Commentary by Nikolas Kozloff, special to mongabay.com
As climate change
negotiations continue full force in the Danish city of Copenhagen,
Latin American countries are hoping the Global North will commit to its
“climate debt” by reducing greenhouse gas emissions and providing
resources to poor nations. It’s certainly an understandable aspiration:
Latin America only produces five per cent of global emissions of carbon
dioxide, a chief greenhouse gas, yet the region has borne the brunt of
extreme weather ranging from droughts to flooding.
One key figure
pressuring the Global North to live up to its responsibilities is
Rafael Correa, firebrand president of the small Andean nation of
Ecuador. A popular leader recently elected to a second presidential
term, Correa has allied himself to Venezuela’s Hugo Chávez and the
so-called leftist “Pink Tide” sweeping through South America. He’s the
first leftist to win the presidency in Ecuador since the country
returned to civilian rule in 1979. Indignantly, Correa blames rich
nations for disastrous floods which destroyed hundreds of millions of
dollars worth of crops in his country last year.
While it’s still unclear
whether Correa will put in a personal appearance in Copenhagen,
Ecuadoran officials will certainly be raising an issue of key
importance to their countrymen: the fate of the Amazon jungle. While
the largest swathe of the Amazon lies in Brazil, Ecuador also has its
share of rainforest in the so-called Oriente region.
Unfortunately however, U.S. oil company Texaco despoiled the
Oriente over the course of many years which resulted in an
environmental and public health emergency for local indigenous peoples
in the area [to learn more about Texaco’s black history in Ecuador,
read my recent online review of the documentary film Crude].
To his credit, Correa has voiced support for Indians who
have launched an environmental lawsuit against Texaco -- now Chevron.
Ambitiously however the combative Ecuadoran president has gone yet
further in pushing for environmental protection in the Amazon. Under
his Yasuní-ITT initiative, Ecuador would forgo oil exploitation in an
Amazon nature reserve in exchange for billions of dollars in aid from
Located in the Ecuadoran Amazon, Yasuní national park is
home to the largest number of tree species per hectare on the planet
and also contains endangered monkeys, pumas and jaguars. The Ecuadoran
government has stated that it would not extract oil within the
so-called Ishpingo-Tambococha-Tiputini (or ITT) oil fields located in
Yasuní if the Global North provided the Andean nation with necessary
In addition to rare animals Yasuní is home to the Taromenane,
one of the world’s last uncontacted indigenous tribes. As oil presence
has grown in the vicinity these hunter gatherers have come under
threat: in 2003 unknown assailants killed 26 Taromenane in an ambush.
The Indians have hit back and are thought to be the authors of a recent
spear attack upon a settler family. One victim of the attack, a 12-year
old girl, told oil workers shortly before she died that her attackers
were almost entirely naked.
Not only would Correa’s ingenious plan take pressure off the
Taromenane but also help to ameliorate climate change. Indeed, the
President says that if Ecuador were to avoid burning Yasuní oil --- and
logging the rainforest to get it --- the world might avoid the creation
of 547 million tons of carbon dioxide going into the atmosphere. It’s a
fabulous idea and best of all the Correa government would use proceeds
from the ITT-Yasuní trust to prevent further deforestation.
For a country like Ecuador, getting at Yasuní’s oil is a
tempting target: currently the Andean nation derives a whopping 35% of
its public spending budget from petroleum exports. Correa could well
use the added money: currently half the Ecuadoran population lives in
But Correa, who issued
lime-green posters emblazoned with the slogan “citizen revolution”
during his first run for the presidency, and who has renamed the oil
ministry the “ministry of non-renewable resources,” is busily pitching
ITT-Yasuní to European governments instead of moving ahead with
sensitive oil exploration. In exchange for preserving Yasuní, Correa
wants $350 million a year from the Global North for the next ten years.
In the run-up to the climate conference in Copenhagen, Correa
and Ecuadoran officials have been circling the globe to attract support
for ITT-Yasuní. So far Spain, France and Italy have expressed interest
in canceling Ecuador’s debts. But when Correa sought to set up a
meeting with British MP’s about Yasuní-ITT, he was rebuffed and told
that parliamentarians were too busy with other matters. To date, only
Germany has agreed to pay Ecuador $50 million annually for 13 years.
Inaction in the Global North has allowed Correa to take the
moral high ground. In London he declared that rich countries were
primarily responsible for climate change and it was they who should pay
Ecuador not to release carbon into the atmosphere as “compensation for
the damages caused by the out-of-proportion amount of historical and
current emissions of greenhouse gases.” But while Correa’s fiery
denunciations are certainly on target it would be a mistake to view the
controversy over Amazonian resources as a simple struggle between the
Ecuadoran government and wealthier, more polluting countries.
According to Alberto Acosta, Ecuador’s former Minister of
Energy and Mines, the President has been an ambivalent
environmentalist. An economist, Acosta left his post due to
disagreements with other government officials about oil development in
Yasuní. When I was in Quito doing research for my book Revolution!
South America and the Rise of the New Left (Palgrave-Macmillan, 2008),
I spoke with Acosta and he struck me as a dynamic and principled man.
During our discussion he animatedly quoted Bertolt Brecht at length on
the need for greater citizen engagement in politics.
