When Rafael Correa assumed the presidency in 2007, he promised to break Ecuador free from neoliberalism. He made important strides in that direction, but they were purchased at the price of increased oil extraction, splitting the Ecuadorian left and inviting harsh criticism from many academics, both in the Global North and South. These blatantly anti-environmental policies were hidden behind green rhetoric, coopting Indigenous philosophies which urged humanity to strive for harmony with nature. To begin to unravel the contradictions at hand in Correa’s social-democratic extractivism, we will locate his ideology both in rhetoric and in practice in the broader web of discourses concerning conservation and development.
Conservation and development are ostensibly opposed discourses and policy frameworks that converge in their “practical effect of environmentally disenfranchising Indigenous communities” (Goyes & South, 91). In reviewing the literature relevant to the “dialectics of conservation and development,” Goyes and South draw upon other scholars to deconstruct the discursive and theoretical foundations of conservation and development which in practice are often contradicted. Both discourses rely on a logic of “discontinuity” between the cultural and the natural world (91). Conservation and development draw from two distinct philosophies as their justifications: development “assume[s] that humans are at the apex of the hierarchy of all earthly beings and that their cognitive capacities entitle them to manipulate the natural environment to satisfy human needs and desire,” while “conservationist discourse . . . encourages the protection of natural areas in a pristine state” (Goyes & South, 93). In reality, this pristine state is not due to the absence of humans, but to the absence of impact of industrial practices,” which presents an ominous ambiguity in the logic of conservation, especially given the ideology of discontinuity between the natural and the human elaborated above.
The existence of conservation as a discursive element implies the real production of spaces to be conserved. The development of spaces of conservation have a long history intertwined with settler-colonialism: the creation of national parks in the U.S. in the late 1800s, where “[t]he construction of natural spectacle and packaging of wilderness as a national treasure occurred alongside the removal of the original” inhabitants by the army, was a profoundly violent process that revealed a dichotomized and spectacular relationship between the encroaching settler society and the environment. Another example is in Colombia, where “Tayrona National Natural Park . . . [arose as] a neoliberal conservation attempt to market a ‘paradise regained’ that has instead created ‘rampant forms of exclusion that, in the name of nature, have been maintained and reinforced through a double strategy of touristification and militarization” (Goyes & South, 99). The common thread here is that operating under a capitalist logic, conservation is isolated from development at the level of rhetoric but is subsumed under it in practice.
In recent decades, however, as public consciousness surrounding climate crises and environmental damage has proliferated, development as a discourse has evolved to dictate this subsumption on its own terms, with phrases such as ecological services, sustainable development, or green technologies becoming the principal jargon of mainstream environmentalism. Published by the United Nations in 2018, Challenges and Strategies for Sustainable Development in Latin America and the Caribbean, which reads like a neoliberal manifesto, is a prime example of the recent discursive shift away from the coeval disparateness of natural conservation and economic development. It boldly states, “[t]he new global commitment is that everyone can have a productive and satisfactory life, to the compass of an economic, social, and technological progress in harmony with nature” (55). However enticing a “satisfactory life” sounds, the methods by which to attain it can only rely—in the sphere of production—on “the market and the creation of incentives and facilitating conditions in the production of goods and services in a more efficient, profitable manner and with fewer risks to health and the environment” (35). This turn recognizes that conservation and development can not be separated in practice, and thus strives for unity, without grappling with the contradictions that fostered their rhetorical separation in the first place.
In contradistinction, the Kichwa philosophy of sumak kawsay (buen vivir in Spanish and good living in English), which has long been present in the lexicon of radical Indigenous movements in Ecuador and came to be adopted in the country’s 2008 Constitution, seeks to undermine the traditional view of development by seeking to redefine human needs and desires. As Lalander writes, “[s]umak kawsay proposes . . . that development/progress as most people comprehend it is avoidable. Individual as well as national economic ‘well-being’ and ‘progress’ in terms of material belongings and capital accumulation . . . should be compared with a life in harmony with the environment and other human beings” (Lalander, 627). Sumak kawsay appears in 2012 political vision document of the Confederation of Indigenous Nationalities of Ecuador:
We, the original Nations and Peoples, after a long period of historical resistance and struggle, have organized to put an end to five centuries of oppression, misery, and poverty. We have as our primary objective the construction of a Plurinational State . . . that will ensure the interests of all the Nations and Peoples that comprise Ecuador, that will guarantee sumak kawsay (the system of life), and that is based on the orginiary cosmovisions and ethics for a life of plenitude. (7).
