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Environmental rhetoric serves several purposes
Luis Ángel Saavedra*
10/28/2010
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Government uses environmental issues to garner international favor.

The Yasuní-ITT Initiative, which would keep oil underground in one of the planet´s bastions of biodiversity in exchange for international financial compensation; a Constitution that puts the environment as a crosscutting issue, and in its regulatory framework includes a full chapter on the "rights of nature"; and the creation of a tribunal tasked with punishing those who infringe these rights; these all gave the appearance that the environment was of utmost importance for Ecuadorian President Rafael Correa´s administration.

Along similar lines, the concept of a comprehensive defense of human rights along with the rights of nature led to other state institutions, like the national Ombudsman for the People to modify its name: it is now called the Ombudsman for the People and Nature.

The changes within this institution also included the implementation of specific provisions for the nationwide protection of the rights of nature.

Finally, in September the government announced the creation of the First Court of the Rights of Nature, based in the Galapagos Islands, which will be implemented before end-2010.

Cases of illegal fishing, trafficking of marine species, and pollution will be adjudicated by this court, which the government assures is in support of efforts to protect the biodiversity of the islands, which were declared a natural World Heritage site (1978) and a biosphere reserve (1984).

Up to this point, the government´s actions seemed to coincide with the official rhetoric. However, cracks soon began to appear in this discourse, revealing a reality that is less than environmentally sound.

Plan B in Yasuní
While the Yasuní-ITT Initiative, which would prevent oil extraction in the Ishpingo, Tiputini and Tambococha (ITT) blocks of Yasuní National Park and leave it underground in exchange for international financial compensation, earned Correa environmentalist praise, the divulged plans for the area´s exploitation are incongruous with his public discourse.

While on August 2, an accord signed between the government and the United Nations Development Program (UNDP) established a trust fund to centralize contributions from the international community to prevent drilling in Yasuní, a Plan B emerged as a possibility for the government – oil extraction from Yasuní. This showed that the negotiation around the Yasuní-ITT Initiative, including the trust fund agreement, was a media play to garner sympathy and distract environmentalist organizations and indigenous populations.

A communiqué sent June 30 from the head of Petroamazonas, Oswaldo Madrid, to Minister of Non-Renewable Resources Wilson Pastor about the progress made in Yasuní regarding oil drilling, surprised those who believed the president´s claims and thought the Yasuní-ITT Initiative was as good as done.

In the communiqué, Madrid recounts the progress and timeline for drilling in the ITT, and affirms that “the personnel that will be working in the Tiputini area have been instructed to uphold the rhetoric proposed by the Executive [branch], meaning that Option A, leaving the oil underground, is the national government´s priority.”

Drilling works in Yasuní-ITT were observed in January 2010. At that time Pastor, who served as general manager of Petroamazonas before being appointed minister, dismissed this allegation and stated that the claims corresponded instead to the construction of a subfluvial tunnel. Madrid´s report now corroborates the claims made in January and reveals the government´s role in the oil extraction.

These contradictions led Germany, the main sponsor of the initiative, to withdraw from this proposal, leaving the national government without its main bargaining chip to win the international support necessary to prohibit drilling in Yasuní. This leaves "Plan B" as the only applicable option.

Extractive policies and repression
Meanwhile, large mining companies are ready to send their predatory machinery to the southern part of the country, not only with the approval of a government that claims to be green, but with its complete protection as well since the State is prepared to mobilize its security agencies to ensure that the area is cleared of small-scale and artisanal mining. For this, the government is willing to go up against an entire population, as happened in the southern canton of Paquisha in the Amazonian province of Zamora Chinchipe.

“The government passed a mining law than undermines the Constitution in favor of foreign mining companies, including ECSA [Ecua Corriente] and Kinross-Aurelian, which intend to extract millions of ounces of gold, silver, and copper from the Zamora mountains. This will punish the small-scale miner, displacing and repressing him on the pretext that he is polluting [the environment],” said indigenous leader Salvador Quishpe, the prefect (governor) of Zamora Chinchipe, where a clash on Sept. 13 between artisanal miners and police led to the workers´ expulsion on the grounds that they were contaminating water sources.

Quishpe supported the miners´ resistance; this in turn led to a warrant for his arrest.

“We haven´t robbed, we haven´t violated anything. All we are doing is claiming respect for the Constitution and the law. If they want to lock us up for that, then the president should tell me why,” declared Quishpe. The repression in Zamora also pitted the government against the Ombudsman for the People when the latter filed a case for excessive use of force by the police during the conflict.

After these events, and to reaffirm its eco-friendly image, the government announced the creation of the First Court of the Rights of Nature, in the Galapagos Islands. The Galapagos require a tribunal to protect their ecosystem, and globally this earns a positive reaction; however, it is also true that the major social conflicts in the country will not occur on these islands.

“The social conflict created by the expansion of the drilling field toward Yasuní and the allowance of large-scale mining projects will surpass -- by a long shot -- the size and gravity of what could happen in the Galapagos,” says political analyst Pablo Dávalos.

The government wants to maintain its environmentally-conscious image at all costs; this has led it to issue short-sighted decrees  such as the Accord 80 on May 13, signed by the minister of environment, which declares the area around the Cuembí Triangle, between the San Miguel and Putumayo rivers on the border with Colombia, as “protected forest and vegetation.”
Accord 80 prohibits farming, hunting, fishing and logging activities in these areas — but they are inhabited by indigenous Amazonian Kichwa communities.

Paco Chuji, president of the Federation of Organizations of Kichwa Nationality of Sucumbíos-Ecuador, or FONAKISE, rejected this decree because it would limit the indigenous communities´ subsistence, which would ultimately displace them.

But it would seem this is unimportant to the government, which is also committed to use the environment as an element of border security, believing that the declaration of “protected forest and vegetation” will also prevent the settlement of irregular armed Colombian groups there.

With this background, what is certain is that the government promoted a rhetoric that made it popular internally and externally, all the while concealing its real policy.

However, this facade is slowly crumbling and revealing a predatory extractives policy within the current regime´s so-called citizens´ revolution.
—Latinamerica Press.


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Expansion of oil frontier threatens Yasuni’s biodiversity hotspot. (Photo: yasuni-itt.gob.ec)
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