Ecuador: Chronicle of a death foretold

The South American country has opened tract of indigenous land, a biodiversity hotspot, to oil drilling.

Ecuador's president accused student protesters of inciting violence during anti-drilling demonstrations [AFP]

Ecuador – The “Yasuni-ITT Initiative” was one of the most successful marketing coups ever.

For six years, Ecuador’s president proposed to leave part of the Yasuni National Park untouched if the international community assumed the cost of keeping almost 900 million barrels of oil underground.

This initiative permitted President Rafael Correa to project himself as an environmental leader in the eyes of the world, winning the support of international activists like  Alternative Nobel Prize winner Vandana Shiva. Meanwhile, Correa kept promoting extractive industries in Ecuador, bypassing mechanisms of prior consultation, and criminalising indigenous people’s defence of their territories. Now, the environmental masquerade is over, and with it the myth of a government committed to democratic governance and social justice.

On August 15, President Correa opened the oilfields located in the Ishpingo, Tiputini, and Tambococha (ITT) sector of the Yasuni National Park to exploitation. During his announcement [Sp.], protesters gathered in front of the Carondelet Palace, sandwiched between police forces and pro-government supporters dressed in their business suits, waving Ecuadoran flags. Slogans proclaimed that the Yasuni was not for sale, accused Correa of selling out to Big Oil, and invited people to dance in celebration of biodiversity. Correa’s speech blamed [Sp.] the international community for the plan’s failure. He suggested that oil was the path to end poverty. He stressed that proposed drilling would involve a minuscule fraction of ITT’s territory, and reassured Ecuadorians that green technology would minimise negative environmental impacts.

The short-term economics of drilling

If drilling for oil was a remedy for poverty, we would probably know it by now. The infamous “resource curse” has not brought not equity or democracy to oil-rich societies, but poverty and rule by rapacious elites. Professor Carlos Larrea, who worked on the Yasuni-ITT initiative, points out that economies dependent on oil exports grow more slowly. After 40 years of oil exploitation, poverty still affects [Sp.] one in three Ecuadorians, while half are underemployed. And promises of “clean” drilling are preposterous because drilling inevitably causes spills.

There is something insidious about drilling for oil in the most biodiverse forest on earth. UNESCO has declared the Yasuni a world biosphere reserve in 1989 because it has over 1,300 species of animals and 100,000 species of insects.

Many of the concessions were granted to the Chinese, who have already extended $2bn in loans to Ecuador this year. Drilling in the ITT will attract investments to solve the state’s bankruptcy problem, not just tackle poverty. It may take two years to get ITT’s oil flowing, but anticipated sales can start immediately.

These economics are strictly short-term. Drilling in the Yasuni-ITT may devastate the most biodiverse area of the entire western hemisphere in exchange for only two decades of oil revenue. Ecuadorians are already abundantly familiar with the environmental and human costs of drilling. There are already four oil blocks under exploitation in the Yasuni, and the well-known Texaco-Chevron case is only one episode in a long history of oil disasters.

There is something insidious about drilling for oil in the most biodiverse forest on earth. UNESCO declared the Yasuni a world biosphere reserve in 1989, because it has more than 1,300 species of animals and 100,000 species of insects. One hectare of its forest has as many as 655 tree species, more than all of the US and Canada combined. This territory is home to indigenous peoples with legally recognised territorial rights, like the Waorani and the Tagaeri and Taromenane, two of the last native communities in voluntary isolation.

Leasing the ITT pushes the extractive frontier to new limits. In addition to violating international law on indigenous territory, it is also unconstitutional. Opponents argue that drilling in the ITT not only threatens biodiversity and the well-being of future generations, but also violates the rights of nature (Article 71) established in Ecuador’s 2008 Constitution.

Article 57 forbids all forms of extractive activities on intangible indigenous territories, stating that such violations constitute a crime of ethnocide. In all, critics claim the plan to drill, also called Plan B, infringes on seven constitutional articles. Activists presented [Sp.] the first legal demand against the state, and indigenous organisations are about to follow, claiming rights to prior consultation.

Repressing dissent, yet again

President Correa did not anticipate that his decision to drill in the ITT would generate such widespread opposition. The August 27 march called for by the indigenous movement attracted a diverse group of people, including students and labour unions. In Cuenca [Sp.] and Riobamba [Sp.], a reported 5,000 people mobilised in each city. In Quito, the government deployed extraordinary police force to repress [Sp.] the march by blocking streets to impede access to Carondelet Palace, firing rubber bullets (nearly blinding a young woman), and beating up peaceful protesters. Seven people were arrested, including Marco Guatemal, the vice-president of the indigenous organisation, ECUARUNARI.

Ecuador to explore for oil in Amazon

The government reacted to the expressions of dissent with a mix of denial and censorship that has become its signature. The minister of the interior, Jose Serrano, denied the use of weapons, challenging the media to prove that rubber bullets were used. In the face of abundant evidence, he then acknowledged that there had been weapons present, but that they had not been used, and finally claimed [Sp.] that the weapons had been used by the indigenous leaders against the police.

In his weekly address to the nation called Sabatinas, Correa accused students of inciting violence and threatened to prevent them from registering for the school year. He painted indigenous leaders as dangerous to social peace, and congratulated the police for keeping order. Then the presidency’s legal adviser, Alexis Mera, proposed criminalising [Sp.] libel on social media sites like Facebook with a two-year prison term. The newspaper El Universo had already been threatened for publishing Twitter exchanges between the president and the students.

The government has severely limited the media’s access to the Yasuni region. Journalists must now meet specific requirements [Sp.] to “correctly” inform citizens, and all video footage shot in the area must be pre-authorised and given to the Environment Ministry along with a $500 fee. Dismissing accusations of ethnocide, the Minister of Justice denied that any undiscovered tribes live within the ITT. Clearly, the goal now is to silence opponents of drilling and use propaganda to forge an official version of what the Yasuni is all about.

Contesting Correa’s extractive model

The government is tightening the screws on the opposition because it knows that protests resonate more broadly than claims by conservationists. Protests show a larger resistance against Correa’s modus operandi. Beyond Yasuni, civil society in Ecuador is mobilising to denounce the criminalisation of social protest, demanding open political debates, and protection of the right to dissent. Mobilisations explicitly challenge the new legal codes on labour, water, mining, education, and media, which are widely perceived as regressive.

Further, the protests demand alternative models of development. Calls for dialogue with civil society stakeholders make the government particularly nervous because they include demands for a deeper reform in the governance of natural resources. What is at stake is the country’s heavy dependency on extractive industries, which Correa has exacerbated with the expansion of mining concessions. If the Yasuni controversy calls into question outmoded forms of development, it also explicitly epitomises the will to drastically redefine the relationship between man and nature.

There have been accusations of Correa blocking the trust fund set up to receive international donations for the Yasuni-ITT, thereby sabotaging the initiative for a post-oil economy. Now the question is why a government that has so heavily relied on referendums and popular dialogue refuses discussion about its most famous and lauded programme. Perhaps it is because dialogue is only welcome when it is fully managed by the state’s propaganda apparatus to produce the desired outcome.

The Yasuni debate is a two-fold discourse. The death of the Yasuni-ITT Initiative has made Correa’s policy transparent: more extractivist than conservationist, and defaulting on democratic governance. Many Ecuadorians are seeing through their president’s masquerade. Now it remains to be seen whether the international community of leftists will wake up or whether it will continue to romanticise Correa’s so-called “environmental democracy” from afar.

Manuela Picq has just completed her time as a visiting professor and research fellow at Amherst College.