UNESCO designated the Yasuní National Park as a world biosphere reserve in 1989 because it contains 100,000 species of animals, many which are not found anywhere else in the world. Each hectare of the forest reportedly contains more tree species than in all of North America. Not drilling in the pristine rainforest would both protect its rich mix of wildlife and plant life and help halt climate change by preventing the release of more than 400 million tons of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere.
On August 27, 2013, Indigenous and environmentalist activists took to the streets of Ecuador to protest against a reversal in government plans not to drill for oil in the ecologically sensitive Yasuní National Park in the eastern Amazon basin.
The protests came after Ecuadorian president Rafael Correa announced on August 15 the failure of his Yasuní–ITT initiative.
Experts estimate that the Ishpingo Tiputini Tambococha or ITT oilfields in the Yasuní National Park hold nearly one trillion barrels of oil, about one-fifth of Ecuador’s total reserves. Its extraction could generate more than $7 billion in revenue over a 10-year period.
UNESCO designated the park as a world biosphere reserve in 1989 because it contains 100,000 species of animals, many which are not found anywhere else in the world. Each hectare of the forest reportedly contains more tree species than in all of North America.
Not drilling in the pristine rainforest would both protect its rich mix of wildlife and plant life and help halt climate change by preventing the release of more than 400 million tons of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere.
According to the Yasuní–ITT plan, in exchange for forgoing drilling in the park, international donors would contribute $3.6 billion, half of the estimated value of the petroleum, to the United Nations Development Program (UNDP) for health care, education, and other social programs.
Despite broad local and international support for the plan, donors were not forthcoming with contributions. After six years, the fund had only collected $13 million in donations with $116 million more in pledges.
“The world has failed us,” Correa stated in a nationally televised news conference in which he announced that he had signed an executive decree to permit exploitation of oil in the Yasuní. “With deep sadness but also with absolute responsibility to our people and history, I have had to take one of the hardest decisions of my government.”
Correa blamed the world’s hypocrisy for failing to support the innovative proposal with financial donations. “We weren’t asking for charity,” Correa said, “we were asking for co-responsibility in the fight against climate change.”
The initiative was one of the government’s most popular, and enjoyed support of 90 percent of the Ecuadorian population.
Despite being a signature program of Correa’s Citizens’ Revolution, the proposal not to drill in the ecologically sensitive area of eastern Ecuador predated his government. The idea to leave oil underground in exchange for raising funds as part of an ecological debt of industrialized countries was an initiative of Indigenous movements and environmentalists. In 2007, Correa incorporated those ideas into his government.
Many opponents contend that Correa’s decision to drill in the Yasuní is a violation of the country’s new and progressive 2008 constitution.
Ecuador’s constitution is the first in the world to recognize the rights of nature. Article 71 declares that “nature or Pachamama [the Quechua term for mother earth], from which life springs, has the right to have its existence integrally respected.”
In addition to the constitutional mandate to protect the rights of nature, the constitution also required the government to protect the rights of Indigenous peoples, and in particular the Tagaeri and the Taromenane who are living in voluntary isolation in the Yasuní National Park.
Article 57 of the 2008 constitution specifically states that “the territories of the peoples living in voluntary isolation are an irreducible and intangible ancestral possession and all forms of extractive activities shall be forbidden there.” The article concludes, “the violation of these rights shall constitute a crime of ethnocide.”
Critics maintained that Correa’s decision to drill in the Yasuní was a direct violation of the constitution, and furthermore an act of ethnocide.
The Confederación de Nacionalidades Indígenas de la Amazonía Ecuatoriana (CONFENIAE, Confederation of Indigenous Nationalities of the Ecuadorian Amazon) released a statement on August 20 that denounced the government’s plans to terminate the Yasuní-ITT initiative. CONFENIAE groups 21 organizations and federations from 11 Indigenous nationalities in the Amazon.
“The deepening of the extractive policies of the current regime, which exceeds that of former neoliberal governments,” the statement reads, “has led to systematic violations of our fundamental rights and has generated a number of socio-environmental conflicts in Indigenous communities throughout the Amazon region.”
