ECUADOR: Paradigm shift disorder

Posted on | mei 24, 2012 | 1 Comment

March 5, 2012. President Correa(r) and Yuan Guisen(c), China's Ambassador to Ecuador, look on as Ecuador's Minister of Non-

PSD: A condition afflicting individuals and governments that, once in power, implement policies contrary to the paradigm shift that is vital for the well-being of the planet and its inhabitants, and for which they were elected to implement. Often, it is characterized by demagoguery, hypocrisy and a reverting back to ruinous policies that violate human rights and worsen environment degradation. It is aggravated by the lure of quick, easy, money posed by extractive industries, such as mining and oil.

Picture this if you can: A World Bank and a IMF extractive industries director are going over the latest developments in South America over a cup of coffee in Washington. The World Bank director turns to the IMF representative and says: “Jeez, isn’t it funny how things turn out!! Socalled progressive governments down south following pretty much our model of development and implementing some of our least palatable extractive policies”

It wasn’t supposed to be this way. The political change that swept over most of South American nations during the past decade or so, was supposed to usher in major paradigm shift: from the anthropocentric to a more biocentric mode of life. From a capitalistic to a more genuinely socialistic and democratic perspective.

In Ecuador, the transformation was about giving nature Constitutional rights, and people the right to a harmonious, or integral way of life. It was meant to usher in a radical change from a purely economic paradigm to a more holistic one; putting social, cultural and environmental wealth on an at least equal footing with economic wealth. The whole idea of development was to be radically transformed. Less materialism; more social, cultural, environmental health. Less extractivism and natural resource pillaging; more sustainable initiatives benefiting local economies. Sustainability was meant to encompass all three main pillars of development, and not reaffirm what it means today: sustained, and infinite economic growth. The elements above the surface: soil, water, biodiversity and forests would be seen as being worth far more than subsurface minerals. Other species had a right to co-exist with humans. Importantly, the impetus for most of these changes in perspectives came not from politicians, but from the citizens, who were key protagonist in the re-writing of Ecuador’s, and other Constitutions in the region.

The shift was also meant to fortify civil society groups who expected to work closely with government and help government in the transition, and take part in consolidating the changes. Power itself was supposed to undergo a radical transformation- more in tune with the people and respectful of the environment, and less responsive to powerful home-grown and transnational economic interests. There was to be a major shift in geopolitics: less dependency on the “imperialistic North”, more healthy South-South commerce, cultural and other exchange.

As far as the model of government, it was supposed to be the beginning of the end the egopower of the Caudillo- or strong-man- model of governing, and democracy would flourish. Everyone thought that respect for free speech and freedom of expression would grow. Parliaments were to be open to the people, and the Parliaments would really listen to what the they said. Governments would rule by the Constitutions and the rule of law, and not based on populist policies. Genuine participatory government was to become the norm. It was taken for granted that Free, Prior and Informed Consent for Indigenous Peoples and communities would be fully respected.

I’m referring about the shift in governments and politics that has shaken South America in the past 10 or so years and that put new leaders, some from the extreme left- some supposedly progressive- into power. Ecuador, Bolivia, Argentina, Venezuela; perhaps Paraguay. Brazil for many. The change was supposed to usher in a new whole new paradigm of development. No more development schemes to ravaged Planet Earth in the name of economic growth and for the purpose of creating avid consumers, meanwhile enriching Northern economies and feeding unsustainable lifestyles. Capitalism was to be replaced by a green and democratic socialism.

Instead, we have leaders like Bolivia’s Morales, an indigenous-campesino socialist leader who came to power trumpeting human and environment rights, and who is now pursuing a road through the middle of a protected area known as Tipnis. In late 2011, his government violently repressed indigenous protesters who were marching to the capital to protest the plan. President Morales claims that the road is needed to develop the country. It has been pointed out that the road would also perfectly suit the commodities-export regional initiative known as IIRSA. In spite of the international condemnation that the repression against the protesters sparked and ongoing national resistance, Bolivia’s president is still determined to go ahead with his plans.

Stung by native resistance to his government’s development plans, Evo Morales recently tried to discredit the opposition, allegedly stating that “environmentalism is the new colonialism” (1). It’s hard to believe that someone like Evo Morales wouldn’t know that modern environmentalism was largely inspired by Native Americans, and disappointing that he would equate environmentalism with colonialism, which was anything but green. But Morales is not the only president in South America following tried-and-tested neoliberal development plans, or using the police to violently repress the resistance said plans provoke.

