The people of Ecuador are rising up to refound their country as a pluri-national homeland for all. This inspiring movement, with Ecuador's indigenous peoples at its heart, is part of the revolution spreading across the Americas, laying the groundwork for a new, fairer, world. Ecuador Rising aims to bring news and analysis of events unfolding in Ecuador to english speakers.

Sunday, February 01, 2009

What does Ecuador’s “21st Century Socialism” Mean for the Amazon’s Indigenous?

COHA, 28 January 2009

As well as being hailed as part of a broader progressive trend in Latin America, the 2006 presidential election of the left wing economist, Rafael Correa, was also seen as a significant advance for the country´s indigenous and environmentalist movements. Correa had famously learned Quichua while doing voluntary work in the Ecuadorian Andes in his youth, and duly received significant electoral support from the country´s indigenous populations, as well as the backing of their party, the Pachakutik. Moreover, his espousal of environmental causes and political alliances with ecologically-minded politicians was greeted with cautious optimism by the country´s environmentalist movement. Correa also was elected on a platform to increase spending in services such as health and education, which is largely dependent on the revenue brought in by environmentally destructive pursuits such as oil and mining. This has led analysts to observe that the Government is inevitably caught in a classic development-conservation contradiction.

The Yasuni – Ishpingo Tambacocha Tipituni (ITT) Initiative
The Government´s stated commitment to indigenous rights and environmental conservation were manifested in the unprecedented proposal to leave almost 1 billion barrels of oil in the Ishpingo Tambacocha Tipituni oilfield unexploited, in return for international compensation totaling half of the projected revenues. The need to avoid exploitation was justified on three grounds: the need to conserve the unrivaled level of biodiversity in the Yasuni National Park, the meaningful protection of the “voluntarily isolated” Tagaeri and Taromenane peoples, and the international need to avoid the emission of 436 million tons of carbon. The compensation would be used for spending on social services, environmental conservation, and to generate environmentally sustainable sources of energy to move the country towards a “post-oil economy.” This initiative was quickly lauded by local and international environmentalist campaigners as being an original and innovative way of combating climate change by avoiding extraction (Acosta 2008).

As yet, despite significant rhetorical support for the Initiative, the international community has failed to respond to the proposal with any significant offers of compensation. The Government has agreed to a request by the German Parliament to extend the deadline for the proposal, and it is hoped that this will allow time for the proposal to be both considered and embraced by the developed world. Even so, the tepid response thus far has contributed to a sentiment in Ecuador that rich countries act hypocritically by lecturing poor countries to assume burdensome environmental responsibilities, but fail to respond to initiatives like the one proposed by Ecuadorian authorities.

The Government and Civil Society
Meanwhile, environmental groups such as Acción Ecológica are preoccupied by the Government´s decision to promote the proposal on the basis of “carbon trading.” This is perceived by campaigners as being a betrayal of their radical principles, as carbon trading mechanisms would allow donor countries to use their contributions as an excuse to continue to contaminate Ecuador’s environment (Acción Ecológica 2008). This dispute is part of a growing rift between the Government and environmental groups, a split which was also widened by the Government’s decision to grant an environmental license to the Brazilian energy giant Petrobras, which allowed it to exploit Block 31, an area adjacent to the ITT (Although Petrobras has since withdrawn from prospecting in the area). Moreover, while the new Constitution contains some significant advances such as the recognition of the “Rights of Nature,” it does not explicitly prohibit extractive activities from vulnerable areas, nor does it give affected local communities the right to veto harmful projects (Constitution 2008). The Government´s dispute with the environmentalist movement is matched by its appalling relations with the country´s historically influential indigenous organization, the Confederation of Indigenous Nationalities of Ecuador (CONAIE). In addition to the previously mentioned issues, the CONAIE have accused the Government of diluting its proposal for a plurinational state, and resisting the promotion of the status of Quichwa. While supporting the “yes” vote in the August 2008 referendum on the new Constitution, CONAIE President Marlon Santi claimed Correa ´s desire was to coopt the country´s indigenous peoples, and has accused him of maintaining “racist” and “neo-liberal” policies (Santi 2008). For his part, Correa has repeatedly accused Ecuador´s social movements of being “extremist” or “infantile,” and has gone as far as saying “I hope that the Leftist radicals who do not believe in the oil companies, the mining companies, the market or the transnationals go away” (Cited in Denvir 2008). Such disputes between the leftist Government and civil society clearly have negative implications for the generation of pro-indigenous and environmentally sustainable policies in Ecuador.

The Waorani and the Oil Companies
In some ways, such debates are far removed from the reality of many Waorani living in the Yasuni Biosphere Reserve, an area which includes the Yasuni National Park and the ITT oilfield. While the effects of contamination and contact linked to oil exploitation could be potentially disastrous for the the voluntarily isolated Tagaeri and Taromenane peoples, the majority of their Waorani relatives have over 20 years of experience with the oil companies working on their territory. This contact has brought about significant cultural changes, and many of the Waorani live in modern houses with Western appliances such as fridges, televisions, DVD players, and even cars. In the communities of Tiguino and Bataboro, the Waorani receive free health care and education from the Canadian oil company Petrobell, as well as regular well-paid manual labour. Petrobell´s community relations representative is an extremely popular individual within these communities, and there are currently plans to establish a micro-enterprise. This would involve Petrobell buying fabrics, with which the Waorani women would make the uniforms for the oil workers, which they would then sell back to the oil company. While many of the village women are excited about this possibility, it is indisputably clear that this enterprise will deepen the Waorani’s level of dependence on Petrobell. Given that oil reserves are expected to be depleted within the next generation, the future of such communities is far from secure.

