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Activists on Alert in Ecuador After the Government Dissolves a Respected NGO

Mother Earth in Chains

by ADAM CHIMIENTI

In the latest development in the struggle over nature and resources in Ecuador, the government, likely at the behest of President Rafael Correa, shut down the office of a highly respected environmental group known as Fundacion Pachamama or Mother Earth Foundation last week. The group’s Facebook page now displays their green logo draped in chains. While there have been critics pointing out that the government has been increasingly criminalizing protests in the South American nation in recent years, to date nothing like the dissolution of an organization such as Pachamama has occurred. Many activists believe this may only be a sign of things to come. The reaction of Ecuadorian citizens and international observers has been one of disbelief amidst calls for solidarity. Group members were allegedly involved in a protest where officials from Belarus and Chile, visiting Quito for the 11th Oil Licensing Round, underwent harassment as they made their way out of the meeting.

Regardless of the truth of these allegations, they are still merely allegations at this stage. The NGO released a statement earlier this week insisting that not one of its members were involved in any violence on November 28th when the meeting and protest took place and that the organization is firmly committed to nonviolence. As many critics of the government action including the Foundation’s attorney Mario Melo are arguing, this government-ordered shutdown constitutes a chilling violation of due process according to the country’s laws. Perhaps the government was more concerned with sending a strong message to the environmental and indigenous rights activists that are a characteristic feature of the political landscape here. In a recent statement, a ranking official from the Ministry of the Interior called the group’s members whom he alleges were involved “pseudoactivists.” The language against those who disagree with the extractive agenda is typically dismissive in Ecuador, especially coming from President Correa himself.

A bold and fiery orator, Correa has a history of calling his leftist opponents a litany of derogatory terms such as romantics, infantiles, phonies, and most alarmingly, terrorists. Their crimes in his view stem from suspected collaboration with right-wing extremists to destabilize his government and the “citizen’s revolution” that the people of Ecuador are said to be experiencing. During Correa’s seven years in office, grassroots elements have been negated by the top down manifestation of development that precludes effective consultation, resulting instead in a “with us or against us” mentality. The University of Illinois-trained economist often pronounces that his opponents simply do not understand the complex realities of the 21st century global economy. That may be, yet with dire warnings and indicators of excessive human pollution visible around the world, critics allege that the Ecuadorian government also has trouble wrapping its mind about 21st century realities.

Unfortunately, the reality of the citizen’s revolution is rife with more of the same for anyone paying close attention. While there may indeed be a lot more revenue from extractive projects and effective central government management that results in visible public works projects, one cannot be faulted if they don’t find any evidence of genuine innovation in the country’s development strategy. Many activists and indigenous leaders accuse Correa of merely copying foreign extractive models, much like those from previous eras in the country, to give the Ecuadorian people access to more consumer goods, shopping malls, cars, and roads. In a recent meeting I attended in ancestral lands that many assert are threatened by Correa’s extractive plans, Ecuador’s indigenous Shuar denounced the government’s misleading use of terms like socialism and revolution to manipulate voters and distract from the alarming pollution that will inevitably result.

It is useless to deny that the country has undergone major substantive changes in recent years and that these have been beneficial for many of the country’s poorest inhabitants. There are many reasons for Correa’s supporters to continue backing him. On the other hand, economic indicators are commonly depicted by ecologists and detractors around the world as a 20th century method of measuring a nation’s progress. Ecuador, as most every other nation on the planet, needs a healthy dose of innovation to deal with the overwhelming problems the country faces such as environmental degradation, transportation issues, and a sustainable model that does not require dependence on unsustainable extraction, foreign capital, and multinationals (be they Canadian, US, or Chinese) to ensure moderate economic progress exclusively.

This year alone, the Ecuadorian government dashed the hopes of millions of people in Ecuador and around the world when they chose to end the Yasuni-ITT Initiative and forego drilling in a remarkably unique section of the rainforest in Yasuni National Park. The government has been shopping around some of the precious disappearing tracts of the Amazon to foreign oil companies (such as state-owned Belarusian firm whose representatives were allegedly attacked), along the way jailing leading opposition figures (albeit briefly) and now dissolving a leading environmental group. The president of an Andean indigenous organization, Carlos Perez Guartambel, told me in a phone and email discussion that the government shutdown of Pachamama was “an act of a fascist government.” Perez Guartambel, who himself spent 8 days in prison earlier this year after he was found guilty of sabotage while protesting in the name of water rights, fears that shutdowns of other groups are likely.

President Correa won reelection early this year with some 57% of the vote and following that success, with the acknowledgment that he is unable to run in the next election in 2017, he has set about consolidating power in the hands of the state.

Apparently, Correa is worried about the efficacy of civil society leaders with their messages of conservation, the rights of nature, and rights for all Ecuadorian citizens to live in a safe environment. When a new Ecuadorian constitution was ratified with Correa’s support in 2008, it was widely reported that for the first time in any national constitution, nature was given legal rights. Yet Correa, who was celebrated for legitimizing the rights of forests, lakes, rivers and the species that inhabit them, has consistently sided with capital throughout his tenure. It appears that, despite the fear and intimidation of activists, this latest move will only galvanize those on the left and bring home a rather disturbing message to people around the world who have supported Correa. Indeed, the Ecuadorian leader has already shown a desire to internationalize this conflict in recent meetings with the presidents of Peru and Bolivia, urging that their governments work together to combat the radical leftists he finds to be threatening.

What is at stake here is no less than fate of the world’s last remaining patches of megadiverse forests and the people who inhabit them. Environmental pollution is by no means an abstract concept here as major swaths of the country’s rainforest have been contaminated by oil production and many vehicles here spew out thick black clouds of exhaust that are a challenge for pedestrians. To ensure that the country can modernize its infrastructure, much-needed, the government is working with Chinese firms to build two major hydroelectric dams, preparing the country’s first open-pit copper mine (also operated by a Chinese firm) and preparing to exploit, refine, and export more oil than the country was ever capable of doing before. Ecuador is currently one of the leading exporters of crude in the Americas, despite its small size. What will be the result of such large-scale 21st century projects no one can say for sure. However, many of the aforementioned ventures are in the Andes-Amazon corridor that runs right through the equator. This means that these lands are uniquely rare and have a value that many consider much more profound than the wealth that is buried beneath.

Criminalizing and attempting to silence the voices who will invariably stand in the way of an extractives-based agenda may not be judged too kindly in a world where future generations  will rightfully demand answers. If there are right and wrong sides of history, as many often muse about, then where will the current Ecuadorian government be placed? For many, including this correspondent, it appeared that Correa and his administration really desired a different future where inequality and injustice are not confined to economic judgments but ecological ones as well, based on genuine sustainable development and human rights. With that in mind, there is little reason for hope right now here in this resource-rich land at the center of the earth. Correa’s development strategy may indeed continue to lift many out of poverty and expand a middle class that could be mistaken for any country’s, yet it will fall well short of succeeding at eliminating poverty, inequality, resource conflicts, and environmental crises. For anyone, to claim otherwise is hopelessly romantic and naive about 21st century global realities. Meanwhile, Mother Nature remains in chains, voiceless in our modern democratic and economically open systems that unfortunately remain closed when it comes to planning an alternative future.

Adam Chimienti is a teacher and a doctoral student originally from New York. He can be reached at ajchimienti@gmail.com.