Yasuní Oil and Ecuadorian President Rafael Correa’s so-called Indigenous Problem
Nothing raises the heart-rate of a western progressive like the sight of an oil well in the rainforest. Campaigns against global warming and big oil have trained a generation of activists to balk at oil activity in all its forms.
So it was little surprise that opposition to Ecuador’s decision to drill for oil in the Yasuní National Park quickly became a cause celebre following leftist President Rafael Correa’s announcement in August, 2013. Coordinated by San Francisco-based NGO Amazon Watch, Hollywood figures including Jared Leto, Daryl Hannah and Michelle Monaghan proclaimed that Yasuní was “months away from being destroyed forever.”
What wasn’t being trumpeted by NGOs and the press in the English-speaking world was the banner carried by Amazonian indigenous representatives during this year’s May Day march in the Ecuadorian capital, Quito:
“It’s easy to be an ecologist while living in Quito. Do you know what conditions we live in?”
One Waorani community leader, David Irumenga, spoke to the press at length. The Waorani are one of the indigenous groups living in Yasuní National Park.
“I am here supporting the government’s proposal to exploit the petroleum in the ITT block [of Yasuní],” he said. “We must leave poverty behind through education, transport, healthcare and housing – not just us, but the entire nation of Ecuador.”
[David Irumenga, foreground, in Quito for May Day – Photo: Luis Padilla, Andes.info.ec]
This is not to say that there isn’t indigenous opposition to oil, mining and other extractive industries in Ecuador. It doesn’t even mean that David Irumenga speaks for all indigenous people in Yasuní. Indeed, making such an interpretation is precisely how the narrative of Correa’s “indigenous problem” is reproduced.
Writers and activists too often meet an indigenous leader and assume he or she speaks for all of Ecuador’s 10 indigenous nationalities, when the leader’s authority is most likely contested even within his or her own nationality. Or worse, following a 4-day chaperoned trip to “the indigenous communities,” an environmentalist repeats the rant of one indigenous person as though it stood for the thoughts of millions of people.
In this piece, I will explain why there is a case for drilling in Yasuní and take you through the nuances of the Correa government’s relationship with indigenous peoples over extractive industries.
The Yasuní-ITT Initiative and the First World’s Carbon Debt
Ecuadorian President Rafael Correa announced the Yasuní-ITT Initiative in 2007. He proposed that Ecuador forego drilling for oil in the ITT block of Yasuní National Park in exchange for USD $3.6 billion. As Correa told New Left Review, this figure was calculated according to the net avoided carbon emissions from leaving the 846 million barrels of oil underground in ITT. According to figures from the US Environmental Protection Agency, this would have amounted to 363.8 million tonnes in avoided CO₂ emissions.
It is “money which the country needs to escape poverty,” said Correa. “We are prepared to forego that, in order to continue generating a global environmental public good. But we need to be compensated for it.” 
[Ecuadorian President Rafael Correa, during his Saturday morning radio and television show]
The Yasuní-ITT Initiative was not sold as an exercise in protecting the biodiversity of the rainforest. It was not about protecting indigenous peoples from potential environmental contamination. It was about compensating a Third World nation for its contribution to solving a problem created by regressive energy policies in the First World.
By 2013, just $13.3 million of the $3.6 billion had been paid. Ecuador had itself received $2 million, with $11.3 million going to a UN Development Program fund.
The Case for Drilling Yasuní-ITT
In announcing that the Yasuní-ITT Initiative was to be scrapped, President Correa framed the question as one of minor environmental damage justified by the need to reduce poverty.
“The true dilemma,” he announced on 15 August, 2013, “is 100% of Yasuní intact and no resources for the urgent necessities of our people, or Yasuní 99.9% intact and approximately $18 billion to eliminate misery, especially in the Amazon, paradoxically the region with the highest incidence of poverty.”
According to the Minister for Coordination of Political Economy, Patricio Rivera, the anticipated USD $18 billion would be enough to provide “all the schools the country needs, plus potable running water, sewerage systems and garbage collection for 95% of the population, as well as all the highways the country requires and construction to cover the housing deficit.”
