Gerard Coffey

June 27, 2017


“They’re not going to send the police or the military to get us out of here, but they want to make life difficult by withdrawing state services and putting pressure on international institutions not to help us rebuild.”


Standing by the sea – today it’s green and angry, the wind strong and the sky threatening – the scene looks very similar to the last time I was here in Muisne, some twenty years ago. A large number of tide born logs covers the long and hard beach where, says Hipólito, the owner of the hostel where I’m staying, even light aircraft can land, adding after a second, that of course these belong to the government. Walking towards the town, the environment is still as I remember it.  Solitary birds sing sporadically wrapped in the heat of midday and an almost medieval silence, there are virtually no cars here and their absence makes this island of Muisne something very special.

What is different is that these days the beach is full of plastic, of all colors and sizes, although I don’t suppose that is really so different, it’s happening to almost every beach in the world. A recent report tells us that on an uninhabited Pacific island more than 17 tons of plastic were collected. People don’t bother, says Hipólito, they leave the bottles, the bags and what have you, the sea carries it all away and then brings it back again. Unlike the new esplanade that forms part of the bridge built and just opened by the central government, there’s no-one here to clean up after the people have gone. But while plastic may be a problem for tourism, one of the important sources for the island before the April 2016 earthquake, it is by no means the only one facing the people who live here.

More worrying than plastic, although less visible, is that the people of this island in the South of the Province of Esmeraldas, Ecuador, are under threat of eviction. The 2016 earthquake left many homeless and changed the life of the island. Families abandoned their land to go and stay with relatives or were housed in the government provided lodge on the other side of the river, a few kilometers away, on high ground. After the tragedy now ex-President Correa declared the island unfit for habitation due to the threat of a Tsunami or flooding due to high tides. People had to go to the ‘mainland’, he said, the island should be reserved for tourism, and what was more the state would not help build any new homes or repair those affected by the quake. All state services were to be withdrawn.

Frank Navarrete, a member of the ‘Mesa’ (Round Table of Communities and Civil Organizations of the Island of Muisne) explains that Presidential Decree 1215 signed by Correa after the earthquake suspends the right to housing and free movement of those affected: “… as some citizens intend to return to their homes located on properties that are precisely a risk to their life or physical integrity.”  What this represents, says Navarrete, is passive eviction. They’re not going to send the police or the military to get us out of here, but they want to make life difficult by withdrawing state services and putting pressure on international institutions not to help us rebuild. “It is a disgrace and we are determined to stay.”

He says that immediately after the earthquake 90% of the population left the island, but little by little they returned; they hadn’t lost their homes and while there was damage, it could be repaired. “The Island is their home,” Frank says firmly, angry, thumping his fist on the table, “that’s where they’ve built their lives, their businesses.” Outside on the main street, a banner hanging from the second floor of his office-hostel challengingly states: “Here we stay.” It’s a challenge as much as a statement.

The earthquake isn’t the only thing that‘s changed in Muisne. The new bridge over the narrow river separating the island from the mainland is pedestrian, an evacuation measure for the population in case of emergency. Sitting nearby on the newly paved embankment, some of the neighbors tell me that the bridge is no help to tourism, what‘s needed, they say, is something wider that will allow vehicles to cross. But there are actually more vehicles now than before. These are the mototaxis that carry people over to the ‘continental’ side, as they call it, where they can do their shopping; one shop owner I talk to tells me there’s more trade than before. Besides, he says, the prices on this side are lower. Why this should be is not entirely clear, but I suppose he must know.

The multiplication of the mototaxis has in turn had an impact on the people who used to earn their living with the launches that ferried people from one side of the river to the other. “Before, 30 families made their living with the boats,” explains Hugo, one of the few who continues to work on the ‘lanchas’ as they are known. “Now only four boats still working: they carry the heavier loads, the ones the mototaxis can’t handle.”

Vested interests

Wandering the streets, people have little reservation about discussing the situation they’re in. “We don’t understand,” says an older man whose daughter lost everything and now lives with her parents, “why they want to get us off the Island.” The suspicion is that there are interests in play, that it’s not really necessary to leave their homes, that the threat of tsunami is minimal, that in the whole history of the island no damage has been recorded due to a tsunami, and that if it ever happened it would not be just the island that would be affected. “What will happen if a Tsunami comes?”, another Islander asks me as we talk a few feet away from some destroyed houses. “People on the other side of the river will also be affected. And that new Millenium College the Vice President just opened, how many meters above the sea level is it? If they’re really worried about a tsunami, why did they build it right on the other side of the bridge, on low ground. It makes no sense. What is really going on here? If they really want to prevent a Tsunami from affecting people, they would have to take us all a long way from here, they would have to build a whole new city. And then how are we going to make a living? ”

The islanders suspect that the official version is a pretext. The real interest, they say, is to get them off the island so luxury apartment buildings can be erected for tourists from the capital, Quito. They mention beach towns such as Tonsupa or Atacames that have already gone down that road, and resorts such as the Decamaron de Mompiche about thirty miles further down the coast. “We don’t want that,” a local grocery shop owner tells me, “tourism, yes, but not that kind of tourism. We ‘re not going to let them evict us so that others can come here and make money out of our Island.”

They talk about people like Pierina Correa, the ex-President’s sister, or his brother Fabricio, while others mention ‘the Chinese’ who, they say, came to explore here before the earthquake. There’s titanium in the black sand they’ve been mining at Mompiche, one man tells me, wondering if that’s what they were looking for. People admit that there’s no evidence or documents they can show me, although they do mention similar cases such as Port Engabao in the Province of St. Helena, where people are fighting not to be evicted from communal lands, to not have developers take over and build resorts that will leave them out in the heat, with no land and no work.

The suspicions were only reinforced by the inconsistencies in the Risk Management Secretariat’s Resolution No. 073-2016, which underpins the proposed eviction. Says Kashyapa A. S. Yapa, an engineer with a PhD from Berkley California. “we’ve analyzed in detail the flood map of the island mentioned in the decree. The map uses references without no technical analytical  weight. The main reference is a degree thesis of an ESPOL-oceanography student from 2004 that sets out a flood zone due to a possible tsunami in the city of Esmeraldas (some 2 hours to the North) by copying the damage that occurred due the earthquake and tsunami of 1906. And in 2012 the Risk Secretariat technicians took the height of that flood and painted the whole island of Muisne red as a risk zone! ”


The Concheras of Muisne

Risk there may be, but life itself is a risk, and the Islanders are prepared to stay and deal with it. Father Julio Anan, the catholic priest who participated actively in the campaign to remain, says the Island’s population has the support of his church. “We all decided, priests and religious sisters, to return to the island and accompany the population. There are a lot of very poor people here,” he says, “it’s their home, and what we have to do is help them live a dignified life.”

He does recognizes that staying was not an option for everyone; some lost everything and were forced to leave. A good number ended up living in the shelter operated by the Ministry of Economic and Social Inclusion, MIES, obliged to stay for more than a year in order to receive state support in the form of an apartment. One such person is Fanny Mina, a woman well-known on and off the Island for her long fight on behalf of the women shellfish pickers in the area. “These women” she recounts “were affected the shrimp farmers arrived over twenty years ago and destroyed much of the mangroves we depended on.” Irony then, that now, talking outside the ‘house’ the government handed over to her a few days ago, we can see a shrimp farm, situated just on the other side of the road.

Despite it all, she says, she’s pleased to at last be out of the shelter and its regimented life. “I didn’t really like it there,” she says, pointing to the blue chines donated tents that will be around for a few more days, until all the occupants have gone to their new homes. “Of course, they gave us everything, and it was a great help, but the truth is that it was hard to live in a tent for so long, to have to be home at 10 at night. It was a very regimented life. I didn’t like it. Others couldn’t stand it, left, and as a result didn’t get any help from the government. Nothing.”

Fanny was the first to receive her house, or rather, apartment of 40 square meters. “I feel good,” she says, “but I’m a long way from my neighborhood and the people I know. They gave me this apartment, they say it’s worth US$ 10,000 and I only have to pay US$1,000 in installments over three years. It doesn’t sound like much, but there’s no work in Muisne, and these days I can’t pick shellfish: I’ve got heart and lung problems because of the home made cigars you need to smoke in the mangrove to keep the flies away.” “Besides”, she grins, “I’m getting on in years.”

The problem is real and not just for her. For people who can’t work, have no money and no pension, life will not be easy even with a new apartment. How is she going to pay? I ask myself, and then her. “God will provide,” she says with an unconvincing smile. “How are you going to furnish the house? How what are you going to pay the mortgage?

Each case is different, no doubt for some with families able to support them, the process will be relatively easy, but for others without family resources the story will be different. Forging a new existence away from the surroundings of a lifetime is no small thing, even with a new apartment.

It’s not that life in Muisne was ever easy. “This has been forgotten territory,” says Father Anan, “but the earthquake has put the island in the spotlight both nationally and internationally. Most people have decided to stay, we are united, and I truly believe that the people who continue to struggle in their daily lives will receive God’s blessing.” The priest speaks with surprising solidity, he’s young but quite clear about how important the island is for his parishioners.

What is not clear, on the other hand, is exactly what Rafael Correa was thinking when he signed Presidential Decree 1215. Did he imagine that it would be possible to remove an entire town of ten thousand inhabitants, families that have lived for a century or more on the island? Did he have in mind building a new city, clean and shiny but far from the sea, far from the work, far from the previous life of its population? Who, he imagined, would be in charge of building the necessary houses and facilities in times of austerity? We don’t really know what he was thinking. But what we do know is that the Decree he signed now looks more like a visceral reaction than a considered decision, based on solid arguments and criteria. Or perhaps, as they say, there really are interests in play and that’s why the solidity of the criteria isn’t really important, they simply serve as a way to facilitate the eviction, nothing more.

There is risk, it makes no sense to ignore it. The island is only 4 meters above sea level, but without technical fundamentals it is impossible to estimate that risk and decide on what measures to take. To attempt to expel an entire town without dialogue and without listening to the inhabitants is simply irrational. The population, meanwhile, voted with its feet, returned and wants to stay, knows its reality and has raised its voice. Would not it be logical to help them improve their lives, rather than against them?, asks Father Anan, “The government has to listen to the people, it has to listen to the popular will.” Amen.


REFERENDUM: the after math

Gerard Coffey

01 October 2008

On the morning after the referendum the streets of Quito, the Ecuadorian capital, are normal enough: the sun is shining, shops are opening, smoke belching buses thunder down crowded streets. Only on the paper stands is it possible to see that something important has happened: Yes vote wins, says the headline of the El Comercio, the Capital’s major newspaper. ‘Socialism Under Way’ shouts “La Hora’ the main opposition daily. As for the people themselves, it is hard to discern much emotion. Certainly there is nothing close to the river of elation that flowed through the city after ‘la Liga’, a local football team, was crowned champion of South America.

The previous night crowds gathered outside the headquarters of the governing party of President Rafael Correa; they were jubilant but relatively sparse. It rained intermittently but that’s normal enough here and not enough to keep people away if they really feel like celebrating, or protesting. It seems that most stayed at home after voting; the television channels predicted victory of the YES campaign at around five in the afternoon.

But people are interested. The man who sells me the paper tells me he is for the new constitution. “The only ones against it are the fat cats” he says. But while there may be more than a grain of truth in that, it’s not the whole story. A friend stops me on the street and tells me he voted ‘nulo’. “The President is an animal he says, I wouldn’t vote for him. I wouldn’t vote for the opposition either. But anyway, you know that in this country Constitutions come and go and most of them are not worth the paper they’re written on.”

He is right. Ecuador has had many constitutions since it first declared independence in 1809. Most have been relatively short lived and often treated as inconveniences to be adapted to the needs of the country’s various ruling parties and power groups[i]. Most referendums are also votes of confidence, or otherwise, in the ruling party or its leader. In the case of voting for or against something as complex as a new Constitution , about which few are more than dangerously half informed, trust plays a huge part.

Despite the feelings of my friend and those like him, Rafael Correa the ex-economics professor evidently enjoys the confidence of the population; the results of the referendum reflect a healthy majority in favour of the new Constitution. Voting is mandatory and of those of voting age sixty four precent were in favour and twenty eight percent opposed. One percent was spoiled.

