Ecuador: A New Model for Environmental Politics? Ecologismo Popular and Ecological Debt
The Landscape of Struggle
In November 2007, Ecuadorian President Rafeal Correa declared a state of emergency in the Amazonian town of Dayuma after protests erupted against oil operations. Residents set up road blocks to a number of oil fields, angry about the government’s failure to follow through on promised infrastructural improvements in the town of poor mestizo settlers (colonos). Communities throughout the Amazon have suffered serious social and health problems caused by oil exploration and extraction.
Many social movement leaders and intellectuals signed a letter of solidarity with environmental, human rights and indigenous organizations, asserting that Correa’s "promises of change are diluted by oil interests."
According to a number of analysts, Correa was infuriated by the protests because they interfered with the new East-West trade axis that is being constructed between Brazil, Ecuador, China and other countries throughout Latin America and Asia. This realignment—which replaces the dominant North-South axis of trade relations between Europe and the U.S. on the one hand, and Latin America, Asia and Africa on the other—falls under the rubric of the Multimodal Megaproject Manta-Manaos, referring to the cities in Ecuador and Brazil, respectively, that will be the project’s two central hubs.
Many in Ecuador, including the signers of the solidarity letter, consider the government’s repression in Dayuma a pivotal moment. The signers note that, in Ecuador "...[there] is the possibility of realizing change in favor of the dispossessed and needy...What is in play is whether we will have a sovereign country for all, or if we will just shift from North American hegemony to Chinese and Brazilian hegemony, from Occidental [U.S. oil and gas company] to Petrobras [Brazilian state oil company]."
On March 14th, Ecuador’s Constitutional Assembly approved an amnesty for those arrested in Dayuma, as well as other imprisoned human rights and social movement activists. The last few months have also witnessed a disturbing number of attacks against people, especially indigenous activists, opposing oil and other resource extraction activities.
The new President of the CONAIE, Ecuador’s national indigenous federation, is a 32-year old Amazonian Kichwa from the small community of Sarayacu. Marlon Santi grew up fighting transnational oil companies in the Amazonian province of Pastaza. Santi’s election signals a return to the CONAIE’s militant roots and a total rejection of oil activity in indigenous territories. Santi promises that the indigenous movement will fight hard for the inclusion of territorial and cultural rights in the new constitution, under the rubric of a plurinational state—including the possibility of a national indigenous uprising.
On February 22nd, just over three weeks after Santi’s inauguration, three men kidnapped and tortured Miriam Cisneros, Marlon Santi’s wife. According to the CONAIE, the men asked Cisneros about the movement’s plans for an indigenous general uprising if the Constituent Assembly refuses to include indigenous demands in the new constitution. She was also asked about the CONAIE’s advisors and international supporters. The identity and motivation of the assailants remains unclear.
[An Amazonian Kichwa home and chacra, or traditional garden, on the Yasuni River. Credit to David Guzman and the Municipality of Orellana.]
On February 15th, loggers or logger-affiliated paramilitaries reportedly massacred members of the Tagaeri community, a clan of the Huaorani people, in the Yasuní National Park. The incident is still under investigation. The Tagaeri are fiercely independent and refuse contact with the outside world. They have mounted violent resistance to attempts to destroy the Amazon or evangelize their people.
In Ecuador, environmentalists and indigenous people are wary of President Rafael Correa and are concerned that his government will continue to allow the exploitation of traditional territories by mining and petroleum companies, whether state or private. The Confederation of Indigenous Nationalities of Ecuador (CONAIE), a powerful nation-wide movement representing indigenous peoples in Ecuador’s coastal, highland and Amazon regions is the country’s most powerful social movement. As the Constituent Assembly works on re-writing Ecuador’s constitution in the coastal city of Montecristi, Ecuador’s indigenous people and environmental organizations have a historic opportunity to radically change the nation’s political and economic structure.