CONFENIAE points to a historical pattern of the extermination of Indigenous groups due to petroleum exploration, including the Tetete in northeastern Ecuador 40 years earlier. “History repeats itself,” the federation proclaimed. “We are on the verge of a new ethnocide.”
The current abuses occur, CONFENIAE complains, even as the country projects an image as “possessing one of the world’s most advanced constitutions, which recognizes the collective rights of Indigenous peoples, especially their right to free, prior and informed consent, the rights of nature, the Sumak Kawsay, among others.”
Nevertheless, “when the interests of large capital become involved, the rulers through their control of the judicial system, demonstrate that they have no qualms with reforming laws to legalize theft, looting, and human rights violations.” CONFENIAE believes that Correa’s announcement to suspend the Yasuní initiative “has been only one more example of the neoliberal , pro-imperialist, and traitorous character of the current regime.
From CONFENIAE’s perspective, Correa’s actions confirmed what they had long understood: “the government was never really committed to the conservation of nature, beyond an advertising and media campaign to project an opposite image to the world.” The government always had a double standard, and plans to drill in the Yasuní was always the ace that they held up their sleave.
In response to these criticisms, Correa denounced “Indigenous fundamentalists” and leftist environmentalists, and argued, “the biggest mistake is to subordinate human rights to ostensible natural rights.”
Correa claimed that “the real dilemma” of drilling in a sensitive ecological area is “do we protect 100 percent of the Yasuní and have no resources to meet the urgent needs of our people, or do we save 99 percent of it and have $18 billion to fight poverty?”
Correa also contended that with modern technology it was possible to drill with a minimal impact on the environment. He argued that drilling would affect less than one-tenth of one percent of the park, and that it would take place far from the “untouchable zone” where the the Tagaeri and the Taromenane lived.
As a neo-Keynesian economist trained at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, Correa attempted to use petroleum resources to develop the Ecuadorian economy. Correa maintained that anything could be used for good or evil, and that he was determined to use Ecuador’s natural resources to create a positive development model.
Creating alternatives to an extractive economy was a long-term proposition, Correa said, and short-term dependence on mining for revenue and employment was unavoidable. He repeatedly declared that “we can’t be beggars seated on a sack of gold” to justify the exploitation of oil and other minerals.
Many environmental activists disputed Correa’s contention that oil could be extracted from Yasuní with minimal damage. These critics contend that roads and other infrastructure associated with any drilling operation inevitably would open up the park to colonists and result in irreversible damage to the ecosystem.
At best, Correa always provided at best tenuous support for the Yasuní proposal. He repeatedly threatening to move to a “Plan B” to commence drilling in the preserve if donations were not forthcoming. Reports indicated that quietly, and behind the scenes, the Ecuadorian government was proceeding at full speed to develop the oil fields because of the their significant economic potential.
During the 2013 presidential campaign, Alberto Acosta who ran for the top office with the Coordinadora Purinacional por la Unidad de las Izquierdas (Plurinational Coordinating Body for the Unity of the Left), said that “if Correa wins the ITT initiative will be dropped. The infrastructure is already in place to exploit the oil.”
Indicative of Correa’s ultimate commitment was placing Ivonne Baki, a conservative politician who had participated in previous neoliberal governments, in charge of the Yasuní project.
Critics have long referred to petroleum as a “resource curse.” The value added to the processing of raw commodities accrues to advanced industrial economies, not to Ecuador. Furthermore, as Ecuador raised taxes on oil companies the companies stopping investing in new explorations and production stagnated at about 500,000 barrels per day.
Serious questions remain whether a reliance on export commodities could ever grow Ecuador’s economy. A common saying in Ecuador was that country became a dollar poorer for every barrel of oil that it exported.
Carlos Larrea notes that although Ecuador has exported petroleum for more than four decades, “poverty still affects one in three Ecuadorians, and almost half of our workers are underemployed.” No oil-exporting country, he maintained, has managed to achieve an equitable and sustainable form of development. Economic studies illustrate resource extraction provide a fundamentally flawed strategy for economic development.
Leftist opponents repeatedly charged that Correa had failed to make a fundamental break from a capitalist logic of resource extraction. Sociologist Jorge León Trujillo states that he never understood how the commodification of the environment, as would happen with the Yasuní initiative, could be considered a revolutionary proposal.
