OPINION: Correa exits without pretending to care about environment

High-level meeting over Yasuní at the UN (imagen: Cancillería de la República del Ecuador)

OPINION: Correa exits without pretending to care about environment

An excessive military intervention is taking place in indigenous Shuar territory in the Amazonian province of Morona de Santiago, eastern Ecuador. It is the result of a conflict between Chinese mining company Explorocobres (EXSA) and the local indigenous people, who were not consulted on the impacts of the mine.

A state of emergency prevails in the region as, nationwide, Ecuadoreans prepare to go to the polls Sunday to choose between eight candidates hoping to succeed Rafael Correa, head of state since 2007. According to pollster the Centre for Studies and Data (CEDATOS), Lenín Moreno from the government’s Alianza País party and Guillermo Lasso, leader of the Centrist Alliance CREO–SUMA, look set to face each other in a second round on 2 April.

The tense situation in Morona de Santiago illustrates how relations between the government and indigenous and social movements have steadily deteriorated under Correa.

He entered office just as crude oil reserves were found in remote and protected areas. Mining companies had failed to penetrate as they required major investment in supply water, energy and transport access to do so. Many believed Correa would champion civil society groups’ proposals to stop mining and protect the ecology of these areas, and that he would take back control of the state after neoliberal policies had reduced the government to being a mere negotiator of concessions and privatisations.

However, as he prepares to leave, we find an orthodox economist who has progressively distanced himself from social movements. The role he ended up playing made the extractive sector profitable, in spite of resistance. 

10 years of confrontation

Some of the first signs of this disconnect with social movements began in November 2007 at the inauguration of the National Constituent Assembly – the main platform for these groups and whose main task was to formulate a new constitution.

Correa opened the National Constituent Assembly with a fearful conservatism that wanted to control change of any kind. In his inaugural speech, he criticised those who proposed the oil moratorium, and those who spoke of the decriminalisation of abortion and same-sex marriage. With this speech, he began what would become a recurring theme; accusing social movements of being infantile and dangerous.

“I said it on 29 November 2007 at the opening of this Assembly: The greatest threat to our projects in this country is leftism and infantile environmentalism… although perhaps I did not include infantile support for indigenous people,” he said in 2008.

A few days before the National Constituent Assembly’s inauguration, the people of the parish of Dayuma, Orellana province, led the occupation of an oil platform in protest at breached agreements.

Correa declared a state of emergency backed by an enormous military operation and marked by aggression and humiliation of the protestors. Shortly afterwards, Guadalupe Llori, the Prefect of the province of Orellana, was identified as and agitator and was jailed for a year on the basis of various accusations that still have not been substantiated.

“Get rid of this romantic image of Robin Hood, of indigenous people defending their forest,” the president said on visiting Dayuma. “What we have here are mafiosos, terrorists, extortionist assassins, newly-arrived settlers from Loja or Manabí who have come for the oil. Did you know this? Now do you see that there is no need for delays? Did you know that your prefect is imprisoned accused of sabotage and terrorism?” 

Yasuní initiative fails

The 2007 proposal to leave crude oil in the subsoil of the mega-biodiverse Yasuní national park in return for international donations worth half the sum of extracting and selling it (around US$3.6 billion at the time), was lauded as a radically progressive policy both in Ecuador and abroad.

However, prior to the announcement, Correa had stated that exploitation of the Yasuní-ITT (Ishpingo-Tambococha-Tiputini) blocks would go ahead despite opposition from “radical environmental groups”. Meanwhile, the acceptance of the proposal led to a struggle among the President and board of directors at the state-owned Petroecuador, and the then Minister of Energy and Petroleum, Alberto Acosta.

But more than Yasuní, the main reason for the rupture with social movements was mining policy. The approval of a new mining law opened the door for open-pit mining and the preferential use of water for these activities. This ran completely contrary to the new Constitution and its recognition of the rights of nature.

With all this happening so early on in the Correa government, who could maintain the illusion that social movements were being listened to? What gave leftist intellectuals hope for the possibility of a change?

Turn to China

Perhaps Correa’s rhetoric of confrontation with the United States in international fora and lip service to left-wing politics and social policy led some to see him as a break from the past. Or perhaps the turn towards China suggested a different politics.

For many, closer ties with were the result of a strategic coming together: Ecuador needed China’s financial resources, China needed Ecuador’s natural resources and an economic and geopolitical anchor in Latin America.

During government visits to China, and Chinese authorities’ trips to Ecuador, high-interest credit agreements were negotiated. In addition, a “broad repertoire” of mining and oil projects (such as the Pacific Refinery), hydroelectric and road projects, were delivered without a public consultation. Scandalously, some of these are costing up to seven times more than their original budget.

The problem is that Ecuador ended up depending on China and China wants guarantees, which led to the government trying to quash resistance, such as with the latest attempt to close our organisation, Acción Ecológica. 

Electoral pact

The original alliance with social organisations was electoral, not for long term. Correa the candidate and Correa the president, despite speeches, symbolic gestures and songs about Che Guevara on television programmes, were two different people. During the first few years, these gestures blinded people (especially internationally) from seeing that the government continued to favour private companies, regardless of their country of origin, over indigenous rights, the rights of nature and the search for economic alternatives.

It was clear that Dayuma was not an isolated event. But it foretold what was to come: instilling fear in order to impose obedience, and censorship. The closing of Acción Ecológica in 2009, even though we reopened after widespread protest, was another warning, as was the closure of the Pachamama Alliance in 2013.

Ecuador has experienced a wave of authoritarianism and repression, especially directed against those who are engaged in environmental struggles. This is in line with the Trump government, about whom one of his advisers said represented the “greatest threat” to freedom and prosperity.

For social movements, the search for new forms of coexistence, defending nature and land, and the fight for respect for rights will continue. We must look for weak spots in government institutions and relations, keep up our strategies of resistance and apply transformative ideas with more conviction, beginning at the grassroots.

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