In an interview, CONAIE Communications Director Janeth Cuji stated that indigenous communities have always fought against extractive activities in their territories and collaborate extensively with the grassroots environmental organization Acción Ecológica to defend Ecuador’s biodiverse ecosystems. While indigenous communities have long recognized the threat posed by natural resource exploitation to their cultures and livelihoods, according to Cuji, the CONAIE is also beginning an internal education campaign to connect the dots between local environmental problems and global warming. In the CONAIE’s December 2007 proposal for the new constitution—a 194-page book detailing every aspect of Ecuador’s political and economic structure, entitled "Our Constitution for a Plurinational State"—extensively addresses land use and natural resources under the rubric of plurinationality and collective rights. Plurinationality has been the central demand of the Ecuadorian social movement for almost two decades. It involves concrete recognition of Ecuador’s many indigenous peoples, including control over territory, education, healthcare, collective cultural rights and direct representation in Ecuador’s political structure.
[Map of oil exploration concession blocks, Yasuní National Park, and Huaorani Territory. Note position of Block 31, Petrobras concession. Credit to Save America's Forests, http://www.Yasuni.ws]
The fact that environmental issues are integrated into a broader legal framework dealing with collective land management and ownership, control of natural resources, cultural practices, economic development, biodiversity, and traditional medicine demonstrates the fundamental interconnection between nature, territory and culture in Ecuadorian indigenous communities. Indigenous cultures cannot survive in the face of extractive development projects that damage the ecosystems in which they live. At the same time, the ecosystems of the Coastal, Andean and Amazonian regions cannot survive without the indigenous people whose hunting, gathering, farming, and cultural practices are integral to preserving biodiversity. The native flora and fauna have evolved over millennia in relation to indigenous human activity.
The CONAIE constitutional proposal recognizes this fundamental fact, stating that the state must guarantee the inalienable collective right of indigenous peoples to the territories and lands they have historically occupied (Article 34, Part 3). This right encompasses the totality of the natural habitats that indigenous communities inhabit, and including the conservation and sustainable use of biodiversity. The state is obligated to assist indigenous peoples to ensure said conservation. In addition, the proposal states that indigenous communities have a right to use and administer all renewable resources in their territory and a right to full consultation and consent before the exploration or extraction of any nonrenewable resources in their territory (Article 34, Part 6 and 7).
On March 11th, the CONAIE mobilized over 20,000 indigenous activists in Quito to demand plurinationality. This mobilizing power, along with the close relationship between Acción Ecológica and some of the more radical Alianza País (Correa’s party) assembly-members, signals that there is a growing possibility that Ecuador’s new constitution will lay the legal groundwork for a more sustainable national economy.
A "Green Economy"? Tree Plantations and the Carbon Offset Market
Despite the strength of indigenous and environmental organizations, economist and advisor to the CONAIE Pablo Davalos argues that Correa maintains a development model that "treats nature as an object to be intervened in, commodified and brought to market. The government is continuing policies that base economic progress on the extraction of minerals and petroleum, biofuels such as ethanol and the privatization of biodiversity." Acción Ecológica—which has focused on the detrimental effects of large-scale industrialization on both ecosystems and local populations since 1986—argues that this extractive economic model is part of an international division of ecological labor that reproduces unequal North-South power relations. In this division of labor, countries such as Ecuador—one of the 12 "megadiverse" nations on the planet—depend on primary resource exploitation. One ironic outcome of this model is that oil-rich Ecuador actually imports gasoline for domestic consumption. As the issues of tree plantations and the emerging market for carbon offsets makes clear, President Correa’s environmental policies do not represent a departure from the dominant extractive, export-oriented economic paradigm.
President Correa’s plan for an "Alliance for a Nation of Forestry" will plant 550,000 trees over the next four years. At first glance, planting trees may seem like a positive step towards improving Ecuador’s environment. But as Acción Ecológica President Ivonne Ramos pointed out in a recent interview, there is no such thing as empty land just waiting to be planted. Large-scale tree plantations increase the rate of deforestation as wild forestland is cleared to make way for tree crops. Tree plantations also contribute to the growing competition for arable land and thus drive up food prices, which threatens food sovereignty. Second, the tree plantations are part of the agro-export economy and produce little in the way of economic benefit for local communities. The lumber will be shipped to countries such as Japan to make products like toilet paper.
