​Social Movements and Government Actions in Ecuador

by | Apr 13, 2021

Resource Radicals: From Petro-Nationalism to Post-Extractivism in Ecuador by Thea Riofrancos (Duke University Press 2020)

Resource Radicals provides ethnographic detail that contextualizes broad, and often confusing, social and political movements common in Latin America. The book focuses largely on relatively recent, resource-focused activism (opposition to oil drilling and mining) and changing government responses in Ecuador. Riofrancos details the complex and varied local actions and regional government human rights debates and policies by drawing heavily on written sources and her own observations, participation, and personal interviews amidst changing social movements and government actions. In addition to contextualizing the two title themes, the book also helps to broaden understanding of general terms—“neoliberalism,” “post-neoliberalism,” “prior consultation,” “democratic land governance”—often thrown about by others without clear local focus amidst growing regional and global political debates, and local violence.  

The recent events Riofrancos analyzes are particularly interesting to me. In the 1970s I first observed oil and pipeline development in northeastern Ecuador and later was directly involved in several cases supporting regional indigenous land claims and disputes over oil exploration, economic benefits, and environmental damage in the Napo region. Nationally, at that time much appeared simple and lopsided, despite indigenous protests. The government merely desired income from oil development in what had previously been a relatively poor country. Multiple international oil concessions littered the region and explored.  Those who later pumped oil out over the Andes to Esmeraldas, particularly Texaco with its large Lago Agrio base after 1972,  produced noticeable growth and wealth in and around Quito, the capital. However, for colonist and indigenous communities in the northeast Amazon region, there was little economic improvement and much environmental damage. Oil resource development expanded widely, but with little direct government control, initially under military governance. As throughout much of Latin America, even when the politics shifted from military to elected officials during the 1980s, economic life became known, and much criticized, as neoliberalism, a widely varying term referring to limited government control and much international influence on economic life.  Despite criticism of such resource development, little economic or environmental change, let alone improvement, occurred in the northeast Oriente (Amazon ) during this period.

The early sections of Riofrancos’ study focus on growing concerns with neoliberalism, particularly by indigenous groups, since the 1970s. But, as she details, this appeared to shift radically after the 2007 presidential election of Rafael Correa, a self-declared socialist. Sharply critical of neoliberalism and supportive of broad economic growth, he, and his party Alianza Pais, united numerous leftist parties and also won support from the broad indigenous party Pachakutik.  Correa, like others in the regional “Pink Tide” (Hugo Chávez, Venezuela; Luiz Inacio Lula, Brazil, and Evo Morales, Bolivia) sought broad national control over oil and other natural resource development, not simply to increase national income but to spread the economic benefits across the county. The early pages of the book follow the shift away from neoliberalism toward resource nationalism with increased government involvement and control, regarded as anti-neoliberalism. Particularly important was the 2007-2008 Constituent Assembly and resulting 2008 Constitution which sought to strengthen input and economic benefits for local communities.  Also, drawing in growing indigenous organizations, the constitution accepted Ecuador as a “plurinational” nation, a term which indigenous had earlier and independently defined. The various “nations” were the indigenous, other ethnic minorities (Afro-Ecuadorians), as well as mestizo majority. Correa also included the expressed indigenous desire for a Sumac Kawsay, beautiful life, which indigenous people generally agreed should link and balance environmental concerns and economic life. 

Similarly critical and soon, Correa moved to demand environmental clean-up payment by Chevron, the large U.S. oil company that purchased Texaco after it left Ecuador’s most developed oil region in 1992. There had been extensive environmental damage and general economic neglect of Ecuador’s northeast Amazon region. Correa sued Chevron and won in national courts. However, in later U.S. court cases, Chevron argued that Texaco had given considerable clean up money to CEPE, the national oil company.  But CEPE did relatively little cleanup and, it was argued, kept much of funds personally. Correa’s response illustrates his shift in government roles.  He argued that Ecuador not only deserved the money for cleanup, but also heavily criticized earlier government workers and officials who simply pocketed Texaco funds. Such a government response illustrated Correa’s desire to move out of neoliberalism and towards greater, more directly responsible and honest socialist government control of development. He also advanced a 2006 government decision to remove another large U.S. company Occidental Oil (Oxy-Ecuador) and replace it with Petroecuador, the new national oil company. A similar shift to Petroecuador took place in 2019 at Pastaza Province’s Villano and Oglan facilities.