As of 2012, 19% of Ecuadorians have no sewerage service, down from 33% when Correa took office in 2007. The proportion of the population living in overcrowded housing is 14% – down from 26% in 2007 – and just 39% have access to garbage collection, up from 24%.
A figure of USD $2 billion has been promised to the local governments of the Ecuadorian Amazon. Unsurprisingly, drilling in ITT has the support of 35 of the Amazon region’s 40 mayors.
Extractive Industries and Ecuador’s Indigenous Peoples
But is this the type of development that Ecuador’s indigenous peoples really want?
The fact is that Ecuadorian indigenous communities have responded to extractive industries in different ways. In the southern Amazonian province of Zamora-Chinchipe, many Shuar communities reject mining of the region’s gold and copper. Others signed an agreement with the state mining company, Enami, to support mining in exchange for jobs and compensation.
[Shuar territory in Nangaritza, Zamora-Chinchipe province – Photo: Christian Tym]
When the decision to drill Yasuní-ITT oil was announced, the largest indigenous Amazonian federation, GONOAE (ex-CONFENIAE) denounced the decision.
“Our fight is, always has been, and always will be the defence of our territories from extractivism,” said the organisation’s president, Franco Viteri.
On the other hand, the national-level indigenous confederation, CONAIE, was unable to reach a consensus and did not participate in petitioning against Rafael Correa’s decision.
Yet the image of indigenous peoples unified in their opposition to Correa’s government persists. Partly it stems from the fact that it is only the opposition party Pachakutik that identifies itself as an indigenous party. When indigenous leaders decide to join Correa’s movement Alianza País – as did Alberto Anrango, mayor of Cotacachi and Ecuador’s first director of bilingual, intercultural education – they cease to be as visible a part of “indigenous politics,” particularly in the eyes of foreign reporters and NGOs.
[Pachakutik electoral campaign in the city of Zamora, 2014 – Photo: Christian Tym]
Pachakutik won 4 of the nation’s 24 provinces in municipal and provincial elections in February, 2014. They have been unable to mount any substantial challenge in presidential elections against Rafael Correa.
Orellana: Indigenous Communities in the Oil Zone
For a useful point of comparison with the proposed oil development in Yasuní-ITT, I travelled to El Coca, capital of the province of Orellana in which the Yasuní National Park is located. Orellana was part of the huge oil concession granted to Texaco (now Chevron) in the 1960s.
Indigenous communities were those who suffered most severely from Chevron’s dumping of crude oil sludge and toxic wastewater, which according to Suzana Sawyer of UC Davis were practices that were out-dated even at that time. By acting in a way that would have been illegal in the US, Sawyer argues, Chevron reduced production costs by a few dollars per barrel and thereby generated billions in extra profits.
The older folks in Orellana still remember when the fish disappeared and people started becoming sick after drinking from nearby creeks.
Yet many of these same communities support President Correa’s effort to expand oil activities in the area. I met up with an indigenous community leader, Rafael Alvarado, and a civil engineer sent by government agency Ecuador Estratégico before leaving for Kichwa communities outside El Coca.
[Parotuyaku, a Kichwa community an hour’s drive from El Coca – Photo: Christian Tym]
The engineer was charged with collecting population data and preliminary planning for construction of basic infrastructure in the communities. People here still live in very basic conditions despite decades of immensely profitable oil extraction.
Rafael Correa’s government has made a priority of development in the areas surrounding extractive industries. Environmentalists often speak of such projects as “bribes,” as though indigenous groups don’t have the capacity to properly consider decisions about their future.
[Kichwa leader Rafael Alvarado (hand raised), with civil engineer Marco Pérez (centre) and Parotuyaku locals – Photo: Christian Tym]
Rafael Alvarado has been advocating for infrastructure construction and social services in compensation for oil activity in the name of ten Kichwa communities in Orellana.
“Does this mean everything about us is going to change? No!” exclaims Alvarado. “We’ll still have our fire, our chicha, our guayusa. But they have to treat us like human beings. It doesn’t mean we’ll all stop speaking Kichwa.”
