A Question of Fundamentals: Ecuador’s Divided Vision of Development

In a recently published news release, the Correa government reaffirmed its intention of opening up the country to large-scale mining and to significantly expand petroleum extraction.

While creating the commonly known social, environmental and economic problems associated with primary commodity export economies (such as displacing other sectors of the economy, concentrating the wealth in few hands and causing enormous environmental and social problems), oil has been the main contributor to the country’s economic growth. More than three decades after the first barrel of oil was extracted by Texaco in the country’s biologically and culturally diverse Amazon region, the country still relies on oil exports heavily to fund its national budget. Large-scale mining, however, would be a completely new experience for this Andean country.

The government’s plans to continue to rely on non-renewable resources as a major source of government revenue has generated widespread opposition from a diverse sector of society. The intention of expanding the reliance to include large-scale mining, exacerbated the opposition. This, and the authoritarian manner in which the government has tried to impose mining projects on communities and local government, galvanized and mobilized the opposition.

Given the grim experience with the oil extraction in the Amazon (Chevron/Texaco case), it has been anything but easy for the government to convince the country of the need adopt the mining model of development. This has been especially the case for the indigenous people, who’ve suffered the most from petroleum’s dreadful legacy.

Many communities have looked at the social and environmental costs of mining development, and have, wisely, decided to reject it. Indigenous people are especially adamant about rejecting economic activities that destroy the sources of their livelihood, and degrade their culture. Of course, it hasn’t helped the government that many of the leaders facing criminal charges for protesting against mining projects are indigenous.

To coat the bitter pill that mining development brings to developing countries such as Ecuador, the government has been working hard to create a unreal image of that reality. In fact, during the past 12 months, President Correa has made it a point to include pointed pro-mining messages in many of his weekly television and radio programs. For example, the country is being portrayed as exceptionally rich in mineral wealth, even though less than 10% of its deposits has been sufficiently explored to affirm it with any amount of certainty. However, that hasn’t prevented the government from saying that the country many hold well over 200 billion dollars worth in mineral wealth. Expanding on the myth, the government also claims that a Chinese-owned mining site, in the biodiverse Condor Range, may contain the world’s second biggest copper deposit, a clearly untrue assertion, even if the amount of copper they say the site may contain is miraculously confirmed.

Along with the creation of a unrealistic idea of the country’s mineral wealth-which carefully avoids mention of the social and environmental impacts to extract it- the government has fully embraced- and is an active promoter of- one of the industry’s most powerful public relations weapon: Responsible Mining. Anyone the least bit familiar with large-scale mining in very wet tropical and biodiverse environments knows that this is a contradiction in terms.

Less destructive large-scale mining may be able to take place in arid or semi-arid regions of the world, like Chile’s Atacama desert- where most of the world’s copper is mined- or the dry western region of the US. It is impossible in tropical regions with annual rainfall of more than 3 meters, areas rich in biodiverse primary forests that protect pristine rivers and endangered animals and plants, and also exceedingly rich in ground water resources. In these kinds of places, large-scale metal mining always, without exception, quickly become catastrophic environmental nightmares, which can endure for centuries.

All the above conditions, plus mineral ores heavily contaminated with toxic heavy metals, are found on most of Ecuador’s mining sites. The contaminated ore poses a great and enduring danger to water resources anywhere in the world, but specially so in the described areas.

Responsible mining, if one day it ever exists, would leave these biological jewels as they are. It would also recognize a community’s right to Free, Prior and Informed Consent, which includes the right to choose the kind of development best suited to a community’s cultural, social and environmental circumstances. This also applies to the rights of local governments. A democratic government, respectful of the rule of law, would zealously protect these rights, and recognize they are indispensable instruments that guarantee fundamental human rights, including the right to Sumak Kawsay.