In Ecuador, Rafael Correa, who was packaged to the public as a progressive and who was voted into power partly based on his pro-environment platform, has followed some of the World Bank’s most effective prescriptions to allow the North to continue helping themselves to the country’s resources. His regime is dead set on transforming Ecuador, a mega biologically and culturally diverse nation, into yet another mining country exporting raw mineral resources to the North. The government, for example, is not satisfied that “only” 5% of the country has been explored by mining corporations, and would like to see it expanded to not less than 40%, and is looking all over the world for partners to start mining the Andes.

Correa’s mining policies highlight the contradictions of his government perspective on development perhaps like no other issue. For example, while outwardly supporting a green initiative to leave massive amounts of petroleum under the Yasuni protected area in exchange for cash from developed economies, Correa’s government is opening new pristine areas for mining and oil development. In the case of mining, it is specially tragic, since Ecuador is the only Andean nation free of large-scale metal mining, and has the unique opportunity- and more than enough renewable resources to do it- to choose a different development path, avoiding the numerous and well-documented ills that mining development brings to developing nations. Because of its great and irreversible environmental impacts, large-scale mining permanently closes a country’s door to develop sustainable economic activities wherever it operates.

Resistance and Mining

Correa’s mining plans are being implemented in spite of virulent protests from campesino communities and Indigenous Peoples, and after decades of experiencing all the problems that petroleum “development” has inflicted on the country, its people, and the economy. Petroleum development in Ecuador is synonym for severe erosion of ethnic diversity in the country’s biodiverse Amazon region, poisoning of untold numbers of rivers and streams and making thousands of locals sick with cancer and other life-threatening diseases. Partly because of this grim past with petroleum, and partly based on knowledge of mining’s real impacts in tropical rainforests regions and local communities, Correa’s plans have met stiff resistance and sparked widespread social protests in the country. The latest protests against mining in March of this year showed that the resistance is not limited to impacted communities, or led by a handful of organizations. The protests brought together thousands of individuals from most of the country’s indigenous organizations, campesino groups as well as from dozens of other civil society groups- including several large unions- to the streets in Quito. It was a shock that the government is still trying to assimilate.

Beyond oil development’s social and environmental curse, the development has created a noxious dependency on the black gold that has suppressed other sectors of the economy and that, for decades, has been the main provider of the national budget. It also put blinds on functionaries that made it impossible for them to imagine a life without the money from exporting commodities. Thus, now that oil is running out, what more perfect choice can there be- and one that the World Bank would approve of- than to developed the country’s untapped mineral resources! What will happen 20-30 years down the road when the minerals also run out and Ecuador’s pristine places have been transformed into open pit nightmares leaching heavy metals is not hard to imagine.

Along with the rush to open the whole country to mining by- you might have guessed ittransnational mining companies, a whole “development package” is aggressively being sold to the people. Development, in the best tradition of capitalism, is being equated with things like high-paying jobs, paved roads, large hydroelectric dams, open-pit mines, clinics, computers and so forth. In other words, material development. And, it’s not that these things are are necessarily all bad, the problem lies in that they reinforce the failed model of development that is killing the oceans, wiping out biodiversity, and turning the planet into an oven and its citizens into compulsive consumers. The extractive development model also keeps developing countries poor and tied to exporting primary resources. For many who helped the current government come to power, the regime’s development plans is an unforgivable regression from what it was supposed to have been. In fact, disgust with his way of governing and his betrayal of the party’s ideals that President Correa was supposed to represent, drove many of his closest collaborators to abandon his party’s so-called Citizen’s Revolution, and join the opposition.

The Compass Needle Shifts East (or, goodbye Uncle Sam, hello Uncle Cheng!)

One of the fundamental changes in the new development scheme was supposed to include a shift in geopolitical orientation; lessening the connections to the imperialistic North, and strengthen South-South exchange. However, instead of South, the economic and political compass needle is increasingly pointing East. Iran, for example, has shown a great deal of interest in Correa’s government, and Ecuador responded by greatly expanding relations with Iran and, at the same time, supporting the Gaddafi and Assad governments, in accord with Chinese political interests.

