ON THE BUS THE PAPER

On the bus, the paper.
“Government fears rise of a guerrilla movement with Colombian help.”
On the street, the beggar drags himself on buckled hands and dusty knees between two lanes of stationary traffic.
A notice hangs from his neck, REGALAME UNA CARIDAD.
He smiles. I wince. The bus grinds forward in a cloud of fumes.

Lima 1997.
In the Japanese embassy residence Nestor Serpa waits,
patiently, with friends from the MRTA,
Week after week, weak after weeks.

“Come on people now, call on your brother, everybody get together, gonna love one another, right now”.
Sixties love and peace reaches out from the radio
in a small room overlooking the park in Jesús María.

Inside, Latin America spills blood from the veins of an open book.
Outside the indian dead murmur in the trees in the heat of the afternoon.
cars move slowly, the wrong way round the roundabout.

On the television, Fujimori floats out,
Walking, dreamlike, up the stairs of the smoke filled residence,
past the bullet riddled Serpa, the fallen downstairs angel.

Abimael Guzman, the great bear, is exhibited,
Walking, in the firmament of his cell, a shining path traced from wall to bars.
Freedom comes, they say. The guerrilla, dead or alive, is defeated.

On the bus, the paper. “Forty percent of Colombia is in guerrilla hands.
U.S. proposes international intervention to save democracy.”
Democracy is cornerstone of Latin America says the Group of Rio.

On the street, the beggar smiles, drags himself forward,
picking up a coin tossed from a car,
his sign swinging, like a pendulum marking the hours.

WHAT’S HIS ADDRESS?


May 2011

I’ve known the man for a while, although I couldn’t say with any certainty where I first met him, or even tell you his name. I have to admit that most of the time, certainly up until recently, I tried to avoid him. In my defense I should say that he’s almost stone deaf, consequently shouts a lot, and has moments that can only be described as lunatic. For instance, there was the time he collared me in a café and started on about Rafael Correa, the president, his favourite subject, the man he loves to hate.

“He’s sold the entire Amazon to the Church,” he tells me, shouting in my ear. “I want to denounce it, it’s a disgrace, someone’s got to do something about it.” “I hadn’t heard about it,” I tell him. “Where did you read that?” “It’s in the papers,” he says. “We have to do something about it. I want you to help me.” I look at him with a mixture of amusement and terror, trying hard to keep both under control. “I’d like to check it out before I do anything,” I say. “Tell me where you got the information, and I’ll do a little research to make sure I’ve got my facts right.” He snorts, dismisses me with an imperious wave of the hand, and marches off.

I should add that the conversation was not totally happenstance. The man knows that I was once part of a now disappeared local newspaper that achieved a certain level of standing amongst a sector of the left wing, unemployed, coffee drinking and café haunting population, and that has now assumed an almost mythical status, at least amongst those of us who once worked there. So his asking for help wasn’t totally out of line. Of course, the newspaper no longer exists, and after the debacle of the international media centre in the Ministry of Political Coordination, which I won’t go into, no-one takes much notice of me anymore.

The point is that the man seems to find me whenever I‘m in the vicinity. He seems to have a radar screen with my name written on it, in very large letters, and over the last year or two exchanges have consequently become relatively frequent. Most recently he’s been after me about one of my partners in the newspaper, the editor, who is now a high up in the Foreign Office and is relatively well known amongst the previously mentioned set. Somehow the man had got wind of his new post and wants to talk to him. As usual he’s desperate, and shouting in my ear. “I know them all” he says, citing a few names. “I know them all, we go back a long way. So what about this friend of yours? Do you see him often?” “Only from time to time”, I answer, “but less so these days”. “Well”, he barks, “do you know where he lives?” “Not really, somewhere in the valley”, I respond vaguely, although it’s true that I now don’t know where he lives, and that saves me from lying. “Maybe you know the house?” “No”. “Have you been there?” “No, I haven’t been there, he moved just recently.” “Then what about the telephone?” “No, I don’t have his number”. This time I’m forced to lie. “It must be in the book” says the man. “I suppose so.” “Then what we need is his address. Do you know the house?” “No”. “Have you been there?” “No”. Now he seems to lose interest, and wanders off to sit by himself.

The next time I bump into him, the routine is the same: “See him often?” “No”. “Address?” “No”. “Know the house?” “No”, and so on and so forth. But this time it occurs to me to ask him why he wants to talk to my ex colleague. “I know them all” he says, “I know them all, and I’ve been thinking that I could do with a job. It’s not that I want to be an ambassador, that’s probably out of reach, but something in an embassy, that would be fine. I want to talk to your friend, I know him well”. “Then why don’t you go to the Foreign Office”, I tell him, “after all it’s just up the street. This time he really surprises me. “I’ve already been”, he says, “but they wouldn’t let me in”. “Perhaps you need an appointment”. “They wouldn’t give me one”, he says, “they told me he was very busy”.

A day later I see him on the street, he looks like he’s in a hurry. I wonder whether I should say hello. Finally I decide that, why not, he’s amusing, even if he is a bit crazy. “Do you know how to use a computer?” he asks. “No problem” I tell him. “Then help me to find this address in Chile”. “Fine” I say, “let’s go to the nearest internet place, and see what we can do”. It’s more complicated than I imagine. We find the directories for Chile, but for some reason the Santiago section doesn’t work, and he gets angry, at the machine, at me, and as he leaves, at the owner who wants to charge him for the time we’ve been using the computer. He refuses to pay and storms off.