Possibly the most detrimental aspect of the plantations is the introduction of non-native tree species into complex ecosystems. According to Ramos, these plantations are often grown on the rich soil of the Ecuadorian páramos (wet, high altitude tropical grasslands), which are delicate ecosystems with abundant underground freshwater supplies. The plantations will consist of monoculture pine trees—since they grow quickly and provide the most bang for the buck—that damage these biodiverse ecosystems and destroy local aquifers, the underground layer of water-bearing permeable rock or unconsolidated materials. Tree plantations in the province of Esmeraldas—an area on the northern coast of Ecuador with a primarily Afro-descendent population—are an obvious example of these negative environmental effects. Since 1999, the plantations—owned by Japanese company Mitsubishi Mills Ltd.—have resulted in high levels of deforestation and have monopolized some of the richest soil in the region. Lastly, the displacement of indigenous and Afro-descendent peoples from the lands they have traditionally occupied threatens the very existence of their cultures, which are strongly tied to the territories where they live, hunt, gather, farm and practice sacred rituals.
The relatively recent history of the fast-growing carbon offset market—where consumers pay to "compensate" for their production of greenhouse gases—in Ecuador exemplifies the ecologically and culturally damaging effects of seemingly benign tree plantations. According to Ramos, the fast-growing carbon offset industry is part of an emerging economic logic in which the very functions of nature—in this case, the ability of plants to absorb carbon, i.e. photosynthesis—are commercialized. A joint report by Friends of the Earth International and Acción Ecológica reveals that carbon offsets, dressed up as a method of reducing carbon emissions in the Global North, can have disastrous environmental implications for the South. This is yet another manifestation of the global ecological division of labor.
In 1993, a consortium of Dutch electricity companies decided to plant 75,000 hectares of pine and eucalyptus trees in the Andean region of Ecuador, via the FACE (Forest Absorbing Carbon-Dioxide Emissions) Foundation. At the time of the report’s publication in 2000, 22,000 hectares trees had been planted. 75,000 hectares of trees would supposedly absorb 35 million tons of CO2, but since there have been no experiments with pine and eucalyptus trees in the high-altitude Andes, it is unclear whether they could actually absorb this much carbon outside of their native habitat. At the same time, the vulnerable páramo ecosystems that have been destroyed to make way for plantations are actually much more efficient carbon-absorbers, while the destruction of the páramo releases more than 10 times as much carbon per hour than the newly planted trees can absorb. Furthermore, páramos are one of the principal sources of freshwater in the country, and disrupting these complex ecosystems threatens local communities’ access to water.
To carry out the project, local indigenous communities have been contracted to plant the trees for $250 per hectare. According to Ramos, this sum not only grossly underpays those who labor to plant the trees, but also contributes to displacing indigenous peoples from their land to make room for the plantations, limits the time available for traditional activities and threatens food sovereignty by reducing the availability of arable land. And of course, the introduction of monocultures has negative impacts on the surrounding ecosystem. As Ramos puts it, in the new "green" economy the "poor of the world are subsidizing the mega-corporations." It seems that industrial capitalism, no matter how modern, cannot escape its roots. More than five hundred years after Europeans first "discovered" and colonized Latin America, large corporations are finding new ways to (re)colonize the South.
Correa has also expanded the production of agrofuels, part of the ecological division of labor, which, in this case, requires the people of the Global South to sacrifice their food for the automobiles and factories of the North. He claims, however, that there will be increased attention to the environmental impact of agrofuel plantations and that only idle land will be used. Bleeding the Amazon: The Politics of Oil in Ecuador
Deep in the Ecuadorian Amazon there are still indigenous communities, such as the Tageari, that exist in voluntary economic and social isolation, living in the rainforest much the same way their ancestors did before the Spanish Conquest. Since their first contact with the outside world a half-century ago, they have resisted missionaries, oilmen, and conservationist NGOs attempting to "protect" the land from the people who have lived there thousands of years, perhaps since the last ice age. The Yasuní National Park, 9,820 square kilometers of lush rainforest, is the most biodiverse region in the world. Conflict over oil in the Yasuní has long been at the center of Ecuadorian politics.
