ALAI, América Latina en Movimiento
The rights of nature following the end of the petroleum moratorium in Amazonia
One of the most original environmental initiatives in recent years, coming from Ecuador, sought to leave oil in the ground to preserve the Amazonia and its indigenous peoples. It was an idea emerging from civil society that took on concrete form in 2007, under the first government of Rafael Correa, and was centred on protecting the Yasuní National Park and its adjacent areas (known by the abbreviation ITT). These efforts ended a few days ago, when the government announced the cancellation of this initiative and opened the way for petroleum exploitation.
The idea of a petroleum moratorium in Yasuní-ITT grew to maturity over many years, but was founded on an exceptional framework in the system of rights approved in the new Constitution of 2008. This Constitution envisaged a better organization of the rights to quality of life of persons, the regulation of the use of natural resources and safeguards for indigenous peoples. In parallel with these features, for the first time the rights of Nature or of the Pachamama were recognized. In this way a constitutional ecological mandate was established, which if complied with, would not allow activities with such impacts as oil exploitation in Yasuní-ITT.
In the following stages, the government maintained the petroleum moratorium but began to seek alternative options in order to obtain economic compensation. During that time it was estimated that the national economy of Ecuador would lose an estimated seven billion dollars by not extracting the 920 million barrels of crude oil that lie beneath the Yasuní-ITT. President Correa affirmed that if it were possible to obtain a compensatory fund to the amount of half of these lost gains, the suspension of petroleum extraction would be maintained.
The fundraising of 3.6 billion dollars was thus established as the condition for the protection of the area. Distinct mechanisms and justifications for implementing this international fund were designed, so that governments, industries or individuals could deposit money. The idea was intelligent, since there are already many arguments for other governments, especially in the industrialized global North, to support the protection of biodiversity, abandoning the classical position of voraciously expropriating the resources of the South.
However, with the passage of time, the conceptual framework of the government began to fall apart. On the one hand, there was increasing insistence on the notion of economic compensation or recompense. On the other hand, the basic grounding in the rights of Nature began to give way to prioritizing arguments centred on limiting global climate change. The argument was that the oil should stay in the ground in order to avoid its being burned and producing greenhouse gasses that would increase global warming. With this, the proposal was above all an economic compensation to avoid an increase in planetary environmental change.
The Yasuní-ITT initiative was watched with much interest in the international community, and awakened many illusions among various social movements, as an example of a post-petroleum transition. But it always was burdened with tensions, such as the constant governmental reminder of moving to a "plan B", which would involve exploiting the Amazonian oil, as well as contradictions, such as presidential declarations against possible international donors.
President Correa has now presented various arguments for cancelling this moratorium in Yasuní-ITT. One of them was to denounce the lack of support on the part of the international community, qualifying it as hypocritical. In part this was based on sound reasoning, since many industrialized nations had grown thanks to the spoliation of resources of the South, and the Yasuní-ITT initiative would allow them to begin to pay off these debts. But we cannot overlook the fact that making economic compensation a condition for the moratorium involved an insurmountable contradiction. The Ecuadorian Constitutional mandate obliges the State to protect these areas, both in order to protect the rights of indigenous people as well as those of Nature. It is difficult to ask other governments to provide economic compensation for the fulfilment of their own Constitutional obligations. An adequate analogy would be that of a country asking for economic compensation for its expenses in providing health care for its children.
Another presidential argument was based on an attitude of technological optimism, maintaining that now it is possible to undertake exploitation of petroleum in Amazonia minimizing the environmental impact. This attitude is common among various governments, but is particularly paradoxical in Ecuador, since they suffered severe impacts of petroleum extraction in Amazonia. All this became evident in the court case against Texaco-Chevron. All available scientific information clearly shows the serious impact of petroleum extraction in tropical environments.
The struggle against poverty is another presidential argument for the cancellation of the moratorium. This is a position that enjoys considerable support, and it is certainly commendable that these natural resources are exploited for the benefit of the country, rather than to expand the profits of transnational corporations. But saying this does not resolve the problem of assuring that this can happen. More or less the same thing is announced by the enterprises (when, for example, they say that mining will resolve local poverty and generate employment), and certain governments that are ideologically very different say the same thing (the "mining locomotive" of Santos will reduce poverty in Colombia), and this is in the conceptual nucleus of conventional development (believing that any increase in exports will increase internal production, and this will reduce poverty).
There are many intermediate steps between extracting a natural resource and reducing poverty, and it is in these stages that a great many problems arise. These go from the very doubtful economic benefits of these kinds of extractive industry (since on the one hand the State profits from exporting oil, but loses on the other due to the need to attend to social and environmental impacts), to the role of intermediary (where the enterprises, whether state or private, from the North or from southern friends, can only succeed when they maximize profits, and this is almost always at the cost of the environment and local communities).
Correa's decision makes shock waves at several levels. Opening the way to petroleum extraction, there is an immediate threat to an ecosystem of very high biodiversity, as well as to the indigenous peoples who live in the region (including some who are completely isolated). The notion of applying a post-petroleum alternative and the ability to serve as a good example to other countries disappears. The Ecuadorian measure will without doubt increase pressure on protected areas, for example, in Peru and Bolivia. They also demonstrate that the country will not fulfil the promises of productive diversity, and will fall back into a role of being a provider of primary resources for export.
With all this, it is possible that the strongest impact has been on the Constitutional framework of the rights of Nature. At the end of his discourse, Correa returned to the traditional opposition of the 1970s between development and environmental conservation, when he said that "the greatest attack on Human Rights is poverty, and the greatest error is to subordinate these Human Rights to the supposed rights of nature: never mind that there is hunger, a lack of services... the important thing is conservationism in the extreme." No one in the environmental movement defends extreme poverty. Rather they point out that under the promotion of economic growth there is not only greater social inequality, but the destruction of the natural environment.
Beyond this clarification, the problem is that in this phrase the rights of Nature are reduced to a supposition. If these rights are put aside, conventional development will prevail, with a new triumph of the oil business, since social and environmental impacts have no economic value. The rights of Nature are a reaction to this kind of reasoning. They are not a concession to plants and animals, or to environmentalists, but rather a need to protect peoples and their natural patrimony.
All this means that we are left to anxiously wonder whether, when the moratorium on petroleum in the Amazonia of Ecuador was abolished, the rights of Nature may not also have begun to collapse.
(Translated for Alai by Jordan Bishop)
- Eduardo Gudynas is a member of the CLAES team (Centro Latino Americano de Ecologia Social. His twitter is: @EGudynas.
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