Beyond the Petrostate: Ecuador’s Left Dilemma

Beyond the Petrostate: Ecuador’s Left Dilemma

In Ecuador, to oppose resource extraction is to be an enemy of the state.

Mass rally against Correa, September 17, 2014 (Agencia de Noticias / Flickr)

On November 28, 2014 José Isidro Tendetza Antún, a representative of the indigenous Shuar nation in the southernmost province of Ecuador, was on his way to an anti-mining meeting. He never arrived. Nor did he make it to the Climate Change Conference the following week in Lima, Peru, where he had planned to deliver his anti-mining message to a broader audience. On December 2, according to Shuar leaders, miners found Tendetza’s body floating in the Zamora River. They allege that he was promptly buried in an unmarked grave under orders from the local prosecutor. When the corpse was exhumed following protest from his family and neighbors, signs of torture were evident. His legs and arms had been bound with blue rope, and a second autopsy determined strangulation as the cause of death.

Tendetza was a prominent activist against Mirador, an open-pit copper mine in Ecuador’s Amazonian south. He had experienced verbal and physical attacks since 2009, and in 2012, his house and crops were burned. In 2013, EcuaCorriente S.A., the company with the concession to develop the mine, controlled by a Chinese state-owned conglomerate, initiated legal proceedings to remove him from his property.

For indigenous and environmental activists, Tendetza’s murder is emblematic of the destruction wreaked by a model of development based on resource extraction. Large-scale mining is a pillar of leftist president Rafael Correa’s economic program. Moreover, the success of his program has depended in no small part on another natural resource: oil.

Oil revenues have been the cornerstone of the Ecuadorian economy since the 1970s, and continue to account for over half of the country’s exports. Until the recent drop in oil prices, Correa benefited more from oil price increases than any prior administration since democratization. In Ecuador, the so-called “re-primarization” of the economy—a South America–wide phenomenon of increasing economic dependence on primary commodity exports—has accompanied the repayment of what Correa calls the “social debt.” Social spending on health, education, and, perhaps above all, direct cash transfers to the poor have drastically reduced poverty. The administration has also undertaken tax reform, resulting in a broader and more progressive tax base. This is an impressive feat for an oil-dependent state, for which the temptation to rely on resource revenues, a lucrative and politically convenient—if volatile—source of state income, is strong.

Despite a broader tax base and some economic diversification, however, Ecuador’s economy—and especially the state coffers—remains highly dependent on oil income, and is exposed to price shocks. This is especially so because oil production has stagnated in mature fields and the government has had difficulty attracting new investment to untapped reserves in the southern Amazon (the deadline for bidding on contracts for new oil concessions was extended twice). The commodity boom, which began in 2001 and began to plateau in 2010, has more recently given way to a sharp drop in oil prices. To finance the increasing budget deficit, Ecuador has turned to Chinese development loans, secured by a guaranteed stream of future oil from the state-owned Petroecuador. Correa also intends for revenues from large-scale mining to help make up for the shortfall.

The conflict over resource extraction in Ecuador attests to the diverging currents—both on the side of leaders and policies, and of resistance to them—that constitute the left in South America. A decade and a half after Hugo Chavez was first elected President of Venezuela, a inaccurate dichotomy of “radical” (Ecuador, Bolivia, and Venezuela) versus “moderate” (Chile and Brazil) administrations remains the predominant framing of the region’s left turn. But the increasing conflict between the Correa administration and social movements demonstrates a greater diversity among the continent’s leftist projects, at times dividing governments and movements with a shared history in the struggle against privatization and fiscal austerity.

In Ecuador, more so than in Bolivia, Venezuela, Brazil, Uruguay, or Chile, self-identified leftists fundamentally disagree over how to construct a post-neoliberal state. For Correa, breaking with neoliberalism entails reasserting the state’s authority over the economy and investing in long-neglected public infrastructure and social services to reduce poverty and generate employment. But the array of social movements—indigenous, environmental, and, increasingly, labor—that now oppose his administration demand a model that does not rely on non-renewable resources and foreign debt. “Twenty-first-century socialism” has opened up a political dispute over the relationship between inequality, development, the environment, and indigenous rights—a dispute with far-reaching implications for the international left as it seeks to respond to today’s economic and ecological crises.

It is not uncommon to hear Ecuador’s indigenous and environmental activists invoke Marxist geographer David Harvey’s term “accumulation by dispossession” to describe the wholesale displacement of ecosystems and communities by large-scale extractive projects and the energy and transportation infrastructures they require. Activists also emphasize the troubling attenuation of their rights to association and protest: since Correa took office in 2007, his administration has pursued legal action against roughly 200 individuals who participated in demonstrations against resource extraction. According to an Amnesty International report on twenty-four of these social movement leaders, who have been accused of crimes including homicide, sabotage, and terrorism, the allegations were unfounded.

