The Amazon Basin: Rainforests, Oil, Politics, and the U.N. Climate Negotiations

By Todd A. Eisenstadt and Karleen Jones West

Photo by Caroline Bennett / Rainforest Action Network / Flickr / CC BY-NC 2.0

Caroline Bennett / Rainforest Action Network / Flickr / CC BY-NC 2.0

Research that we have undertaken with National Science Foundation support indicates that rural, indigenous, and impoverished citizens in Latin America mobilize on environmental issues out of simple self-interest.  In daily testimonials at last week’s meeting in Lima of the United Nations Framework Conference on Climate Change (UNFCC), activists reaffirmed that they have been mobilizing all across Latin America to protect their land and water.  The conventional argument in the political science scholarly literature is that environmental issues are a post-materialist concern that influence only the relatively affluent populations of advanced democracies, but our research shows that the self-interest of vulnerable populations in developing countries is a powerful motivation for environmental consciousness.

Original data from a national survey we conducted in Ecuador this year point to three interest-driven hypotheses as explaining attitudes towards the environment.  First, similar to literature developing in geography, vulnerability to environmental changes that impact on people’s livelihood greatly enhances interest in environmental issues.  Second, political competition affects individuals’ environmental concerns because politics determine the extent to which citizens will benefit from extraction as a development policy.  Third, we claim – particularly for respondents in the Amazon region subsample – that a respondent’s location on the “extractive frontier” (i.e. whether they live in an area where extraction is under consideration) will affect their level of environmental concern.  Using original survey data from Ecuador, we find that populations threatened by environmental change and who are on extractive frontiers (where mining and oil concessions are being considered) are more likely to express concern over the environment, but that these factors are conditional upon how much citizens trust that the government will use profits from extraction to invest in their communities.

The meetings in Lima and implementation of its results are testing the findings of our research.  The social impact of the 2009 Baguazo – the slaying of some 33 protestors against mining in Peru’s Bagua Province – is still a recent memory to many and is a constant reminder that the “extractive frontier” is long, dynamic, and fraught with social conflict.  For Ecuador, Peru, and the other Amazon Basin nations on the front lines of climate change, our findings imply that in this part of the developing world at least, vulnerability to environmental change has a great impact on public opinion.  Competing political interests and debate over whether to accept mineral or petroleum extraction is also intense because of the trade-offs they entail between environmental conservation and economic growth.  This is not a new debate, but one which is acquiring more precise definition by academics in studies such as ours (click here for full paper) as well as the policymakers who last week pushed the debate onward to Paris in 2015, where a new climate change framework is expected from the UN.

December 16, 2014

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.

Correa’s Second Term

By Rob Albro, CLALS Faculty Affiliate

President Rafael Correa, Ecuador | by: "el quinto infierno" | Flickr | Creative Commons

President Rafael Correa, Ecuador | by: “el quinto infierno” | Flickr | Creative Commons

Little drama accompanied results of the February 17 election in Ecuador, where center-left incumbent Rafael Correa retained the presidency by a wide margin. Correa enjoys the highest approval rating – nearly 80% late last year – of any Latin American head of state. He will be the first Ecuadoran president to complete his term since 1996, and his resounding victory at the polls will in principle keep him in office until 2017. Most pre-election polls had projected Correa to win decisively, and he did just that with 56.7% of the popular vote. The opposition is fractured, with seven different candidates running against him. His nearest rival, banker Guillermo Lasso, garnered only 23.3% of the vote. A testament to Correa’s dominance is that the right-leaning Lasso offered a vision little different from the president’s own policies and even adopted key elements of Correa’s discourse. The title of Lasso’s recent book, Another Ecuador is Possible, references the World Social Forum.

Correa’s political base was consolidated during the anti-neoliberal protests of 2005, and his “citizen’s revolution” represents an unorthodox combination of nationalist populism, robust social welfare spending and rhetorical flourishes in defense of Ecuador’s national sovereignty. Correa’s social spending – increasing the health budget, minimum wage, pensions, and access to medical care; offering micro-credit and free school lunches; providing new housing and anti-poverty subsidies –is highly popular, especially with the urban poor. These programs, dependent upon a commodity-led export strategy, have enabled Correa to marginalize once important political actors of the left and right. Organized labor and indigenous movements on the left, like economic and media elites on the right, have picked fights with Correa, objecting to his authoritarian style, attacks on the press, petroleum policies in the Amazon, poor record on crime, and outbursts directed toward foreign investors. But this has made little dent in his popularity.

If Correa is certain to face resistance to his agenda in his new term, the political fragmentation and lack of dramatic choices evident during the campaign suggest that it will not necessarily be effective.  Despite potential fiscal headwinds, redistributive social welfare policies are likely to continue to expand. Questions do remain: regular social investment has been enabled by ramping up an extraction-based economy dependent on oil, which has also generated some social conflict.  But there is mounting evidence that aside from being popular these policies are also measurably successful. Ecuador’s election comes on the heels of Venezuela’s, where opposition candidates also found it necessary to tout redistributive policies. If the economy turns south, a splintered opposition might find common cause. But as in a number of other South American countries, the redistributive politics of an incipient social welfare state will inform the agenda of Correa’s eventual successor. The long-term management of these policies, and whether the President will seek to alter the Constitution to permit indefinite re-election, are matters that could prove vexing during the coming years.