The campaign for a null vote, lead in Quito by left wing ex priest, Eduardo Delgado, found an echo in just over seven percent of the voters, a not inconsiderable tally. The majority were cast by people like my friend who can’t abide Correa’s confrontational style or those who are disillusioned by his brand of 21st Century Socialism. Apparently many are still waiting for the ‘real thing’.

If the null vote is counted as a protest against the President rather than opposition to the Constitution itself, which is a fair guess, then the approval figures would have reached into the seventy percent zone[ii]. A better figure than some observers, including myself, would have guessed before the vote. As is often the case a fair number of No votes were also cast on a personal rather than political basis.

In the local shop the owner tells me she voted no because her god isn’t in the constitution’. I had to admit to being surprised. She is not a person I would ever have considered religious, at least not in the ethical sense. God wasn’t in the last Constitution either, but for the faithful of whatever stripe that’s irrelevant, what counts is the pious opposition of the monsignors and bishops of the Church hierarchy.

According to formal agreements between the state and the church, the latter is not supposed to interfere in political matters, but while not running a formal campaign its pulpit pronouncements about the document being ‘pro abortion’ and ‘pro gay marriage’ were a clear call for a no vote. In the final count the Church’s flimsily disguised campaign probably backfired, helping to secure its passage. In matters of faith the church probably has the trust of the population, but when it comes to earthly concerns few are impressed by its self-righteous disregard for the poor.

The only places in the country where the NO vote did prevail were the Amazonian province of Napo, where ex president Lucio Gutierrez has his power base, and the city of Guayaquil, the last bastion of the once powerful right wing Partido Social Cristiano (PSC ). Napo is not irrelevant, Gutierrez is always capable of making a nuisance of himself, but the major problem is doubtless Guayaquil, the country’s financial centre and major port and its largest city.

Taking the bus down to the coast from Quito it’s obvious that the major battle over the constitution was centred here, principally in the Province of Guayas. Competing signs are still visible even a few weeks after the vote. A quick glance at the slogans painted on every available wall, especially along the roadside, seems to confirm that the NO campaign was more ‘inventive’: no more atheists, no to poverty, vote no for freedom, say no for the dignity of women, are some of the more amusing slogans still on display.

The vote in Guayas Province went to the YES side, while in the city the NO vote edged the YES by a slim one per cent. Neither side managed more than 50%, both claimed the null votes as theirs. The PSC’s Jaime Nebot, the mayor of the city and a three time losing presidential candidate, is the last of the line of a once powerful political lineage whose national influence was slowly but surely eroding until finally imploding when Rafael Correa arrived on the scene. Before the vote, Nebot claimed that if the YES vote won he would not run for another mayoral term in the February elections. He managed to save face, but only just.

He may have only scraped home but Nebot is likely to provide a bit of a headache for Correa. Very popular in the city, it would be difficult to find a candidate with enough credibility to unseat him in the coming election. The added risk is that a Nebot victory over a Correa heavyweight candidate would give the opposition a tremendous boost. The government’s short term strategy is likely to consist of undermining him without resorting direct confrontation. Nebot is also unlikely to openly defy the new constitution. His options centre on opposing Correa’s economic and social policies and on a continued push for autonomy for the city. The PSC have long advocated independence for Guayaquil, their dream being to turn what they optimistically call the ‘Pearl of the Pacific’ into another Singapore, with them at the helm of course. While the current international economic reality has probably dampened enthusiasm for the project even amongst the city’s most hardened free marketeers, there seems little doubt that Nebot and his people will form the nucleus of whatever right wing opposition there is to Correa. They may even have US support in mind.


Back in Quito, on the grungy walls that fence an unfinished and abandoned high rise building close to where I live, I can still see the remains of posters promoting the YES vote. One is particularly appealing. ‘Pardon the inconvenience’ it says, ‘this is a Revolution’. It’s clever, and captures the mood, but it’s not totally truthful.

Despite what the poster and some of the more elevated members of the ruling party say, this is not a Revolution. Correa and his companions are not, as they are wont to claim, the heirs of Ché Guevara. For some, the only real experience of left is the way off stage. But it all makes good listening, and if you are conscious that your strings are being pulled then there’s little harm done. The Constitution is undoubtedly not a Revolution in the Cuban mould, but it’s not a dinner party either. Things are being done in a country where for at least the last fifty years nothing much has been done for anyone other than the rich. Besides, it all depends on perspective. For Sendero Luminoso, Ché Guevara’s revolution was bourgeois, while at a conference in London a young, rather bourgeois looking Bolivian Senator from the ruling party MAS explained that for him Correa’s Revolution was not valid because it did not come from the ‘people’. It all depends on context.

And in the context of recent Ecuadorian political regimes the new government in Quito represents a radical shift, no matter how you brand it. There are of course no guarantees that the promises contained in the new constitution will become reality. The new Constitution and the Revolution will cost money. Much will depend on political will, but perhaps to an even greater degree on the price of oil. Ecuador is an exporter and has benefitted from the sky high prices of the last year or so and the policies of free operations in state hospitals, of free education up to and including study at state university, of rising salaries etc, were drawn up in times of plenty. With the price of oil falling like a stone, financing the new mandate is not going to be a simple as it appeared a few months ago.

The likelihood is, and Correa has been up front about this, that some of the reforms will take time to implement. What he has not said, is that in the present economic climate perhaps some changes will never become a reality. Next year’s budget is still up in the air and will not be published until the global economic crisis settles, presuming that it does, and the results of any OPEC production/price stabilization cuts are clear.

Yet, despite the difficulties, there is a generalized hope that the Constitution marks a turning point, and that however things work in practice, the country has entered a different more equitable phase. The power and the politics behind the new Magna Carta, the form in which it was deliberated, and the general political climate in the region have lead many to think that this time things really will be different. After two years people are still in love with Rafael Correa. At a recent cultural event the audience broke into spontaneous applause when his name was mentioned.

The politics of this government are those of a social democrat regime whose calling card is efficiency. They will make the trains run on time, which would not be an inconsiderable achievement. The norm is also confrontation with those seen as enemies of the regime’s plans, no matter from which side of the political spectrum they may hail. The result has been the creation of divisions within the individuals and organizations that would normally have given wholehearted support the types of policies the government is proposing, and to some degree already carrying out.

The once all-powerful indigenous movement is a case in point. Divided and weakened by the machinations of previous governments, World Bank programmes that hand money out depending on ethnic origin[iii], and by internal political rivalries, the movement has been divided since, and by, Correa’s candidacy. The President has not been kind to the indigenous people, branding the national organization CONAIE as a spent force. It was a pre-emptive strike against a group that could at some point pose a threat, but at the same time a blow aimed at the environmentalists (who Correa has branded as ‘Infantile’) who in their fight against large scale open pit mining are supported by a number of indigenous organizations and high profile leaders.

The movement still supports Correa, with reservations, but the coming presidential and parliamentary elections may change that, at least superficially. All the political parties, particularly those allied in any way to the government now need to find some space for manoeuvre. CONAIE and its political arm, Pachakutik, have chosen natural resources and the Amazon as their battle ground, accusing the government of running an extractivist economy which has negative implications for native people. They are right, but in the government’s defense it’s hard to imagine how, in the short term at least, that can be changed. While the falling price of minerals and the tightening of credit markets may stall many of the proposed mining projects, oil will no doubt continue to be the major pillar of the economy.

The indigenous campaign is also partly for internal consumption, designed to promote cohesion within the movement and recover lost political ground. Whether that can be achieved during Correa’s mandate is debatable, and the risk is that any opposition to projects which will raise living standards of the majority, or are posed as such, will shear away much of the middle ground support the native people enjoyed during the nineties, and to some degree still do. The indigenous movement isn’t going to go away any time soon, but there’s little doubt that they are on shaky ground and that Correa and his people are more than willing to confront them.

The other major split is more philosophical: ends versus means. On the one hand are the Pragmatists[iv] who argue that politics is dirty and to win it is essential to use the same tactics as the right. People get tired of losing and are consequently willing to take something less than the ideal while they wait for the second coming. On the other are the Idealists, who believe that in the long run process is as important as, if not more important than, the results. It is hard not agree if you are looking at the longer term. Alberto Acosta the President of the Assembly that designed the New Constitution, is an idealist.

An economist like Correa, Acosta is the great nephew of José María Velasco Ibarra, five times President of Ecuador[v]. A brilliant orator with a long association with social organisations and the indigenous movement, Acosta later founded the now governing ‘Alianza Pais’ party together with Correa and a small number of collaborators. Elected to the Assembly as the leading government representative, he received the most votes of any of the elected ‘Asambleistas’. During his time as President he was clear that from his perspective the process of political education through constitutional debate was as, if not more, important than the Constitution itself. It’s doubtful that Rafael Correa and his group of pragmatists were in complete agreement[vi].

Clashes between Acosta and Correa became more frequent as time went on, and on…. Clauses were included in the new document that were clearly not to the liking of the Government[vii], and Acosta was finally ousted. His Vice President, the less idealistic and more pragmatic party man, Fernando Cordero, took over and finished the job in record time, while saluting vaguely in the direction of process. Acosta had also become a problem because as President of the Assembly his visibility was higher than that of the President himself. Within the ruling party elite he began to be seen as a possible future threat.

There was a more pragmatic reason for forcing Acosta to step down, one which goes back to the means and ends debate and in which both sides could easily claim to be right. For Acosta the purpose of the Assembly was to write a well thought through, widely consulted and lasting Constitution, and shortening the process would clearly damage the final product. He was clearly right. For Correa and his circle the Assembly had already overrun its temporal mandate and was in danger of becoming an electoral liability rather than an asset. It was. From a purely pragmatic point of view it is easy to see why they felt they needed to pull the plug. They did.

Whatever the internal politics of the situation, Acosta campaigned wholeheartedly for the YES vote.

The new constitution came into force a few weeks ago, after being published formally in the official gazette. One of the most important elements is the possibility of Presidential re-election. After already serving two years, under the provisions of the new constitution Correa is now eligible for two more four years terms. He could be around for ten years, the longest serving premier since Velasco Ibarra.

The prospect of having to put up with both Correa’s in your face style and the social policies being implemented by his government have led many opposition figures to call Correa a dictator, but that’s hardly a logical conclusion. It would be somewhat closer to the truth to call him authoritarian, and there is a fear in some sectors, both left and right, that power will become increasingly concentrated in his hands. But no matter what the opposition might like to imagine, he is a democrat, and the positive aspect of his mandate is that are is that the country finally has a principled, intelligent President dedicated to improving the living conditions of the majority of the population. In contrast to previous Ecuadorian heads of state, that President also has a solid working majority in Congress, and the possibility of getting things done. It is not perfect, and there is a real need for voices to be raised to make sure the administration stays on track, but it is certainly a major advance on corruption, inefficiency and lack of sovereignty of previous regimes.

For decades the proliferation of small parties and ‘movements’ in Congress and consequent shifting alliances, and corruption, led to legislative stagnation, which was used by one economic group or another to further its own interests. Many commentators laid the blame for the country’s lack of ‘progress’ on this lack of ‘governability’. What we have now is not dictatorship but the very ‘governability’ so long desired by many of those who now malign it.

[i] In 2001 when President Jamil Mahuad was deposed by an indigenous/military uprising, the ruling Congress, meeting in Guayaquil, called the event outrageously unconstitutional. It clearly was. Rebellions or revolutions generally are. But when the Vice President was installed, little was made of the unconstitutionality of his appointment. At the time Mahuad was still in the country and legally still President.

[ii] It is hard to be precise but a good percentage of No votes were undoubtedly influenced by the President’s style rather than any concrete objections to the Constitution itself.

[iii] The practice of funding nationalities has meant that many groups on the verge of disappearing altogether have re-emerged. Whatever the merits of this resurgence, it can hardly have helped unity.

[iv] Some call them right wingers, but this is a misnomer. A more apt description would be ‘pragmatic’ or even Machiavellian, but according to its actions it is difficult to see how Correa and his government could be called right wing. The danger is more one of centralisation of power and dependence on the personal power of one person; unless institutionality is strengthened, once Correa leaves the scene the whole project could collapse.

[v] Of his five Presidencies Velasco Ibarra only managed to complete one (1952 -1956), the other four were brought to a premature end by the army.

