserve a sustainable economic development that foster a collective good, eradicate poverty and promote the economic, social and cultural progress of its people
• A quality of life that assures health, food, education and jobs and other social services.
• A prioritized sustainable development in the activities related to agriculture, industry, fishing, crafting that yield quality products for the internal and external market, scientific research and transferable technology
• Participate in the cultural life of the community
The mechanism through which the Communities could achieve this is through various government institutions that provide funding and support depending on the issue presented.
Key Players
In the project there were two key players involved: the Valdivian Community and Javier Sebastian Barragan, an independent lawyer focused on environmental cases.
The Valdivian Community
The Valdivian Community lies within the Santa Elena province. It is populated by around 5000 people, from which 150 represent the different divisions within the community and are the ones that vote for the ‘Cabildo’. The Cabildo is the decision making body of the community and it is elected yearly.
The different divisions represent various assets of the Community. The most salient ones in the community are: Fishing, shrimp farming, hospitality, the aquarium, shoe making, an archeological museum, and a micro-bank.
The Community is one of the first lands to be populated around 3500 B. C. This brings a unique feature of tourism and a source of income to the community, as many archeological antiques have been found in the lands and are of historical importance. The Community has an aquarium, which also serves as a touristic attraction and source of income.
The Valdivian Community does not sell its fish and shrimp directly to customers but rather to intermediaries, who then sell in the main city of the province, Santa Elena. Beside sea products, the community produces a unique style of shoes, which are sold both to tourists and intermediaries.
Lastly, the Community has a micro-bank, which is funded through interest payments of loans given to people for production investment.
Independent Environmental Lawyer, Javier Sebastian Barragan
In 2007, Javier Sebastian Barragan was working as an independent lawyer and as a general manager of quality certifications in the biggest seafood exports company in Ecuador. As an environmental lawyer he believed in the concept of fairness for the people and the environment. Born and raised in Guayaquil, a major city on the coast of Ecuador, he had knowledge and passion for fishing.
In 2008 he opened Varuto S.A, his own company of local trade of fish and seafood products, as well as a small restaurant in Guayaquil.
His main sources of income at the time came from law cases and the seafood company.
Window of Opportunity
For more than 20 years, the Valdivian Community had faced a major contamination issue created by a sardine factory that had settled in the community, the company is called Induval S.A..
The Industry dumped all its residuals on the small estuary that runs through the Community. In 2004, the effects of this contamination escalated. The water turned a pinkish color and the fish started to die. Shrimp farming was also impossible with the contaminated water. Moreover, an unbearable odor surrounded the community, and many children and adults contracted skin diseases and other bacterial infections.
For many years, the leaders of the Cabildo urged the Mayoralty of Santa Elena to impose regulations on this factory, however nothing was done. It was found later that the company was paying its way through the Mayoralty, however, the public justification at the moment was that the factory was providing jobs to families in the Community that otherwise would not have any source of income. The Valdivians also tried to catch the attention from a major newspaper in Ecuador, El Universo, where an article about their situation was published1, yet again nothing happened.
In 2007, through a third party the Valdivian leaders contacted Javier S. Barragan in hope of legal help and representation. This was the window of opportunity for democracy promotion for the community, not only in this issue but also through a self-sustainability project. Javier Barragan volunteered to help them in this legal case and developed a special interest for the community and the Valdivians, as he believed in social and
1 El Universo. “Contaminación en el estero de Valdivia provoca la muerte de miles de peces” by Andrade Peralta Marcia, 14th of February 2004, access from:
environmental fairness. In these years and up to 2009 the community organized into various street protest and closures2. Javier won the court case that year and the factory closed. By this time, he visited the Community every weekend, as he envisioned a democratic development in the community through self-sustainability.
Democracy through Self-sustainability
Democracy promotion encompasses many aspects. In the case of Validivia, the aim was the democratization of access to legal resources, and education and training to be able to use these legal resources by themselves in the long-term.
In this way, the search for self-sustainability of the Community fostered democracy. From 2007 to 2011 Javier worked with the leaders of the Cabildo and the 150 representatives in various projects that resulted in better organization of the groups, exploitation of legal opportunities, and socio-economic development of the Community.
Issues and Results
The issues and results of project are seen in various sectors of the community, which will be outlined below.
One of the main sources of income for the community is centered in fishing. After the factory closing and the recovery of the clean water, Javier worked closely with the 20 families of fishermen in the Community.
2 El Universo, “Ruta del Sol bloqueada por paro”, 5th of February 2009, access from:
With knowledge in fishing, he taught the Valdivians better fishing technics and ways to commercialize the products so that they would not have to go through intermediaries that had given them an unfair deal in the past.
Furthermore, realizing the lack of material resources the Community faced, together with the representative of the Fishing group they applied for governmental funding to buy new materials. Article 57 of the New Constitution outlines that the Communities have the right to a ‘prioritized sustainable development in the activities related to agriculture, industry, fishing, crafting that yield quality products for the internal and external market, scientific research and transferable technology’. The Valdivians became aware that the mayoralties were not the only source of funding, but that there were more governmental institutions that by law they could obtain the resource from.
Along side Javier they learned the process that was required to have access to this resource. In 2008 through an aid program offered by the National Corporation of Finance (CFN), the Valdivian Fishermen were funded with $16,000 worth of new boats and nets.