Meanwhile, many Waorani are becoming increasingly conscious of the negative environmental effects of oil development on their territory. Despite oil companies´ claims to be using the cleanest technology available, contamination has still been significant, as can be seen by the leaking of 2000 barrels of oil and contaminated water near the community of Dicaron, in February 2008 (Terra Actualidad – EFE 2008). This has led to leaders like the President of the Waorani Nationality of Ecuador (NAWE), Ewenguime Enqueri, who previously had signed deals with oil companies, to increasingly adopt oppositional positions towards oil development. Many communities, such as Baameno, are looking at ways of expanding community tourism and the sale of crafts by artisans as sources of income which do not contaminate the environment. This also has been reflected by the formation of the Association of Waorani Women of the Ecuadorian Amazon (AMWAE), a sister organization of NAWE, which opposes oil exploitation and promotes alternatives.

The Waorani and the Correa Government
Historically, the Ecuadorian state has effectively “privatized” its responsibilities towards the Waorani to existing commercial entities. The Waorani were first subjected to an intensive campaign of evangelization by American missionaries from the Summer Institute of Linguistics, and then the highly assistentialist “community relations” programs implemented by oil companies to dampen any resistance to their work there. Government officials are keen to proclaim a new era of participation and mutual respect with the region´s Waorani communities, and claim to have elicited an extremely positive response towards the ITT Initiative from virtually all Waorani communities, and their political leadership (Ramos 2008). Such claims, however, have to be treated with extreme caution, as can be seen by the following conversation the author had with Ewenguime Enqueri:

Enqueri: “Yeah, I had a conversation with someone from the Government. She said they were going to change, from oil, to carbon trading…But I´m not so sure, I think it could be worse than oil!”
Author: “But at least carbon trading won´t contaminate the environment…”
Enqueri: “Really? What, so, is it a good thing? Ever since they told me about this, I´ve been asking everybody if carbon trading´s a good thing or a bad thing…”

This demonstrates that rhetoric about “participation” does not necessarily suggest a genuine inclusion of indigenous peoples in the formation of policies, and therefore it is not surprising that the Waorani are often ambivalent or skeptical about the Government´s intentions. Leaders like Enqueri are unsure whether the Government´s professed concern for the Waorani and the Amazon is sincere. This skepticism manifests in the widespread belief among the Waorani that the Government is planning to use their land for colonization projects, a claim which would appear justifiable given the history of the Waorani, but which seems to have little basis in reality. Other Waorani, for example, such as Huane, (the community leader of Noneno), see government attempts to increase environmental controls as an imposition on their efforts to generate an income, and seem justified in demanding up to $1000 per month in order to stop cooperating with the loggers (Enqueri 2008). Government officials are aware of the difficulties of increasing environmental protections, and signed a cooperation deal with Enqueri and Manuela Ima, (President of AMWAE), to employ 14 Waorani to take part in joint monitoring activities with the Ministry of Environment (El Comercio, 28 September). Clearly, though, participation needs to be genuine, and the Government must act quickly if it is to convince the Waorani that it genuinely wishes to offer social services and environmentally-friendly sources of income to them.

Clearly, the implications of Correa´s “21st Century Socialism” for Amazonian indigenous communities and the natural habitats they live in remain unclear. The question of whether or not Ecuador is able to break with its history of promoting destructive oil exploitation in the Amazon and move towards a low carbon economy is largely dependent upon the international community’s will to recognize its own responsibilities, and is prepared to assist in this process. At the time of writing, concrete assistance has been limited, suggesting that oil importing countries are more concerned with perpetuating their own unsustainable levels of consumption than genuinely aiming to combat climate change. At a national level, the Ecuadorian Government´s intentions with regards to natural environments remain ambiguous. In many ways, progress will depend on the strength of the new Constitution, and the ability of a more environmentally-minded political tier and civil society to use it to push towards a more environmentally sustainable economic model. With regards to the Waorani, while the Government has shown a clear intention of increasing environmentally-sustainable income opportunities towards such communities, such intentions need to be matched by significant, long term policies of genuine participation if “21st Century Socialism” is to mean anything more than “business as usual” in the Ecuadorian Amazon.


Acción Ecológica, El ITT Versus el Yasuní: Alerta Verde 156 de Acción Ecológica, (September 2008)
Acosta, Alberto, Mantener el Crudo en Tierra. Un Desafío para el Ecuador y el Mundo (June 2007),
Denvir, Daniel, Wayward Allies: President Rafael Correa and the Ecuadorian Left, (July 2008),
Nueva Constitucion de le Republic del Ecuador, (2008),
Terra Actualidad – EFE, Posible Sanción Contra Repsol-YPF por Derrame en Yasuni, (February 2008),
El Comercio, 28 September 2008, Los Huao y el MAE Vigilarán Juntos

Interview with Marlon Santi, June 11 2008
Interview with Juana Ramos, June 16 2008
Interviews with Ewenguime Enqueri, June 20th – July 5th 2008
Interviews in Waorani Community Quinaweno, June 23rd-24th 2008
Interviews in Waorani communities Bataboro and Tiguino, July 5th – 9th 2008

This analysis was prepared by COHA Research Fellow Rachel Godfrey Wood
January 28th, 2009
Word Count: 2000

No comments:

Post a Comment