[vi] Claims have been made about the manipulation of the final document. Articles approved by the Assembly plenary have apparently been removed. Kintto Lucas, advisor to Assambleista Paco Velasco, has stated that a clause related to not ceding legal jurisdiction in disputes between foreign companies and the Ecuadorian state has been eliminated. Kintto Lucas. ODEBRECHT Y LA CONSTITUCIÓN. 20 Oct 08

[vii] The fear exists that as it interprets the Constitution, the newly installed Constitutional Court, now the country’s highest legal authority, will use its power to make some of the provisions more agreeable to the government. The new Court is the old Constitutional Tribunal re named, and self proclaimed, a fact which has led to criticism on all sides of the spectrum as the transitional regime for the implementation of the new constitution laid down a specific procedure for its formation.


I WILL NOT STAND IN THE WAY: Jamil Mahuad and the revolt of January the 21st


25th January 2000

By Gerard Coffey

The week of the 17th of January begins slowly. There is a sense of expectancy, but the signs are contradictory and it is hard to define the mood. The strikes by bus and taxi drivers are petering out: an agreement has apparently been reached with the government. The public school teachers are still out, but no one pays a much attention, perhaps because it’s such a common occurrence. Some roads are blocked, but there is little evidence of the indigenous uprising called for later in the week. The government apparently senses victory, and presidential spokespeople seem relatively relaxed.

The confidence does not last. As the week progresses, the situation begins to change. The Ágora of the Casa de la Cultura Ecuatoriana, a huge barn of an auditorium with a capacity of some 5,000, has been chosen as the venue for the native groups that we hear are on their way to the capital. And as Monday wears on people do begin to trickle in and the numbers inside the building, although small, grow steadily throughout the day. Stories circulate about others being stopped on their way by the military, taken off buses or trucks or whatever form of transport they try to use. The tactic is not new, and not particularly successful: the larger groups simply splinter and take other routes.

In the evening, the new arrivals are camped outside, exhausted after their long journey, sleeping in tents in Parque El Arbolito, or wherever they can find a space: under the building’s exterior colonnade, on the ground, under the stars. Long lines of people wait uncomplainingly to be fed from huge cauldrons that serve dozens at a single sitting. Inside, speeches reverberate in the brittle air of the half empty concrete shell, tirade after tirade launched against the government and its policies. Cheers and chants rise up sporadically: Viva la Patria, Viva el Ecuador, Abajo Mahuad, abajo la dolarización!

There’s little food and even less medicine for the people who begin to arrive the following day. Many women have swollen feet after walking with their children from communities located hundreds of kilometres to the North and South of the Capital. Others arrive complaining of stomach problems from drinking tainted water, their children suffering from exposure to sun, cold and rain. Everyone is hungry. But, perhaps surprisingly, despite the difficulties, they keep coming, and by the end of the second day a couple of thousand native people in traditional dress are lodged inside the hall.

The marchers continue to trickle in throughout the night, and by dawn on Wednesday the numbers have swollen, perhaps doubled. The speeches and chants are louder and more frequent, reinforced now by other groups that begin to link up: unions, students, clients of failed banks, retired soldiers. In the afternoon, a clearer picture begins to emerge. The leaders of the ‘People’s Parliament’ (I am officially an adjunct to the so called ‘communications team’ which has no real structure and does very little) will meet with the Military Joint Command. The Military will maintain order, they report later, but are open to dialogue. Later that afternoon the association of retired police officers and the association of retired infantrymen promise their support. A major change seems to have taken place, the resignation of previous days has given way to expectation, and barring some sort of appeasement from the government side, an upheaval now seems inevitable, probably imminent.

As Thursday morning breaks, the numbers have grown further. The huge hall is now full of indigenous people from all the mountain provinces: it is a mass of brightly coloured clothes, banners, music, conversation and announcements about the progress of the movement. It is no longer possible to call it anything else.

At midday the mass leaves the Ágora and marches out onto the streets. Intersections are blocked and traffic diverted for hours while the protestors sit in the road and sing the national anthem. Surprisingly perhaps, the police maintain a respectable distance. No tear gas is fired and no injuries are reported. There is to be a press conference at 3 o’clock, where the major speaker will be Monsignor Lunar Tobar of Cuenca, country’s third most important city located some 12 hours to the south. The nominal President of the ‘People’s Parliament’, the popular Lunar Tobar has been roundly criticised by the church’s eminently conservative hierarchy for siding actively with the indigenous people and the so called social movements.

But the event never takes place, and the main body of the 8,000 or more people gathered outside the Agora now begins to move up the hill towards the national Congress, taking up positions to block all access to the building. The protestors, in particular the women from the Province of Cotopaxi with their traditional hats and skirts, are determined that no one who enters will leave, and that anyone looking vaguely like a Congressman or an advisor will not be treated kindly. Some are able to evade the throng, others are not so lucky. A number of men sporting suites, and unknown to the crowd, are taken in hand. Most take it seriously and offer little resistance. They are lined up against the wall and verbally harassed. Some are cleansed by a shaman who bathes them in the smoke of traditional herbs.

One man, who doesn’t seem overly keen on the idea, is hauled by his tie over to the main body of protesters and verbally harassed. The head of the Political Committee of the People’s Parliament also falls victim to the general desire to humiliate parliamentarians. He generally wears a suit and tie, unfortunately marking him as the enemy. He is surrounded and harangued. Unrecognised by a group of fierce looking indigenous women, he is about to be dragged off and ‘cleansed‘. He shouts to me, begging to be saved. I do him the favour.

At about half past seven in the evening, the crowd seems relaxed: chatting, eating whatever is at hand, moving from one spot to another in small groups, watching to make sure that no one can leave the Congress building. The atmosphere is quiet, there is little activity and it appears that everyone is settling in for an all-night vigil. I don’t know what the strategy is, and from all appearances this is to be a thing of days. I try to leave, there doesn’t seem to be much sense in staying overnight, or maybe I’m just too soft, but whatever my reasons the guardians of the lines, the same indigenous women from the south, are not keen to let me pass. Gringos are not welcome they tell me. Fortunately I have my credential from the ‘People’s Parliament’, and with a little discussion, and shouts of “we don’t want dollars” I’m accepted as an ally and allowed to pass without incident.

It’s the night of the 20th, the night of the lunar eclipse, the red eclipse. In a café down the hill from the Congress building we drink till about ten and then go home to rest and prepare for the next day’s events. Later that evening the television news programmes show images of small scale skirmishes around the Congress building; groups of indigenous people are repelled by tear gas and a strong military presence. But it doesn’t appear to be serious.

Much to our surprise the cordon is breached in the early morning, and the multitude enters the Congress with the help of a group of mid ranking military officers. I enter with the crowd and stand high up in the balcony listening as Colonel Lucio Guttierez, the apparent leader of the military faction, makes a speech of patriotism, honesty and respect, while the crowd shouts, cheers, and sings the national anthem. There is a lot of confusion, and the thousands crammed into the legislative building all seem to be shouting at once: ‘the government of the corruptos and the bankers has fallen’, ‘the people control the country’. It is hardly that simple. The President of the country’s leading indigenous organisation CONAIE, the Amazonian Antonio Vargas, is not popular with all factions and there is a sense that the occupation of congress does not have the support of some established leaders from the Mountain provinces. There is also the small matter of the rest of the armed forces and the government itself led by President Mahuad, although no one seems to doubt that the majority of the country supports the uprising. Whatever the case may be, there is an overwhelming sense that there is no turning back.

The atmosphere is hard to describe. Most of us in the building have this strange feeling, this intermingling of exultancy, suspense and anxiety, of hoping that things work out, that we do rather than die. But no one knows for certain. So we busy ourselves with the ‘People’s Parliament’, which now installed emits its first resolutions. In a frenzy of voting legislation is passed: to prosecute fugitive bankers, unfreeze funds, cancel the state of emergency imposed by Mahuad, depose the President and cancel the dollarisation of the economy; the Sucre is declared to be once again the national currency. Huge cheers erupt from the seats of a Congress Hall now occupied by multitudes of multicoloured ponchos that rise and fall in seemingly never ending waves.

But the passion wanes and amount of legislation we can think of shrinks, so we pass the hours listening expectantly to the few radios that are available. The military is with us here but not there, in Guayaquil the Governor’s Palace is occupied, the occupiers are then dislodged. In Cuenca the story is similar, while just down the street from the Congress, the Supreme Court is occupied. The once reluctant taxi, bus and heavy transport drivers have now decided to throw their lot in with the indios. They are jeered, but not rejected. The Colonels are to give a press conference in Congress. The press arrives, some sneered at and jostled as accomplices of the government. Colonel Cobo is angry, shouting accusations at the President and the press. We wonder if anyone will broadcast what he says. We doubt it. The television channels are not sympathetic.

Rumours circulate that a tank division is on its way from the military base in Riobamaba, four hours to the south. The news is worrying, but there is little to do but wait, the action is now all outside: the situation will be resolved in other parts of the country, in other buildings, on other streets.

I’m a press officer but there’s not much to do. We talk about translating some of the news bulletins that are being produced, but apart from the reporters allowed to broadcast the ad hoc press conferences, there’s little way to get information to the outside. In the press room a few news men, isolated inside the building, sit watching television reports. We consider smashing the sets to keep them from hearing the biased information and staged interviews being shown on the national networks. In the end we leave them alone, deciding that they can’t do much harm. We wander aimlessly around the Congress floor, sit and listen with friends and colleagues, speculate on how the new government will be, what it will do, who will form part of the great experiment. We try to find something to eat or drink and, above all, we wait, we wait and we wait.

Radio reports are now saying that that Mahuad has been asked to resign, but that he rejects the idea. Other bulletins have him fleeing the Presidential Palace and the country. Peter Romero, the ex U.S ambassador to Ecuador, broadcasting from Lima, threatens to isolate Ecuador. We will turn it into another Cuba, he says. His statement brings a little light relief to the situation. We laugh and joke but the serious side soon intrudes. There are reports that documents at the Central Bank are being burning, that bankers and businessmen are ready to board planes, that they are sending their money out of the country in suitcases, although the truth is that here inside the building no one really knows what is going on.

A small number of soldiers suddenly rushes to the outside of the building. They are unarmed and ask us to circle them, to form a human shield and protect them from the troops they say are now approaching. We are prepared, and go outside with them, thinking little about what may come next. I am surprised at my lack of reflection. It is not something that I would have expected of myself. I am not a physically brave person: what is operating here seems to go beyond that. But the tanks and the troops never arrive, and we return, wearied, to the interior of the building.

At around four o’clock the battle appears to be over, or rather not to have begun. The tanks have apparently turned back. Generals Paco Moncayo and Rene Yandun, heroes of the 1994 border war with Peru, arrive, saluting the Parliament and stating their support for the indigenous people and the military who ‘have bravely faced up to the economic powers of the country’. The presence of Moncayo, the head of the Joint Military Command during that conflict, is the most significant. Respected by almost all sectors, he is an elected Congressman and the public resignation of his seat, his submitting to being cleansed by shamans on the congress floor and his strong support for the new parliament, serve to strengthen the crowd’s resolve. With him on board there is a feeling that the rebellion has succeeded. Only the press, the elites and, of course, the U.S. are on the other side. It’s hard to believe, but it looks like the country is about to change. It is hard to believe, and to be honest I don’t know whether we do.
Reports now confirm that Mahuad has fled, and the crowd is anxious to march on to the Presidential Palace. At six thirty a huge throng of ten or perhaps fifteen thousand people moves off through the narrow streets of a colonial sector jammed with people. The clamour reverberates off the centuries old buildings as people salute from the balconies, throwing flowers and confetti. At times it is hard to move, or to stop. A cordon of civilians surrounds the unarmed military contingent, which in turn surrounds General Moncayo.

The day is fading, and we near the Presidential Palace we are told that the palace guard has orders to shoot if necessary to secure the building. As the crowd makes its way through the streets close to the main square, tear gas begins to rain down, we duck for cover while the military contingent goes to the front. The tear gas drifts away and negotiations take place while the mass waits patiently, hoping not to fall at the last hurdle. Finally the police and the military guard withdraw and the multitude enters the Plaza de la Independencia: triumphant, singing, shouting.

In the square even the cigarette and the soft drink sellers seem relaxed. Mahuad has gone, the bankers and the right wing have been overthrown. Indigenous, Military and Social movement leaders salute from the balcony of the Presidential Palace. Thumbs are raised. The new government of national reconciliation is declared. A chance to start over. Ama quilla, ama shua, ama llulla…… No lying, no stealing, no laziness. The ‘Indios’ have returned after five hundred years to save us from ourselves.

