Resource Extraction and the Yasuni National Park
At 7:39 PM on August 15, 2013, Ecuadorian president Rafael Correa tweeted “in a few minutes I will speak to the country about the Yasuní-ITT initiative. It has been a long time since I was so nervous.” Correa had good reason to be nervous because he was about to cancel a signature program of his Citizens’ Revolution, one that enjoyed support of 90 percent of the Ecuadorian population. “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 National Park. “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.” He 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.”
Experts estimated that the Ishpingo Tiputini Tambococha (ITT) oilfields in the Yasuní National Park held nearly a trillion barrels of oil, about a fifth of Ecuador’s total reserves, and that 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 contained 1,300 species of animals and 100,000 species of insects, many of which were not found anywhere else in the world. Each hectare of the forest reportedly had as many as 655 tree species, more 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 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 6 years, the fund had collected $13 million in donations with $116 million more in pledges.
On August 22, 2013, in the name of indigenous, student, and environmental organizations, the noted jurist Julio César Trujillo 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, opponents would be required 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 appeared to welcome 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 extract petroleum from the park. Correa’s petition to drill in the Yasuní declared that it was in the “national interest” to do so. Correa’s party Alianza PAIS had a super majority in the Congress and the delegates would be compliant to his leadership. There was little question that they would approve his drilling proposal. “We are sure,” Correa declared, “that with sufficient information we will have the full support of the Ecuadorian people” for his plans to accelerate the pace of resource extraction.
Despite a strong global reaction against Correa’s decision, there was nothing new in Correa’s decision to bow out of the Yasuní proposal. All of the political, electoral, and economic considerations, and calculations involved in the decision had been present since the beginning of his government. Since taking office in 2007, Correa had pursued economic policies designed to grow Ecuador’s economy and lower poverty rates, and he succeeded admirably in these goals even as the methods he employed to achieve them consistently ran him afoul of environmentalists, social movement activists, and others to his left. Although canceling the Yasuní initiative was the most unpopular decision in his more than six years in power, it would be an exaggeration to call this a watershed moment. Instead, it was little more than a reaffirmation of the contradictions and limitations that careful observers had noted in Correa’s government since the very beginning of his mandate.
Correa’s developmental policies could be characterized by what might be called neoliberal environmentalism—they reveal how easy it is to employ a discourse that articulates ideas of respect for the rights of nature as long as they are not operational. Therein lay the rub between Correa and his opponents on the Indigenous and environmental left.
The proposal not to drill in the ecologically sensitive area of eastern Ecuador pre-dated the Correa administration. Franco Viteri Gualinga, the president of the Confederación de Nacionalidades Indígenas de la Amazonía Ecuatoriana (CONFENIAE, Confederation of Indigenous Nationalities of the Ecuadorian Amazon) that groups 21 organizations and federations from 11 Indigenous nationalities in the Amazon, noted “that the initiative 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.” When Correa incorporated those ideas into his Yasuní-ITT proposal in 2007, not only did he use an Indigenous proposal to advance the popularity of his government but he also used his government to give a social movement proposal a global visibility that it would otherwise not have had.
These complicated relationships between social movements and Correa’s government were present throughout his mandate. Less than a year into Correa’s first term of office, the Ecuadorian Congress censured Environment Minister Ana Alban in absentia when she failed to appear to answer allegations of violating the Constitution through negligence and failure to stop illegal fishing in the Galapagos Islands. Former president Alfred Palacio, under whom Correa had briefly served as finance minister, appointed Alban to the post in 2005 and Correa retained her in that position after his election the following year. In a September 17, 2007 cable released by Wikileaks, U.S. ambassador to Ecuador Linda Jewell observed, “although seemingly well-intentioned, she has been a weak and ineffectual minister under both Palacio and Correa.” Jewell concluded the cable with the comment that Alban’s impotence: “highlights the Correa administration’s ineffectual (some might even say poor) track record on environmental issues. That is ironic, given that environmentalists hold prominent positions in Correa’s PAIS movement and in his government, notably top Constituent Assembly candidate and former Minister of Energy Alberto Acosta and Foreign Minister Maria Fernanda Espinosa. As so often happens in Ecuador, the demands of electoral politics and other competing interests seem thus far to have largely trumped the pro-environment inclinations of this government.”