Even more dramatic—apparently based on earlier indigenous and environmentalist protests and concerns— Correa launched a major environmental shift in 2007 regarding Yasuni National Park, a large UNESCO Biosphere Reserve in which Huaorani and other indigenous settlements live atop presumably large oil reserves. He declared the lands to be a pristine protectorate and asked for a $3.6 billion in international economic donations to balance the absence of oil returns.  But governance changed. Only $200 million in donations were pledged by 2012, as the national economy dropped. So, Yasuni protection was abandoned in 2013 and oil drilling renewed in 2016 as Correa shifted radically from environmental concerns to Petro-Nationalism. Several years earlier, his government had already opened more than 10 oil blocks in the southern and central Amazonian provinces of Pastaza and Morona Santiago. Likewise motivated by a declining national economy, mining interest grew in the southern Amazonian region and in adjacent Andean mountainous regions near the city of Cuenca.

Riofrancos carefully details the political shift to petro-nationalism amidst new geography. As an alternative source of international development funding grew, it sparked much regional and national indigenous and environmentalist protest. Unlike earlier payments from concessions granted to international oil companies, much funding for national development was provided by large inter-government loans from China.  While loans always require payment, Chinese funds also required shipping oil and minerals to China… and doing so, as many commented, at internationally lower prices. All of this contributed to a broad and relatively sudden economic decline. And Riofrancos’ study provides much relatively unknown detail.

As the Correa government sought development-based income through loans during a period of international and national economic decline, and agreed to repay China through petroleum (even adding a large refinery on the Pacific Coast) and minerals, petro-nationalism and mining increased. While the shift was seen as economically essential by the government, ties were soon broken with earlier allies among national and international environmentalists and local indigenous  communities. The government clearly had abandoned its embrace of plurinationalism and Sumak Kawsay. Alongside the disagreements and development protests documented in the book, human rights debates emerged, particularly related to indigenous peoples, Afro-Ecuadorians and other relatively poor groups who lived close to the sources of extractive development.

Chapter 3, “Consulta Previa: The Political Life of a Constitutional Right,” is particularly relevant and well detailed. One of the rights often discussed and debated, particularly near extractive development sites in many parts of Latin America, is prior consultation regarding resource development.  It is clearly linked to perhaps the broadest and most desired indigenous human rights concerns …territoriality and self-determination.  

Riofrancos writes of the territorial claims that developed in the Amazon and exceeded simple and smaller land rights in the Andes. As early as 1983, in the northern Amazon  such claims were granted to the smaller indigenous nations Siona-Secoya, Cofán, and Huaorani. Interestingly, at the time President Oswaldo Hurtado formally acknowledged each group’s territory and added that Ecuador was not giving the land to indigenous groups but rather recognizing and granting titles to lands that they had occupied for thousands of years.  This government recognition of land rights not only preceded Correa’s 2008 Constitution but foreshadowed Ecuador’s early (May 15,1998) acceptance of International Labor Organization’s Convention #169. During the 1980s indigenous economic and social rights claims emerged across the Ecuadorian Amazon, led by the growing indigenous federations OPIP (Organization of Indigenous Peoples of Pastaza), FOIN (Federation of Indigenous Originations of Napo), the Shuar Federation, and CONFENIAE (Confederation of Indigenous Nations of the Ecuadorian Amazon).  The ethnic federations went on to prepare large maps to illustrate their claims. But little really advanced until Correa’s election with his charges of environmental damage that led to replacement of international oil companies and the search for funds to protect the Yasuni Biosphere Reserve. 

While President Correa’s early support for indigenous organizations and environmental protection of the Yasuni Reserve won him allies, it rapidly declined after his mid-2013 shift to petro-nationalism amidst the global economy and large Chinese loans. As the New York Times recently (April 7, 2020) wrote, “[d]uring the first half of Mr. Correa’s tenure, Ecuador experienced an economic boom, which he credited to his government policies, but [what] his critics say was the product of oil prices increases. When prices fell, the economy foundered.”

Riofrancos’ focus on local events and varied opinions that followed this shift is excellent and rarely detailed elsewhere, particularly her review of the debates and arguments related to the right of  prior consultation.  Though consultation was recognized in Ecuador’s approval of ILO # 169 and the 1998 Constitution, she writes that even during the 2007-2008 Constituent Assembly, as the Natural Resources and Biodiversity Committee drafted the procedures for consultation of affected communities, members were already a bit divided, and debate grew on the plenary floor, regarding the interpretation of prior consultation.  As the development and debates grew, some argued that the government’s role was simply to inform before development. Others, including indigenous members of the Correa government, argued in support of community acceptance through prior consent.  Riofrancos writes that the majority, including Correa, argued that “prior consent would go much farther than the existing rights …by requiring that the outcome of such consultations be binding (that is, the consent of the community would be a prerequisite for the development of extractive projects).” By contrast, community members adjacent to potential pollution or water loss in the Andean region argued that they had the right to self-protection.