Ecuador Elections: Four More Years for Correa?

Photo by: Rinaldo Wurglitsch “Rinaldo W.” | Flickr | Creative Commons

Like him or not, President Rafael Correa has done what few recent Ecuadorean presidents have done – complete a term in office.  When he announced on November 10 his intent to run for re-election, observers in and outside Ecuador immediately declared him the favorite.  (Correa ran a second time in 2009, without completing his first term, under the rules of a new Constitution.)  Such predictions make it easy to forget how uncertain Correa’s presidency looked when he started it in 2007 – as a 43-year-old, U.S.-educated economist – and how few expected him to succeed.  In the ten years prior, social movements led by workers and indigenous peoples toppled a succession of seven presidents.  Rejection of IMF-led reforms had been both deep and broad in Ecuador, and it was hard for a president to complete a year, let alone a term.

High oil prices have helped Correa succeed by facilitating visible public spending, but that is not the whole story.  By almost all accounts, Correa has been far from perfect – his treatment of the press has particularly troubled rights experts – but he has provided some stability and halted the cycle of mass protests, strikes, and presidential turnover.  With a blend of economic populism and nationalist rhetoric, Correa has turned the same social movements that were once the scourge of Ecuadorean presidents into a base of support.  He has incorporated formerly marginalized people into the “nation” that he claims to defend – what academic Steven Ellner called “a new narrative of nationhood that challenges long-held assumptions.”  He has unified policies such as ending the U.S. lease of the Manta airbase with resource-based economic nationalism.

Though Correa’s reelection next February 17 looks easy, he will face increased tensions in his third term.  Government revenues remain dependent on oil and mining, which are susceptible to price fluctuations.  The expansion of extractive activities in areas inhabited by Correa’s indigenous base could strain his coalition – it has already stirred environmental concerns – and government spending has neglected the need to diversify the economy and reduce its reliance on the extractive industry.  In addition, Correa has benefited from the generosity of Venezuela, but that support could wane as President Hugo Chávez turns inward to deal with domestic challenges.  The opposition, which has continued to present half a dozen candidates for the presidency, will likely begin to unify if it feels threatened by a further concentration of power in the Executive.  To win reelection and govern effectively, Correa will need to maintain the unity of an uneasy coalition, without riding roughshod over the opposition and press freedom. 

Ecuador’s Difficult Choice on Assange

Photo: Julian Assange by Ben Bryan (bbwbryant) | Flickr | Creative Commons

Many observers have portrayed President Rafael Correa’s decision to grant asylum to Wikileaks founder Julian Assange as an act of defiance – a gratuitous slap at the United States – and, because of Correa’s mixed record of respect for a free press, as a sign of hypocrisy.  How can a President who has prosecuted newspapers for revealing damaging information about his government, according to Correa’s accusers, now stand up as the defender of Assange’s right to publish hundreds of thousands of sensitive U.S. Government documents?

The lack of clarity on British and Swedish intentions made the decision difficult.  American officials have minced no words about their hopes to prosecute Assange, although none has stated what the charges would be.  Even U.S. Vice President Joe Biden has referred to him as a “high-tech terrorist.”  Former Republican presidential nominees Sarah Palin and Mike Huckabee have called for his execution.  (A former senior Canadian official said, “I think Assange should be assassinated.”)  The Swedish government, which seeks only to question Assange about allegations of sexual abuses (important offenses in Swedish law), has refused to conduct the interrogations in London or by video, or  to provide reassurances that he will not be extradited to the United States.  British officials at one point even threatened to enter the Ecuadoran Embassy in London, a flagrant violation of well-established principles of international law.

Correa’s ancillary agendas notwithstanding, the asylum decision would have been difficult for almost any country.  There is no evidence that Assange would not get a fair trial in the United States or that he would face the sort of abuse and torture that Bradley Manning – the alleged American source of the Wikileaks documents – has faced.  But the American silence on the charges Assange might face, the rhetoric tarring him as a terrorist and the lack of U.S. accountability for past abuses – the Obama Administration last week announced yet another decision to forego prosecution of U.S. officials involved in alleged torture – makes the absence of a pledge regarding extradition to the United States politically sensitive.  Ironically, the U.S., British and Swedish position risks thrusting them into the same ironic contradiction as Correa finds himself:  claiming to protect human rights, they may open the door to prosecution of a man who published leaked information – and who by any reasonable standard is an indiscriminate whistle blower but hardly an agent of espionage.  If their pursuit of Assange were to result in his exposure to U.S. prosecution related to the Wikileaks matter, these democracies would potentially risk being parties to a serious violation of fundamental principles of free expression.