Ironically, Alban was Ecuadorian ambassador to the UK when Wikileaks founder Julian Assange sought refuge in the London embassy. The BBC noted that when Alban was named ambassador in 2010 the post was relatively marginal to Ecuador’s interests, but that high-ranking officials in the foreign ministry claimed that she was “ill-suited for her position” and expressed profound dissatisfaction with her inability to bring an end to the diplomatic impasse. Correa replaced Alban in June 2013 with Juan Falconi Puig, a lawyer who protected private banks during the collapse of Ecuador’s financial system in the late 1990s. These appointees led to charges that Correa surrounded himself with technocrats from previous governments that had implemented unpopular neoliberal economic policies rather than leftist activists who envisioned alternative ways of constructing society.
Environmentalists had warmly embraced Ecuador’s 2008 constitution for recognizing and protecting the rights of nature, a recognition that built on a growing environmental consciousness in the 1980s and 1990s throughout the Americas. Constitutional reforms in Colombia in 1991 and Brazil in 1998 established the right of people to enjoy a clean and sustainable environment, even though the extension of human rights to the realm of nature was controversial at first. Ecuador’s new constitution took this one step further to recognize the rights of nature itself, the first country in the world to do so. These rights included that of the very existence and restoration of nature. Article 71 declared that “nature or Pachamama [the Quechua term for mother earth] from which life springs, has the right to have its existence integrally respected.” The inclusion of the rights of nature measure was largely due to the actions of Alberto Acosta, the president of the constituent assembly, who pressed for the need to go beyond an anthropocentric vision of Ecuador’s future. Acosta argued that while giving rights to nature might seem as strange to some as the need to give rights to slaves or women appeared at one point in history, “great changes require bold action and open minds.” Similar to how it was necessary to stop the buying and selling of slaves, it was now important to halt the commodification of nature. “If social justice was the central axis for social struggles in the twentieth century,” Acosta maintained, “environmental justice will increasingly play that role in the twenty-first century.” Constitutional Assembly member Leonardo Viteri commented that while at first it might appear unusual to grant nature rights, it should not be so “if even corporations have rights.”
In addition to the constitutional mandates 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 were 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 State shall adopt measures to guarantee their lives, enforce respect for self-determination and the will to remain in isolation and to ensure observance of their rights. The violation of these rights shall constitute a crime of ethnocide, which shall be classified as such by law.
Quite simply, Correa’s decision to drill in Yasuní was a violation of these stipulations in the constitution. While at first a strong ally of Correa, Acosta subsequently became harshly critical of the president’s economic development strategies. He contended that extractive enterprises were not consistent with the new constitution’s emphasis on the sumak kawsay (the “good life,” or buen vivir in Spanish), a Quechua concept that privileged human needs over those of capital. After Evo Morales’s ascendancy to the Bolivian presidency in 2006, Bolivian foreign minister David Choquehuanca emphasized the necessity of pursuing the Andean principle of “living well” (vivir bien) rather than the capitalist, modernist concept of “living better” (vivir major). Instead of focusing on material accumulation, this approach sought to build a sustainable economy. This perspective included an explicit critique of traditional development strategies that increased the use of resources rather than seeking to live in harmony with others and with nature. Uruguayan environmental analyst Eduardo Gudynas aptly notes that the sumak kawsay “is a complex conceptual field that includes different perspectives that simultaneously present a radical critique of current development approaches and endorse alternatives based on the rights of nature, expanded conceptions of the community, rejection of the linearity of history, and so on.” It draws on gender, the rights of nature, plurinationality, and indigenous cosmologies.
Many critics did not call for an end to mineral extraction, but they were opposed to new large-scale mining plans that continued preexisting extractivist paradigms. “We are obligated to optimize the extraction of petroleum without causing environmental and social damage,” Acosta argued. Ecuador needed to realize the highest possible social benefit from each barrel of oil extracted, instead of only focusing on maximizing production. “We have to learn,” he continued, “exporting natural resources had not led to development.” Rather, “the principal factor in production and development is the human being.” Ecuador had to change, Acosta insisted, “that vision that condemns our countries to be producers and exporters of raw materials” that historically had underdeveloped economies in the developing world.
Acosta points out that the sumak kawsay is different than development in that it does not apply a set of policies, instruments, and indicators to leave an “underdeveloped” state to achieve a “developed” condition. Acosta notes that despite the attempts of many countries to follow that path, few have achieved the goal, thereby pointing to the uselessness of that approach. Rather, these attempts have resulted in a mal desarrollo, a “bad” or distorted type of development, which has contributed to climate change on a global scale. He urges instead to move beyond traditional concepts of progress that emphasize production and mechanical notions of economic growth. Acosta called for alternative visions based on Indigenous knowledge and ancestral concepts that were consistent with ecological, popular, marxist, feminist, and other alternative ideas for how to structure society that emerged out of marginalized sectors. He pointed to the need to overcome the divorce between nature and human beings. Instead of sustaining civilization, capitalism put life itself at risk. The sumak kawsay charted one path for moving beyond western notions of progress, with a special attention to the rights of nature.