The message is clear: from the government’s perspective, to oppose resource extraction is to be an enemy of the state. This logic extends to entire organizations. In March 2009 the radical environmental group Acción Ecológica was dissolved by an executive order (reversed that August after an international campaign). In December of 2013, the offices of Fundación Pachamama, an NGO that works closely with indigenous communities in the Amazon, were shuttered by the Ministry of Environment for its alleged participation in physical confrontations and for engaging in verbal abuse during a protest against oil exploitation. State officials asserted that the group had violated an executive decree calling for the dissolution of NGOs that deviate “from the ends and objectives for which it was constituted” or interfere “in public policies that threatens the internal or external security of the state, or that affects public peace.”

In December of 2014, the Ministry of Economic and Social Inclusion ordered the national indigenous federation, the CONAIE, to vacate its headquarters, which the Ministry had leased to the group in 1991. The government’s official justification was that it planned to use the building to house youth struggling with addiction. But the political intent was obvious. Since they burst onto the national stage with the first indigenous uprising in 1990, the CONAIE has been the most important social movement in the country and, for many years, the most active indigenous movement on the continent. The CONAIE helped to overthrow three presidents in the course of a decade and consistently protested neoliberal policy. It is implausible, then, that the government suddenly found that the CONAIE had strayed from its mission by engaging in “politics.” And it is even more questionable given that Correa owes his political power to a history of social struggle in large part coordinated by the CONAIE.

This is not exactly the story of an elected government betraying its base, however. Unlike Pachakutik, the political arm of the CONAIE, Correa’s Alianza País (AP) party has never had organic ties to social movements. AP was created in 2006 as an electoral vehicle and remains unevenly institutionalized at the local level, as displayed by recent losses in local and provincial elections. But its leaders initially sought alliances with the forces that had spearheaded anti-neoliberal resistance. After rising to power with the hesitant support of social movements, AP appointed several cabinet members with ties to indigenous and environmental organizations. In April of 2007, voters overwhelmingly supported convening a Constituent Assembly to rewrite the constitution, a long-standing social movement demand. A “re-founding” of the nation, a wholesale replacement of state institutions that reproduced neoliberalism and political exclusion, was a priority not only for the CONAIE but also for the poor and middle-class protesters whose demonstrations had forced President Lucio Gutiérrez (2003–2005) to resign.

The 2008 constitution bears the traces of its social movement roots. Its preamble is framed by the indigenous Kichwa concept of sumak kawsay, “living well” (or buen vivir in Spanish), an alternative to equating development with economic growth. Moreover, it establishes new institutions of popular participation, guarantees an expansive bill of indigenous rights, and, in a radical departure from existing traditions of jurisprudence, recognizes nature as a subject of rights.

But the interpretation of the constitution has prompted a bitter dispute between Correa and social movements. Several high-ranking party members with social movement ties left the administration in the months leading up to and following the constitution’s ratification, including Alberto Acosta, Correa’s Minister of Energy and Mines and later Constituent Assembly President, and Kichwa activist Monica Chuji, who was Secretary of Communication before serving as an AP delegate to the National Assembly. They, along with the leadership of indigenous, human rights, environmental, and labor organizations, charge that Correa’s push to expand resource extraction has run roughshod over the 2008 constitution.

Correa’s program to construct a large-scale mining sector, which prior administrations attempted without success, has consolidated many social movement organizations in opposition. In 2009, it became clear that a major political realignment was underway as the CONAIE and local anti-mining groups organized a coalition to protest a proposed Mining Law. These activists asserted that large-scale mines, many of which would overlap with indigenous territory, would irreversibly contaminate ecosystems. Pollution of surface and groundwater—resulting both from chemicals added during processing and from the exposure of naturally occurring minerals, known as acid rock drainage—is the most detrimental. Large-scale mining also produces a tremendous amount of waste: in the case of copper, up to 99.5 percent of the mined material is eventually separated from the valuable mineral and discarded. Mining is also a growing cause of deforestation in the Amazonian region of South America. In addition to the forests razed in the process of land removal to construct the mine, large-scale extraction in the Amazon requires building highways to move equipment and minerals through previously intact rainforest.

The expansion of transportation infrastructure in turn encourages human migration, settlement, and agriculture, further intensifying deforestation and contributing to climate change.

For anti-mining activists and even some state officials, the development of large-scale mining in Ecuador represents a critical juncture: one path leads to the continuity of the “extractive” model of accumulation that has prevailed since Spanish conquest, and the other to a more progressive, if vague, “post-extractive” future.