The development and democratic results were salient. Fishermen not only double their income but also learn how to commercialize and find resources for future growth.
The Valdivian Community counted on a ‘Caja Solidaria’, a micro-bank devoted to development loans, which had initial small government funding. However, due to lack of good accounting knowledge the micro-bank was faced with many loan defaults, as Valdivians were given loans to people that spend the money for consumption rather than business investment purposes.
In 2009, to address this issue, many factors were taken into consideration. Firstly, technical accounting training was given to the representatives of the micro-bank. Secondly and more importantly for a sustainable mechanism, Javier organized talks for
10 consecutive weekends were he and other business leaders taught about money ethics and values to the 150 Valdivian representatives across all groups.
The better administration of the bank required more labor, thus this resulted in 15 jobs for Valdivian women, who had previously worked in the factory. From 2007 to 2011, the micro-bank’s capital charging a 20% interest almost double.
Due to its historic land and position, tourism is a very important asset for the Community. The Valdivians present a whole tourism package: huts at the beach, aquarium and a museum.
In 2009, there was an aquarium, however, it was not well equipped and many of the animals were dying, creating losses instead of income to the Valdivians.
Together with the Aquarium leader, Luis Reyes, Javier wrote a grant proposal to the Minister of Tourism and Environment. This resulted in a $150,000 grant toward rebuilding and expansion of the Aquarium as well as new machinery for the pools.
The project was done by a company of choice of the government, which resulted in a sloppy job. Due to corruption issues, cheaper material were used, which threatened both the structure and mechanism of the aquarium. In response, Javier sued the company and urged the Minister of Tourism to choose an international company instead, which demanded a minimum of one million dollars for the project. The grant was given to the Community again and the aquarium is now finished and working well. In 2007 the aquarium gave the community annually around $6,000 today it provides the community with $30,000.
A similar story happened with the archeological museum, however, Javier was no longer involved with the Community by this time. In 2013 the representative of the Museum applied to the Minister of Tourism and National preservation for funding to the
development of a better space for the relics. The Valdivians were given the grant, hoewever today the Museum is not finished yet.
Room for improvement
As a matter of fact, the project represented just the start of the path towards self-sustainability. There are many challenges that remained in Valdivia. Like any other Community in transition and distress, corruption is always an option.
In 2011 Javier left the project in the Community for various reasons, the main one being the lack of support and willingness from the newly elected Cabildo. As explained before, the Cabildo is chosen yearly by the 150 representatives of each of the division within the community. For 4 years Javier worked 2 years in a row with the same elected Cabildo and then 2 years with another Cabildo. However, towards the end of 2011, the newly elected Cabildo started to show hostility and unwillingness to continue with the project.
Projects of self-sustainability are long and hard, and even though there were some immediate results as discussed above, 25% of the population was still unemployed as a result of the closure of the factory. Thus, the 2011 Cabildo gave in to the external forces and received money from the factory, which allow it to open again, however, this time there was no direct contamination. In these recent years, there is an ongoing debate within the community with some who fight against it and others that remain quiet or support the factory.3
Although Javier did envision an independent Community able to advocate for its needs, social change takes more time, effort and mutual trust to fully take effect. A single person
3 El Verdadero. “Dos grupos se pelean por el progreso de Valdivia”, 15th of April 2012, access from:
to bring this social change in a community of 5000 people was not enough. There were aspects of Valdivia that were neglected and so divide within the Community started to spark. In addition, in 2012 Javier faced personal situations that constraint him from visiting the Community as often, which somehow signal the Valdivians a lack of commitment.
Lessons Learned
In these for 4 years Javier was able to grasp the surface of the idea of democracy through Selfself-sustainability.
The search for democracy includes awareness of the means available, of having the voice of the community being heard by the authorities and of having the opportunity of growth. Self-sustainability can be a way to achieve this, as it was in the case of Valdivia, or at least the start of it.
By no means, this suggests the Valdivians are now fully able to satisfy their needs or appeal the authorities to do this. They have, however, experienced a positive change, and moreover, a feeling of empowerment through the process of the project. The idea that their voices could be heard is not remote anymore. Javier’s help and the willingness of the Valdivians was what made the small steps towards self-sustainability possible. Their later appeal to the Minister of Tourism to renew and expand the museum is a positive sign of the impact of these results.
Furthermore, in the Valdivian case it is important to consider that success depended mostly on a single individual. This proved not to be ideal or efficient. Javier’s lack of time in 2011, fading commitment and motivation, and an unclear exit strategy shows the distress of a single individual going beyond his possibilities. Perhaps, he should have realized the difficulty of aiming for a great change and start small instead. For this reason, it would have been better for Javier to work with an organization, as this could provide both time and more resources needed in the project.
• El Universo. “Contaminación en el estero de Valdivia provoca la muerte de miles de peces” by Andrade Peralta Marcia, 14th of February 2004, access from:
• El Universo, “Ruta del Sol bloqueada por paro”, 5th of February 2009, access from:
• El Verdadero. “Dos grupos se pelean por el progreso de Valdivia”, 15th of April 2012, access from:
• Barragan Juan Pablo. “Valdivia: public hostility towards the factory” produced by Acción Creativa, access from:
• Legal power given by the Valdivian Community to Javier to fully represent them on Court (attached in the following page)