The mood is peaceful, and by midnight people are beginning to drift away; as we walk home the roads are empty and the silence profound, surprisingly complete.

At home we watch the formation of the National Salvation Government on television: General Mendoza, the head of the Joint Military Command, Antonio Vargas, the President of CONAIE, and Carlos Solorzano, the head of the ‘People’s Parliament in Guayaquil will form a triumvirate. We sleep fitfully, wondering about a possible backlash. But it doesn’t seem to matter much; all that will be dealt with that later.

At five a.m. the phone rings. The triumvirate has fallen. Mendoza has resigned. Mahuad’s Vice President, Gustavo Noboa, has been asked to form a government, although by who is not entirely clear.

As the light breaks over the city, Ricardo Ulcuango, the vice president of CONAIE, is standing outside the Congress building, speaking to a large group of indigenous people from the province of Cotopaxi. “We will surround the building and defend it. If they try to dislodge us,’ he says, ‘we will be ready”.

The mood is tense as our small group waits for the troops to arrive, for the inevitable fight, which we will inevitably lose. But Antonio Vargas arrives first. We will leave peacefully he says. We will be back if necessary. There will be tears, but there will be no blood. He gives a final press conference in the Congress building. Not everyone agrees; many want to stay and fight. The police and troops arrive, weapons at the ready. The occupiers leave en masse. The U.S wins the round. The bankers breathe a sigh of relief.
The old Congress, meeting in a hotel in Guayaquil condemns the coup. Noboa, the new president, speaks to the country. Mahuad speaks from a house in Quito. “I am still the President,” he says, “but I will not stand in the way”.

POINT COUNTERPOINT* – Of democracy and constitutions and how the indigenous movement changed the nature of political power in Ecuador.

POINT COUNTERPOINT* :Of democracy and constitutions and how the Indigenous movement changed the nature of political power in Ecuador.

February 2000

by Gerard Coffey

On Friday the 21st of January of the year 2000, more than 500 years after the arrival of the Spanish in the “New” World, the Indigenous people of Ecuador held, if ever so briefly, the reins of power in its hands. That they did so by taking over the Congress and the Presidential Palace with the help of sympathetic mid ranking military, and not through the ballot box, has led to some debate over the political nature of the event. Those who finally retained power have charged that it was an unconstitutional and undemocratic action, and that those who occupied Congress on the 21st and subsequently deposed the President, should be charged with sedition and punished, according to the new President, with the full weight of the law.

Unfortunately, while they may be technically correct, their point of view loses much of its weight given that the accession of the new President, Gustavo Noboa, is also unconstitutional, as the previous president, Jamil Mahuad, refused to resign and should therefore according to the supreme law of the land still be the true president. It should be mentioned that there is one point on which both sides agree, constitutional or not, Mahuad will not be back.

Further complicating matters is the fact that Mahuad himself apparently approached the armed forces with the idea of taking control in an unconstitutional “Fujimori” style take over. Of course, when talking of Fujimori it might be worth remembering that his running for the Presidency of Peru for the third time is also ‘unconstitutional’.

So one might be forgiven for asking what exactly is the constitution, and what is or isn’t constitutional or democratic. What was it about the actions of the indigenous movement and its allies that provoked the chorus of cries of unconstitutionality? Perhaps the answer lies in the fact that the winners write the history books, while the losers go home, or to jail. That the provisional “National Salvation Government” which the indigenous people championed, finally had the ground cut out from under it by the Military member, General Mendoza, who resigned under pressure from the United States, is undeniable. That the indigenous people went home the next day, and a new “constitutional” president was proclaimed is also clear. This is apparently what makes the occupation of the Congress and the installation of a new popular government more unconstitutional than other “events” which have been swept aside as irrelevant by a wave of official press coverage.

What is perhaps more relevant is the question of whether we should be debating the constitutionality of this “dark episode”, as is charmingly referred to by the press and others whose morals and judgement have been stunted by self interest, or rather the value of democracies and constitutions which serve only as a guise for the most appalling acts of robbery and corruption. Should we talk therefore of constitutions or should we rather talk of ethics?

If the constitution is a set of rules to which all generally agree to abide in the best interests of the people of the country, but which are evidently, as in the case of Ecuador, unable to control the avarice of the bankers and the corruption of the politicians, how then can these vices be rooted out? What should one do if the very apparatus of rule making and change is controlled by the politicians and bankers who benefit from the status quo. The case of President, ex-president, Jamil Mahuad makes the dilemma extremely clear.

With a campaign financed in the main by one banker, who is in jail waiting some sort of “trial” for withholding taxes and embezzling clients through loans to non-existent companies, one could be pardoned for asking if Mahuad was able to act independently. It is also interesting to note that the ex-president’s campaign also received contributions from companies with state contracts, and that the one huge campaign contribution only came to light because the Banker’s crime was of such a nature that it was politically impossible not to jail the man, who unlike the other robber bankers, was arrogant enough not to flee the country. In a flurry of counter charges the contribution was revealed. Unconstitutional – no. Unethical – most certainly.

Another amusing anecdote also illuminates the problem. In March of 1999, after a bout of bank failures, inflation and devaluation, which at one point took the exchange rate of the national currency from 5,000 Sucres to the dollar to18,000, before “dropping back” to around $10,000, the government declared a banking “holiday”. Banks were closed for three days, after which all accounts were frozen. Some of those accounts, in particular terms deposits, have never been unfrozen, and their owners will now have to wait up to ten years to get their money back. After investigation, one Congressman made it public that members of the Presidential Cabinet and personal circle had, forewarned, taken all their money out of the country. No legal action was ever carried out. Unconstitutional – No. Unethical – absolutely.

Finally it is worth mentioning that in order to save his government, ex President Mahuad was on the verge of making a deal which would have allowed Abdala Bucaram, another deposed President, and one who has a string of corruption charges against him, to return to the country with impunity. No comment.

And so to the dilemma of the indigenous people. What to do when all the cards are stacked against you. When the majority of native people live without basic services, and around 80% of all Ecuadorians, indigenous or not, have an income equivalent to about US$1.50 a day. Constitution or ethics? The choice was, and still is, brutally clear.

Ethics and justice demand that corruption be rooted out, that inequality be levelled and that political and economic structures be changed. The need for dramatic change can hardly be doubted from the overall economic picture. The national currency lost 75% of its purchasing power: it was devalued by 300%, in only one year. Thousands of millions of dollars were spent on bailing out banks while spending on social services was cut to virtually nil. The price of basic foodstuffs increased between 50 and 100% in the week after the unconstitutional “dolarisation” of the economy was announced. And in reality, the country does not have sufficient dollars in order to exchange all Sucres, and therefore had to resort to maintaining term deposits frozen.

That the need for drastic change was supported by the vast majority of the population is made dramatically evident by the fact that after the indigenous people and their allies took over the National Congress and installed a popular parliament, the act was supported by a an overwhelming 70% of the population. And that according to a poll taken in a country where 90% of people cannot pay for telephones with which to answer pollster’s questions.

However, necessary or not, supported or not, ethical or not, the United States intervened to convince the Military member of the Triumvirate which was to clean up and reorient the country that he should resign and thus restore democracy and respect for the constitution. It did so with threats that the country would be isolated and cut off from all support. Turned into another Cuba. On whose behalf did it intervene one might ask ? A political concept? On behalf of the global political/financial/commercial system which it supports and controls ? On behalf of the 80% who can barely feed their families?

And so now things have “returned to normal”: the 20,000 indigenous people who took over the country’s roads and the capital city Quito have gone home; a number of the colonels that bravely supported the indigenous people and their allies in making the necessary changes will be tried by the military courts; arrest warrants have been taken out on the indigenous leader Antonio Vargas; the new government has been formed by the same politicians who have haunted the scene for the past twenty years, and are implicated through their direct or indirect associations with the economic policies, and sheer robbery, which have impoverished millions; the economic policy which was the basis for the uprising is unchanged. And now the trouble with normal is all too easy to see.

It seems almost inconceivable that the new “constitutional” government would simply continue blindly with the policies of the previous President, almost. It seems incredible that it doesn’t seem to matter that by doing so, the anger and resentment within the indigenous population and the lower ranks of the military will be pushed out of sight until the next time, and that the plight of the marginalised 80% of Ecuadorians will be made worse.

There appears to be a certain amount of panic within the political ranks, which for a day saw the control of their domain slip away, and only with the help of the United States and the shameful support of almost all the press, were able to maintain themselves and their system in place. Now that the power of the indigenous people, and the level of support for their ethical vision of government have been made plain, the economic changes that the government is proposing will have to carried out quickly, in time to avoid the next uprising. The panic can also be seen in the fact that instead of negotiating, the government has rushed to issue a warrant for Antonio Vargas, which if executed would almost certainly lead to an even more serious revolt. The feeling that this government is even more unstable than then last is unavoidable.

In the meantime the allies of the “constitution” are raising their voices. The official Catholic Church for example, in the name of Monsignor Mario Ruiz, hypocritically condemned the “Coup” while also stating that there was a social debt to be paid, but was silent on how this debt was to be repaid by present policies, or exactly how the injustice which the official church supposedly opposes, could be changed “constitutionally”.

So where does all this leave us? With an indigenous movement strengthened by the realisation of its own power; with an armed forces whose actions were ethical but which have been condemned; with an economy in ruins, and a political class desperate to finish the job of neoliberlising the state.

John Maynard Keynes once pointed out that in the long run we are all dead, but Keynes didn’t live in the Andes and his western view of economics never envisaged the tenacity with which the indigenous people have held onto their culture and economy during a long night that has lasted five hundred years. The fact that this time the native people were ultimately deprived of their opportunity to transform a corrupt and oligarchic country is, in the long run, unlikely to matter. The native people have stated that they are open to dialogue, but that the dialogue will need to be about fundamental change. If these fundamental, and fundamentally needed changes are not achieved, there seems little doubt that they will be back.

As Salvador Quishpe, one of the principal indigenous leaders stated, the major objective was to show that the indigenous people had the ability to hold power, and by doing so to reinforce their demands for a new social and financial structures based on ethics and justice for all Ecuadorians. And the likelihood is, United States or not, that in the near future they will achieve it.

* with all due deference to Aldous Huxley.

ENEMY OF THE STATE: The battle over sustainable development in Intag.

by Gerard Coffey

Born in Cuba, Carlos Zorrilla left the island when he was 11 and emigrated with his family to the United States. But the promised land did not live up to his expectations. Like many of his peers he found it hard to accept the war his adopted country was waging in Vietnam, not to mention the politics of then President Richard Nixon. So he left, looking for somewhere to live in peace. In 1978 he found himself in the Intag valley in Northern Ecuador where, he tells, he found an attractive agricultural area populated by solid and supportive communities. So he stayed. “I love agriculture” he says with a smile.

Attractive is probably an understatement.  Intag, located in the western foothills of the Cotacachi volcano in Imbabura Province, some 150 miles south of the Colombian border, is warm, green and unequivocally beautiful. Populated in the late nineteenth century by families that migrated from other parts of the province, the area is a sub tropical and primarily agricultural district with plenty of water, high levels of biodiversity and spectacular landscapes.

But the story of Zorrilla and Intag is not one of bucolic bliss. As he found out, peace and harmony do not come so cheaply. There is copper in the hills, and twice in recent decades mining companies have come looking for minerals to exploit. “The first we knew about mining in the area,” he says,”was in late ninety four, when Bishimetals, a subsidiary of the Japanese multinational Mitsubishi, showed up. At the beginning we didn’t know why they were here.”

It didn’t take them long to find out, and the following year Zorilla and others, including a local priest, set up DECOIN (Ecological Defense and Conservation of Intag). The goal was to protect the local environment and implement sustainable development projects. “We knew that the projects were going to be important for the area’s future,” says DECOIN’s now president, Silvia Quilumbango. Time seems to have proved them right. One of the most important results of the group’s efforts, and presently the area’s most important product, is the organic coffee produced and sold internationally through the local coffee growers association (ACRI). “There’s a global market for the coffee,” adds Zorrilla, presently DECOIN’s executive director, “but it’s not the only positive consequence of the work we’ve done over the years, Intag also has a growing tourism industry. That was our initiative too.”