In response to these criticisms, Correa denounced “Indigenous fundamentalists” and leftist environmentalists, and argued that “the biggest mistake is to subordinate human rights to ostensible natural rights.” In contrast to Acosta’s position, Correa identified poverty as Ecuador’s primary problem, and justified extractive development strategies that resulted in a negative ecological impact on a few people in order to reduce poverty for many more people. Acosta denounced this strategy as a misleading farce, not unlike the unfulfilled promises of neoliberalism. An embrace of the sumak kawsay, Acosta contends, needed to move beyond rhetoric and vague platitudes to a pursuit of alternative development models. Underlying these conflicts between Acosta and Correa were different concepts of the state, and in particular the role of social participation in decisions over public policy. Despite Acosta’s criticisms of an anthropocentric view of the world that informed Correa’s political strategies, most leftists still favored policies that ultimately prioritized human development over concerns for environmental sustainability.
In response to grassroots pressure, Correa attempted to negotiate an end to oil exploration in the biologically sensitive and diverse Yasuní National Park in exchange for international debt relief and development aid. Yasuní is home to the Waorani who had gained little from the petroleum economy. In November 2007, just as the constituent assembly began its work on the new constitution, a simmering dispute at Yasuní boiled to the surface. In the town of Dayuma, local inhabitants protesting oil exploitation seized control of several oil wells. They demanded support for economic development and environmental protections for Indigenous communities. Correa responded with a heavy hand, deploying the military to stop the dissidents and accusing the protesters of being unpatriotic saboteurs. He complained about “infantile environmentalists” creating obstacles to economic development, and dismissed groups that opposed him as part of an “infantile left” comprised of “fundamentalists” who should not be allowed to derail his programs. The government arrested 45 people and charged them with terrorism for attempting to disrupt petroleum extraction. After protests from human rights activists, Correa finally lifted a state of emergency that he had imposed, though the government kept 23 activists in detention. In March 2008, the assembly granted amnesty to 357 social movement leaders facing criminal charges for their actions in defense of the environment from mining and petroleum actions.
For some, this repressive response showed Correa’s true colors. Correa pursued an aggressive and combative policy against his opponents. His attitude was not limited to those on the conservative right, as he also relentlessly attacked progressive forces who were opposed to his policies. Correa’s opponents threatened to raise challenges to his actions, leading to further friction between social movements and Correa’s supporters. Correa’s efforts to restrict the actions of social movements led to charges that he was attempting to criminalize political protest. The Indigenous think tank Instituto Cientifico de Culturas Indigenas (ICCI, Institute for Indigenous Sciences and Cultures) criticized Correa for betraying “signs of subscribing to the most radical proposals of colonial territoriality in recent years.” This included his desire to open spaces to mining, privatizing biodiversity, and increasing petroleum extraction. In response, Correa called on his opponents to respect the law. “No more strikes, no more violence,” he said. “Everything through dialogue, nothing by force.” He indicated that he would not be swayed by social movement pressure.
In January 2010, Correa backpedaled on the proposal to leave petroleum reserves in the ground in the Yasuní National Park in exchange for international funding for development programs. Correa complained that the proposal would come at a cost to Ecuador’s sovereignty, and announced plans to commence drilling operations in the park. In response, Foreign Minister Fander Falconi, one of Correa’s closest allies, resigned his position. Falconi’s move led other officials to leave his government as well. “He didn’t only lose a foreign minister,” Acosta said. “Correa lost one of the best advocates for the movement’s ideology.” Both Acosta and Falconi had been key players in the political project that brought Correa to power, and now both were firmly in the opposition.
For the next several years, Correa retained at best tenuous support for the Yasuní proposal, repeatedly threatening to move to a “Plan B” to commence drilling in the preserve. Increasingly, 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, Acosta who was running for the top office with the Coordinadora Purinacional por la Unidad de las Izquierdas (Plurinational Coordinating Body for the Unity of the Left) contended, “if Correa wins the ITT initiative will be dropped. The infrastructure is already in place to exploit the oil.” Acosta noted, “Correa takes credit for the ITT initiative outside of Ecuador. But in reality he doesn’t feel comfortable with it. He’s preparing to blame rich nations for not giving enough to make it work.” Indicative of Correa’s ultimate commitment was placing Ivonne Baki, a conservative politician who had participated in previous neoliberal governments, in charge of the project.
