Just how “green” is Rafael Correa?

Ecuador’s longest-serving President came to power pledging to marry sustainable resource extraction with social justice while offering a new “green” developmental paradigm. But how well has he kept that promise?

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Rafael Correa, a Harvard-educated economist, now holds the record for the longest continually-serving President in Ecuador’s history. While at seven years this feat says more about the country’s turbulent political past, there can be no doubting his achievements in spreading his “Citizens’ Revolution” (revolución ciudadana) across Ecuador, with the green party colours of his Alianza País coalition coming to fill virtually every political space in the Andean country in recent years. However, leaving aside his clear electoral triumphs, one has to call into question the extent to which Correa can be praised for another of his apparent successes: that of fulfilling his pledge to institutionalise a new developmental paradigm fit for the 21st Century, making use of Ecuador’s vast natural resources in a sustainable and environmentally-friendly way in order to fund government programmes aimed at relieving once-widespread poverty, and boosting living standards, for Ecuadoreans across the board.

The record on the latter part of this strategy, like his political achievements, can barely be contested: poverty rates have been slashed since Correa came to power in 2007, while the Ecuadorean economy has continued ticking along at a healthy rate of close to 5% per year. The flipside, according to his critics, is that the bold rhetoric of following a green development path has been contradicted by policies that supposedly constitute an abandonment of the green principles enshrined in Correa’s 2008 Constitution. They have seen an expansion of Ecuador’s oil frontier deeper and deeper into the Amazon, threatening pristine areas of outstanding natural beauty and unrivalled biodiversity, as well as the habitats of some of Ecuador’s last remaining indigenous tribes living in isolation from modern society.

The most notable sign of this apparent U-turn has been the Alianza País government’s abandonment of the Yasuní-ITT Initiative, which sought to raise money from international donors in exchange for Ecuador leaving almost a billion barrels of crude oil indefinitely under Yasuní National Park, one of the most unique and biodiverse corners of the Amazon rainforest and home to several indigenous communities. The government formally abandoned the initiative in August of last year, although civil society efforts to force a nationwide referendum on the matter are underway, meaning that while the odds are stacked against the survival of Yasuní-ITT, there is still a chance that the area can still be saved.

While the jettisoning of such a promising proposal to combat climate change – through the forgoing of such large quantities of oil and thus leaving the fossil fuels in the ground indefinitely – came as a huge blow to environmental activists and cast a long shadow on Correa’s green credentials, the Ecuadorean President has argued that he had no choice but to opt for the Plan B of extracting the Yasuní oil, which he also claims will provide the Ecuadorean State with billions of dollars in revenue which can then be used to combat poverty in the country’s poorest and most remote areas (such as the Amazon itself). The aim had been to raise some US$3.6bn by 2020, and yet by the middle of 2013 barely US$13m had been deposited in the UN-supervised trust fund. On this basis, one could argue that Correa was right to claim, as he did at the time, that the world had failed Ecuador.

At the same time, however, critics pointed to Correa’s apparent gradual cooling to the idea of forgoing such quantities of oil money, making constant threats to extract the oil anyway and thus putting the long-term integrity of the initiative in doubt. Now, new evidence purporting to show that the government had been pressing ahead with plans to exploit the Yasuní oilfields long before it formally abandoned the initiative appears to have confirmed the long-held suspicion that Correa had not had his heart fully in the project for some time. Many observers have suggested that these apparent contradictions in the Correa government’s stance towards Yasuní go a long way towards explaining potential international donors’ reluctance to sign up to the initiative, along with pressure from Ecuador’s powerful oil sector and the nature of the country’s relationship with China, on whom Ecuador depends for significant amounts of finance and credit for which oil exports are often the main form of repayment. The revelations mentioned above show suggest that China has been intricately involved with the fate of Yasuní for some time.

Residents of Quito protest the government’s decision to abandon the Yasuní-ITT Initiative, August 2013. Photo courtesy of La República.

It hasn’t always been this way. The early days of Correa’s presidency were full of promising rhetoric about responsible and sustainable use of Ecuador’s natural resources, with the benefits being spread across Ecuadorean society. This rhetoric also spoke of respect for the environment: both on the local scale, through responsible resource extraction, and on the global scale, through giving Ecuador a strong voice in global debates on countering the effects of climate change. The new Constitution of Ecuador, passed in 2008 as a means of institutionalising Correa’s Citizens’ Revolution, included provisions for the acknowledgment and protection of the Rights of Nature, a measure that was groundbreaking on a global scale at the time, with fellow Andean country Bolivia also offering similar formal recognition in its new Constitution.