Financially, the eastern shift is not much different. Loans from institutions like the World Bank, the Inter-American Development Bank and the IFM have been almost completely eclipsed by loans from Chinese state-controlled banks like the China Development Bank and the China Export Import Bank. China, for example, has lent nearly 9 billions dollars to the Correa government in the past couple of years to cover budget deficits during the past several years, which is helping to fund his lavish, and popular, social programs. And it’s not just only Ecuador that is on the radar screen for Chinese financial institutions. according to a recent report (2) ,in Latin America, “China’s lending to the region in 2010 was more than the World Bank the Inter-American Development Bank and the Export-Import Bank of the United States combined”.

In addition to high-profile loans, China is also funding some of Ecuador’s biggest infrastructure projects, including the country’s biggest hydroelectric project, and is interested in fully funding a massive 13 billion dollar petrochemical complex on Ecuador’s coast. For its part, Ecuador signed special deals with the Asian giant to repay part of the loans by exporting a significant percentage of Ecuador’s exportable oil production. The loans are no gift to the Ecuadorian people either; the country is paying about 7% interest on them, much higher than what other international lenders charge.

And, as with the World Bank and other western international lenders those loans don’t come without strings attached. For now, the visible strings are access to petroleum and copper, but in the future it could include other metals, agricultural land, lumber, and whatever other resource the Chinese are in need of. Or, as BBC news article (3) bluntly put it:

One of China Development Bank’s specific tasks is to try to alleviate and, where possible, eliminate bottlenecks in supplies of raw materials or land for China’s economy.

This is cause for concern after Correa’s recent statement that there is no limit to borrowing from China.

An attractive aspect of these loans is that, from the perspective of governments like Ecuador’s, the money comes without those “bothersome” transparency, human rights, labor, respect of Indigenous People’s rights, and environmental safeguards. The loans also come without the insistence from the lenders that the money be used to help the country mitigate poverty. Needless to say, the “flexibility” is a real temptation for corrupt governments to misuse the funds, and makes it easier to prolong their stay in power by subsidizing popular social programs, regardless of their economic or environmental sustainability.

The Copper Connection

Ecuador’s enthusiasm for Chinese financial support didn’t stop with the petroleum deals. In March of 2012, the country signed its first mining contract, paving the way for the construction of Mirador, the country’s first large-scale open-pit mine. Mirador happens to be a copper mine, and it happens to be owned by a Chinese consortium made up of two of China’s largest stateowned corporations. In inking the deal, the Correa government didn’t let legalities get in the way, even after the nation’s Comptroller General findings leaked to the press revealed 17 major irregularities with the mining project, most of them sufficient to have annulled the project.

Another troubling factor in this particular grab for copper is that, according to an external audit, the project’s Environmental Impact Statement was severely deficient, leaving out key data, and not considering essential factors like seismic risks. Yet, the study was approved days before the signing of the contract with the Chinese. The outrageous disregard of laws to accommodate Ecuador’s largest debtor is very disturbing, and is emerging as the model the government will follow for other extractive projects. A similar disregard for the rule of law to facilitate other mining and oil projects in the southeast of the country, which includes not respecting community consultation processes, and redrawing boundaries of protected areas to accommodate mining and oil interests, have helped further tarnish the government’s discredited environmental policies. Taken together, the flagrant disregard for the law sends a signal that the government will push mining no matter what; even if that ‘what’ means gross violations of human and collective rights, a severe weakening of democratic values and institutions, and wide-scale environmental degradation. A study released by the country’s Ombudsmen in late 2011 (4) on human rights violations drew attention to the link between the country’s extractivist plans and human rights violations, when it came to the conclusion that a significant share of the violations were linked to resistance to extractive projects, and that there was a systematic criminalization of the social protest. A study released in April of 2012 by one of Ecuador’s most prestigious universities came to similar conclusions (5).

One unique aspect of the deal with the Chinese, which has raised some concern, is that Correa pressured the companies to pre-pay 100 million dollars in future royalties. I know of no other country in the world where mining companies pay royalties years before a mine is even built. The gamble on the part of the Chinese is not much of an issue, since it has been shown that State-owned Chinese corporations are willing to lose a lot of money- 600 million dollars in the case of the Mecca Metro (6), for example- in order to win political, and other kinds of favors from countries rich in resources.

