The Ecuadorian National Park and UNESCO Worldwide Biosphere Reserve, Yasuní, has recently become the main stage for discussions alluding to, insisting on, and negotiating pathways to an oil-free future – or rather to a future where oil remains undisturbed in its subterranean place of origin. Some oil at least. The “Leave the oil in the soil” proposal, instigated by environmental grassroots organisations, and taken on by Ecuadorian president Rafael Correa, who announced it at the UN High Level Meeting on Climate Change last September, is to not drill for oil in some parts of the Yasuní National Park. Ecuador will leave the Ishpingo-Tambococha-Tiputini (ITT) oil fields untouched in exchange for international compensation. Compensation of about US$ 450 million per year for ten years would entail a commitment by the South American state not to exploit nearly 920 million barrels of petroleum, and hence has been presented as preventing the emission of around 111 million tons of carbon. (At the moment Ecuador is South America’s fifth-largest oil producer, with a daily production of about a half-million barrels of crude.)
It seems that the neo-socialist revolution in Ecuador has found its sunshine story that has already inspired similar proposals with regard to oil and other natural resources in several other countries. But behind this glamorous initiative lurks the reality of the wider project of Ecuadorian reform in the context of contemporary geopolitical change. The current political processes in Ecuador incorporate the development of radical social-democratic programmes for the redistribution of health, wealth, and education. At the same time, as part of the Latin American integration project (UNASUR), Ecuador’s political and economic changes include the expansion of projects which are oriented towards global free market capitalism – albeit with a changed geopolitical emphasis: not the US or Europe, but China is now the most popular partner in town – and these projects encourage and are dependent upon accelerated exploitation of the natural resources of the Amazon.
The radical Ecuadorian ITT proposal, hence, has to be understood as staged against a backdrop of intensifying development and infrastructural integration of the entire Amazon basin. Mega-projects to improve and enlarge road and river transport, the so-called interoceanic corridors, combined with dams for hydroelectricity stations and extensive power and communications cabling, are set to tear open the rainforest, facilitating intensive agricultural use of the area, above all for ranching, soya and biofuel crops, facilitating logging, mining and of course oil exploitation. The corridors will connect the Pacific with the Atlantic, boosting trade links between the most important economic hubs of the region, and with China whose shipping companies will be able to avoid passing through the US-controlled Panama canal to reach booming Brazilian cities, thereby increasing and accelerating the global circulation of goods that enriches the few and bedazzles the many.
There is already a road straight into Yasuní – for the exclusive use of the oil companies and the military. Passing by Yasuní on the Napo River, it might surprise the innocent traveller to encounter trucks, docks, and general industrial activity. The Manta-Manaus corridor, a multi-modal transport structure from the Ecuadorian to the Brazilian coast will transform this river into something of a major motor way, and bring the inevitable ecological and social pressure that accompanies such infrastructural undertakings right onto Yasuní territory. Yasuní might soon resemble a zoo on the outskirts of a big city.
Moreover, the ITT reserve does not equal Yasuní. The entire Ecuadorian Amazon is divided up into concessionary oil blocks, five of which overlap Yasuní territory. It is also interesting to note that the National Park Yasuní is not coextensive with the UNESCO Biosphere Reserve Yasuní. The latter is larger and includes an equally biodiverse area just outside the Park’s boundaries, the ancestral territory of the Huaorani people, now full of oil wells belonging to Block 16 and the company REPSOL. 70% of Block 31, contracted to Brazilian Petrobras, lie inside the Yasuní National Park, and 100% inside the Yasuní Biosphere Reserve. According to seismic studies from 1998, this block is estimated to contain 230 million barrels of heavy crude. 65% of Block 14 are also within the National Park, as are smaller percentages of Block 15 and 17. Block 17 partly extends into the “Untouchable Zone”, home to the Tagaeri and Taromenane, peoples in voluntary isolation, who refuse to have any contact whatsoever with other human groups, and who will kill to clarify their point, which in turn has made them the targets of (often indigenous) illegal loggers and oil workers and resulted in a massacre of a family of 12 in 2003.