Though such talk of local development would be as credible as an election promise to most of the world’s indigenous peoples, such projects are already coming to fruition just to the north of El Coca in the province of Sucumbíos. The province hosts the first oil development to come online entirely thanks to Rafael Correa’s government.
As of January 2014, Pañacocha and Playas de Cuyabeno are the first of a planned 200 “Millennium Communities,” a name that consciously invokes the UN’s Millennium Development Goals. The work done in these majority Kichwa communities illustrates the Correa government’s approach to development for zones impacted by extractive industries.
[Playas de Cuyabeno, Millennium Community –Photo: Eduardo Flores, Andes.info.ec]
Each community houses approximately 400 people, for free. They are provided with running water, sewerage, electricity, fibre-optic internet, satellite television and gas stoves and refrigerators. The community also has a school, health centre, library and infrastructure for bicycles, which are the only form of transport inside the communities. Needless to say, the Millennium Communities program puts to shame the indigenous policies of far wealthier countries like Australia and the US.
There is a huge difference between drilling for oil in a neoliberal corporatocracy and drilling in Ecuador, where the public collects 85c of every dollar in profit. The difference is even more pronounced when you consider that the government collecting those royalties has the highest rate of social investment as a percentage of GDP of any country in Latin America and the Caribbean. Ecuador invests in transport, health, education and renewable energy at six times the rate of favoured US partners in the region, such as Colombia and Mexico. 
Yasunidos (United for Yasuní)
Returning to Yasuní, this Third World development dilemma quickly became a First World ethical campaign. Amazon Watch proclaimed that Yasuní’s indigenous people “are worth more than a few days oil. Yasuní depends on you.”
Yet in global perspective, Yasuní is literally just “a few days oil” – 9 days of global supply, to be precise. For Ecuador, on the other hand, the Yasuní deposits represent some 20% of GDP.
[What an oil well looks like in Orellana, Ecuador – Photo: Christian Tym]
Yet the rush to pass judgment on Ecuador continues on nonetheless. Ever since Julian Assange was granted asylum, western media and NGOs have been taking free hits at Ecuador
When the Ecuadorian corporate media joined the campaign by the Yasunidos collective to stop oil extraction in Yasuní, Rafael Correa commented in a tweet that it was strange to see the oligarchy suddenly become environmentalists. “Perhaps we should pass a law,” he said, “permitting only digital editions of newspapers in order to save paper.”
It was a witticism typical of Correa. Shortly after, Amazon Watch ran a story citing the “threat” as evidence of “media repression” in Ecuador. The Global Post speculated that the move “would likely mean the end of Ecuador’s free press.”
George Orwell – “Nothing scares a fake radical like a real one”
Perhaps there are certain sectors from whom we shouldn’t expect any better. The real disappointment in the coverage of Yasuní and Rafael Correa’s relationship with indigenous peoples has been The Guardian.
In February 2014, The Guardian published a controversial attack on Ecuador and the Yasuní-ITT Initiative, claiming that Ecuador had a secret deal with the Chinese to drill for oil in Yasuní while soliciting donations to protect it. The newspaper concurrently published the evidentiary document, which detailed negotiations for a Chinese loan to Ecuador.
The Guardian claimed that Chinese exploration of Yasuní was a condition of the loan. The page now shows a reply from the Ecuadorian ambassador to the UK, Juan Falconi.
“Ecuador never agreed to such a clause,” says Falconi. “This was an idea proposed by the Chinese party during discussions on a development loan totally unrelated to Yasuní.”
Following denunciations from Ecuador, the document was temporarily removed from The Guardian’s website, as can be seen here. It was then replaced with a non-downloadable version.
Ecuador claims that when downloaded, the file’s metadata proved that the single reference to Yasuní in the 2009 document was doctored. The modification was dated 7 February 2013 and its author was Fernando Villavicencio, prominent government opponent and likely US asset, who was at that time receiving asylum in the US. During the attempted coup against President Correa on 30 September 2010, Mery [sic] Zamora, a national-level director of Villavicencio’s MPD party, called on teachers and students to rise up and support the coup.