What the advanced royalty payment does is give the government money to use in the mining region to attempt to neutralize the opposition and gain the support from the communities by paving, building, wiring and sanitizing the place. It also makes it possible to show off mining´s positive side (concrete ‘development’). However, it also ties the hands of Ecuadorian governments- present and future- to effectively avert, or control mining’s insidious environmental and social impacts.

When it becomes evident that the government is not interested in applying the legal safeguards protecting communities and collective and environmental rights, the outcome is bound to be communities taking the law into their hands to protect their environment and social and cultural health, and avoid relocation at all costs. Repression then becomes the most likely response by a government dependent on rents extracted from mineral exports, and heavily in debt with the company’s host nation that exploits its minerals.

The Mirador site is located in the mountainous and biodiverse Condor Range, tucked away in Ecuador’s southern Amazonian region. The tropical rainforest where the mine would be located is within the Tropical Andes Biological Hotspot, the world’s most diverse Biological Hotspot. There are more species of mammals, plants, insects, bird, amphibians, and reptiles in a few hundred hectares of this habitat than whole provinces in China and of most other countries. The Mirador concession is also exceptionally rich in pristine rivers and streams that are fed by 2 to 3 meters of annual rainfall. Unfortunately, lying below this singular biodiversity and water-rich world lies copper and other metals sought by industrial economies. The Condor Range is also home to the Shuar People, ancestral dwellers of the forests. Sadly, the Shuar have been unable to avoid the usual division that extractive companies create by offers of high-paying job and easy money. Those who bought into this modern siren song- including the myth of responsible mining- say they want western-style development, and think they can navigate through the dangerous waters of large-scale mining, avoiding the negative impacts to their peoples and their environment.

The controversy is really about copper, a must-have commodity for China’s hyper economy, which currently consumes around 9 million tons per year, or 40% of the world’s production. The voracious appetite for this base metal, just coming from China, has tripled its price in the last few years, and sparked a veritable international scramble to secure access to exploit the metal. And, just so that there’s no doubt about where the copper is heading- as in the days of colonial pillaging- the new owners stated that 100% of the copper from Mirador will be shipped to China as a unrefined 30% copper concentrate. There, it will be purified and resold, and made into consumer goods. Copper is so important to the Chinese economy that in order to make sure its industries doesn’t run out, during the past five years China’s corporations- both private and publicly-owned- have spent billions of dollars accumulating copper properties all over the world. The purchase by the Chinese of Corriente Resources, the Canadian owners of Mirador and other nearby concessions, was worth nearly 700 million dollars.

The Recycled Paradigm

Instead of being progressive, the paradigms in the continent are recycled junk models from other failed paradigms, and not at all creative. Nature continues to be a storehouse of “resources”, or commodities, to be extracted, exported and/ or transformed into goods for the exclusive benefit of humans. Rivers are still seen as merely potential sources of hydroelectric projects, forests are the home to so many cubic meters of lumber, the ocean is one big fishery and shark fins are for making soups.

In Ecuador, the main objective of the new version of an export-commodity base is, firstly to GROW economically, and in the process, secure enough cash to fund some much needed social programs, but also many populist, non-sustainable ones. Economic growth continues to be the sacred cow it’s always been, and the same distorting indicators are being used to measure wealth, just as in the heyday of neoliberalism. Gross National Product, not Gross National Happiness is still king and, because it’s difficult or inconvenient to put a monetary price on ecosystem services or for the government tax them, these services are worthless. Poverty is still measured only in dollars and cents, and the environmental destruction and social and cultural havoc produced by mining and other extractive industries are still seen as “unfortunate costs” of development; externalities for someone else to pay in another time.

As far as the living and non-living elements of an ecosystem are concerned, including human communities, it matters not at all what economic or political system is the author of their demise. Whether in the name of pure capitalism and free markets, or socialist or communist principles that justify the destruction of our Home to, paradoxically, improve living conditions of the human population, devastation is devastation.

