A History of Extractivism in the Amazonian Ecuador


26 maart 2020
Auteur(s): Stephanie Bayancela
Up to 100 billion tons of resources were extracted in 2019 and only 8.6% has been recycled.

by Stephanie Bayancela

Contributing Writer

In an economy that nowadays uses more raw materials than ever before, the environmental and social conflicts repeat themselves everywhere while remaining ignored. Extractivism, the process of extracting natural resources from the Earth to sell them, is a mechanism of colonial and neocolonial plunder and appropriation according to CATAPA.

CATAPA is a social movement based in Belgium, and supported by around 100 volunteers from all over the world. The NGO devotes itself to sharing and supporting the work of activists fighting against the violent interventions of extractivist endeavors in South America. Towards that end, CATAPA organized ‘The Open MindEd 2020-Speakers Tour’ from the 8th until the 15th of March, a series of lectures that took place at universities and other institutions in the main Belgian cities. 

One of the guest-speakers was Antonella Calle, who is an Ecuadorian activist and member of ACCIÓN ECOLÓGICA and YASUNIDOS. She was invited to share her experience in the fight for the rights of environmentalists and indigenous groups in a nation dependent on oil exports. The following is a compilation of the country’s most significant scandals since the beginning of oil extraction in the 1960s, complemented with the testimony of Antonella.

From the first large scale extraction and export under the military dictatorship of Guillermo Rodriguez Lara in 1972, oil has been promised as the black gold that would take the country’s population out of poverty. Nonetheless, just last year, the Ecuadorian government requested once again a loan, this time from the IMF (International Monetary Fund), to finance the external debt and the inflated public spending. The $ 4,2 billion loan came however with a set of conditions, known as structural adjustment reforms, that would force the state to cut its social spending, which directly affects the most vulnerable groups. In response, in October 2019, the indigenous groups organized and put forward a historical strike that ended up in the withdrawal of the measures. 

There is an ongoing conflict with no foreseen end in the immediate future.

Indigenous groups striking against the IMF structural adjustment reforms. CLACSO (Consejo Latinoamericano de Ciencias Sociales), 2019

Indigenous communities have historically suffered from exploitation in their territories and violation of their human rights. One of the few documented cases is that of Texaco, the American oil drilling company responsible for countless disastrous activities in the Ecuadorian Amazon from 1964 to 1992. The company is accountable for dumping 64 billion liters of toxic water and 650,000 barrels of crude oil in a territory of 15,000 square kilometers of rainforest inhabited by indigenous communities. During this period, more than 30,000 people were affected. As a result, cancer, malformations and miscarriages are more common in this area than in any other in the country.  These events have pushed several communities to abandon their territories and traditional homes. However, Texaco still exists under the Chevron transnational Corporation.

The damage caused by Chevron-Texaco is considered the most disastrous oil exploitation case worldwide up to today.

The court case prosecuting the transnational for compensation and reparation started in 2003, and although under Ecuadorian law it failed in favor of the victims requesting a sum of $ 9500 million in compensations, the transnational took the case for international arbitration in The Hague (The Netherlands) in 2009, where 10 years have gone by and there is still no answer from the international authorities. 

Crude oil dumping by Chevron-Texaco. Sodepaz, 2013

With this precedent, in 2005, the exploration activities to extract the oil reserves in the Yasuní National Park (YNP) started. Yasuní is a protected area of 10,200 square kilometers in the East Ecuadorian Amazon. The park is a habitat for thousands of endemic species of flora and fauna. It is also a global hotspot of biodiversity, and home to the last remaining indigenous groups in voluntary isolation. 

As a strategy to keep the area untouched, the Ecuadorian government launched in 2007 an initiative called Yasuní ITT, which aimed to keep the oil underground if the money’s worth of the exploitation was collected from donations of the international community. In the end, the expected amount was not obtained, concessions were granted and exploration in the area started. Antonella accuses the government of the failure for allowing oil explorations in the area during the campaign, actions that spread a feeling of disbelief among the donors over whether the agreement would be respected in the long term or not.

In opposition, YASUNIDOS was born from a group of activists committed to raise popular awareness of the inhumane abuses of extractivist activities, and to demand a national referendum that would enable the Ecuadorian people to decide whether the Yasuní should be exploited or not.

As from day one, the activists were obstructed, persecuted and criminalized by the government of Rafael Correa.

Ultimately, they were asked to collect a minimum of signatures corresponding to the 5% of the national population in 6 months to call for a referendum. Before the arranged deadline, 757.623 signatures were delivered as requested, and when it seemed time to claim victory, the executive government decided to delegitimize up to 60% of the signatures, denying citizens’ democratic rights and allowing the oil drilling to begin in 2013.

Since then, YASUNIDOS has mobilized to the YNP to physically prevent the expansion of the activities and has filed two cases against the Ecuadorian government in the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights (IACHR); one for ethnocide and the other for violation of democratic rights, processes that still await resolution.

Location of Yasuní National Park (YNP) within Ecuador (left) and photo of the Amazon rainforest from within the park (right) by Agencia Latinoamericana de Información (ALAI)

The cases of Texaco and Yasuní are not isolated; in 2015, the first large scale mining project entered into operation.  Proyecto Mirador is an open-pit copper mine located 1,000 metres above sea level in the Amazonian mountain range ‘Cordillera del Cóndor’. As from the beginning, it has been highly contested by independent Environmental Impact Assessments (EIAs) that reported on the imminent risks of pursuing such activities in a water basin, habitat to a high natural biodiversity, as well as, water source for several human settlements. Even so, families were forced out of their homes by the police to allow the Chinese Mining company ‘EcuaCorriente’ to establish operations.

In 2018, the newly elected president, Lenín Moreno, held a public referendum on seven socio-political issues in a countermove against Correa’s administration policies. These included restrictions on metal mining in the Yasuní Intangible Zone. Apart from this isolated case, Ecuador has become the land of paradoxes, even more after the inclusion of Nature’s rights in the Constitution of 2008, which states in the article 71 that:

“Nature or Pacha Mama has the right of respect to its existence, maintenance and regeneration of its vital cycles, functions and evolutionary processes”

Up to today, not a single court case has been won in favor of nature’s rights. 

By 2020, the Ecuadorian economy still depends greatly on the revenues from exporting oil and metals. Other sectors have not grown enough to surpass them. With the addition of corruption scandals and a growing external debt, the country is in a commodity trap, unable to overcome the resource curse.

Extractivism not only destroys the natural resources and environment we all depend on, it also maintains global imbalance of power that favors the interests of unethical corporations in their claim for never ending economic growth, by destroying the lives of entire communities. 

We, as consumers, need to accept that the social and environmental price of fuels and metals is a lot higher than what we end up paying.

Hence, we have the responsibility to act and support the preservation of the environment through all available channels. As for the international justice community, is their main duty to stand strong and defend the human rights of the most vulnerable groups.