In the third segment of this three-part series, we will explore the current tensions between the Ecuadorian people; their president, Rafael Correa; and the international oil industry, as well as the future of the Yasuni-ITT initiative.
A Jungle In Jeopardy: Rafael Correa & The Yasuni-ITT Initiative
To call Ecuadorian President Rafael Correa a man of contradiction would be an understatement. Elected in 2006 on a tidal wave of Leftist solidarity at the end of a decade-long era of political turmoil, Correa’s career thus far has been a polarizing spectacle both internationally and domestically. Renowned for declaring Ecuador’s national debt illegitimate in 2006, Correa defaulted on $3.2 billion worth of loans from the IMF and the World Bank, claiming that odious debts incurred by the tyrants and despots that once held sway over Ecuador were no longer to be honored. He then took the creditors to task in various international courts, successfully reducing the price of what outstanding bonds remained by more than 60 percent, a stunning act of political gamesmanship by any interpretation.
In the years since, Correa’s administration has drastically reduced poverty, homelessness, and unemployment in Ecuador, primarily by investing heavily in infrastructure projects: roads, bridges, schools, and hospitals cross and dot the landscape in abundance, a testament to Correa’s socialist leanings. He also vowed when taking office to reduce Ecuador’s dependency on oil exports, to support the pursuit of justice against Chevron, and to preserve what remains of the Amazon within his country’s borders. In a world of political celebrities, Correa’s willingness to court controversy through populism has not gone unnoticed, culminating in widespread international attention over his offer of political asylum to Wikileaks founder Julian Assange back in 2012, who currently resides at the Ecuadorean embassy in London. On the world stage, Correa is seen as a stalwart defender of his people, a maverick and a raconteur who’s larger-than-life personality is matched only by his love for his country.
Nestor Silva claims that the Ecuadorian people have a much different story to tell about their president, however. Among large swaths of the population, Correa is seen as a repressive, egomaniacal tyrant, who’s obsession with oil is driving the nation to the brink of disaster once again. In stark contrast to his asylum offer to Assange, Correa “has described the private media as his ‘greatest enemy’ and a major obstacle to implementing reforms,” according to a recent BBC report. “In 2011, three executives and a former columnist from an opposition newspaper, El Universo were sentenced to jail terms and a massive fine for libelling President Correa,” the report states. “He subsequently pardoned them, saying his aim had been to fight the ‘dictatorship of the media’.” The journalism advocacy group Reporters Without Borders highlighted the closure of a dozen media outlets who had been critical to the government, further lending credence to Correa’s assault against free speech.
As problematic is Correa’s “Citizen’s Revolution,” an effort to “embrace the humaneness of socialism while pursuing the efficiency of capitalism,” through the oil industry, according to Silva. This failed reconciliation of two opposing economic spheres has had results ranging from ineffective to catastrophic, particularly the latter in regards to environmental policy. Despite his promises to preserve the environment and reduce oil industry influence, oil extraction rates have remained the same or slightly increased since he took office, hovering at around half a million barrels per day.
Correa now has his sights set on what is essentially the last remaining virgin rainforest within Ecuador’s borders, Yasuni National Park. But true to form with his public persona, he has done much to distance himself from these desires. On June 5th, 2007, Correa launched the Yasuni-ITT initiative, a $3.6 billion program that promises to leave over nine hundred million barrels of oil in the ground within the park’s borders, roughly twenty percent of the nation’s reserves. Supporters of the initiative claim that drilling in the unprotected land surrounding the park will not have any effect on the park itself, but overwhelming historical precedent to the contrary stretches this claim to the edge of credulity. These claims become all the more outrageous when you consider that Correa’s government has already committed extensive violations of the initiative, largely unbeknown to the international community.
The area of the park that Correa claims is untouched in accordance with the initiative is rife with the trappings of the oil industry. Over two hundred wells populate the region, which is currently producing four thousand barrels a day, according to Silva. Various other sources exist to corroborate this claim: documents sourced from Ecuador’s state oil company by Wikileaks, including maps of the region that show the location of the illegal infrastructure, extensive testimony from officials in Ecuador’s Ministry of Non-renewable Resources, and numerous accounts of destruction by members of the Waorani tribe, who call Yasuni National Park home.
The preservation of Yasuni National Park is critical to the survival of not only the indigenous tribes that populate the region, but to the entire Amazon jungle itself. Ecuador is the most biodiverse nation in the world, and this biodiversity reaches critical mass in Yasuni. The 3,800 square-mile park contains more animals than the entire European continent, and more trees than all of North America combined. So compacted with wildlife Yasuni is, that the scientific community refers to the park as a “quadruple biodiversity mega-rich center,” a technical term indicating that there are record levels of plant, mammal, bird, and amphibian diversity, a phenomenon almost nonexistent anywhere else on the planet.
The destruction of Yasuni National Park threatens to collapse all of Amazonia in a domino effect that would seriously disrupt global ecology, drastically raising atmospheric carbon dioxide levels, ocean acidification, and drought conditions across the planet. Chevron and their cohorts would bring our planet to the brink of apocalypse all for the singleminded pursuit of profit, power, and non-renewable resource. As a fossil fuel consumer, if you don’t think you’re directly implicated in Ecuador’s destruction, think again. “The vast majority of Ecuador’s oil exports come to the United States, and even a significant part of that comes to the west coast, to California,” according to Professor Lu. “So we are all part of this.”
It is mankind’s mindless dependency on and demand for cheap fossil fuels that enables the conditions that have been described here. We are all part of Ecuador’s slow, toxic decline. But with the help of people like Pablo Fajardo, Flora Lu, and Nestor Silva, we can all become a part of the country’s salvation, as well as that of Mother Earth herself.