Correa’s new Constitution married this emphasis on the rights of nature with a philosophy – sumak kawsay – which has its roots in indigenous kichwa (one of Ecuador’s main indigenous groups) culture, and which promotes the idea of living “well” rather than living “better”, by prioritising quality of life and sustainability over a growth-at-all-costs approach that has historically been synonymous with neoliberal and extractivist economic approaches in Ecuador and other Latin American countries. The Yasuní-ITT Initiative, which had been a long-standing idea but had not been formally put into practice by any government until Correa’s, was to be the high-profile and international manifestation of this turn towards a development framework based on the ideals of sumak kawsay, and Correa himself was often keen to be seen personally endorsing and promoting the initiative, both to domestic audiences within Ecuador and to governments and potential investors across the world.

More recently, and according to many commentators not at all coincidentally, Correa’s U-turn on Yasuní was followed shortly afterwards by a ramping up of Ecuador’s campaign against Chevron, known as the “Mano Sucia de Chevron” (Dirty Hand of Chevron). The campaign aims to highlight the lasting and seemingly overwhelming evidence of social and environmental damage caused and left by Texaco, now owned by Chevron, during their operations in the Ecuadorean Amazon between the 1960s and 1990s, and President Correa has again been eager to put himself on the frontline of his country’s battle against the US-based oil giant. Critics have accused Correa of double standards for reigniting the Ecuador-Chevron debate at the same time as deciding to abandon the Yasuní-ITT Initiative, but Correa has been typically outspoken in defending his motives for the Yasuní U-turn and in wanting to see Chevron brought to justice. Nevertheless, it is surely not too much of a stretch to suggest that Correa may be anxious to re-establish his green credentials by leading a high-profile Mano Sucia campaign, in the aftermath of the Yasuní-ITT saga – particularly given the widespread popularity that the initiative used to, and indeed still does, hold among Ecuadoreans.

The issue, though, is that for all his arguments in favour of drilling for oil in Yasuní, his U-turn on this matter has not been a one-off. In a bid to keep Ecuador’s prolific oil industry healthy, guided perhaps by the ever-present lure of significant revenues to fund his ever-popular social programmes, Correa has overseen a substantial expansion of the oil frontier deep into uncharted Amazon territory, much to the chagrin of various environmental and indigenous-rights NGOs and activists, many of whom once supported Correa and played a key part in his election to the presidency in late 2006. More to the point, Correa’s response to criticism and protests from these quarters has tended to be somewhat dismissive, and in recent times it has even become more aggressive, with strong and public verbal attacks on these groups who he claims want to stand in the way of Ecuador and development – he has even alleged that such groups are in cahoots with Western and US powers who are against his country’s development and sovereignty. Such conspiracy theories have led to threats against those who dare to speak up in their opposition to oil drilling in Yasuní and elsewhere, and in December of last year government authorities took the drastic step of forcibly shutting down the offices of high-profile Ecuadorean NGO Fundación Pachamama, who have been vocal opponents of oil expansion into indigenous territories and areas of outstanding natural beauty such as Yasuní.

Correa shows his hand after dipping it into a pool of toxic waste left by Texaco in the Ecuadorean Amazon, as part of his government’s Mano Sucia de Chevron campaign

Such recent developments suggest that Rafael Correa is no longer as green-tinged as he once was. Yet one can still hold out hope that the next three years – most likely the final period of Correa’s presidency before his mandate expires in 2017 – will not see a total abandonment of his green credentials. The Chevron case will continue to be one to watch, not just for its outcome in Ecuador but for the international implications this would have for oil company accountability in countries where they operate. And as disappointing as the Yasuní U-turn may be (and there still remains an outside chance that the oilfields won’t even be developed), Correa has pledged to make sure that the environmental and social side-effects are limited to the greatest extent possible, by utilising the most modern, efficient, and secure technologies available for oil extraction.

Furthermore, Correa is arguably above all an immensely-skilled politician. He has felt the need to justify his U-turn on Yasuní by emphasising the widespread economic and social benefits that could be brought by the billions of dollars in potential revenue, and this has come at a time of electoral frenzy in Ecuador. While he was re-elected comfortably in February 2013, with his Alianza País snaffling 100 of the 137 seats in the National Assembly, he also had to negotiate tricky local elections in February of this year. These saw a number of key cities, not least the capital Quito and the country’s largest city Guayaquil, elect opposition mayors. Now that these are out of the way, though, the remaining three years of his term are largely free of electoral hurdles, and with such pressures to win over voters with evidence of social and economic progress gone, perhaps Correa will want to start building a lasting legacy of his time in power. Whether or not this involves regaining some of the lost ground on his green values, once so strong and impressive but which have undoubtedly taken a knock, only time will tell.

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