Reality in the Ecuadorian Amazon, like everywhere, is messy. Of course, nobody living in the area wants to see more oil spills, contamination, disease. But people have real and really imagined cash needs, and mostly it is the oil industry which offers the easiest route into the web of wage labour and market relations that enables a kind of perceived fulfilment of some of these needs.
Creating popular alternatives to the oil economy is pivotal. In Ecuador, eco-tourism is the leading contender. But for eco-tourism to work in North-West Amazonia, a heart-breaking amount of oil spills and other environmental disasters would need to be cleaned up and remedied. Whole generations of people would have to find ways of luring and serving easy-adventure-seekers in ramshackle communities that lack such basic facilities as clean water and authentic traditions. It might be possible, but it is not straightforward. Especially not nowadays when protests, no matter to which end, in oil-producing communities are severely punished. A recent protest concerning as harmless a demand as the failure to pave major stretches of a main road has led to the suspension of basic civil rights. President Correa has made his intolerance towards unrest around oil wells and other production structures crystal clear and declared a State of Emergency in the province of Orellana in November 2007. Curfews, military patrols, violent raids, incarcerations of dozens of people under terrorism and sabotage charges, including the governor of the province for her support of the protests, were all intended to “guarantee oil production”.
More recent news have it that Venezuela’s and Ecuador’s state oil companies will team up to build a US$ 5.5 billion oil refinery in the coastal province of Manabí with a processing capacity of 300,000 barrels a day. Correa’s zero-tolerance attitude to demonstrations in oil producing areas, combined with such “energy integration” ventures as the joint refinery, make the purportedly radical environmental proposal of leaving the ITT oil in the soil appear in an opportunistic rather than a green light.
Of course, Correa is not the only one pushing the ITT proposal in Ecuador. Alongside the government, there is also a civil society campaign for deeper socio-economic change that combines ITT demands with the search for pathways towards a Post-Oil Ecuador where all remaining oil, not just from beneath the ITT reserve, would stay underground. Not everyone working on the broader campaign envisions it to be reliant on the international community for compensation. Even though there are attempts to frame the proposal as a matter of ecological justice – as a reparation or ecological debt which the North owes the South – prevalent global power dynamics are likely to favour the usual “market solutions to market disasters” and convert Yasuní into a set of pollution licenses for sale to the highest bidder in the new bioeconomic world order of environmental services and carbon trade.
In her recent piece in the Carbonweb newsletter, Esperanza Martinez from OilWatch Ecuador argued that sovereignty, the concept and the practice, cannot be commodified. But, she also realises, the struggle over the meaning of, and over the means to sovereignty remains unsettled. Whose self is the self in self-determination? Appeals to sovereignty are still very much haunted by the spectres of the nation state, place, and property. To generate a vision of shared planetary self-determination, subversion of such concepts is probably indispensable. Sovereignty implies supreme decision-making power. If linked, as it is, to a nation state and its territory in a context of hegemonic private property, it amounts to a license to exploit, destroy, sell off, as “the nation” sees fit. For the time being, the official ITT proposal is just a conversion of one commodity (extracted oil) into another (unextracted oil), with no particular reference to the self-determination of those locally implicated – in fact, their rights to voice their opinion in this specific context are being systematically undermined through the investing of ever more draconian powers in the army and police force. Framing the proposal in terms of ecological debt is a more radical move, which cannot, however, remain conditional on a country’s geographical luck of extending over an oil field. What about the ecological debt owed countries without oil wells, or mega-diverse rainforests for that matter? There still remains some groundbreaking conceptual work to be done.
Data on oil blocks from: “Atlas Amazonico del Ecuador: Agresiones y resistencias” by Accion Ecologica and CONAIE (funded by Oil Watch et al.). Limited edition. 2006.
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