This subverts the orthodox discourses of conservation and development in that it questions the human needs and desires that nature supposedly ought to be subordinate to according to the classical doctrine of development; ever-increasing accumulation is not equated with the attainment of human happiness. Furthermore, in positing sumak kawsay as a system of life, CONAIE eliminates the attitudinal approach to environmental harmony within an existing capitalist system that the U.N promotes. Thus, sumak kawsay, like the jargon of the U.N’s green capitalism, dissolves the orthodox dichotomy between conservation and development; unlike the U.N’s agenda, however, sumak kawsay collapses the discontinuity between the natural and human world implicit in orthodox conservation, instead acknowledging the latter as a particular within the former. However, to call this conservation is not entirely accurate, since nature is a dynamical system: there is no static nature to be preserved. Sumak kawsay, recognizing the dynamism of the natural cycle, calls for a system of human organization that does not present opposition to these changes and can harmoniously adapt to them. So, Sumak kawsay transcends the aforementioned dichotomy by redefining the categories of conservation and development and subordinating both to nature as a dynamic system of which humans are only a small part: an approach that reaches unity in a much less contradictory way than green capitalism.
Public knowledge of the philosophy of sumak kawsay reached a high point when Ecuador employed the concept in its 2008 constitution. Touted as one of the most progessive in the world, it set out to enshrine the rights of nature by drawing upon the language of indigenous political movements. For example, article 71 states that
Nature, or Pacha Mama, where life is reproduced and occurs, has the right to integral respect for its existence and for the maintenance and regeneration of its life cycles, structure, functions and evolutionary processes.
All persons, communities, peoples and nations can call upon public authorities to enforce the rights of nature . . . The State shall give incentives to natural persons and legal entities and to communities to protect nature and to promote respect for all the elements comprising an ecosystem. (Lalander, 631).
The leading section of this article favors a view of the human sphere as a particular within the general sphere of the natural world. Thus, it is in line with the sumak kawsay subordination of the development to a dynamic conservation. However, the second half contains a latent betrayal of this approach, as the need for “incentives” reveals the inescapable logic of marketization. This tension is pervasive in the 2008 constitution, which fluctuates between biocentric and anthropocentric understandings of how Ecuadorian society should relate to nature. Lalander recognizes this dynamic, contrasting article 72, in which “the rights of nature for restoration in case of damages are declared” with article 74, which “declares the rights of individuals and collectives to benefit from nature and the environment in order to Live Well” (Lalander, 632).
These contradictions in the Correa government’s position came to a head when the Yasuní-ITT initiative, which sought to leverage the 850 million barrels-worth of oil located under Yasuní National Park (Lalander, 633) to solicit funding from imperialist countries under the banner of “economic equity” (Goyes & South, 95), fell through. On 15 August 2013, Correa ended the Yasuní-ITT initiative: only 0.37% of the projected international donations had been reached. Correa claimed that “the world had failed Ecuador by not providing sufficient funds to compensate for its resignation to revenues derived from oil exploitation in the ITT area” (Bucaramam & Fernandez, 1). The collapse of the project meant that Correa’s government was now poised to open drilling sites in Yasuní. It justified the termination of the program by assuring critics that 99% of the park would remain unharmed by new state-run extraction projects, that drilling was necessary to fund social programs in the Amazon, and that state-owned companies—as opposed to foreign multinationals—would respect the inhabitants and the ecology of the exploited areas (Lalander, 634). This backtracking from a radical environmentalist rhetoric to extractivism in a protected zone of the Amazon encapsulates Correa’s citizens’ revolution contradictory embrace of both sumak kawsay and green capitalism. Unable to disentangle from the logics of global capitalism, Correa’s populism engendered a state-capitalist extractive economic model which, although opposed to neoliberalism, employed similar greenwashing tactics. It thus adopted a similar view of conservation and development to the green capitalist paradigm, where the environment is subordinated to the needs of humans. However, unlike the green capitalist paradigm, the needs of humans were often (not always) rhetorically described as shelter, healthcare, education, and other social services, rather than the needs of the market.