On August 20, 2013, CONFENIAE president Franco Viteri released a statement that denounced the government’s plans to terminate the Yasuní-ITT initiative. “The deepening of the extractive policies of the current regime, which exceeds that of former neoliberal governments,” the statement read, “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 pointed to a historical pattern of the extermination of Indigenous groups due to petroleum exploration, including the Tetete in northeastern 40 years earlier. “History repeats itself,” the federation proclaimed. “We are on the verge of a new ethnocide.”
The current abuses were occurring, CONFENIAE complained, even as the country projected 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.” 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 the plan to drill in the Yasuní was always the ace that they held up their sleeve.
Correa’s conservative opponents also opportunistically used the failure of the Yasuní plan to attack the Ecuadorian government. An orchestrated chorus of domestic and international media voices already had attacked the Correa administration for his alleged repression of freedom of the press now appeared to be challenging Correa from the left. 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 previous editorial stances, the hypocrisy and opportunism of these editorial stances on this issue was immediately obvious. This led Correa to tweet “Now the biggest environmentalists are the mercantilist newspapers” as he sarcastically suggested a referendum to require that newspapers be published digitally in order “to save paper and avoid indiscriminate logging.”
Correa’s authoritarianism and belligerent rhetoric had long led conservatives to question whether he would honor restrictions on how the donated funds would be spent or the commitment not to exploit the oil. In March 2009, when Foreign Minister Fander Falconi briefed western diplomats on the proposal, U.S. ambassador Heather Hodges reported a variety of hesitations with the proposal, including “continued pressure to develop the petroleum reserves; and likely Ecuadorian resistance to an internationally managed fund because of sovereignty concerns.” In the midst of the announcement to drill in Yasuní, Correa appeared to backpedal on previous promises not to change the constitution to seek indefinite re-election. If that were to happen, would Correa take the money and then either demand more money when oil prices increased or eventually exploit the oil anyway? The temptation to do so would be very great were Ecuador to face financial difficulties.
Correa’s Yasuní decision came almost two decades after Indigenous communities in the Ecuadorian Amazon sued Texaco for polluting their environment in the 1970s. Chevron subsequently acquired Texaco as well as the lawsuit. Over the intervening years, the case proceeded through many different twists and turns, and 20 years on appeared no closer to resolution than when the original case was filed in 1993. In 2011 an Ecuadorean court ordered Chevron to pay more than $18 billion in damages, but the oil company refused contending that Texaco had undertaken its share of the cleanup and that the state oil company and Texaco’s domestic partner Petroecuador, the government-owned petroleum company, was responsible for most of the remaining pollution. Chevron subsequently counter sued Steven Donzinger, lead attorney in the case, claiming that he had masterminded a conspiracy to extort and defraud the company.
Despite Correa’s support for drilling in the Amazon, he consistently and publicly assumed an anti-imperialist position in supporting the case against Chevron on the basis of Ecuadorian sovereignty and the rights of the Amazon residents. Correa contended that the drilling would only impact one tenth of one percent of the Yasuní park, and with modern technology it was possible to drill without the resulting environmental damage as happened with the Texaco’s explorations in the 1970s, a claim that many environmental activists strenuously disputed. Critics contended 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.From the beginning of his government, Correa forwarded a nationalistic economic platform and criticized foreign oil corporations for extracting the majority of petroleum rents out of the country.
As he consolidated control over power, he pushed through congressional reforms that raised taxes on windfall oil profits, and used these funds to provide subsides to poor people to lower their utility costs, expand access to credit, and improve social services. “Now the oil is everyone’s,” Correa declared. He stopped short, though, of nationalizing natural resources. Furthermore, more important than the nationalization of natural resources is the nationalization of the industry that extracts the wealth from those resources. Commonly neoliberal governments had privatized industries that governments had built to exploit valuable resources, thereby limiting public ownership of the means of production.
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, he 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. Correa claimed that “the real dilemma” of drilling in a sensitive ecological area was “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?” Leftist opponents, however, claimed that in framing the issue this way Correa had set up a false dilemma and that it revealed his failure break from a capitalist logic of resource extraction. As the business-friendly Latin American Weekly Report observed, Correa “embraced extractive industries to spur Ecuador’s development even more than his neoliberal forebears.”