The hostility from the supposedly progressive newspaper is hard to understand, but perhaps can be explained by Chomsky remarks that “the smart way to keep people passive and obedient is to strictly limit the spectrum of acceptable opinion, but allow very lively debate within that spectrum.” The Guardian, it seems, guards the outer fringe of acceptable opinion, and the Latin American Left is apparently not on that spectrum.
21st-century Socialism and Western Progressives
This is not to say that everything is rosy in Ecuador. Serious questions remain about the National Electoral Council’s dismissal of a referendum on drilling for oil in Yasuní, even though polls suggested that Correa’s position was likely to be supported by the people in the event of a vote.
Correa argued rather lamely that he would not call a referendum himself because the issue had become “politicised.” The “21st-century Socialism” allies Venezuela, Ecuador and Bolivia led the world in introducing radically democratic constitutions, including provisions for the electorate to call referenda to recall sitting presidents or challenge their decisions. These openings have been exploited by the old elites, with presidents in Venezuela and Bolivia both having faced recall referenda and won. Correa claiming that Yasuní is too “politicised” for a referendum is to forget that such opportunism will always exist. The fundamental strength of the Latin American Left is that with its overwhelming popular support, it has been able to expand democratic space and reinforce its mandate in the process.
These are necessary debates. An absence of checks on government power would permit the ossification of Ecuador’s revolutionary government into something resembling late 20th-century Mexico’s PRI (Institutional Revolution Party). But before focusing criticism on Ecuador, we need to remember that Anglophone countries don’t have any provisions for popular veto over government decisions. Such provisions could have stopped, as just one example, the uranium mining in Australia’s Kakadu National Park, where we have since seen a 95% fall in the population of mammals.
With Ecuador, by contrast, we are talking about a country that has made healthcare and education free at all levels, while working with a GDP of just $5,000 per person. It is a country where indigenous people enjoy the basic social services denied to them elsewhere and where Afro-Ecuadorian children attend primary school at above the national average. It is a country where two-thirds of all energy comes from renewables and which has grown its economy at above the regional average while reducing inequality more than any other country. It is a country whose president consistently has the highest approval ratings in the region. And it is the country that defied the United States over Julian Assange.
Despite all this, many progressives in the Anglophone world are ready to abandon Rafael Correa and Ecuador thanks to a half-told story about the relationship with indigenous peoples. Meanwhile, just across the border in Peru, indigenous peoples have suffered paramilitary violence and martial law in the surrounds of US companies’ operations in Cajamarca and Bagua. To the north in Colombia, paramilitaries have been reported around Anglo-Australian-South African coal operations at the Cerrejón mine in La Guajira.
If you’ve been busy criticising Rafael Correa, it’s time to get your priorities straight.
Christian Tym is a PhD Student in Anthropology and Latin American Studies at the University of Sydney. He is currently carrying out research in the Ecuadorian Amazon.
 Photo from http://www.andes.info.ec/es/noticias/es-facil-ser-ecologista-viviendo-comodidad-dice-lider-amazonico-marcha-dia-trabajo.html
 http://newleftreview.org/II/77/rafael-correa-ecuador-s-path – p. 97.
 http://newleftreview.org/II/77/rafael-correa-ecuador-s-path – p. 97.
 Senplades (National Secretariat for Planning and Development), 6 Años de la Revolución Ciudadana, March, 2013, Quito.
 Sawyer, Suzana (2004), Crude Chronicles, Duke University Press, p. 100.
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Briefly, 2 major problems with this apologetic take on Correa’s policies:
1. Yes, of course, like any human population political attitudes vary greatly within the very diverse Indigenous nationalities in Ecuador. My guess would be that the Waorani who support petroleum extraction under Correa are the same ones who supported Maxus 20 yrs ago. Nothing new there. What is disappointing is that (probably for electoral considerations) Correa is attacking the left wing of the Indigenous movements–the same people who have long fought against neoliberalism and opened up the political spaces that Correa exploited to get elected.
2. This left wing questions whether Correa is a leftist, and whether his extractivist policies are anything more than clientalism (again perhaps with electoral considerations in mind). As dependency theory shows us, the extraction of natural resources benefits the industrialized core to the injury of the underdeveloped periphery, and so far there is no evidence that this history will be any different under Latin America’s new left neo-extractivist governments.