Resource Extraction and Ecuador’s Fragile Ecological Sustainability

By Peter Redvers-Lee

Yasuní National Park /Photo credit: joshbousel / Foter / CC BY-NC-SA

Yasuní National Park /Photo credit: joshbousel / Foter / CC BY-NC-SA

The world has failed Ecuador again.  That, at least, is the sentiment of Ecuador’s president, Rafael Correa, explaining his decision to discontinue an innovative environmental plan to save sections of the Yasuní National Park, a UNESCO Biosphere Reserve on the border with Peru.  The 2010 plan was for Ecuador to refrain from granting oil concessions in the park if it could raise $3.6 billion from other countries and international organizations.  To date, only $13 million has been raised.  Correa’s about-face comes a few months after another environmental U-turn.  In June, Ecuador’s legislature passed a new mining law that, while not garnering new friends among large mining companies, rolls back taxes and other regulations to favor smaller and medium-size mining ventures.

Both developments heighten the likelihood of further environmental degradation in Ecuador.  Increased mining and drilling is likely to have an immediate and negative impact on the sustainability of local ecosystems upon which communities depend.  The rivers that make up the Mataje-Cayapas watershed have been an important means of livelihood for the local indigenous and African-descendent communities that dot the river banks from the mangroves on the coast to the foothills of the Andes.  Environmental degradation accelerated in the 1990s, when the first major roads reached the area and mining, logging, shrimp farming and other industries moved in.  Mercury, used in mining, is already present at unacceptable levels in populations of blue crabs in the lower reaches of the watershed, where the crab forms a staple in local diets.  The destruction of the mangrove forests to make way for shrimp ponds has increased.  The roads allowed for more efficient logging, and increasing numbers of internal migrants flooded the area.  Once the Chocó forest was cleared, palm plantations took root, further displacing African-descendent communities that made up the bulk of the local inhabitants.  The African palm, used for biofuels and other purposes, often entails liberal use of toxic chemicals.

The failure of the Yasuní proposal and Ecuador’s new mining laws have ominous implications for Ecuador and, perhaps, beyond.  Toxins in the Mataje-Cayapas watershed have contaminated the water supply on which thousands of mainly African-descendent communities rely for their livelihoods.  The recent setbacks will also accelerate commercial exploitation of the watershed for gold, exposing it to even more toxic chemicals, and the ever-increasing palm plantations will add to the existing brew of fertilizers, pesticides, and fungicides sprayed liberally on the crop.  It’s unclear whether the world “failed” Ecuador or that President Correa’s proposal – protecting preserves in return for cash – is not viable.  Skepticism that the $3.6 billion would be put to good use, rather than for politically gratifying short-term programs, is also reasonable.  Either way, the country’s long-running pattern of resource extraction and environmental destruction continues in one of the most diverse ecological spots on earth.  And now Yasuní faces a similar fate.

Peter Redvers-Lee is CLALS Faculty Affiliate and Professorial Lecturer in American University’s School of International Service.  He has worked in the Mataje-Cayapas watershed since 2004.

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  1. The sense that the world has failed Ecuador is, indeed, compelling. Whether it’s a failure by the global community to grasp the long-term benefit of keeping Yasuní’s oil underground, or President Correa’s failure to communicate that message in a non-confrontational way (not one of his strengths), I can’t say for sure. But one of the most distressing things about the failure of Yasuní, leaving aside the fact that it offered us a glimpse of a future beyond relentless development of fossil fuels at the expense of ecologically vulnerable areas, is the disingenuous way Correa has cast this latest move.

    A recent article in the Guardian quotes Correa as citing his responsibility to Ecuador’s poor as part of the rationale for moving forward with drilling in Yasuní. That’s almost a politically savvy statement, until you realize how transparent it is. The fact is that poorer, marginalized, and isolated people and communities often bear the deepest scars from the environmental degradation caused by mineral extraction and agricultural development. This is likely to be as true for the Afro-Ecuadorians of the coast as it is for the indigenous of the Amazon. Whom to blame for the demise of Yasuní-ITT initiative is unclear, but who stands to lose the most is, sadly, all too clear.

    • Eric Hershberg

       /  August 28, 2013

      I appreciate both Peter’s post and Adam’s reflection in response. A particularly important point of the latter is the claim that “poorer, marginalized, and isolated people and communities often bear the deepest scars from the environmental degradation…” This isn’t my field, but I’m reminded of two books that shaped my own understanding of this phenomenon: Javier Auyero’s “Flammable,” which documents the environmental disaster faced by inhabitants of a Buenos Aires slum by that name, and a book by Paul Farmer and others, published at least a decade ago, called “Dying for Growth.” Even if Correa is right to see growth as imperative to raising millions of Ecuadorans out of poverty, some strategies for achieving that growth can have devastating consequences for the environment surrounding those citizens (and upon which many have depended for their livelihoods).


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