There was a less positive side to the mining company’s presence, explains Zorrilla. Conflicts sprang up, local communities took sides for or against the mine and what it represented. It wasn’t possible to be neutral. The disputes came to a head in May 1997, when hundreds of demonstrators came down from their communities in the hills to occupy the Bishimetals camp. After three days of ‘dialogue’, tempers frayed, part of the camp was dismantled, the equipment was removed, and what remained was burned. The predictable response was not long in coming, in the form of prosecutions. A number of community leaders, including Polivio Perez, a local leader from Junin where the mining concession is centered and who is still involved in the fight against the proposed mine, were the subject of legal action. For a time Pérez went into hiding[i].

Faced with solid local opposition backed by substantial international support, including in Japan, Bishimetals decided to cut its losses and in 1998 packed up and left. But the peace proved to be short lived. Six years later the Canadian company Ascendant Copper arrived, and with it came new and increasingly severe conflicts. The company used more aggressive tactics than Bishimetals, and the fight intensified. There were death threats and intimidation; clashes between pro and anti mining groups become more common.


Part of the problem, explains Zorrilla, was a parallel community association, CODGEM, set up by the company to create divisions amongst the local the communities. The organization had links to what he generously calls ‘unpleasant’ characters, at one point being directed by a former parliamentarian, Ronald Andrade, in whose hacienda four people linked to the drug tradewere killed[ii].  Andrade, who was accused of having links with convicted drug king Oscar Caranqui[iii], is presently on the run, and now appears on the INTERPOL’s  ‘most wanted’ list.

And in December 2005 history repeated itself. An Ascendant Copper work camp was burned down, some 300 people agreeing to take collective responsibility for the act.

As a prominent member of the opposition Zorrilla was in the eye of the storm, finding himself the subject of a preventive detention order. Fortunately, he says, the decision was overturned: according to the judge there was insufficient evidence to warrant detaining him. He was also accused of ‘robbery’ and ‘harm’ by an Ascendant Copper employee. The incidents allegedly took place while she distributed company information at an anti mining demonstration in front of the Ministry of Energy and Mines in Quito.[iv] The complaint was also dismissed. According to witnesses and footage taken at the protest, Zorrilla took no part in a confrontation between protesters and the company employee. Not a hair on her head was touched, he adds.

The complaint may not have had a solid basis, but it was enough to induce a raid on Zorrilla’s home by the police. Weapons and drugs were said to have been found, and in October 2006 a case was brought against him for illegal possession of arms and narcotics. Once again he walked free. In March 2007 the case was thrown out after the local prosecutor declined to accuse him[v].

Not that he was alone. As Zorrilla points out, he was just one of the targets of the company’s aggressive tactics. A group of 30 people led by company employees attempted to lynch Polivio Pérez, but he managed to escape. His motorcycle did not: it was thrown into a ravine. Masked gunmen entered a house where a group of environmentalists were holding a meeting; tied them up and stole their equipment.

Other events were more serious. In December 2006 a group of 15 armed security guards attacked opponents of the mine with tear gas and firearms. But they got more than they bargained for. The locals regrouped and took them hostage, together with 40 other guards sent to build a camp, and held them for six days in a nearby forest. The guards were released after the National Department of Energy requested that the mining company refrain from any further activity in the area.[vi]

In the long run the opposition proved stronger and more numerous, and in 2006, the last month of President Alfredo Palacio’s mandate, they managed to once again stall plans to install the mine. But as with Bishimetals, the company’s exit was not the end of the story. Ascendant Copper brought a claim against the Ecuadorian government for having terminated the concession. Carlos Zorrilla is now a key witness for the defense.

The third time – lucky for who?

The battle over, the breathing was easy, but as Zorrilla points out, no one was fooled, “we were always on the alert” he says. The companies had gone, but the copper was still there, and that meant that the miners would likely be back at some point, in one form or another. And they were right.

This time, the third, it is President Rafael Correa, a former finance minister in the Palacio government, who is leading the offensive. And the battle could prove even tougher than before. Alianza País, the governing party, has the resources, controls the security forces and enjoys a high level of national support. So there was little surprise when on the 26th of July 2012 it was announced that Correa had signed an agreement with Chilean authorities to revive the project in Intag; Chile is to participate through the national mining company CODELCO. The road map was now drawn, and for good or bad, Carlos Zorrilla, the most visible of the local opposition, was once again at the forefront of the conflict.

In the circumstances it is perhaps not that surprising that the president should assail the Cuban -Ecuadorian. In one of his Saturday ‘Enlace Ciudadano’ speeches, he linked a manual on non violent resistance co-written by Zorrilla with a demonstration in which diplomats from Chile and Belarus were harassed. “I had nothing to do with the demonstration organized by the now closed Pachamama foundation,” he protests. “nothing at all. To connect me with it is simply an attempt to discredit me, because in the president’s view I represent an obstacle to his plans, so he has to get me out of the way.”

“The irony,” says Zorrilla “is that the manual was written to deal with illegalities and abuses committed by of transnational corporations, and when government agencies are mentioned, it suggests cooperating with them.”

Given the time he has been living in the country (with four children born here), it is not hard to understand him being offended by the President’s words. “I’m not at all surprised to be verbally attacked by the President,” he says, “that’s the nature of politics, but what does surprise me is being labeled a destabiliser who is promoting foreign interests and interfering in government policy. It’s an outrage. And as for calling on people to react, that’s nothing less than stirring up xenophobia.”

He is concerned. Being designated by the President as an enemy of the state, complete with photos, is few people’s idea of a good time, and could quite easily have consequences for him and his family. Amnesty International concurs. In December the international institution issued an alert[vii] which noted ‘a growing concern for the safety of Carlos Zorrilla, environmental activist from Ecuador, and others who have protested against development projects in the Intag region.’  Zorrilla tells that in that month the police visited his house on the pretext of a carrying out a survey. They took pictures of the property, he says.

In the final count, he comments, “It’s wrong to say we’re getting in the way of the country’s development. What I and others represent is a different vision, a proposal for another way of living, a way of life that has more to do with Sumak Kawsay[viii] (Buen Vivir) than a development depending on the extraction of minerals. We’re not naive or destabilisers, we’ve seen the results of mining in Peru, and believe me, they’re not pretty. Here in Intag we’ve got another vision of the future.”

All mines pollute.

What he says is hard to deny. Mining is one of the dirtiest industrial extractive activities. If drilling for oil can cause serious environmental consequences, mining is clearly worse, and in Intag the proposal is not for one, but several mines. “Copper is not like gold,” says Zorrilla, “deposits are scattered, so mining in the local Toisan mountain range would be a disaster,” adding for good measure that the mining sector is the biggest polluter in the U.S.

Of course, not all mines or mining companies are alike; there are ways and ways of extracting metals, some better than others. Official sources in Ecuador talk of using leading edge technology, but in the end even the best technology in the world cannot eliminate the solid waste caused by opencast mining. And there is an awful lot of it. From what is known, the concentration of metal in the Intag concession is around 0.7 %, which means that 99.3% of the removed rock ends up as waste. For every ton of copper, more than 99 tons of rock are mined and then left lying around. Apart from the tremendous amount of land needed to store the waste, or mine tailings, an added problem is that the latter are not inert. “They can release heavy metals and trigger acid drainage” explains Zorrilla, “causing serious impacts in the environment, especially rivers. And here we’re at the headwaters of several major river systems that feed the coastal region, and in an area where the rain is a strong and permanent presence.”

But the arguments did not bend any official ears. According to the state mining agency, Enami EP, present holder of  the mining concession in Intag,[ix] in order to obtain an environmental license from the Ministry of Environment, ‘it is necessary to comply with favourable, documented administrative acts approved by various authorities, amongst which, according to cantonal economic development land use and social planning, is the Cotacachi Municipal Council [x]’. And the acts, of course, require site measurements.

Orders may be orders, but Enami’s words did not carry much weight in Intag either. Site visits and measurements might be ‘necessary’ for the mining agency and for the Ministry of Environment, but when technicians from both CODELCO and the national mining company tried to enter the Junín area of in September 2013 accompanied by police, the local response was to block the road and keep them out.

Rafael Correa ‘s reaction was blunt. “Let’s learn from this…not to allow a few to hinder the progress of the many and undermine the common good; to reject these people who with pretty labels such as the ‘right to resistance’ want to impose their group, family or individual interests, and undermine democracy itself… Have faith in this government” he concluded “one that seeks nothing for itself, but for you. Responsible mining can get people out of poverty, in particular the people living in these areas.”[xi]

So the battle goes on. At the moment the confrontation is no more than verbal, but there is always a danger that it will become violent. The president, as is his wont, does not seem willing to compromise his position, and opponents of the mining project are sticking to theirs. They have been through these battles before and don’t doubt their ability to resist.

Development and El Buen Vivir

It is true that in Ecuador there is a lot of poverty, that is to say a great many unmet basic needs, and it is equally true that to meet those needs – providing drinking water, sanitation, education and health services – money is essential. Few would doubt it. The question is not whether to try to resolve the problems, but how. For President Rafael Correa it is crucial to use the resources available to the country to maintain social and infrastructure programs that will improve Ecuadorians’ lives. Faced with an uncertain oil future, he might say, there is no sense in being beggars sitting on a sack of copper.

The inteños who oppose the mine protest that protecting the area’s environment is not simply a matter of keeping their land and way of life unsullied. Nor is it designed to impose their agenda on other Ecuadorians. They proffer economic arguments related to the value of  ‘ecosystem services’ for the country. Silvia Quilumbango explains that “our position is not uninformed rejection. As regional leaders in generating financial resources for communities in alternative ways – by respecting nature, by respecting local customs – we have consolidated a less damaging development model and don’t want it to be ruined.”

A study done in 2011 by Earth Economics[xii] shows that the value of the environmental services that would be destroyed by mining in Intag could be greater than the value of copper extracted. According to the document, by applying a 3% discount rate, ‘…we find that the 17 ecosystem services examined provide an asset value of between $3 and $ 28 billion. This shows that the current natural and agricultural systems of the Intag region are enormous national assets. Because natural assets appreciate, rather than depreciate over time, the actual discount rate is likely closer to zero.’

‘In our research’, the authors continue ‘we found that 17 of 23 ecosystem services across the land cover types in Intag provide the regional and national community an average of $447 million in yearly benefits.’ They end by saying that ‘The overall conclusion of the report is that economic development within the Intag region is best achieved by tapping the vast value that ecosystem goods and services provide…’

The authors explain that the study is not the final the final word on ecosystem service valuation for Intag, nor a full ecological economic analysis. What is does represent, they say, is one part of a debate that is not happening. It is just the first step in understanding the economic and social risks of mining in the region.

Laudable goals

As might be expected, not everyone in the Intag area opposes the project; some see benefits in the presence of a mine and the jobs that it may create. The question is how significant a proportion of the local population they are. The president of the Apuela Parrish Council puts it another way, claiming that the percentage opposing the mine is less than 20 %, while Enami sources speak of majority support based on a survey commissioned by them.[xiii] For Zorrilla the numbers lack validity. “In the zonal and county meetings,” he says “the proportion opposing mining is 90 %. As for the polls, I have no idea where or how they were carried out.”

Notwithstanding the differences between sectors of the local population, external factors could have a decisive influence on the fate of the proposal. One is the international price of copper. The metal has fallen about 25 % from its high point of U.S. $ 4.50 in 2010 to around $ 3.30 today, even though still high compared to historical levels. In 2004, for example, copper traded at less than a dollar a pound.

Much will depend on the Chinese. The country consumes 40% of global production and any reduction of demand will clearly have an impact on copper prices and hence the profitability of mining in Intag. Will the price of the metal rise or fall? Opinions differ. For some[xiv] it is likely to remain stable, while for others a dramatic drop is possible, above all if the housing bubble driving Chinese demand finally bursts. There is also talk of a significant oversupply of copper in 2014, as well as the existence of millions of unreported tons[xv] Both factors could cause a significant price decline in the near future.

Whatever happens to the price of copper, the basic question is how much destruction can be justified in the name of building a more modern and equitable society. And while it is true that all human activity has a negative impact on the environment, the argument is clearly insufficient. As the Earth Economics study implies, the environmental and social cost of open face mines in the Toisán Cordillera could exceed the value of the extracted copper. And that without considering ‘remediation’, the skeleton in a mining industry closet that no one wants to open.

The question becomes even more important in an area where for decades people have been trying to develop less harmful ways to make a living. The opponents of the mine ask why the government does not consider the long term benefits other options might provide for the country, for example improving the area’s tourism infrastructure – a pillar of the plan of the previously loudly proclaimed Plan del Buen Vivir – or promoting the production and export of the area’s organic coffee.

