This year on Earth Day, the government of Ecuador spoke eloquently before the UN on the rights of nature enshrined in the country’s Constitution and the much-publicized Yasuni Initiative, which seeks to leave millions of gallons of heavy crude sitting under one of the most biodiverse areas on the planet. The initiative includes the idea of the country receiving 3.5 billion dollars to leave the petroleum where it lies. Nowhere in the speeches was mention of the fact that the petroleum sits above an official protected area, and that it would require special authorization from the National Assembly for it to be exploited. There has also been little mention that the Yasuni park also happens to be inhabited by two tribes in voluntary isolation. For this reason, opening up Yasuni to oil extraction would, in the eyes of legal experts, would amount to genocide. Yet, this “Plan B”, as it is known, is very much present in the government’s plans if the rich countries don’t cough up the billions the country is asking. If it sounds like blackmail to you, you are not alone.
When Ecuador’s new Constitution was adopted in 2008 with the unique chapter giving nature rights to, exist, persist, maintain and regenerate its vital cycles, the environmental community was ecstatic. Government officials also used it to proudly proclaim it was the best Constitution in the world. However, implementing those rights has been a completely different story.
Ironically, a few days before the grandiose speech at the UN, the government announced that it was extending the time period to receive bids as part of its XI round of petroleum exploration in the country’s Amazon region. The bidding process would open up 3 million hectares of forests (7.5 million acres) to oil exploration and subsequent development. The indigenous people in the area, the true owners of the forests, objected and mounted a savvy international campaign to make sure the interested companies knew that the government’s plan did not count without their approval. The campaign has so far been successful, thus forcing the government to roam the world and look for other interested investors.
At the same time millions of hectares of pristine forested areas were being auctioned in the country’s lowland Amazon region, the government was signing deals to kick start large scale mining projects. One of those projects, El Mirador, an open-pit copper mine belonging to a Chinese conglomerate, would gash open part of the biodiverse Condor Range, in the Amazon cloud forest region of Southern Ecuador. One-hundred percent of the copper from the biodiverse cloud forests will be exported to China as concentrate.
Another large-scale mining project the government is set on reviving is the infamous Junín open-pit copper mine situated in Intag’s Toisan Range, site of one of the planet’s most threatened and biodiverse ecosystem. The communities there have kicked out two transnationals in the 1990’s and again in 2008. This time, and disregarding the ever-present widespread opposition from communities, the government wants ENAMI, the state-owned mining company, to do the mining with the “assistance” of the world’s largest copper producer, Chilean-owned Codelco. They claim their mining will be responsible and protect the area’s biodiversity, while using the mineral resources sustainably. Reading some of the ENAMI’s propaganda, you might think they were a conservation organization instead of a company involved in the world’s most environmentally destructive economic activity.
The goal of the government regarding mining is to move from the current 5 percent of the country being carved up in mining concessions to not less than 40 percent. Keep in mind that Ecuador is the only Andean nation free of large-scale metal mines, and thus the only one able to carve out a different development path; one that would truly respect the rights of nature and local populations, and with the real opportunity of achieving true sustainable development.
Furthermore, if there is one thing that would flagrantly violate the Constitutional rights of nature it’s an open-pit metal mine, especially one set in very rugged mountainous terrain subject to earthquakes, with hard-to-imagine biological diversity, receiving thousands of millimeters of rain annually, and extremely rich in underground aquifers. The Condor as well as the Toisan Range not only meet all these conditions, but also are also the home of dozen of indigenous and campesino communities, and their forests harbor dozens- and perhaps more than a hundred species- threatened with, or in danger of extinction. The rights of nature in these places would not only be violated, they would be thrashed.
One might think, given the drastic environmental impacts of large-scale open-pit mining, that Ecuador’s environmental community has, in the rights of nature, the perfect tool to oppose or significantly modify such projects. In fact, very recently it tried and failed when it presented the equivalent of a constitutional injunction to stop the El Mirador project copper mining project. The presiding judge, a local magister with no knowledge whatsoever of Constitutional law, ruled that since there was no “damage” to nature, there was no violation of her rights. Though the ruling is being appealed to a higher court, a bizarre aspect of the new Constitution makes it impossible for the country’s Constitutional Tribunal- and experts in Constitutional Law- to hear and resolve the case. The lower judge also claimed, in so many words, that the government’s “sustainable mining policy” assured that the rights of nature would be protected.
If the above is not enough hypocrisy for one day, consider the fact that the present government has used the law to criminalize nearly 200 campesino and indigenous leaders who have protested to- in effect- uphold the rights of nature. For example, many of them have been accused of terrorism and sabotage for taking part in protests against petroleum, mining and large dam projects, and to protect their drinking water sources, among other environmental causes. Some of these projects have, according to prestigious human rights organizations, caused whole communities to be relocated. The fact is that opposing major government extractive projects in Ecuador involving major environmental devastation carries the risk of going to jail and/or having the distinction of publicly being labeled an infantile environmentalist- or worse- by the head of state of this Andean nation.
This is the same government that sees no contradiction in gashing out holes kilometers in diameter across and hundreds of meters deep to access minerals laced with heavy metals in primary cloud forests protecting pristine rivers and streams and harboring jaguars, spectacled bears and dozens of other endangered species, and at the same time asking the world to adopt its model of safeguarding the rights of nature.
What we are describing is nothing less than a whole new level of green-washing. And, sadly, this particular load of green-wash is just one of many being laundered in order to create and uphold a country image that very little has to do with reality.
For additional information, read the following sources:
For a great Green Washing example a la Ecuadorian visit: http://www.enamiep.gob.ec/
For a short video clip on the relocation of communities go here: http://vimeo.com/64245941 (Spanish only)