To resist what they see as the onslaught of the extractive model, indigenous and environmental activists—the CONAIE, the highland indigenous federation (ECUARUNARI), Acción Ecológica, and the Assembly of the Peoples of the South, among others—have developed a diverse repertoire of resistance. The first national-scale demonstration since Correa’s election, the March for Water, Life, and the Dignity of Peoples, took place from March 8 to 22, 2012. The two-week march, in which I participated, was launched from Pangui, a southern Amazonian canton near what would be Ecuador’s first ever large-scale mine, the Mirador project. Just three days before the march, the Ministry of Nonrenewable Natural Resources had signed a contract with the Chinese-owned EcuaCorriente S.A. for the concession to construct and exploit this open-pit copper mine.

The march arrived in Quito 25,000-people strong after covering 700 kilometers via foot and caravan. The state presence had increased from lone helicopters trailing us and two alleged undercover police officers discovered in our midst to full-fledged clashes with the police and military. Beyond the immediate issue of resource extraction, the march resonated with a history of social struggle familiar to many participants. It evoked the tumultuous uprisings (levantamientos) of the 1990s, which also comprised long marches from the highlands and Amazon to Quito that physically and politically inundated the capital with the grievances of marginalized indigenous peoples. This historical resonance was highlighted by the CONAIE youth brigade, who occupied the front of the march for the entire two weeks, carrying a long wiphala flag (the multicolored, pan-Andean indigenous banner), and explicitly framed the protest as a continuing struggle for indigenous rights.

But conflict over oil and mineral extraction has also involved more novel forms of protest. With the exception of the Mirador project, there are no large-scale mines in Ecuador with an exploitation contract, and the new oil blocks slated for concession in the southeastern Amazon await foreign investment. As a result, activism centers on preventing planned projects, anticipating the environmental and social impact of extraction. Anti-oil activists can point to the havoc wreaked by decades of oil exploitation in Ecuador’s northern Amazon, exemplified by the activities of Chevron-Texaco (the subject of a protracted international lawsuit), which over the course of twenty-eight years discharged billions of gallons of toxic wastewater and millions more of crude oil into the forests and waterways of northeastern Ecuador. But anti-mining activists do not have any exemplary national disasters ready at hand. To instill a sense of what will be lost, anti-mining activists organized “visits” or “walks” (caminatas) to the still-verdant sites of planned mining projects. According to organizers, the aim of such trips is threefold: political (a well-attended visit displays local capacity for mobilization to both potential allies and pro-mining forces), affective (for participants, the physical encounter with the potentially contaminated landscapes and waterways instills nostalgia for what has not yet been lost), and scientific (participants collect environmental data).

Another mode of protest takes the 2008 constitution as its point of departure, and emphasizes the ballot box as a vehicle for political protest. The constitution guarantees the right to prior consultation—the right of affected communities to be consulted prior to the development of extractive projects—but anti-mining and anti-oil groups claim that it has not been substantively enforced. On October 2, 2011, a water users’ association in the southern highlands of Ecuador, located near the planned Quimsacocha gold mine, conducted their own community consultation. Over 90 percent of the 1,037 voters, all members of the water association—a local institution that manages irrigation and potable water in this agricultural community—voted against the project. In response, Correa stated that the event was illegal, since the constitution stipulates that only the state can organize consultations and that even state-led consultations are non-binding. Constitutional legitimacy aside, the result was celebrated as a major victory by local anti-mining activists, and provided a model that other affected communities have since replicated.

Anti-oil activists have also embraced popular elections as a movement tool. In the fall of 2013 a group of environmentalist, indigenous, and other activists called YASunidos embarked on a campaign to collect signatures for a national referendum on oil extraction in the Yasuní National Park. In 2007 the Correa administration proposed to not extract oil in the Amazonian park, a UNESCO Biosphere Reserve and home to numerous indigenous communities, if the international community would pledge to donate half the estimated value of the oil underneath the park—$3.6 billion—to promote sustainable development in Ecuador. State officials framed the exchange of money for conservation as the payment of the “ecological debt” owed by the global north, which has long appropriated resources from the global south for its development. But the plan, however noble in principle, failed. In August 2013 the administration opted to pursue “Plan B”—oil exploitation—provoking huge protests in Quito’s historic Plaza Grande. YASunidos formed the same month, and in October they embarked on a six-month campaign to put drilling in the Yasuní to a democratic vote. They aimed to gather the constitutionally required number of signatures (5 percent of the electorate) to call a national referendum on the project. The outcome stunned even the most optimistic participants and onlookers: the group marched in a raucous caravan to the National Electoral Commission, depositing box after box of petition forms containing what Yasunidos’ spokespeople said were 756,291 signatures, well above the required 584,116. After a controversial counting process, including the sudden carting away of boxes by the military to “protect” the validity of the process, the Commission officially rejected the consultation request. According to their count, only 359,761 signatures were valid.