The economic proposals that Correa pursues are not unlike those that the conservative economist Hernando de Soto in neighboring Peru has long advocated. At best, for leftists Correa’s approach appeared to be one of green capitalism that was quickly discarded when it no longer provided the expected economic returns.
On August 22, in the name of Indigenous, student, and environmental organizations, the noted jurist Dr. Julio César Trujillo formally delivered a request to the constitutional court in Quito for a popular referendum on the president’s plans to drill in the ecologically sensitive park.
To demand a referendum, proponents need to collect 584,000 signatures, or 5 percent of the voters in this country of 15 million people. If enough signatures are collected, voters will be asked: “Do you agree that the Ecuadorean government should keep the crude in the ITT, known as block 43, underground indefinitely?”
Correa welcomed the challenge of opponents calling for a referendum on the government’s decision to drill in the Yasuní. “How am I going to oppose a referendum if it is a constitutional right to request one?” Correa stated on August 27. “It is also my right to request congressional permission” to drill for oil in the park, he declared.
Correa’s petition to drill in the Yasuní declares that it is in the “national interest” to do so.
Correa’s party Alianza PAIS has a super majority in a congress that has been compliant to his leadership; there is little question that it will approve his drilling proposal. “We are sure,” Correa declared, “that with sufficient information we will have the full support of the Ecuadorian people.”
Correa’s conservative opponents did not hesitate to use the failure of the Yasuní plan to attack the Ecuadorian government.
Writing in the opposition Quiteño newspaper Hoy, José Hernández criticized Correa for putting the project in the hands of Baki, a person “whose ecological past is as irrefutable as her enormous political convictions.” Correa, according to Hernández, sent the wrong message by putting such an important political project in the hands of a person whose political positions shifted so easily with the prevailing winds.
The New York Times editorial board questioned whether Correa’s original plan was “a good-faith effort to preserve an extraordinarily rich and diverse ecosystem.” The newspaper argued that “the consequences are dismal” and that “a valuable model for protecting regional biodiversity hot spots through a kind of global stewardship has been jettisoned.”
Given the previous editorial stances of these newspapers in criticizing the Correa administration for its alleged repression of freedom of the press, the hypocrisy and opportunism of these editorial stances that now apparently advocated an environmental perspective was immediately obvious.
Correa tweeted, “now the biggest environmentalists are the mercantilist newspapers.” He sarcastically suggested a referendum to require that newspapers be published digitally in order “to save paper and avoid indiscriminate logging.”
Meanwhile, Correa’s leftist opponents continued to protest his decision to drill in the park.
At the Plaza de la Independencia in front of the presidential palace in Quito on August 27, pro-Yasuní protesters met a counter-demonstration of supporters of Correa’s ruling party Alianza PAIS.
Police fired rubber bullets on the protesters, hurting twelve people and detaining four. Among those detained was Marco Guatemal, vice-president of Ecuarunari, the powerful federation of Kichwa peoples in the Ecuadorian highlands that has long fought against neoliberal economic policies.
The crackdown on the Yasuní demonstrators is part of a broader pattern of the criminalization of social protest in Ecuador.
Three days before Correa announced his withdrawal from the Yasuní agreement, a court in the southeastern province of Morona Santiago sentenced Pepe Luis Acacho, a congressional deputy for the Indigenous political party Pachakutik, as well as Indigenous leader Pedro Mashian, to twelve years in prison on charges of “sabotage and terrorism” for leading a protest against a proposed water management law in September 2009.
This case came on the heels of an April 2013 sentence against Pachakutik deputy José Cléver Jiménez Cabrera and former union leader Fernando Alcibíades Villavicencio Valencia to 18 months in prison for slandering Correa in the aftermath of a September 30, 2010 police protest.
Under Correa’s government, hundreds of activists face terrorism charges, largely for organizing protests against extractive policies. Some observed that social movements had not faced this level of repression under previous neoliberal governments.
In response to the repression, the Confederación de Nacionalidades Indígenas del Ecuador (CONAIE, Confederation of Indigenous Nationalities of Ecuador), the country’s primary Indigenous organization, released a statement that demanded “that the president stop the repression and prosecution of Indigenous leaders and convoke a referendum on oil exploration in the ITT.”