2013 will be a crucial year in the struggle to protect Ecuador’s south central Amazon rainforest before the government’s planned signing of 20-year oil contracts later this year.
Even as awareness grows about the risk of new oil development in the region, the Ecuadorian government is still promoting their plans and soliciting bids in China, Texas, and elsewhere. In addition, the first open-pit mining project in the country has developed into a major new case testing Rights of Nature.
From legal action to collective civil demonstrations, our indigenous partners and other allies are developing strategies that will stop the destruction before it starts.
Open-pit Mining: Major New Challenge to Ecuador’s Rights of Nature
Earlier this week, a coalition of Ecuadorean lawyers, including Mario Melo of Fundación Pachamama (FP), brought suit against the government over the Mirador mining project in the southeastern Amazon region. The case is expected to take considerable resources this year and beyond, much like the successful Sarayaku case.
The open-pit copper mining project, the first of its kind in Ecuador, is part of a $1.4 billion contract with a Chinese mining company. FP staff report that the contract includes a clause that permits extraction of not only copper, but also any other minerals or substances discovered and deemed valuable. Rumors have also been circulating about possible uranium deposits in the area, based on past agreements between the Correa administration and Iran and Russia.
Ecuador’s indigenous communities have long protested the project, maintaining that it violates both their rights to prior consultation as well as the Rights of Nature.
The open-pit mining methods outlined for the project would contaminate major headwaters, jeopardizing local communities as well as those downriver, and displacing or destroying countless other species.
A verdict upholding Rights of Nature in this case would add significant weight to legal arguments used by indigenous peoples and their advocates in other cases resisting extractive industry in their territories.
By adding their name to the coalition leading this legal defense of life over profit, Fundación Pachamama is risking continued government scrutiny to forward a more sustainable economic model for the country.
Yet even the very companies they are courting call into question the Ecuadorean government’s insistence that extractive industry benefits the country. When U.S.-based mining company International Minerals Corporation (IMC) withdrew from two Ecuadorean mining concessions in 2012, it cited among its reasons that large-scale mining in Ecuador offers no economic benefit for Ecuador and its people, and only serves to reinforce resistance to the activity.
Changing the Public Narrative about Oil Exploitation
Statements such as IMC’s have not gotten much coverage in the Ecuadorean media in the past. Recently, however, FP staff report a perceptible shift in the public discourse about extractive activities, particularly the current oil round, and their negative economic, social, and ecological impact.
One key factor in this shift has been the upcoming presidential election on February 15, which has led to much more detailed discussion of current economic, social, and ecological policies and Ecuador’s future.
Indigenous nationalities and their allies see the shift in public discourse as an opportunity to redouble their communications efforts and reinforce key messages. The Achuar Nationality of Ecuador (NAE), as well as other indigenous partners, have requested support from Fundación Pachamama to expand delivery of strategic communications trainings with their leadership, following a successful pilot workshop last year.
One key goal is to build communications capacity and coordination between indigenous nations, ensuring a unified message in the face of a media that can often be aggressive, hostile, or simply too unquestioning of the status quo.
Three recent petitions from Germany’s Salva La Selva, The Pachamama Alliance, and Care2, demonstrate growing international awareness of the issue, and joining them into one effort is another goal for 2013.
Reminding the World that the Amazon Is Someone’s Home
The Ecuadorean government is also engaged in its own international campaign to bring attention to the Amazon, but in this case it is to entice major oil companies to bid on the 13 blocks of land that are home to seven indigenous nations, with the goal of signing 20-year contracts by the end of 2013.
Earlier this week, the government briefed several Chinese oil companies on the oil blocks during a press conference at the Ecuadorean embassy in Beijing. Other stops on their promotional tour will include Houston, Paris, and Bógota.
Because the Ecuadorean government doesn’t know exactly how much oil is under the pristine rainforest included in the blocks (estimates range from 300 million to 1,600 million barrels), any companies that sign contracts will have to engage in seismic exploration that could leave an estimated 400 tons of explosives in the ground.
Explosives related to oil exploration can cause huge amounts of damage and disruption in indigenous communities whether or not oil production actually moves forward, as in the Kichwa community of Sarayaku.
For this reason, active resistance from indigenous communities to stop the bidding process now is crucial and has been effective in making oil extraction in indigenous territories a risky venture for the industry.
Showing that Energy and Economic Alternatives Are Viable
Simply resisting oil exploitation is not a complete strategy in itself, of course. Fundación Pachamama and its peers are also engaged in pointing out viable economic and energy alternatives for Ecuador.
In spite of current actions and statements, it is also the case that President Rafael Correa has presided over the enactment of visionary policies like Rights of Nature, and he has a clear commitment to the welfare of Ecuador’s people.
FP and its allies are moving ahead with an independent cost-benefit analysis of continued oil extraction, commissioned from Carlos Larrea of Andean University, together with other scientists and scholars.
While President Correa’s reaction to the first phase of the study, published last year, was negative, the hope is that the forthcoming phases of the study will lay the groundwork for continued public discourse about more just, sustainable, and fulfilling alternatives for Ecuador.
As Ecuador’s people see new possibilities for themselves, it will be an opportunity for President Correa to once again bolster his image as a committed servant of the public good.