Lucas Allen is a junior at Boston College majoring in International Studies and minoring in Medical Humanities.
I haven’t celebrated World Biodiversity Day much in the past, but this year it was a special day for me. It was May 22nd, and the next day I would be on a plane to one of the most biodiverse countries on the planet. Ecuador, with its four distinct regions of the Galapagos, the Coast, the Andes, and the Amazon, is a geographically-compact example of nature’s highest highs (literally, with the farthest point from the center of the earth at the summit of Chimborazo), lowest lows, and everything in between.
Ecuador also illustrates the heights and depths of man’s treatment of nature. In 2008, it became the first country to include “Derechos de la nuturaleza,” or rights of nature, in its national Constitution. Influenced by the indigenous cultures significant in the country’s past—and indeed its present, the Constitution references “Pachamama” (an Andean goddess of the earth) and shows an amazing reverence toward nature. The natural diversity that inspired amazing scientific discoveries in Charles Darwin still inspires pride in the citizens of this beautiful country.
Through the Yasuni-ITT initiative, Ecuador planned to leave 20% of its national oil supply in the ground to protect a precious part of the Amazon rainforest in the Eastern corner of the country. However, on that same May 22nd before I left for Quito, the Ecuadorean government announced an end to the initiative, meaning that drilling would begin in the once-protected Yasuni National Park by 2016. In some backwardly ironic celebration of World Biodiversity Day, Ecuador was to begin drilling one of the world’s most biodiverse sections of Amazon.
Over the past six weeks in Ecuador’s capital, I have witnessed an amazing amount of public opposition to the drilling. It is talked about on the radio every day, spray-painted on walls throughout the city, and a dominant topic of public discussion. A popular bumper sticker, shown below, reads “Democracy in extinction.” This phrase draws the apt connection between the survival of unique species in the Ecuadorian Amazon and the survival of democracy in Ecuador. Last May, the group that produced this bumper sticker, Yasunidos, submitted around 850,000 signatures to force a national referendum on the issue.
One of the main reasons for all this public opposition is the belief that an oil spill would occur. I heard a radio guest bring up the Deepwater Horizons oil spill of 2010, arguing that even the most advanced technology in the world cannot completely eliminate the chance for human error. In this case, a spill would be absolutely catastrophic, likely wiping species off our planet for good. It does not help that Petroamazonas, a state-run company with a bad history of oil spills, will be doing much of the drilling.
Walking through the Plaza de Independencia, where the government is seated, I saw signs trying to mitigate this fear. “Yasuni 99.9% Intact: Only 1/1000 will be touched.” This number might be correct with regard to the small proportion of the park that will be needed to build infrastructure for oil drilling. But it is hard to believe that wildlife and indigenous communities will not be harmed by the effects of the drilling, even if there is no oil spill. The Ecuadorian people know all too well the additional harm oil extraction can cause on surrounding areas- it has coated their history just like it has coated so many leaves of the Amazon.
For decades, the American company Chevron (once called Texaco) deliberately dumped toxic waste from their operations in the Ecuadorian Amazon close to the Yasuni. Nearby populations have extraordinary high rates of disease and cancer, and are unable to raise livestock or even drink the gasoline-coated water. Despite a twenty-year David v. Goliath legal battle across continents, Chevron has never compensated the victims, escaping through legal loopholes and drawn-out countersuits.
The 2009 documentary “Crude: The Real Price of Oil” tells the sad story of this long legal battle that is far from concluded. But the saddest developments have occurred after the film was released. Near the end of the film, a newly-elected Rafael Correa is depicted as a hero figure that will finally put an end to the corrupt “business as usual” mentality that perpetuated the disaster in the Ecuadorian Amazon region. When he came into office, he promised a “citizen’s revolution” with better protection of socioeconomic rights and the environment. The Yasuni-ITT initiative was an important signal of this new chapter in Ecuador’s political history.
In Correa’s third term, however, more and more Ecuadorians who once saw him in a heroic light started to feel betrayed. The popular president has become less dutiful to the civil and political freedoms of the diverse citizenry. Citizens are beginning to suspect that the young president of the past seven years has no inclination toward early retirement, even if conventional term limits say his time is up. As a Quiteño I spoke with put it, “he wants to be ‘president for life,’ just like his hero Chavez in Venezuela.”
In 2012, Amnesty International published a report titled “’So That No One Can Demand Anything’” about the criminalization of the right to protest in Ecuador. If these abuses continue, the phrase “Democracy in extinction” could have a tragically literal meaning. It is amazing how quickly the hope of the “citizen’s revolution” has dissipated to the point where an international human rights NGO dedicates a publication to the lack of political rights, and the democracy is truly threatened.
In a similar fashion, Ecuadorian environmental policy reversed in the blink of an eye. On May 21, Correa was joining the world in condemning Chevron for its past environmental abuses in the Ecuadorian Amazon. But the next day, he announced permits that would sentence more of the Amazon to the same oily fate. Again- this was on World Biodiversity Day. Two weeks later on World Environment Day, the government organized a rally to increase support for the decision to drill, in case we thought the timing of the May 22 announcement was simply a coincidence.
At first I supposed the bumper sticker slogan “Democracia en extinction” had two meanings: one environmental, and the other political. But the more I learned about this issue and heard the perspectives of citizens of Quito, the more I saw these two meanings as interrelated. Over the past two months, it has become clear that the controversial decision to drill rests at the crossroads of democracy and the environment. As the democracy fairs in Ecuador, so fairs the environment.
As I mentioned, the group that created this slogan and bumper sticker, Yasunidos, submitted around 850,000 signatures against the drilling last May. This was more than enough to force a national referendum on the issue. Given what I have seen and heard over the six weeks in Ecuador, I have no doubt that the Yasuni would remain protected if the voice of the people would be democratically heard.
However, that is not the case. The majority of the 850,000 signature delivered by Yasunidos were declared ineligible, and no vote was held. To me, and many Ecuadorians, this seems like a clear indication that President Correa understands the difference between what he wants and what the people want—that is why if the drilling goes forward, it will be at the cost of not only the Yasuni National Park, but also democracy in Ecuador. This is the true cost of oil, and it is not pretty.
“Democracia en extinction” is of global importance not just because this particular issue will adversely affect the environment, but also because many of our environmental issues arise from the control of a small minority over how to use, abuse, and profit from a common good. As political repression keeps people from changing this imbalance of power through democratic decision-making, many of our environmental problems will continue unsolved. It is truly heartbreaking to see the drilling in the Yasuni go forward, with the majority of the country opposing it but being rendered as silent as the environment itself, unable to speak for themselves or defend their rights. In this case, the extinction of true democracy in Ecuador may very well lead to the extinction of rare species that once found safe haven in the Yasuni National Park.