Whatever is finally decided, the real battle Intag is clearly not about the few imposing their agenda on the many, or a personal dispute between Carlos Zorrilla and Rafael Correa and his government. Nor is it a matter of bad faith. Rafael Correa wants to use the money from the mines to improve the lives of the many, as he would say, while the inteños are trying to prove, with some success, that another world is possible. These are laudable goals, but clearly mutually exclusive.

Resolving this clash of interests is important for the Intag area, and for the country as a whole, but the best way to do so is not by personalizing the debate and demonizing Zorrilla. The tactic is grotesque, and probably counterproductive, but more to the point it obscures what is basically a conflict between two ways of seeing and living in the world, and two ways of reading economic texts.

[i] In 2008 Perez and other community leaders around the country who had been living in the shadow of jail sentences for their efforts to protect land and resources, were granted an amnesty by the National Constituent Assembly.

[ii] La Hora, Imbabura.  Clues to the massacre in Otavalo appear. 16 January 2007

[iii] Caránqui, the self named ‘Jaguar’ whose book ‘La Roca: Cementerio de los Hombre Vivos’ (La Roca: cemetery of the living) was confiscated by the police in February 2013, was himself killed in July 2013 in the ‘La Roca’ jail in Guayaquil while serving a 25 year sentence for drug trafficking.

[iv] The demonstration took place in July 2006.

[v] World Organization Against Torture: Ecuador: Judicial harassment against Mr. Carlos Zorrilla.

[viii] Sumak Kawsay  or el “Buen Vivir” is enshrined in the constitutions of both Ecuador and Bolivia, referring to a way of living that promotes social economic and cultural rights as well as a more harmonious relation with nature. Sumak Kawsay is contrasted with ‘extractivism’ and the emphasis on an economy whose singular goal is the pursuit of money and economic growth at all costs.

[ix] The concession encompasses an area of 4,956 ha in the parishes of García Moreno and Peñaherrera, more specifically in the community of Junín.

[xi] ENAMI Noticias: President backs work of Enami EP in Intag, and rejects sectors that impede the common good.

[xii] Earth Economics An Ecological Study of Ecuador’s Intag Region: The Environmental Impacts and Potential Rewards of Mining (2011). Earth Economics is a non-profit organization based in Tacoma, Washington, EE.UU.

[xiv] Jesse Colombo Forbes Magazine: If This Chart Breaks, Copper And Copper Exporters Will Plunge. 13 November 2013

[xv] Tatyana Shumsky. Wall Street Journal. Millions of Tons of Metals Stashed in Shadow Warehouses. 27 December 2013.


 “the first casualty of this war is, as always, the truth.”
Miguel Ángel Cabodevilla


The remarkable Ecuadorian proposal to leave about 900 million barrels of heavy crude in the ground in exchange for international contributions amounting to about half its value, was recently abandoned by President Rafael Correa. The exploitation of the oil fields – located mainly although not entirely inside Yasuní national park, a global biodiversity ‘hotspot’ – has aroused some passionate opposition and a determined defense of the decision by the Ecuadorian government.

1. As some commentators have already pointed out, Yasuní National Park is hardly a pristine area. It has been explored and exploited for decades. Shell oil set up camp there in the 1940s, but abandoned the wells it drilled due to the difficulty of getting the oil to market, and because the crude was heavy: the company was not particularly  interested in heavy crude. The structures Shell left behind can still be seen in the area, together with large pools of oil and/or formation water, abandoned, open to the elements. All testimony to the company’s presence.

The extraction continues. A number of oil companies are presently working in Yasuní, both Multinationals (Repsol , Block 16 , Petroriental block 14 ) and nationals ( Petroamazonas, Block 31).  Timber traffickers are also present in the area, and according to Carlos Andrés Vera’s documentary[1]  are ‘ supported ‘ by some Waorani[2]. At the same time, just across the border in Perú, the French oil company Perenco is in the process of exploiting block 67, which borders the park’s eastern limit.

2. Block 31, where oil companies have been exploring for a number of years, (Petroamazonas took control of the block in 2008 after the Brazilian company Petrobras left) is more of a concern than 43 ( ITT ). The oil fields are more widespread and likely to cause greater impacts than those if ITT (access roads, platforms , pipelines , seismic exploration , etc. . ) An access road has already been built , but the problems presented by Block 31 have not been widely discussed.

The question presented to the Constitutional Court by environmentalists seeking a national referendum on whether to leave oil in the ground does not mention block 31.

3. It seems clear that exploiting the ITT fields cannot be equated with ‘destroying’ Yasuní, as some claim.  It is difficult, although not impossible, to ‘save’ something that is already badly compromised. Claims made by the government side, to the extent that 99.9 % of the park is intact, are also hardly credible. A quick look at a map of Block 31, which occupies a large percentage of the Park, makes it clear that to say so is a distortion of reality.

At the same time, it is farcical to talk about the access paths (several meters wide) that will be opened in block 43 – ITT as being ‘green’. Of course, paths are preferable to the usual access roads, but calling them ‘green’ is absurd. Furthermore, as noted in the Ecuadorian National Assembly ‘ the ‘ecological path ‘ between the Tambacocha and Ishpingo fields would be about 30 km long.

4. Although not exploiting the block 43 – ITT fields may not save Yasuní, leaving the oil in the ground would obviously avoid doing more damage to the area. And avoiding damage is clearly significant as the park is an important center of biodiversity[3]. Extracting oil is always a risk even if the process is well managed. And while leading edge  technology may help, it will not prevent spills – it would be would be amazing if it did – and a spill could easily affect more than the 200 hectares proponents of the government plan always speak about.

5.  The proposal to leave oil in the ground was a good idea[4]. It never had a particularly good chance of succeeding, but it was worth trying. You never know. Life can surprise you. It is true that Rafael Correa was always skeptical of the idea and had to be convinced, although I suspect that if he had been able to get his hands on the US$ 3,600 million in donations (half the calculated value of the oil at 2007 prices) he might well have accepted the money. As they say, a bird in the hand….

But after more than five years it hadn’t worked. There are a number of reasons for the low level of contributions, and not all can be attributed to Rafael Correa and his skepticism. The main explanation for the lack of support by prospective donors, even those sympathetic to the proposal, was the fear that to fund it would open the door to hundreds of similar proposals. And while there is nothing wrong with that from an environmental standpoint, financing a myriad of proposals was not exactly what they had in mind. Despite the flow of fine words, they were afraid of the Yasuní- ITT proposal.

6 . It is worth remembering that the first trust set up to receive donations  was designed, among others, by Yolanda Kakabadse , President of the World Wide Fund for Nature and Trustee of the Ford Foundation, and businessman-environmentalist Roque Sevilla, both well connected in the NGO conservation world. They proposed that the money from the ITT plan be managed by national NGOs, but they almost certainly weren’t thinking of the radical NGOs that first proposed the idea of leaving the oil in the ground. Donor governments, meanwhile, as tends to happen with their international aid agencies, wanted to control the destination of the funds. Telling them to ‘stick their pennies in the ear ‘ was not exactly diplomatic (who expects that of Rafael Correa?) or designed to please potential donors, but it was an expression of sovereignty. The outburst may not have helped, but it seems unlikely that that was why the proposal failed.

One of the most worrying aspects of the Yasuní – ITT proposal was to finance it through the carbon bond market, a mechanism that allows major polluting states to continue emitting carbon dioxide in exchange for financing conservation projects in other parts of the planet. The plan leaves them ‘free’ to continue contributing to climate change, probably the most serious threat to the planet that exists (to say ‘ serious ‘ is to understate the catastrophic danger it represents). According to some experts, Climate Change could even cause large areas of the Amazon to dry up. It was a real contradiction.

7.  Ivonne Baki[5], the chief negotiator, did not represent the best choice to raise funds for the Yasuní-ITT proposal.

I am sure she had fun, and at least raised more than she and her team spent, but she was hardly the best option. Her environmentalism does not go very deep. I say that despite the fact that some of her team supported her because she spoke twenty five languages ​​and was an excellent negotiator: a statement hard to dispute given that she has occupied high level posts in three recent governments of quite different political stripes: those of Jamil Mahuad, Lucio Gutierrez and now Rafael Correa. It is a feat matched by very few.

8. To say that the real problem is capitalism has its merits, but it suffers from level confusion. Capitalism may be destroying the planet, but the problem with the argument is that we have to decide the fate of the Yasuní-ITT proposal now, and while talking about the role of capitalism can help in understanding the essential nature of the problem, it will not help a great deal in making a decision in the immediate present. And I doubt that capitalism will fail before the ITT oil fields give out.

9. Even though the Minister for Strategic Resource, Rafael Póveda, may deny it, the ITT oil fields have always been always considered to be one of the two major possible sources of oil for the proposed Pacific Refinery. Without it – or without crude imported from Venezuela – there would not, it was said, be a great enough volume to justify building it. That Ecuador needs a new refinery has never been a matter of great debate given that importing derivatives such as diesel or lubricating oil is extremely costly for the country. Depending on the quality of the lubricant, 10 or more barrels of crude have to be exported to import one single barrel. Imported diesel is also subsidized in Ecuador at a rate of roughly 2.3 to1.  So it is not difficult to understand the pressure to reduce costs by producing in the country rather than importing. One political drawback is that if the ITT oil is finally processed in the new refinery, to derive any real financial benefit and justify extracting the oil in the first place, any government would have to dramatically reduce or eliminate the internal subsidies on gasoline and diesel etc. It will not be easy.

10 . Not exploiting the ITT fields does not imply en end to ‘extractivism’: i.e. an excessive dependency on the export of unprocessed natural resources. It could be a step in that direction, but with this government that seems unlikely. There are two basic options for reducing dependence on primary resources: reduce the amount of resources exploited, or increase the contribution of the other areas of the economy to Gross Domestic Product, GDP. The current government is clearly committed to the second alternative. And according to that particular perspective, any ‘loss’ of income from ITT would need to be offset by other sources, mining for instance …

With regard to extractivism, the possible signing of a trade agreement with the European Union is more problematic than exploiting ITT. The general tendency of so called free trade agreements is for the more economically powerful partner to give preference to the importation of raw materials rather than manufactured goods or service that might undercut its own economy, thus tending to consolidate the resource dependency of their ‘partners’ rather than helping them develop their own industrial and service sectors.

11. If Yasuní will neither be ‘destroyed’ or ‘saved’, no matter what the final decision about exploiting the ITT fields is, then it seems fair to ask what the debate is really all about. Apart from the party political aspects – regional and local elections are scheduled for February – it is about assessing three things: 1. the extent to which extracting the oil may contribute to greater damage to the park and its biodiversity. 2.  Calculating, or rather guessing at, the real revenues to be gained from exploiting the fields, and what will be done with that money, and 3. the impact developing the fields might have on isolated indigenous groups that live in the area. None of the three aspects is clear cut.

We can quantify the land affected by the oil infrastructure with a fair degree of certainty, but we do not know how many spills there might be, and how they might the biodiversity of the area. Although any spill will clearly be negative, much will depend on how many take place, how much oil is spilled, how quickly that oil is contained and how far it spreads from the site of the accident.

It is estimated that in the Block 43- ITT area there are 2,000 species of insects per hectare and that some 1,000 may be lost due to the deforestation caused by installing the infrastructure. But none of this is easy to check. It is a generalization. We do not know exactly how many species there are in each hectare, or if these insects migrate, or how many are also present in other sectors of the park. Every hectare clearly does not contain 2,000 different species of insect. It has also been argued that the rate of endemism (plants not found elsewhere) is ‘ quite low ‘. With regard to the ‘cost’ of losing that biodiversity, we do not know how to quantify it, in part because we don’t even know what it is. Or perhaps living beings have no price.

Regarding the income the country might receive, there are differences of opinion. According to official sources the income will be in the order of 18 billion (thousand million) dollars. However, much depends on the oil market price from 2017, when the crude begins to flow, and during the productive years of the ITT fields. The projection is that the fields will produce for 29 years, although that obviously depends on the rate of extraction. The income is impossible to predict, and it could be a lot less. One proverbial fly in the ointment is the likelihood of U.S. energy self sufficiency (it could even become an exporter ) due to the exploitation of shale gas reserves and recently discovered deep water oil reserves in the Gulf of Mexico. This will undoubtedly change the scenario, although there does not appear to be a consensus about exactly how the market will react.

