Letter From Ecuador

At Ground 0 –All is Not Well

Sandeep Banerjee

Give us $3bn within...or face consequence" : that was the warning. And when money didn't arrive they placed a drill on the hostage and... This might sound like an incredible abduction drama, but unfortunately it turned out to be a sordid saga happening at Ecuador, where the hostage is Nature or rather a priceless parcel of it—the Yasuni National Park—an area with world's highest biodiversity density. And in the character of the desperado there is the government of Ecuador led by Rafael Correa.

Possibly it will be an improper way of introducing Rafael Correa in this story, President Correa being a renowned international figure: 'leftist', 'anti-imperialist', a darling of the Latin-Am Socialist/Marxist circle and also 'revolutionary' (leader of their 'revolucion ciudadana' or citizen's revolution), who shot to fame in the English speaking world by granting asylum to Wikileaks founder Julius Assange in Ecuador's London Embassy. However, even Kent became 'unmannerly when Lear is mad'; so bear with it. The govt led by Correa banned some environmentalist NGOs for 'contravention to internal security' (beware Bandana Shiva, la Fundicion Pachamama invited you, isn't it!), arrested some noted environmentalist leaders, branding them extremists, extortionists, imperialist-agent and what not. When one of Correa's Latin-Marxist friends was given some print-outs of recent writings of Ecuadorian scientists critical to the development policy of the govt, some oblique remarks were: 'some (ultra-left) people are inciting the indigenous people against the 'development' drive of the govt'; 'Development drive of the govt must continue to alleviate poverty' and etc. It seems as if the Equador is echoing Tropical 'development dialogues', all too well known accusations hurled by Indian leaders of all hues against whoever questions their development paradigm. This March, German Parliamentary delegation was denied entry to visit the said forest on the garb of protest against foreign intrusion on country's sovereignty. And meanwhile, behind the curtains the Chinese joyously celebrate their entry into Ecuadorian Amazon for petroleum mining.

How the country to proclaim 'Rights of Nature' in its constitution for the first time in the world could stage such dramatic reversal, so much so that the president of the constituent assembly Señor Alberto Acosta, once friend of Correa and the Minister of Mines & Energy in the first Correa govt, filed his candidature against Correa in the last presidential election, is a little piece history which would interest persons who are concerned regarding Development vis-a-vis Nature, Biodiversity, Ecology etc.

Yasuni' is a treasure trove of biodiversity with more than 650 different species of plants in just 1 hectare of it! So many diverse plants are there what is more than total number of plant species available in the whole of the USA and Canada together. Incidentally, Ecuador [and its island Galapagos] presented Darwin with its rich 'laboratory' as a proof of Origin of Species and the theory of Evolution. Yasuni is home of some 4000 plant species, 173 species of mammals and 610 bird species. Ecuador also hosts more than 6000 kinds of butterflies and Yasuni has more number of documented insect types that can be found in any other forests in the world. The Convention on Biological Diversity database has a document saying: some ecological-economists calculated the net present 'value' of Yasuni's biodiversity to be several trillion dollars if not more. Wiihin such a rich forest under the area known as ITT (Ishpingo-Tambococha-Tiputini) block petroleum was 'discovered'; and the volume was almost 800 million barrels, or 20% of Ecuador's known reserve.

As the lucrative news spread Chinese, Brazilian, Chilean petro companies flocked together to partner with Ecuadorian petro-company. But environmentalists like Acosta and many of the then Correa camp forwarded an intelligent counter-move since April 2007. Ecuador will relinquish his opportunity of profiting from new petro-venture at Yasuni for the sake of preserv rg nature and biodiversity and saving the planet from another source of guzzling Green House Gases; and for this let Ecuador get some 'compensation' in the form of opportunity cost foregone. In August 2007 the Ecuadorian govt formally announced that it would agree to an amount of $3.6bn, that is, half the price of the petroleum reserved under Yasuni ITT, to be given to Ecuador in a time span of 13 years. A fund named after Yasuni-ITT was created at the behest of UNDP. Leonardo DiCaprio and several other celebrities and also the UN sec-general also came out in support of this pioneering venture.

In July 2013 Correa set up a commission to probe how the fund was working. It was found that a poor amount, only $336mn or 9.3%, was pledged till then and only 4% of that small amount was actually deposited. Fuming, President announced on Aug 15 that 'the world has failed us' and drilling of Yasuni ITT got green signal.