This contradiction comes into sharper focus when we look at the legal history of the Rights of Nature after their 2008 constitutional enshrinement. According to legal scholars Craig Kaufman and Pamela Martin, the landmark inclusion of Rights of Nature in the constitution opened up a new terrain of struggle, in which the drafting of secondary laws, organization of supporting institutions, and the production of court precedents became battles in the war to define theses rights (132). This new terrain channeled what “had an emancipatory potential as an ecocentric alternative to the dominant, global neoliberal-capitalist logic” into the banality of vague, rhetorically laden legislation (Goyes & South, 93). Shifting the focus onto questions to be solved within the existing legal system disarmed the radicality of the rights of nature and allowed the government to confront activists on its own turf: in the courts, where “civil society pressure was the least successful pathway” for “RoN advocates . . . to buttress the enforcement of contested RoN norm” (Kaufman & Martin 130). It is thus no wonder that activists “accused the government of coopting and twisting the meaning of buen vivir” (Kaufman & Martin 132).
A salient case in the legal battles around Correa’s greenwashing extractivist paradigm is the lawsuit against Ecuacorriente, a Chinese mining corporation running an open-pit project at Condor-Mirador in the Amazonian province of Zamora-Chinchipe, one of the most biodiverse areas on the planet (Kaufman & Martin, 134). Not only did the project pose a grave threat to endangered species, but it also was likely to contaminate the watersheds of two rivers used for consumption and irrigation with heavy metals. Thus, a coalition of “indigenous movements, environmental and human rights NGOs, and communities jointly filed a constitutional lawsuit” against the company and the government ministry which signed the contract (Kaufman & Martin, 134). However, the lawsuit was unsuccessful, with the judge’s verdict rejecting pleas to terminate the project for the following reasons: that the mining project would not affect a protected area, so the Rights of Nature could not be infringed upon by the project, and that the “public interest” (which the judge interpreted as being in line with the interests of the private corporation Ecuacorriente) takes precedence over private interest (the Rights of Nature). As Kaufman and Martin argue, this is a ludicrous argument: firstly, “ the Ministry of Environment’s Comptroller showed the project did intervene in the Protected Forest of the Cordillera del Condor,” secondly, “the constitution clearly states that all Nature has rights, not just Nature found in protected areas” (Kaufman & Martin, 135).
However, not all cases in which Rights of Nature were discussed ended up in an unfavorable verdict, environmentally speaking. A lawsuit brought forth by residents of canton Santo Domingo de los Colorados against pork-processor PRONACA, which was releasing high levels of methane into the atmosphere, polluting local rivers, producing severe odors, and causing “reduced quality of life” (Kaufman & Martin, 138). Ruling in favor of the community members, “[t]he judge,” without the plaintiffs invoking the Rights of Nature, included in his justification “Nature’s right to be restored to its ecological state before PRONACA entered the province” (Kaufman & Martin, 139). In another case, the government employed the Rights of Nature to crack down on “unauthorized, ‘artisanal’ mining in provinces like Esmeraldas and Zamora-Chinchipe” in 2010-2011. These mining operations “had seriously degraded 140,000 hectares of land and released high levels of toxins into water sources in the cantons Eloy Alfaro and San Lorenzo” (Kaufman & Martin, 137). Drawing upon this information to argue for that the Rights of Nature had been violated, Ecuador’s Ministry of the Interior requested approval from a criminal court for preventive action; after approval, Correa declared a state of exception and a military operation was launched to seize and destroy mining equipment in San Lorenzo and Eloy Alfaro (Kaufman & Martin, 137). According to Kaufman and Martin, these actions coincided with the proliferation of industrial mining operations by the Ecuadorian state, and thus the Rights of Nature were used instrumentally to “consolidate State control over mining” (137). Contrasting these cases that were successful in applying the Rights of Nature with the Condor-Mirador case, we see a clear tendency on the part of the government to engage with the discourse of conservation in an instrumental way, as a tool to benefit development. However, unlike the green capitalist case, this is a social-democratic approach which sees the state as the ultimate guide of development.
This one-sided application of the Rights of Nature occurred in tandem with the real dispossession of Indigenous people. One of the most deeply affected groups is the Waorani, who mostly reside in 6,125.6 sq km. portion of the Amazon known as the Waorani Ethnic Reserve, which “overlaps with the Yasuní National Park, to which the Waorani have use rights” (Bravo Díaz, 54). This group of people was first encroached upon by Westerners in “the late 1950s, when the Summer Institute of Linguistics . . . initiated a process of Christianization” (Bravo Díaz, 54). These missionaries established villages and coerced the local population into moving to them—a process of displacement which facilitated the expansion of the “Ecuadorian oil frontier” (Bravo Díaz, 54). Most Waorani left these missionary villages and established settlements nearby, but the process of dispossession was already completed: “when some Waorani families decided to reclaim their territories to the north, they were met with oil extraction” (Bravo Díaz, 54). In more recent years, during Correa’s presidency,
the buen vivir model [in the Waorani Territory resulted in an increase in extractive activities whose revenues were managed by a highly bureaucratic state. Alongside oil extraction, the government offered “development,” understood as the provision of infrastructure, public services, and integration into the market, to Waorani villages. (Bravo Díaz, 55).