In the event that oil prices fall more than expected, the fields would evidently be less profitable. What also remains to be seen is if the calculated reserves are consistent with real levels: the estimates are out of date. And if the cost of producing the ITT field oil reaches $50 or even $ 60 a barrel due to its very low API[6] – approximately 14. It is like tar says oil consultant Henry Llanes –  profits could vanish altogether. And that is without taking into account the cost of environmental remediation, if it ever happens. It is also worth asking what will happen in five or ten years, with another government of possibly a different political stripe. Would the current government’s commitments regarding the allocation of resources be respected?

As for the presence of isolated peoples within blocks 31 and 43, this amounts to something of a mystery. We simply do not know. We know they are there, somewhere, but not where and not when. They could be at certain times in the South of Block 31 or 43, but nobody knows for sure: no reliable studies have been done.  So, given the other doubts that exist, it would probably be wise to delay the start of operations in the two blocks, (especially the Ishpingo field, the most southerly of the ITT group, and the most likely to form a part of the ‘territory’ of the isolated Taromenane, and possibly Tagaeri, indigenous groups)  until we have the necessary information. The Capuchin priest, José Enrique Cabodevilla, who has lived and worked for decades in that area of the Amazon, thinks so. So do I.

12. The money received from the ITT oil will not end poverty. But it is hardly valid to argue, as some do, that if poverty has not been eradicated with all the resources available to the government in the last few years then the relatively minor ITT resources will make no difference. Ending poverty (what country has ended poverty?) does not simply depend on resources, but on the will and, more crucially perhaps, on any government’s ability to change the conditions that cause it in the first place. Ending poverty ? Seven years? Maybe it could have been done, (a big maybe) if this were a socialist government. But it isn’t. Asking if there could be a socialist government in Ecuador at this point in time is also a valid question. And while the U.S. remains the dominant power that it is, I think that possibility is highly unlikely. Tthat does not imply losing hope of someday living in a more equitable society and fighting to make it happen.

I understand, without sharing, the anger generated by the possible exploitation of the ITT fields. What does make me angry is seeing, as I did a few days ago, a young girl of about 15 , evidently poor, with a vacant look that people suffering from malnutrition often have, breastfeeding her baby . It is not that rare. Unfortunately it is an everyday occurrence somewhere in the country. It is sad, an outrage even, that this kind of poverty can still exist. And I do not say this to support the government’s position, but because I think it is a fundamental human emotion. Should we not do absolutely everything to make sure this does not happen to any human being?

13. So should be the ITT fields be exploited or not ITT? Everyone will have their way of analysing the evidence. For my part, weighing everything up, I have come to the conclusion that yes we should. But I cannot say it with much conviction. It is a limited support for a complex decision that has to be taken because we live in a far from ideal world. And, as I mentioned above, I do not support the exploitation of the fields before we know more clearly what implications this might  have for the indigenous peoples living in isolation in the area.

I say yes because I do not believe exploiting the ITT fields will ‘destroy’ Yasuní, that it is simply not true, the area is already heavily intervened. At the same time I admit that income could be less than expected, and that even in the best case scenario will not put an end to poverty. But it will help to some degree, especially in an area historically neglected by the state. I say yes because to propose leaving the ITT oil in the ground and not stop the exploration and extraction in block 31 represents a total contradiction. To ‘save’ the Yasuní, and to make certain the isolated indigenous  groups are protected, implies putting an end to all oil activities that could have an impact on the park, and at the same time reaching an agreement with the Peruvians government to do the same thing in their oil blocks that border on Yasuní.

I am not opposed to the idea. If we are going to be radical, then let us be radical. But I admit that even from the safety of Quito, doing so would represent a tremendous financial risk, a risk that would probably not be acceptable to the country as a whole.

What worries me most is the future of the isolated indigenous groups. I do not know what kind of future they have. I suspect that is not very promising.  Faced with existing pressures (oil, illegal loggers, and murderous confrontations with their ‘brother’ Waorani) it is going to be very difficult for them to survive. So we have to know more about their presence in the area before starting any extraction in the ITT and block 31 fields. There is no other ethical choice.

I also worry about the many people who still live in real poverty in Ecuador. If we leave the ITT oil in the ground there will be economic consequences, and if we don’t find truly ‘alternative’ sources of revenue to replace the income, I feel I/we would need to apologize to the young girl I mentioned (and all the people like her that I have known and those who I have never seen or will see) because we did not do absolutely everything to help. Whether block 43-ITT is exploited or not, a lot more has to be done for the poor people of the country. They cannot be abandoned for ‘ lack of resources’.

There are already proposals for other revenue sources that would help reduce poverty and provide health and education in marginalised areas: reduce subsidies, reduce oil consumption, renegotiate contracts with cell phone companies, raise more money from the haves etc . etc. (Plan ‘C’ ) The problem is that these are not really alternative sources: the Correa government is probably already thinking about all those possibilities. What is needed is something new and unexpected, something that is not already within the government’s reach.

The most creative proposal is for those who support leaving the oil underground to transfer their cell phone accounts to the national provider CNT, providing more income for the state. If the government can be convinced, and if at the same time a sufficient number of subscribers can convinced, the oil could stay underground. The beauty of the proposal is that it would be a citizen initiative, would not cost anything – possibly  a little exasperation – and is not readily available to a government that is always looking for new revenue sources, wherever and whenever they can be found. The idea deserves strong support.

The time to make it work could be found by delaying work on the ITT fields while studies are carried out to determine the real presence of the isolated groups in the area. It is fair to say, however, that at present the chances don’t seem particularly good. The rush is on to develop the fields after five years of trying to raise money internationally, and Rafael Correa isn’t noted for his patience.

Of course, even if the plan worked that would still leave the problem of block 31, the other oil fields that are affecting Yasuní, and the proposed Pacific refinery. It is a complicated business.

*editor of , a Spanish language virtual magazine published in Ecuador.


[2] The Waorani are an indigenous people closely related to some of the isolated groups that live in and close to Yasuní national Park.

[3]Where Is The World’s Greatest Biodiversity? Smithsonian Scientists Find The Answer Is A Question Of Scale.

[4] Yasuní Rainforest Campaign/Save America’s Forests News Story May 25, 2007

[5] In the Gutiérrez Government (2002-2004), Baki was Minister of Foreign Trade.

[6] API is a measure of the density of the crude. API is the American petroleum Institute’s inverted scale for denoting the ‘lightness’ or ‘heaviness’ of crude oils and other liquidhydrocarbons. Calibrated in API degrees (or degreesAPI), it is used universally to expresses a crude’s relative density in an inverse measure, the lighter the crude, the higher the API gravity, and vice versa because lighter the crude the higher its market value. Oil with API greater than 30º is termed light; between 22º and 30º, medium; below 22º, heavy; and below 10º, extra heavy. Asphalt on average has an API gravity of 8°, Brent Crude of 35.5°. The Business dictionary


There are always surprises, but probably not this time

13 February 2013
Hugo, Chavez, South America´s best known politician may, or may not, recover from what is obviously an extremely serious illness. But even if he does manage to recover, it seems unlikely that he will be able to maintain the political rhythm he and his followers have become accustomed to. Whether dauphin Nicolas Maduro or any of the other ‘pretenders’ could steer Venezuela as successfully as Chávez is an unknown, they have had plenty of time to prepare, but that does not always make it any easier, as others in similar situations have become painfully aware.

The larger question related to Chávez is his influence outside of his home country. He is the undoubted leader of the more radical brand of ‘twenty first century socialism’ and although the oil keeps flowing, the most prominent critic of United States influence in the region, although the Brazilians and the Argentineans , while not receiving the same attention in US media outlets, are in practice very little behind the Venezuelan leader. Who will inherit the Venezuelan leader’s legacy is therefore an important question for the stability of the region and its continued fight to free itself from the political and economic interference of the United States.

Heinz Dietrich, inventor of the ‘twenty first century socialism’ concept, has publicly speculated about who could possibly take Chávez’ place on the international stage, if that should prove to be necessary. Dietrich´s conclusion was that Rafael Correa, the Ecuadorian President, was the most obvious candidate, while warning that “Ecuador does not have the necessary clout that would enable Correa to fill the void that Hugo Chávez is leaving” . And while Correa himself has declared a lack of interest, there is little doubt that given his charismatic personality and evident ability to communicate, that welcome or not, he could easily find himself receiving increasing amounts of international media attention over the next few years.

There is a small problem however. The Ecuadorian president´s mandate runs out this year and the post Chavez debate will hardly concern him if he is not reelected in next Sunday’s (February 17th) presidential elections. Correa has never lost an election, and the opinion polls do in fact predict a win, with possibly enough votes to avoid a second round run-off. Unfortunately, the pollsters’ research is generally considered to be unreliable, lending the process a slight air of doubt, and there is at least a slender chance that another candidate might upset Correa´s apple cart, and set the pundits scurrying to find another ‘successor’ to Hugo Chávez.

The magnificent seven

Of the seven candidates challenging Rafael Correa, only two, the banker Guillermo Lasso and Alberto Acosta , the candidate for the left wing front, Unidad Plurinacional, appear to have any real chance of springing a surprise. The other five are in the race to position themselves for future electoral races (Mauricio Rodas of SUMA, although this could also apply to Lasso); consolidate a new party (Norman Wray, Ruptura); or to preserve their party´s seats in the National Assembly (Ex President Lucio Gutiérrez, Sociedad Patriotica, and Nelson Zavala of the PRE). The last of the eight, the curiously comic banana magnate, Alvaro Noboa, appears to be running in response to a battle over taxes, using the campaign in a rather futile attempt to take some measure of revenge on Rafael Correa.

While Lasso and Acosta may have to be given some sort of chance of forcing a second round of voting, for this to happen the pollsters would have to be making dramatic errors. With only a few days to go before election day, Correa is apparently riding high. In a poll carried out by ‘Perfiles de Opinion’ the incumbent had a voting intention of more than 60%. Others are not so generous, but no one gives him less than the 40% he would need to secure a victory in the first round. Acosta´s campaign people put him at 15% and growing, but even that, or Lasso´s 20%, would be far from enough to take either of them into a second round.

Guillermo Lasso´s numbers also probably represent the limit of his popularity. The banker likely has a high negative vote given that he acted as a chief economic advisor to ex President Jamil Mahuad, in exile since a financial meltdown threw the country into chaos in 2000; the destructive effects of that period have not been forgotten. Perhaps understandably, Lasso has been notably absent from the political field in the intervening years. The financier´s recent resurgence is due in part to the right´s need for a challenger who is not Lucio Gutiérrez, the very same colonel who led the military-civilian coup that toppled Mahuad, and who, despite finishing second in the last presidential election, is not viewed with much enthusiasm by the country´s right wing elites. Lasso’s campaign has also been helped by the financial resources at his disposal, and the fact the bank of which he is the major shareholder (Bank of Guayaquil) provided a convenient pre campaign promotional vehicle.

But the avuncular Lasso´s links with Mahuad have quite understandably been a problem for his now apparently stalled campaign. He is too easy a target and his presence as a major candidate speaks volumes about the lack of options on the right. The economy is another factor. The financial elites are doing quite well thank you very much; the country´s economy is rolling along at a healthy rate (last year GDP grew at slightly less than 8% and is projected to grow at around 4 to 5% in 2013) and are understandably ambiguous about fixing something that is evidently not broken.

The country´s economic health and Rafael Correa´s use of the available resources to bolster investments in Education and especially Health, an area where the results are more immediate and more than evident to those with little money have brought him high levels of approval throughout his mandate. The middle classes meanwhile have their salaries and expanding opportunities as well as a much improved highway system and a new airport. Overall social spending has, in fact, risen substantially, although in percentage terms the rise is not quite as impressive and Ecuador remains in the mid-lower ranks in terms of social spending as a percentage of GDP.
The fact that corporate power has grown under the present government is one of the major reasons cited by followers of Alberto Acosta (Unidad Plurinacional or Plurinational Front) for their opposition to Correa´s re-election. And while it is evident that with a healthy economy the wealthy are bound to do well, even consolidating their power through the proliferation of economic groups and a concentration of resources , the lack of change in the productive matrix (recognized by Correa himself) and the very slow reduction of the inequality index lend weight to left wing claims. The weakness of the reforms is a problem in another sense: without deep roots any transformation will be easily overturned by future right wing governments.