While the government blocked referendum advocates from achieving their immediate goal, the YASunidos’ campaign represented a substantial shift in the territorial contours of anti-extractive activism: their campaign brought environmental activism against oil extraction to a national scale. In Ecuador and other countries fiscally dependent on resource extraction, mobilization tends to be limited to the most immediately affected communities. But the YASunidos’ campaign was particularly active in major cities like Quito and Cuenca. Whether the scaling up of anti-extractive protest can be sustained remains to be seen. The challenge to nationalizing anti-extractive protest, to building the broad coalitions that successfully resisted neoliberalism in the 1990s and early 2000s (eventually fueling Correa’s ascent to the presidency), remains formidable: the socio-environmental consequences of extraction are borne locally (and, via climate change, globally), but the economic benefits are distributed nationally.

While activists struggle to scale up their movement, the government endeavors to consolidate local support for extraction. Policy initiatives have therefore not only focused on redistribution and investment at the national level. More so than any prior administration, this government has channeled social spending towards the communities most directly affected by oil and mining. The 2009 Mining Law stipulates that 12 percent of the profits generated by a mining project must be directed to “social investment and territorial development projects in the areas where mining activities are carried out.” In addition, 60 percent of royalties must be channeled to “productive projects and sustainable local development.” So-called “millennium communities” in oil-producing provinces showcase oil-funded development, with prefabricated housing units, health centers, and free wifi.

According to critics, these strategic public investments merely reproduce private sector strategies (dubbed “corporate social responsibility”) that seek to mitigate the risk of community protest, or pre-empt local demands for a greater share of resource dividends. The government bureaucrats I spoke to also emphasized the political stakes of such investment, which they viewed as the best weapon in their war of position with indigenous and environmental activists.

Indeed, the stakes are high. The Correa administration faces precarious political support in mineral-rich localities. In the February 2014 provincial and municipal elections, Alianza País candidates for provincial prefect were defeated by vocal opponents of mining in the three provinces with planned or active large-scale mining projects. While these defeats occur in the context of otherwise impressive electoral record—Correa garners consistently high approval ratings, has won multiple presidential reelections, and AP controls over half the seats in the National Assembly—the consolidation of local political support is crucial for advancing extractive projects. In interviews, bureaucrats expressed their concern that anti-mining movements could undermine investor interest. This may have already been the case for the Quimsacocha gold mine: in 2012, after the project was overwhelmingly rejected in the “community consultation,” the concession was sold from one Canadian junior mining firm to another, and it still has not advanced beyond the exploration phase. Both activists and policymakers interpret this as the result of a relatively well organized rural-urban anti-mining coalition in the area.

In a “petrostate” like Ecuador, a precipitous drop in oil income inevitably alters the terrain of policy-making and protest. Most troubling from the government’s point of view, the drop in oil prices threatens the viability of the resource-funded model of development that has secured Correa’s political popularity. Although state officials publicly assert that non-oil exports are on the rise, continue to forecast high growth, and even claim that Ecuador is no longer an oil-dependent country, Ecuador has gone into further debt as it attempts to weather the vicissitudes of global commodities markets. If the state is forced to roll back popular social welfare programs, it could trigger widespread economic discontent. This past March, a reinvigorated national labor federation, along with the indigenous movement, organized protests in Quito and other major cities, articulating grievances related to labor rights, economic policy, and the criminalization of protest.

The 2014 local elections make it clear that political forces on both sides of the spectrum are poised to take advantage of Correa’s slipping, though still enviably high, approval ratings: Alianza País lost several mayoralties to Avanza, a leftist party founded in 2012 by a member of Correa’s administration, and lost several important posts, including the mayoralty of Quito, to right-wing parties. While Correa retains the support of the unorganized poor and lower middle class, growing disenchantment among the middle and upper classes (for what they see as his “authoritarian” governing style and for new measures that tax consumer goods to raise revenue) threatens to take advantage of popular protest to advance a conservative agenda. Indeed, members of the indigenous political party Pachakutik recently met with right-wing politician Guillermo Lasso to coordinate their opposition to Correa’s proposed constitutional reforms that, among other things, would allow for his indefinite reelection (the meeting also prompted a letter of protest from the CONAIE).

In the midst of this political realignment, anti-extractive activists continue to resist oil and mining projects. In February, the Shuar community blocked Secretary of Hydrocarbons officials from entering their territory in another Amazonian province. Meanwhile, four months after José Isidro Tendetza was killed, his death remains under investigation, and Shuar leaders have presented their grievances regarding the increasingly violent extractive economy to the United Nations and the Inter-American Court of Human Rights. Somewhat counter-intuitively, the fall in oil prices may itself foment anti-extractive resistance. The attempt to attract investors and maintain oil income could incentivize economic and environmental deregulation. The search for new revenues could also strengthen the administration’s resolve to develop the large-scale mining sector—and in turn provoke further protest.


Thea Riofrancos is an assistant professor of Political Science at Providence College.


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