If your eyes are opened, you can’t really expect anyone to love a toxic sugar-coated toxic pill, no matter how many layers of sugar. Thus, it should be easy to see why so many communities and local governments, once they realized mining’s true impacts, have chosen to reject it. In most of these cases, mining does not fit their vision of well-being. Mining development clashed with many people’s vision of what development should be like; who it should benefit, and consequently, it made many think about what wealth is and is not. Difficult questions started being asked. Questions like: if mining creates a few jobs and generates lots of money, but contaminates our water with lead and arsenic for centuries, is it the kind of wealth and well-being that development should bring? If it also contaminates our culture and tears apart our community and, in addition, generates more social conflicts, is it worth it?

These impacts are not, in any way, exaggerations. In fact, in Latin America, no economic activity has created more social conflicts and violation of human rights than mining. Environmentally, it is the most toxic of all industries. In 2010, according to the US Environmental Protection Agency*z, metal mining was responsible for over 90% of the country’s total arsenic, mercury and lead pollution. This, in spite of the fact that only 71 mining establishments reported their toxic emissions (out of a total of 20,000 businesses), and that the industry only contributes a little over one quarter of one percent to the nation’s Gross Domestic Product. The economic element also helped to rally the opposition, for it is a established fact that developing countries heavily dependent on mining economies, are some of the poorest nations on the planet.

Needless to say, it was inevitable that the combination of known social, economic and environmental impacts, coupled with the human and collective rights violations associated with the resistance to mining, aggravated by the arrogance and authoritarianism used by the government to push it’s extractive policy, would provoke the conflicts over copper, gold and other minerals that Ecuador is now experiencing.

In order to try to neutralize the opposition, and create support for the mining plan, the Ecuadorian government has gone to exceptional lengths. Correa himself has gone out of his way to aggressively discredit anyone opposed to his government’s mining plans; even going as far as accusing opponents of being funded by mining companies to keep the price of commodities high. As for those who chose street protests and other means of civil resistance- which is a Constitutionally guaranteed right- the answer has been a brutal crackdown of the protest.

Since Correa took office, for example, over 200 indigenous and campesino leaders have been criminally charged with terrorism and sabotage for doing things like obstructing public roadways in protests over mining and water issues. This includes some of the most influential indigenous leaders in then country. On December of 2011, the Ombudsman’s Office published a scathing report, concluding that the Ecuador’s criminalization of the social protest was targeting the defenders of human and environmental rights, and had become state policy. Many of those charged are community leaders opposing mining development.

On another level, the clashes in Ecuador over mining reflects a duality in the nation’s psyche and dreams that is perfectly reflected in the nation’s Constitution. Nowhere is this better seen that in the parts that deal with natural resources. There are undoubtedly many very progressive social and environmental inclusions in the country’s Magna Carta that reflect the evolved vision of development, and which includes giving nature rights, making Sumak Kawsay a fundamental right, and giving the people the right to resist policies and measures that affect their rights. Within the same Constitution, however, there is no shortage of inclusions that reflect the mind set of those represent the dominant vision of development. Thus, one is not surprised to see that, while one section of the Constitution clearly prohibits extractive activities in protected areas, a little bit further down and in the same section, it leaves open a loophole to make it legal if the President deems it necessary, and the Assembly goes along. And in fact, during the drafting of the new Constitution, the mining lobby was very active.

Correa, who is an economist, is pursuing a traditional approach to development that places much more emphasis on the monetary and material aspect of development, than its social and environmental. He sees rents drying up along with the petroleum wells, and seeks to, at all costs, to replace them. The costs, however, are increasingly becoming too high to pay, not only in terms of the social and environmental, but also politically. Forgive me if I do not go into detail on the Yasuni initiative here, but for now, let me just say that it makes no sense at all to pretend the government is interested in not exploiting millions of barrells of oil from under a protected area in exchange of billions of dollars, and yet open up millions of new hectares to oil and large-scale mining development. Especially when these areas are in pristine habitats, and mining development can cause serious social and cultural upheaval.

In a country that stands out for its cultural and biological diversity, it becomes a herculean task to understand the reasons that would drive a government to put these jewels at risk in order to pursue a economic model of development that has proved so devastating to developing countries.

It is much easier, and heartening, to understand the reasons why it has generated so much opposition.