Interestingly, this increased economic and environmental exploitation occurred simultaneously with the expansion of social services: “In . . . negotiations for oil-drilling projects . . . state representatives appealed to the Waorani need for public services, whose improvement was presented as compensation for their acceptance of the oil project” (Bravo Díaz, 59). This observation highlights the nature of the conservation-development complex that the Correa government embraced: one portion of development as reconfigured by socialism and sumak kawsay—the provision of the basic necessities of life for as many people as possible is used as a tool to undermine the unity between conservation and development, to make dissonant the harmony between humanity and nature. In a word, “Correa . . . invoked social development as another ‘higher authority’” (Goyes & South, 96).
The turbulent changes and tragic dispossession faced by the Waorani and others living in the Amazon can be characterized as a reorganization of the “productive power of nature” organized (Nichols, 83). Nature, “the original fount of all other, secondary means of production,” is in primitive accumulation dominated by “a logic of capitalist development grounded in the appropriation and monopolization of [its] powers” (Nichols, 83-4). Many who retained their lands or set up new communities in isolation from the first group of missionaries in the 1950s came to be displaced in a new wave of dispossession under the Correa government. In this new wave, people who took their means of life from the land, subsisting “on hunting, gathering, and small-scale horticulture” (Bravo Díaz, 54), have been coerced and brutalized into allowing the productive power of that land to be exploited for oil extraction, the profits of which are meagerly reinvested in the communities whose ties to the land have been broken. The productive power of the land is diverted, stripping those like the Waorani of agency in the production and reproduction of their own lives.
Given the injustices visited upon the Indigenous people of the Amazon under the Correa administration—as well as the continuation of oil extraction—it is not surprising that the buen vivir statist model has been widely criticized. Goyes & South lambast the Yasuní-ITT initiative, central to the statist buen vivir, as proof that “Ecuadorian government was not really interested in defending the constitution, the rights of nature or the rights of Indigenous communities; rather, it was more concerned with economic loss” (95). They see the Ecuadorian government as treating climate change as “an economic and equity problem, but not an environmental problem,” and of transferring responsibility for the failure to keep Yasuni’s oil underground to the Global North which failed to fund the initiative (Goyes & South, 96). These criticisms have some merit, but miss the larger picture. The aim of this paper is not to make excuses for the Correa government in its treatment of Indigenous people, but to be realistic about the structural impediments facing true justice for the environment and for the Indigenous peoples of Ecuador. It is not just the actions of the Ecuadorian government that increase the exploitation and dispossession of indigenous people in the Amazon, but also the fact that Ecuador is embedded in a global capitalist system as a peripheral nation. This case is much more overtly a one of primitive accumulation than the one Tania Li observes in Land's End: Capitalist Relations on an Indigenous Frontier, so it is not correct to describe “[t]he process through which they lost control over their collectively owned land was far less dramatic, even mundane,” as there was a third-party, the state oil-companies directing the dispossession (Li, 3). However, Tania Li’s critique still applies in that actors can be coerced into acting against their own interests by large structural economic forces. Just as the highlanders in Lauje “took the initiative to plant tree crops, which had the effect of individualizing their land rights” (Li, 3) in reaction to the rising “price of cacao . . . [which] was fixed on world markets, mediated by the exchange rate for the Indonesian rupiah in relation to the U.S. dollar” (Li, 19), the Ecuadorian government, and many of its Indigenous supporters, had a favorable view of extracting oil for export. This fact reveals that inhabitants of the Amazon such as the Waorani are not only victims of the government’s extractive industry, but also of broader capitalist dynamics that have rendered countries in the Global South—Ecuador included—as economies centered around raw material exportation to the Global North. Thus, critiques against Correa’s actions should recognize this fact. Goyes and South fall short at this hurdle, writing, “communism and capitalism, the two main economic models, . . . when implemented both produce marginalisation, poverty and control” (99). With no critique of the imperialist system buttressed by capitalism and no theorization of a way out, critiques like Goyes’ and South’s ultimately serve capital by entrenching the status quo and placing all the blame on governments that try to eschew the violence of neoliberalism.
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By Samuel Araura