Magic Socialism

Ecuador´s governing Alianza País may not be economically right wing, but what has become clear over the years is that even in Venezuela or Bolivia Twenty First Century Socialism is not socialism at all, at least not in any recognizable form. This too is a sore point with many one time supporters of the ‘Citizen´s Revolution’, although it is hard to believe that there was ever much evidence that Rafael Correa himself was anything other than a very strong willed social democrat with a church based philosophy of ‘helping the poor’. Strong willed may be putting it too mildly. There is less talk today of dictatorship, a term promoted by the right and unfortunately adopted by the left, but there is no doubt that discipline is the order of the day. A series of punish and pardon exercises has been used to squash opposition to government policies or extraction schemes and to tame the right wing press and avoid situations such as the present standoff in Argentine where the media group Clarin and President Cristina Fernandez de Kirchener have locked horns. But the opposition press is not the only political force on the government´s list, and in fact, anything that looked vaguely as if it might comprise a political threat to Correa has been systematically attacked. The indigenous organisation CONAIE (Confederation of Ecuadorian Indigenous Nationalities) has been a major target for that very reason.

Despite having lost a lot of its political clout in recent years after a devastating alliance with Lucio Gutierrez that fractured the organization and resulted in a loss of credibility, this indigenous group is still a force in Ecuadorian politics. CONAIE and other indigenous organizations are one of only two social sectors with any real ability to put together a healthy political campaign outside the parliamentary system . And the fact that many of the major mining and oil exploration projects are also located in indigenous territory has lead to heightened tensions and conflict.

As a consequence indigenous leaders have been branded ‘terrorists’, arrested and jailed for short periods , and while apparently none are presently in jail a many of the charges are still pending : a time tested tactic for shutting people up. The trend is worrying, to say the least. The most recent and most serious case involves the Luluncoto 10, a group of young people arrested while planning a protest against the government as part of the mass demonstration of March 2012. Supposed members of the Group of Popular Combatants (GCP) none of the ten had committed any crime. The evidence against them consists of pictures of Ché Guevara, pamphlets, left wing books and more seriously, a manual for producing a bomb, a fact that while evidently not admissible as proof of intent, does raise serious concerns .

The major charge against the ten is that they belong to the GCP , something which the state has not been able to prove, and that that group exploded a number of pamphlet bombs in November 2011, also a supposition. The ten were held without trial until only recently, a period of approximately ten months. Seven men were granted bail before Christmas but two women are still being held; the trial has now been interrupted and will not conclude until after the elections. The Attorney General is quoted as saying that the group “planned to destabilise our democracy …… there are mobile phone messages which clearly show that their intention is to take power by force of arms”. But in the circumstances that seems laughable, and, all in all, it is difficult to see the case as anything other than a bad dose of paranoia.

The episode has produced an extensive but relatively low key response in the mainstream press (the GCP is hardly looked on with great sympathy). But on the left the issue has been roundly criticised and has become a cause célèbre; the issue of class is also important here. An interesting comparison could be made with the case of a communication sent to clients by the directors of four large banks. The e-mail suggested that a proposed tax increase on their profits, levied in order to increase welfare payments to the country´s poorest sectors, could have an impact on client´s savings. While the action produced a lot of noise from the government side, and whose results could have been extremely serious, much more so than a supposed pamphlet bomb, the only action taken was to fine eight directors of the four banks involved.

The constant campaigner

These events, concerns and forces (apart from the bankers) have found a voice in the Acosta campaign which is presently running well behind Rafael Correa. There are always surprises, and there may be some hidden support for Acosta in provinces whose indigenous populations are higher, but it seems more likely that the real battle will not be for the presidency but rather for control of the National Assembly. Here the left wing front lead by Acosta may have more success, although one of the major problems is that the alliance’s principal candidate on the national level, Lourdes Tiban, can only generously be described as being on the left and who does not generate much enthusiasm in the general population.

Another problem is proportional representation. The method used to take into account minority voters has recently been changed, with the result that Alianza País candidates are likely to fare better in the final count, and could possibly be elected in large numbers. Two recent polls do in fact predict that Correa’s party could end up with a large majority in parliament.

A third factor is the efficiency that has become one of the hallmarks of the present government. The political arena is clearly part of the tendency and the constant campaign strategy already visible in governments in other parts of the world has now been instituted here in Ecuador. In the short term it seems virtually impossible for any opposition movement to overcome the electoral deficit, in particular against a President as popular as Rafael Correa. In the long term the result almost certainly signals the need for a reorganization of existing political organisations, something the new Constitution aimed at but which can now be seen to have been only partially successful given that 12 parties are registered officially for the February elections.

Correa´s way of doing politics is likely to become the norm, and given that no other presently existing electoral force has the capacity to mobilize resources and propaganda in the same way, any future challenge to Correa´s green machine will involve changes. What might that mean for the hard left, whose parties are generally small and operate with severely restricted financing? The options seem to be three: to operate even more marginally than at present; join forces with other less radical parties in a broad spectrum alliance; or leave the electoral scene all together. The right, with its financial resources, presently appears far better positioned to deal with this new state of affairs.

The consequences of victory.

On the electoral front, the Unidad Plurinacional will likely have some time to sort itself out after the elections are over. It is possible to win losing, however, and the positive side of this electoral exercise is that there is, in practice, a left wing front that, if the process can be maintained in the face of personal and organisational agendas, may be able to position itself well for the post Correa era. The big decision is whether that should be as an electoral force.

On the social front, nothing short of victory will be enough for the left wing opposition, the post oil economy proponents, the indigenous leaders or the organizers of anti mining protests. In Correa´s lexicon legitimacy is equivalent to victory at the ballot box and, as a consequence, if you do not win then you have no right to protest and impede the agenda, and if you do, then you had better watch out. And while a higher than expected vote for Alberto Acosta might have some momentary impact and strengthen the resolve of that opposition, in the longer term it is unlikely to have any great impact on the economic plan. It can be said of Correa and his agenda that ‘this man is not for turning’. The implications are a greater likelihood of mobilisation and confrontation over oil, mining and water projects and, on the part of the government, greater use of the police and armed forces and attempts to ‘convince’ local leaders of the value of these projects for their people as well for as the wider community. This local–national/rural- urban debate is in fact one of the two that underlies almost every issue, the other being how to avoid the trap of an extractivist economy and what that implies on every level.

Rafael Correa clearly falls on the National Urban side of the divide, and whether or not you agree with his methods, there is no doubt that he and his team are excellent strategists. They will be hard to defeat in any arena, including the political. As for the candidate himself, it seems likely that he will be reelected either in the first or second round of voting. And given the increasing sense that, if he lives, Hugo Chávez will no longer be the force he was, as President of Ecuador once again, Rafael Correa will be called upon to play a greater part in the ongoing battle for the soul of South America. It is a battle he clearly believes in, and an arena in which he will have the support of the majority of the regions leaders. The internal politics of his country look somewhat more complicated.



[1] A Cold War has apparently developed between Argentina and the US. The most recent events in the standoff are the cooperation between Iran and Argentina to investigate the bombing of  a Jewish bank in Buenos Aires in 1994 in which 85 people died,  and the  ruling by an Argentinean appeal tribunal that ratifies an embargo on the assets of Chevron oil company due to a ruling in an Ecuadorian court that awarded damages against the company of US$19,000 million. and the dispute with the IMF over official financial data.  Brasil has just refused to recognize the Apple Iphone trademark.


[3] International recognized economist and ex President of the Constitutional Assembly which wrote the 2009 constitution.

[4] Partido Roldosista Ecuatoriano, PRE, was founded after the death of President Jaime Roldos in an air ‘accident’ in 1981, the year in which President Omar Torrijos of Panama also died in similar circumstances. The PRE’s de facto leader is the deposed and exiled ex president Abdala Bucaram who presently resides in Panama.

[5] With his wife Anabella Azin as his Vice-Presidential nominee,

[6] If is, if he wins 10% more than the second place finisher. Otherwise he would need 50% +1 to avoid a second round.

[7] Mahuad who now teaches at Harvard University was recently, and not so coincidentally, the subject of an Ecuadorian request to Interpol for his arrest and subsequent deportation. Perhaps unsurprisingly, the request failed.

[8] According the Economic Commission for Latin América and the Caribbean, ECLAC, Ecuador’s social spending amounted to 9.3% in 2011, up from 7.5% in 2007 but down from 9.5% in 2010. The economy has of course grown substantially and the amount of constant dollars spent has therefore increased in proportion, by (a dramatic) 28.5% in 2009, 4.8% in 2010 and 6.2% in 2011. In terms of public spending Ecuador at 36% of GDP  in 2010 was amongst the highest in Latin  America. (Panorama Social de América Latina. ECLAC, January 2013 p173.  Cuadro IV.1 AMÉRICA LATINA Y EL CARIBE (21 PAÍSES): GASTO PÚBLICO TOTAL, GASTO PÚBLICO SOCIAL Y GASTO PÚBLICO NO SOCIAL, 2008 A 2011

[9] There is another side to the story.  Major increases in public service pay scales – teachers, police, armed forces and state bureaucrats – have also been a major feature of this government.

[10] Even though Ecuador is now amongst the least unequal countries in the region (headed by Venezuela and Uruguay) its Gini index is still just under 5. (Panorama Social de América Latina. ECLAC, January 2013.  P 91. Gráfico II.2 AMÉRICA LATINA (18 PAÍSES): DESIGUALDAD SEGÚN DIVERSOS ÍNDICES, AÑO MÁS RECIENTE.

[11] Correa´s variety of politics was recently branded ‘Magic Socialism’ by the Quito based journalist Roberto Aguilar

[12] Rafael Correa is a practicing Catholic.

[13] The other being the National  Teachers Union, UNE, whose political expression is the Marxist Leninist party, the Movimiento Popular Democrático, MPD. The union has successfully resisted attempts to divide it, but rising salaries and better conditions have weakened its core support.

[14] A new round of oil exploration concessions has been advertised and offers will be declared in March of this year. The 13 blocks, of 200.000 Ha. Each, are located principally in the south eastern –Amazon area of the country, and have been rejected by indigenous and environmental organizations .

[15] Recent conflicts include oil exploration around Sani Island and the Mirador and Fruta del Norte mining projects.

[16] Prominent amongst these is Pepe Acacho, ex President of the indigenous Shuar Federation, who was arrested in a combined Police and Armed Forces operation and taken by Helicopter to Quito. He was charged with terrorism and sabotage in connection with a September 2009 protest against proposed water legislation in which one person died. He was held for 7 days before the charges were thrown out as invalid. He was also charged with being an accomplice to the murder of Bosco Wizuma the man who died in the protests, and those charges are still pending despite the fact that the murder has never been resolved. Acacho is now a candidate for the National Assembly. El Comercio Pepe Acacho, preso en el ex penal García Moreno  02 febrero 2011.

[17] “Según informes de organismos de derechos humanos y de la Defensoría del Pueblo del Ecuador, en el 2011 existían 129 defensores de derechos humanos judicializados por el gobierno y por empresas privadas, así como 31 activistas políticos que tiene juicios en su contra o están sentenciados” En Ecuador hay presos políticos que necesitan la solidaridad y compromiso de todos y todas. 22 June 2012

As of December 2012 47 social leaders were facing charges for terrorism. Lunes, 10 Diciembre 2012 ECUADOR: 47 DIRIGENTES AFRONTAN JUICIOS POR TERRORISMO. Agencia Ane

[18] The presence of the manual on how to produce a bomb raises questions about who knew about the manual, and about whether this was a serious plan to produce a bomb (in all likelihood a pamphlet bomb designed to attract attention and spread propaganda) and finally at what point the police or the authorities in general should intervene, if at all, if there is a suspicion that a pamphlet bomb could be made and could be used.

[19] The implicit accusation is that this group is the armed wing of the Ecuadorian Marxist Leninist Party, although no arms were found in the raid.

(20) “pretendían desestabilizar nuestra democracia… Hay mensajes de celular que claramente determinan que su intención es tomarse el poder por las armas.” Quoted in  LOS DIEZ DE LULUNCOTO ¿TERRORISTAS? por Ramiro Ávila Santamarí 29 January, 2013

[21] Bank profits have been taxed in order to pay for an increase in welfare payments to the poorest sectors

[22] Market and Santiago Perez.

[23] The entire process of re-inscription of political parties was plagued by irregularities, principally the use of false signatures by all organizations involved, including the governing party.