Such disagreement plagued much of the region as the need for funds to repay Chinese loans opened extractive development in the south Amazon and adjacent highland region. This led to long protest marches. Riofrancos not only discusses her own participation but details extensive dialogues with participants. Many of them included pro-environmental indigenous officials invited earlier by Correa. They later split from the party, opposed to the more pro-extractive government representatives. At these times, Correa worked publicly, loudly and often hyperbolically to shift the blame away from “uneducated” local communities to national and international environmental groups, who, he argued, could be seen as “behind” the disputes, and thus delegitimizing the protests.  In consultative talks near southern Saraguro and Shuar indigenous territory, the differences produced anger and protest. For the government, consultation was seen simply as polite informing as to what would happen …i.e., how and why. By contrast, for the communities adjacent to extractive sites, as well as the national and regional indigenous federations and environmentalists, consent was understood as essential to their health and survival.

To illustrate the complex local understanding and environmental alternatives, Riofrancos adds observations and discussion with a local government leader and environmental activist from the southern province of Azuay, Carlos Peréz.  He later shifted his name to Yacu Peréz, illustrating his indigenous background, as he became a high-level 2021 presidential candidate with broad national indigenous support, doing very well—but not well enough—in the first round of voting.  Though Riofrancos earlier presented different government, indigenous and environmentalist interpretations, at this point in the book, it is clear that community rights and the ability to reject close resource development were, in fact, being simply denied rather than variously interpreted. As the book becomes increasingly detailed, disagreements and protests are shown to be increasingly violent.

The shift from acceptance of local needs to support for the national economy is also  well-illustrated in chapter 4, “The Demos in Dispute.” Particularly interesting was a reinterpretation of the 2002 Constitutional recognition of Ecuador as a plurinational state.  Rather than accept local differences and needs expressed by the affected “nations,” Correa argued that the entire  plurinational state deserved to benefit from his proposed extractive activities.  His attention thus shifted away from the affected communities close to mines or oil wells, where pollution was common, to growth of the entire national economy. It is here that  Riofrancos provides considerable detail and gradually shifts from documenting left-wing differences to clear support for the anti-extractive arguments, quite fitting in the modern world.  Though Riofrancos earlier pointed out different interpretations politely, in the final sections it is fairly clear that she supports community rights and local peoples’ ability to reject locally damaging resource development.   

The difference could be seen simply as an ideological split among leftists. However, and what this reviewer wonders, is why the book does not add some of Correa’s later actions which greatly challenge his self-claimed socialist morality and, by contrast, illustrate personal interests and greed.  For example, shorter after his second term as president, he left Ecuador for his wife’s Belgium homeland. Later he was accused of literally flying off with extensive government funding provided by China. It has also been argued that, as he and others increased infrastructural development with loans from China, cost estimates were not spent; large amounts are said to be simply kept by Correa and other government officials. Ironically, this was the sort of action which he sharply criticized after learning that government oil officials took Texaco clean up funds. In April 2020, Quito courts convicted Correa on corruption and sentenced him to eight years in jail. Such charges clearly shift the focus from disagreement among Ecuadorian leftists to government crime guilt. Riofrancos did not include such corruption charges even though parts of final sections of the book were dated in the Winter of 2020.   Such concerns were illustrated by the election of Correa’s previous vice president, Lenin Moreno. Upon learning of these criminal accusations, Moreno shifted his political alliance and personal ties. Despite much criticism, following a large and government violent protest in late 2019 sparked by concern over the rise in fuel prices, Moreno met with national indigenous leaders and agreed to re-open recognition and discussion of the earlier human rights concerns over environment and consultation. In brief,  Riofrancos could have expanded her final sections through question and comments on late Correa actions and criminal charges, to challenge what could be seen simply as leftist nationalism versus indigenous rights claims. Such details expand her interests and support of pro-environmental interests, which were temporarily rejected in Ecuador, and which are now increasingly debated globally.

Ted Macdonald, a Lecturer with the Committee on Degrees in Social Studies, and a Faculty Affiliate with DRCLAS at Harvard University, has been researching indigenous culture and working on related human rights issues in Latin America since the 1970s. 

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