No podemos ser mendigos sentados en un saco de oro.We cannot be beggars sitting on a sack of gold.
This is the sentiment Ecuadorian president Rafael Correa has repeatedly expressed towards drilling for crude oil in the region of Ishpingo-Tambococha-Tiputini (ITT), or Oil Block 43, of the Yasuní National Park in Ecuador, a country that, despite its recent economic growth, still has a staggering rural poverty rate close to 50%. Correa believes that by drilling for the 846 million barrels of heavy crude oil that exit in Block 43 of Yasuní, an extremely biodiverse protected forest region, Ecuador will gain enough oil revenue to lift its people out of poverty.
Correa gave the world a chance to say no to drilling in 2007 by launching the Yasuní-ITT initiative. Correa promised to cease oil extraction indefinitely in Block 43 if the world raised $3.6 billion, 50% of the profits Ecuador would reap from oil extraction, over a 13 year period, to compensate Ecuador for protecting the environment. It is estimated that the emission of 407 million metric tons of Carbon Dioxide can be avoided if the oil extraction did not take place. The fundraising effort so far has been met with limited success, but has inspired much discussion over the economics of environmental protection. Given the limited fundraising success, Correa has announced plans to begin drilling, unless Ecuador could collect at least 600,000 signatures to require a popular national vote on the issue. For now, the newly-formed advocacy organization, Yasunidos, has successfully collected the required number of signatures, the next phase of this saga has yet to be determined.
However, beyond economics, Yasuní profoundly impacts local society, specifically the rights of the indigenous populations living in voluntary isolation in Yasuní. Article 53 of the Ecuadorian Constitution specifically prohibits contact into territories of indigenous voluntary isolation and classifies them as intangible heritage.
Since the launch of the Yasuní-ITT fundraising initiative for Block 43, the Ecuadorian government, as part of the fundraising appeal, had urged the world to donate by repeatedly emphasizing the importance of protecting indigenous populations living in voluntary isolation, or IPI, from oil extraction. However, ever since Correa decided to abandon the no-drilling plan, he has systematically denied the very existence of IPI in Block 43.
Correa’s influence in the government denial of the indigenous of Yasuní certainly means that the state is unwilling to protect the IPI tribes. Lack of protection threatens the indigenous livelihood by both robbing them of resources and indirectly inflicting inter-tribal conflicts over the increasingly scarce resources should the government begin drilling in Block 43.
Indeed, within Yasuní National Park, Ecuador has exploited several other oil blocks, already leaving the IPI tribes with signficantly reduced resources for survival. The promotion of more extraction activities could have the potential to destroy the tribes’ ability to survive. Ecuadorian filmmaker and activist Carlos Andrés Vera, is working on a documentary on the “crime of ethnocide” about the indigenous tribes of Yasuní-ITT. Vera has interviewed many non-isolated tribes in Yasuní, who vividly described the reduction of flora and fauna in the region since the oil extractions began.
A few months ago, missionaries Miguel Ángel Cabodevilla, Milagros Aguirre, and Massimo de Marchi published a book, A Hidden Tragedy (Una Tragedía Ocultada), detailing the tribal warfare between two indigenous populations, Waorani and Taromenane, in Yasuní in March of 2013. The authors condemn the inaction on part of the Ecuadorian government, civil societies, and NGOs. They ultimately lay the blame for the tribal warfare and senseless deaths at the feet of the mounting pressure from the outside into IPI tribes, specifically from oil drilling activities that have reduced scarce resources. Minutes before this book was due to be published, a judge banned its distribution, but reversed the decision two days later due to pressure from public outcry, and the book has since been made available online. Humberto Cholango, president of Ecuador’s Indigenous Nations Federation (CONAIE), condemned the Ecuadorian government for causing a “structural problem” among the indigenous tribes with its development model, threatening the very heritage of Ecuador.
In many of his pro-drilling speeches, Correa emphasizes just how many Ecuadorians can benefit from ITT’s oil revenue to be lifted out of the poverty. He frequently uses the “sack of gold” metaphor to describe Ecuador’s oil reserve. Yet he systematically ignores just how many indigenous Ecuadorians will be detrimentally, or even fatally, harmed by ITT exploitation. These indigenous populations face the danger of losing their territories and resources, of contracting diseases from oil workers that their immune systems are not prepared for, and ultimately, of disappearing onto a mere page in human history.
Image Credit: Gleilson Miranda via Wikimedia Commons.