Duality of Progress

There’s no denying that there have been some very positive changes in Ecuador, as well as the other countries mentioned. Social spending has gone way up, there is less economic poverty, and many economically impoverished citizens, for the first time, have access to basic services, like free medical attention. Public education is also, in theory, free for everyone, to university. I say in theory because the country was unprepared for the increase in demand for this and other services, and the systems collapsed. And, like many other populist governments before it, this one has also been accused of using these popular programs to buy support. But overall, and in spite of the fact that the richer are richer these days in Ecuador, one cannot ignore the fact that positive economic and social progress has been made. Parallel to these positive achievements, however, the flush of financing is also going to some questionable ends, including funding sharp increases in defense spending, putting Ecuador at the stop of defense spending per portion of the GNP in South America (7); higher even than Colombia, which has to confront a decades-long civil war.

One Huge Step Backwards for Collective Rights

One of the most noxious policy decisions regarding development taken by the Correa regime, and widely rejected by civil society and Indigenous groups, is that of not recognizing communities or Indigenous People’s right to Free, Prior and Informed Consent, or accepting communities decision on development plans as binding. The President, along with key cabinet members, have publicly said, on numerous occasions, that they equate the consultation process with the simple act of socialization of projects, and that consent by affected stakeholdersincluding local governments- is not to be considered. This refusal to recognize this key civil society safeguard, and the right of these two fundamental civil society groups to choose a different path of development, is seen as a huge step backwards in the establishment of collective rights. It also makes a complete mockery of the government’s sustainability discourse. Ironically, it’s a policy expected more from the conservative right and capitalist interests, than from the progressive left.

The Risks of Questioning Development

In Ecuador, persons and organizations who challenge the government’s development plans are either anti-development, agents of the political right, or just dumb, infantile ecologists, and/or all of the above. Lately Correa has, as Morales, added a xenophobic ingredient to his attack on the opposition to extractive development by saying that it is funded by rich gringos.

And, there is a lot to challenge. In this paradigm that refuses to die, there is no room for the 7 noble principles behind Sumak Kawsay- or harmonious living- and the rights of nature nature become little more than nice terms to exploit. Human and Indigenous Peoples rights are seen as obstacles to development, and development goals keep being set in shiny desks in the capitals, far away from the land and people they would destroy or relocate. In other words, and as our two imaginary functionaries from the Bank and the IFM might say: ´My oh my, business is humming along as usual!’

To make sure nothing stands in the way of this new “progressive” steam-roller, if your organization’s idea of development is not in line with the government’s National Development Plan- which was done without any kind of meaningful participation from civil society- your organization can lose its legal status and the directors become the target of aggressive smear campaigns by government officials. If it occurs to you to exercise your Constitutional right to resist extractive activities, you are arrested, labeled a terrorist and can be jailed for years. Whereas before, it was the corporations who were going after the protest leaders, it is now the State who criminalizes the protests. Since Correa came into office, for example, nearly two hundred indigenous and campesinos have faced, or are now facing, terrorism or other similar criminal charges for taking part in protests against mining and other extractive projects4,5. In fact, the main organization representing the Indigenous Peoples of Ecuador, CONAIE, and who actively supported candidate Correa, has had to brunt relentless attacks from Correa the President ever since they parted ways, primarily due to the government’s mining policies. The attacks against CONAIE is only one facet of a sinister and sustained effort to undermine the influence of non-governmental organizations in the country that don’t support the government’s development plans- and especially its mining plans. The lack of tolerance in Correa’s government for differing perspectives regarding the development model the country should follow is frightening.

There are many other examples of the steep cost that civil society and nature in Ecuador are paying for this version of Development Shift Disorder, and for questioning its premises. These include, criminalization of the protest, concentrating power in the Executive Branch and fatally debilitating the Legislative and Judicial branches of government, intimidating the country’s free press and hampering freedom of expression.

You probably think that we were out of our minds in believing that some of these fundamental changes would take place, and you might be right. However, keep in mind that the principal authors of the country’s new Constitution that embodied most of the progressive above ideas was the people; so this time much more was expected from the State. Also, if you’ve been involved in walking the long road towards achieving social justice and environmental sustainability, and serious about the need for urgent paradigm change redefining development’s basic premises, then you know that hope springs eternal and that utopia is not a unreachable dream, but a journey; a path we must constantly walk even in the face of overwhelming obstacles and constant betrayals. Not to do so makes us accomplices of a paradigm so destructive that it now threatens all life on Earth.

6. China Railway Corporation is the same company that is part owner of the Mirador copper mining project 8,8599,2033238,00.html

AUTHOR: Carlos Zorrilla
E-MAIL: toisan06 [at]


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