Over the past 20 years, the Huaorani, Amazonian Kichwa and Cofan indigenous peoples have joined with poor mestizo migrant oil workers and environmentalists to demand that the Yasuní be totally closed to all natural resource exploitation. The Federation of Ecuadorian Oil Workers (FETRAPEC), the main Ecuadorian oil workers union, has also called for an end to oil extraction in the region. But it is not so easy for a country like Ecuador to stop exploiting its natural resources, as the state depends on oil for revenue. Correa is proposing that wealthy countries pay Ecuador $350 million a year for ten years to not drill for oil in the park, arguing that the Global North has an "ecological debt" to the Global South. This is half of the projected revenues that drilling would generate. This debt is the product of 500 years of colonialism and resource extractive capitalism, in which raw materials from Southeast Asia, Africa and Latin America have subsidized and fueled the industrial development of Europe and the United States.
Acción Ecológica also supports repayment of the ecological debt. At the same time, Ramos views Correa’s oil policy in the Yasuní as "schizophrenic." In December of 2007, his administration granted a license to Brazilian state oil company Petrobras to explore Block 31, a 1,000-km2 tract of land that lies almost entirely within the Yasuní and overlaps with Huaorani territory. Ramos insists that it is hypocritical to separate out Block 31 from the Yasuní and then claim that the rainforest is being preserved. The Petrobras concession is a key link in the construction of the new East-West trade axis.
Is there a possibility that Correa will transform Ecuador’s economy, reducing its dependence on the export of primary resources and developing viable local economies? Both Davalos and Ramos maintain that Correa is in every respect continuing the extractive model. But at the same time, as a result of organizing and pressure on the part of the indigenous and environmental movements, voices from within his own party Alianza País—such as Constituent Assembly President Alberto Acosta and Monica Chuji, head of the Natural Resources table in the Assembly—are emerging to challenge the extractive development model. Esperanza Martinez, the Executive Director of Ecuador’s Acción Ecologica, now works as an assistant to Constituent Assembly President Alberto Acosta. Correa himself has incorporated an ecological critique into his rhetoric (such as the concept of an ecological debt discussed above) and advocates regaining national sovereignty over natural resources.
Venezuela’s experience demonstrates that the nationalization of natural resources does not automatically lead to environmental protection. According to Professor Maria Pilar García-Guadilla, since "social ownership of the means of production does not prevent environmental degradation," many social movements in Latin America critique the entire model of industrial civilization and developmentalism. Yet the Ecuadorian Left believes that state control is a necessary, if not sufficient, first step. According to Fernando Villacencio, a former oil workers union leader, "All political conflicts over the past 15 years have been focused on oil: increased gas prices, attempts to privatize pipelines, to build pipelines, to privatize Petroecuador."
Transnational companies, with the complicity of neoliberal governments, have pillaged the Amazon. Companies like Occidental Oil and Chevron-Texaco have reaped massive profits from oil exploitation and have left the land severely contaminated. Over the twenty-five years that Chevron-Texaco operated in Ecuador, almost twice as much oil was spilled in the western Amazonian region than in the notorious 1989 Exxon-Valdez oil spill in Alaska. The Amazon Defense Coalition represents 30,000 plaintiffs representing five different indigenous peoples in a class action lawsuit against Chevron-Texaco in what could be the largest environmental lawsuit in history, potentially resulting in over $10 billion dollars in damages. Environmental and health problems include cancer, birth defects, skin and respiratory diseases, childhood leukemia, and soil and water contamination, among others. The lawsuit began in a U.S. federal court in1993 but has been delayed by hundreds of motions filed by the corporation. Last month, the oil company was accused of committing "extra-judicial attacks" against the court-appointed specialist investigating the environmental damages.The Amazon Defense Coalition is an example of ecuador’s ecologismo popular (popular ecology), which ties environmental activism to struggles for economic and social justice. Ecologismo popular is often contrasted to the "conservationism" espoused by many mainstream (and internationally funded) NGOs.