It may be argued that Correa waited 6 long years and such a paltry sum could be mobilised what more could be expected. But the reality was already different much before Jul-Aug 2013. Repeatedly the world heard him raying that Ecuadorians "can't be beggars sitting on a sack of gold." Several indigenous leaders including environmentalist Carlos Perez Guartambel and Jose (Pepe) Acacho Gonzalez were arrested with fictitious charges like that of terrorism as early as in 201L and later Pepe was sentenced to 12 years in prison! In 2012 March when indigenous women environmentalists were protesting at Chinese embassy against Sino-Ecuadorian pact for more miring, eight women were arrested perhaps to show China how eager the Ecuadorian govt was for mining joint venture. A good part of Ecuador's GDP is dependent on Chinese flow. In March 2013, the Amazon Watch reported that despite protests the Ecuadorian govt was ail set to meet Chinese investors at the Beijiing Hilton to negotiate for auctioning three million hectares of Amazon rainforest for petro-mining. The German govt, an initial supporter of the fund, got frustrated with the dubious behaviour of the Ecuadorian govt.

Following the same tune, environmentalist Javier Ramirez was arrested in April 2014 for his anti-mining protests at Intag cloud-forest region as Carlos Zorilla of DECOIN informed on Earth Day (21Apr). On May 8 this year, security forces entered forcefully in a place defying 'cordon' by indigenous people near Junin in the Intag cloud forest region to collect soil and water samples for Environmental Impact Assessment for newer 'development' ventures.

Correa assured that at Yasuni ITT the world will see 'responsible mining', purportedly following modern and advanced scientific-technological methods so that there would be no harm to Nature, only a thousandth part of land will be used and perhaps one per-cent river water, no roads would be built. But in June 2014 The Ecologist reported that there were signs of road construction as some satellite pictures showed and the 'secret' road was wide enough for 18-wheel trucks!

The indigenous communities of Ecuador now have a lot of experience regarding "development" and its effects. Richard Ward presented some pictures in the pages of Counter Punch a few months back. There one may get some 'commonplace descriptions which may show things disquieting for the indigenous people: How developed Lago Agrio has become with its new Mayor, cleaner and safer now, with rows of gleaming shops and also "prostitutes lounging in their sidewalk cubicles"—now, this is a 'business' certainly 'new' and a gift of 'civilisation' and 'development' as far as the indigenous people are concerned—just like the gifts of new diseases brought after the 'conquest' and then the 'development'. One can get a glimpse of Agua Rico, a river that empties in Napo and Napo then journeys to meet the great Amazon. Agua Rico literally means rich water and "Now the Agua Rico is somewhat better. People swim and bathe but still don't eat the fish, and parents don't allow their small children to go in the river." In the Aguas Blancas "children cannot bathe... without getting rashes". There are hundreds of places made abominable and miserable by petro and mining companies in the past like TEXACO. And now new aspirants are waiting in the wings to rush in for further 'development' and spill their venom.

But at least for the indigenous people of the Americas the question is not just conservation of Nature versus Development. For indigenous communities of central and south Americas, the continent that they call Abya Yala, there is a philosophy of life : it is Sumak Kewsay or suma qamafia in the Quechua and Aymara languages respectively. In Spanish it is translated as buen vivir or 'good living'. It means living in harmony with Nature. Nature or Pachamama includes in it all lifeforms including humans and so humans cannot perceive nature as an object external to them. The indigenous view of Nature was the thrust that led to legislation of "lights of Nature" in the new constitution of Ecuador and it is also acknowledged in Bolivia, the only country with indigenous majority and also an indigenous President. "Rights of Nature" is a concept difficult to imagine in Euro-centric traditions which take nature just as a thing to work upon and extract utilities.

In Ecuador Nature has its 'rights' constitutionally. Indigenous communities also have the legal right to voluntarily stay distant and isolated from the 'civilisation' and some communities really live in such a manner. But development is spreading its tentacles. Where will they go leaving their ancient homelands in the Amazon rainforests, Andes Mountains, valleys, rivers and their own lands? But what they can do in face of such powerful adversaries?

Biologist Esparanza Martinez. true to her name, is hopeful; she calls for continuing protest. Concluding of one of her recent article, as if to remind people of a two millennia old assurance: "Dismiss your fears: go on speaking, and do not give up"; she said "Que hacer? No callar, ni ceder" ["]. We, the 'civilised' and 'educated' persons are yet to be convinced of their idea of Sumak Kawsay, their view regarding the development that people strive for. But some of India's indigenous communities like the Dongria Kondh people of Niyamagiri already voiced their view : our land is not for sale; they are not selling the Niyamagiri to mining company in exchange of any "Compensation"—as if echoing a line from a song Latinoamerica by Calle 13 : "mi tierra no se vende" (my land is not for sale).

Two additional pictures from 2015: The Ecologist, on March 2015, published an article by Carlos Zorrilla titled "Letter from Ecuador—where defending nature, and community is a crime". Promptly, the Govt. of Ecuador sent a protest. The Ecologist printed that too in the same page : There the govt cited a literature published by Zorrilla as an incitement that no democracy can permit, and that will also be a good read. Meanwhile, Galapagos Island, which gave Darwin valuable evidences on evolution, was facing developmental invasion 'exotic species' luxury tourism may spread there!

Vol. 48, No. 45, May 15 - 21, 2016