Meanwhile, China appeared to be the largest likely beneficiary of increases in Ecuador’s oil production. After selectively defaulting on Ecuador international debt in 2008, Correa increasingly turned to China for financing. In exchange for loans, China demanded promises of oil in an attempt to meet its growing and apparently insatiable desire for the commodity. Critics such as Acosta referred to petroleum as a “resource curse.” Professor Carlos Larrea who worked on the Yasuní-ITT initiative notes that although Ecuador had 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.
The value added to the processing of raw commodities accrued 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 remained whether a reliance on export commodities could ever grow Ecuador’s economy. As Gudynas observed, “there are many intermediate steps between extracting a natural resource and reducing poverty, and it is in these stages that a great many problems arise. These go from the very doubtful economic benefits of these kinds of extractive industry (since on the one hand the State profits from exporting oil, but loses on the other due to the need to attend to social and environmental impacts), to the role of intermediary (where the enterprises, whether state or private, from the North or from southern friends, can only succeed when they maximize profits, and this is almost always at the cost of the environment and local communities).”
These fundamental problems led to a common saying in Ecuador that the country became a dollar poorer for every barrel of oil that it exported. From Acosta’s perspective, the sumak kawsay should lead to a fundamentally different concept of 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. As economist William Black concluded, “Correa’s budget priorities are precisely those recommended in the Washington Consensus—education, health, and infrastructure.” The economic proposals that Correa pursued were not unlike those that the conservative economist Hernando de Soto in neighboring Peru had 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.
Criminalization of Social Protest
On August 27, 2013, a police cordon prevented demonstrators from reaching the presidential palace on Quito’s central Plaza de la Independencia to protest Correa’s policies on drilling in the Yasuní preserve. Police fired rubber bullets on the protesters, hurting 12 people (nearly blinding a young woman) and detaining seven. Among those arrested was Marco Guatemal, vice-president of Ecuarunari, the powerful federation of Kichwa peoples in the Ecuadorian highlands that had long fought against neoliberal economic policies.
In response to the repression, the Confederacion de Nacionalidades Indigenas 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.” CONAIE also demanded amnesty for all those who faced prosecution for changes of terrorism.
Correa’s reversal on the Yasuní proposal fit into a broader pattern of attacks on environmentalists and Indigenous activists. In March 2009, the environmental NGO Acción Ecológica faced a threat of removal of their legal status, because of their opposition to Correa’s plans to expand the mining industry. Acción Ecológica was founded in 1986 and had long collaborated with Indigenous communities and organizations, including OPIP in the Amazon, on their struggles against petroleum extraction. The organization used nonviolent direct action to advance a grassroots environmentalism that drew on an Indigenous cosmology that emphasized co-existence with the land. More recently, Acción Ecológica fought strenuously against water privatization, including linking it to the strain that large-scale mining placed on water supplies for household use. It seemingly was the issue of water privatization that ran an organization that advanced the rights of nature as codified in the constitution afoul of the Correa administration. When faced with a massive outcry, Correa quickly backpedaled, claiming that removal of their legal status was an administrative rather than political decision. Acción Ecológica, the government argued, was improperly chartered by the Ministry of Health when it should under the Ministry of the Environment, a ministry that did not exist when the group was founded in 1986.
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. Under Correa’s government, hundreds of activists faced terrorism charges, largely for organizing protests against extractive policies, leading some to observe that social movements had not faced this level of repression under previous neoliberal governments.
All of these conflicts have placed a popular president on a collision course with social movements that had once provided a leading voice against the implementation of neoliberal economic policies and opened up political space for the election of a leftist government. Alberto Acosta, who as Minister of Mines in Correa’s first government was one of the strongest advocates for the Yasuní initiative, acknowledges the importance of the government in advancing the proposal. Even though the government has now officially disavowed the initiative, Acosta still placed hope in that social movements might be able to make this idea a reality. “Yasuní-ITT can still be achieved by civil society in Ecuador and around the world,” Acosta concluded. “We need other Yasunís too.” As social movements and leftist governments continued a dance around each other, it became increasingly apparent that we may need the cooperation of both to realize the shared objectives of saving the world from poverty and environmental catastrophe.
Marc Becker teaches at Truman State University and is the author of Indians and Leftists in the Making of Ecuador’s Modern Indigenous Movements (2008) and Pachakutik: Indigenous movements and electoral politics in Ecuador (2011).