Friday, August 23, 2013

In Case Anyone's Forgotten that the Amazon is in Peril

It's been a year to the day since I left Ecuador. I came back to the States in awe of everything I had seen, learned, and experienced while living in Quito. Above all, I was greatly impressed by the general sense that innovative solutions to massive challenges were still within reach. One of those solutions was the Yasuní-ITT Initiative, a plan to keep a large amount of Ecuador's oil underground forever, and thus protect the delicate ecosystem sitting on top of it.

And last weekend, I got the devastating news that it had failed.

Yasuní National Park... drill, baby, drill.
Image credit: EarthFirst News. 

The Yasuní initiative was nothing if not ambitious, I had heard last summer from former minister of energy Alberto Acosta, who spearheaded the program. The situation was essentially this: advancing economically through oil exports has been the default move of oil-rich countries like Ecuador since approximately forever. But oil extraction has a high price, including environmental degradation and loss of biodiversity, the often forcible displacement of anyone living nearby, and the danger of local economies being made dependent on oil jobs that will dry up when the crude does. Alternatively, the country could invest in biotechnology and research into the medicinal potential of its vast Amazonian biodiversity. That path, while leading to a much more sustainable future, takes time and money. How, then, to support the economy in the meantime?

Enter a novel concept called "co-responsibility," the global community's shared obligation to fight climate change. Developed countries, having already gotten rich from their vast and environmentally toxic industrial revolutions, have no right to expect a developing country like Ecuador not to exploit its own mineral and hydrocarbon wealth. "Make it worth our while," is essentially what Ecuador and the United Nations Development Program had said to the world. "Pay us half of the money we'd make from that oil, giving us capital to invest for the future, and we'll keep it underground indefinitely." The money would only be withdrawn from the UNDP trust if the program was ultimately a success.

Of course Yasuní was a long shot. It was a completely new way of looking at things. And sure, there were probably some governments who viewed the plan as an extortionist ultimatum- "give us money or we drill," but it was still a massive break from the old development model- one which could truly benefit the whole world. That was exactly what made it so fascinating, and its failure so heartbreaking. The plan was beautiful and simple, clearly too beautiful and simple for this world.

The immediate consequences may not be all that deeply felt. President Rafael Correa has given his assurance, for whatever it's worth, that only about 1% of the protected territory will be affected. That number strikes me as just a little far-fetched, though. The Guardian, reporting on Yasuní, noted concern from researchers that infrastructure including access roads would vastly expand the impacted territory. And that's only if everything goes according to plan (which, of course, it rarely does.) Petroleum companies have a troubled history of operating in the Amazon-- a quick search for Chevron-Texaco in Ecuador will give you plenty of detail . Human suffering and environmental costs have been dire, which is all the more upsetting for a country whose constitution was the first to grant legal rights to nature. Maybe they'll do better this time, but the environmentalist community is left holding its breath for now.

"The world has failed us..." Correa places the blame squarely
on the shoulders of the international community.
Image credit: TrustMovies

Far more troubling than the short-term effects, however, are the long-term implications. Yasuní-ITT was the only major project that had envisioned a future beyond our and relentless exploitation of hydrocarbons. A serious proposal to avoid digging for oil was, frankly, groundbreaking. Overambitious or not, it sent the message that, hey, maybe we don't have to extract every natural resource just because it's there. But now it appears that even if we don't have to, we will.

I can almost hear Correa saying "But we did have to, I had no choice." And yes, the president noted that he has a responsibility to Ecuador's poor to make smart economic decisions. But again, those words ring a little hollow since there's no guarantee that the poor will share equitably in the gains made by exporting the oil.. To the contrary, it's often poor and rural citizens who suffer most from resource extraction. Regrettably, "poor" in the Andes still correlates pretty strongly with "indigenous," though poverty can mean different things across cultures. In any case, Correa has made his presidential career out of disparaging and sidelining his critics, especially environmentalists and the indigenous who oppose his development policies. There's no reason to think his behavior will be any different this time. Lacking political protection, indigenous communities living above oil deposits have a hard choice to make: become employees of the company, leave their land, or stay and fight.

Ecuador has a long and robust tradition of nonviolent civil resistance to oppressive or damaging government policies, and such protests have never led to large-scale violence or conflict. In fact, protests over Correa's move are already underway in Quito, and have remained peaceful for the time being. But what if the government presses ahead in the face of such criticism? Direct intervention is well within the realm of possibility. Communities affected by mining and drilling operations in the Ecuadorian Amazon have often attempted to physically block or dismantle mining camps and roads, and continue to do so in some corners of the country where mining operations are ongoing. Unlike the protests in the capital, though, such direct action will not necessarily be peaceful. Because oil companies and the government operate in such a close partnership, police or other state security forces are often called in to deal with the incidents, resulting at best in arrests, at worst in preventable violence. It's a disturbing vein in a worldwide trend toward the criminalization and forcible dispersal of nonviolent protesters, illustrated in great detail by recent events in Egypt.

"Ecuador does not love life," reads this protester's sign.
Image credit: Dolores Ochoa/AP via the Guardian

If Correa refuses to reverse course and oil exploitation begins in earnest, we can still hope that all parties will show restraint and engage one another in dialogue with the shared goal of doing as little damage to the Amazon as possible. But, just like the Yasuní-ITT initative itself, that's a bit of a long shot. For now, it's as if we've seen through a doorway to a different version of the future, only to have it unceremoniously slammed shut.


...they say we're too yellow-bellied, we say we're the new superpower...