In an interesting interview posted on the website Rebelión
Acosta remarked that it was civil society and not Rafael Correa which
originally pushed the ITT-Yasuní idea. For years, he says, Indians who
witnessed the destruction wreaked by Texaco had called for a moratorium
on oil exploration in the Amazon. Indigenous peoples were joined by a
group of dedicated activists working with a non-governmental
organization (or NGO) called Acción Ecológica.
When I was in Ecuador in the 1990s researching some stories
about oil exploration in the Amazon I recall interviewing
environmentalists working with Acción Ecológica including an insightful
woman named Esperanza Martínez. Even before Acosta arrived in his post,
Martínez pushed hard for ITT-Yasuní and held discussions with the
economist. Later, Acosta took up the idea of ITT-Yasuní with other
government officials, a development which provoked a “confrontation”
within the Correa regime.
Acosta’s colleagues could not understand why the Minister of
Energy and Mines no less would want to keep Amazonian oil in the
ground. In particular, Acosta encountered resistance from the state oil
company Petroecuador which sought to actually accelerate petroleum
development in the rainforest. In addition to serving as minister,
Acosta was president of Petroecuador’s board of directors during this
time. However, little did Acosta know that behind his back the
company’s executive president was seeking to seal deals with the
Brazilian and Venezuelan state energy companies amongst others in an
effort to move forward with controversial oil exploration.
At one tense
Petroecuador board meeting, Correa himself showed up and heard the
arguments both for and against oil exploration in the Amazon. At long
last, the president agreed to leave the oil in the ground as long as
Ecuador could acquire some sort of international financial
compensation. Today in Copenhagen Ecuador is proud of its ITT-Yasuní
plan but according to Acosta the president has been a reluctant
environmentalist, at times raising objections to the scheme and at
others moving to slow down momentum and crucial progress.
More significantly, in early 2009 the Ecuadoran authorities
moved to shut down Acción Ecológíca --- the very same organization
which had proven so crucial in pushing the ITT-Yasuní proposal in the
first place. Claiming that the group had “not complied with the aims
for which it [the NGO] was created,” the government withdrew Acción
Ecológíca’s legal charter. Speaking to the Ecuadoran media, Esperanza
Martínez expressed shock and dismay at the move. The Correa government,
she declared, was simply trying to silence its environmental critics.
The government vehemently denied the charges but in light of
the timing it’s possible the environmentalists were correct in their
suspicions. Indeed, the government acted to shut down Acción Ecológica
shortly after the NGO called for sanctions against a consortium
operating an environmentally problematic oil pipeline.
For a year before that Acción Ecológica had furthermore
opposed Correa’s new mining law which in the NGO’s view solely
benefited transnational mining companies at the expense of local
communities. Though the authorities later moved to reestablish Acción
Ecológica’s legal status, the heavy handed government decision came as
a shock to some foreign and progressive Ecuadorans who had otherwise
been heartened by Correa’s ecologically friendly proposals like
If the Accíon Ecológica affair was not enough of a big, black
blot on Correa’s environmental record consider the president’s
retrograde attitude towards natural resources. Though Indians backed
Correa’s initial election they later grew leery of the government when
authorities pushed for a new law regulating water. The proposed law,
they said, would lead to an eventual privatization of water resources.
Concerned about mining and water, and apprehensive about oil
development proceeding on their lands, Indians recently protested the
Correa regime by blocking Amazonian roads.
Condescendingly, Correa called Indians “infantile” for
objecting to legislation which would deny them consultation on mining
and oil drilling projects. “We do not accept that a government that
says it is in favor of marginalized people should not take their views
into account when it makes laws,” countered indigenous leader Humberto
Cholango. “It's inconceivable that laws as important as those on
mining…should be passed without public debate, or that they should
contain articles that run counter to the constitution itself, which
enshrines the rights of nature,” he added.
Tragically, protests along the blocked roads led to violence.
The Indians claimed that 500 police attacked them which resulted in two
deaths and nine wounded by gunshots. The Correa government, the Indians
declared, had “blood on its hands” and pledged to carry out
international legal action over violations of their collective and
human rights. The government denies the police ever fired their guns
and reports that some security forces were also wounded in the battle.
In the short run the Indians may have won this round against
the Correa government: in the wake of the battle the President sat down
with indigenous leaders in Quito and agreed to reconsider mining and
water laws. In the long term however Correa must take on the mounting
political contradictions which characterize his regime.
Even as he rails against the Global North for causing
climate change and seeks to secure vital funding to save Yasuní, Correa
seems unable or unwilling to make a fundamental break with the age old
extractive economy. For their part, the Indians believe they don’t have
enough control over their ancestral lands and natural resources.
How can Ecuador get out of this polarized and vicious cycle?
Early on during his first administration, Correa visited the ugly
Amazonian oil boom town of Coca and remarked “I think oil has brought
us more bad than good. We need to do something about it.” Despite his
rhetoric however Correa has not done enough to put tiny Ecuador on an
alternative path. Yet economist Acosta argues that Ecuador must try to
create a “post-petroleum” economy. “Extracting natural resources
doesn’t develop us,” he says.
Nikolas Kozloff is the author of the forthcoming No Rain in the Amazon: How South America's Climate Change Affects the Entire Planet (Palgrave Macmillan, April 2010). Visit his website, senorchichero.