I last saw him a week or so ago, sitting in the café drinking his coffee. He signals me to come over and sit down. “Read this,” he says “I’m claiming compensation, but they’ve told me that I have to write it all over again, that I didn’t do it properly”. I begin to read. It’s the story of how as an Ecuadorian student in Chile he got caught up in the aftermath of the Pinochet/CIA coup in 1973. He and some others were able to take refuge in a church, but for some unfathomable reason left and were immediately arrested. My friend was driven to a basement somewhere, where they questioned and beat him for a number of days. One of the others was shot. The rest were then taken by boat to an island, where he was thrown onto the beach with his hands tied behind his back. He was beaten again for a number of days, but somehow, with the help of the United Nations, was eventually released.

“I lost seventy percent of my hearing when I hit my head on the hard sand”, he says, “but at least I didn’t die”.

WHAT’S A PAINTING WORTH?

Sept 2006

Last week I had the rather dubious pleasure of being present as a witness at a Harrogate County Court hearing. The matter under discussion was the loss (presumed theft) of two small unsold paintings, valued by the artist at £360, from exhibition held two years previously and whose proceeds, should there have been any, were to have been donated to charity. I was there in support of the person being sued, the organiser of the event. We lost.

These kind of things happen every day you might think, and in that you’re probably right. There’s little in the details of the event to excite interest. But while the case itself was perhaps unimportant, there were some unasked, and therefore unanswered, questions relevant to the world of art and commerce that might be worth exploring.

So back to the exhibition, in which I myself presented a couple of perhaps unsurprisingly unsold works. It’s obvious to even the casual observer that ‘art’ exhibitions are organized on a number of levels. At one pole there’s the London gallery scene, where paintings by folks generally dead, and sometimes excruciatingly alive, sell for astronomical sums. At the other end of the scale are the informally organized church basement sales in which lesser talented local artists such as myself participate, and which involve the concepts of both Caveat Emptor and Caveat Exhibitor.

One presumes – and I have to say that as I am not part of the London scene, I am in fact presuming rather than operating on the basis of experience – that the high end events are rather well organized, with all aspects covered including the possibility of theft or loss. There is simply too much money at stake. Although I do seem to recall that a couple of years back a fire destroyed a great deal of expensive work stored in an art ‘warehouse’. Not all eventualities can be assuaged.

At the other end, my end, things are, well, let’s say, not always quite as well planned. There’s less at stake. And to be honest much of the work is often of lesser quality and often doesn’t sell, no matter how many red spots might appear before your eyes. The prices are also often dubious. The exhibitions are held for ourselves rather than for the buyer. They make us feel good. We stand proudly about at the opening or drink ourselves silly while making vain pronouncements about our work or the art scene in general “the stuff that sells is all rubbish”. “Did you see that ridiculous work at the Tate Modern? It was just a hole in the floor and they paid millions” or “People have no taste, they just buy for decoration: ‘I‘ll take the blue one’ ”.

We have our difficulties with the buying and selling, after all we’re artists, we tell ourselves, not salespeople. I myself am not always a fan of the so-called market, it often leaves a great deal to be desired but, as far as art goes, I don’t see any other way unless we were to return to the make art projects of the nineteen thirties. As artists we put a price on our work that in most cases is quite arbitrary, it reflects what we would like to receive, it reflects our admittedly often rather biased opinion about its value. At this end of the spectrum it reflects aspiration rather than market reality. In the end, it sells or it does not. If you can’t sell the work, it has no commercial value. It matters little what emotional attachment a painting or sculpture may have for you the artist or how technically or artistically accomplished it may, or may not, be.

It is a part of any artist’s training to learn the painful lesson that your treasured masterpieces are not always appreciated by others to quite the same extent. That does not mean that if you eventually (posthumously) become as well known as Picasso, someone won’t enthuse publicly about the profound implications of the one you did with the bicycle seat and handlebars and then threw away, only to see it rejected by the bin-men and end up in the attic next to your Adam Faith record collection. Or that the shark in aspic that you once foisted on an unassuming world will always be worth the small fortune some presuming collector paid for it. The art world is like that. Prices, like tastes, are notoriously fickle.

So in the end, what is a painting really worth? The short answer: whatever you can get for it, in court or elsewhere.

ABOUT THE TIME WE WENT WEST FOR A COUPLE OF WEEKS

It’s late January. I’ m ‘seasonally unemployed’ as they say, drawing the dole until the race track opens again in February. Paul is heading off to Edmonton to a job in a therapy centre for handicapped kids. It seems like an opportunity. After we arrive I’ll head over the mountains to Vancouver and see all my old friends for a couple of days. I’ll be back in two weeks.

We leave on a snowy morning, sent off like Shackleton’s heroes in Paul’s ’65 Chevrolet, a monster of a car which has room for everything, including his house plants. I have just got my licence, for the second time, and am confident, more or less, that I can share the driving. But for some reason we don’t pay much attention to the fact that the car is heavily loaded behind, the weight distribution uneven, not calculated to improve road holding.

Heading North from Sudbury around the northern shore of Lake Superior, I begin to realise that I am terrified by the possibility that on a tight slippery curve the back loaded Chevy, and I, just can´t handle, we might, just might, drift into the path of one of the monster trucks that are travelling all too frequently in the opposite direction. The conditions are not like they were in Liverpool. The road is two-lane and narrowed constantly by drifting snow that tends to cover the slick patches. The car’s power steering makes me feel like I´m driving on skies. And I can’t ski. To complicate matters my feet are being chilled by the wind that’s whistling in through the hole in the floor we have only recently noticed. Twice we, that is to say I, drive into a ditch. That we don’t die is something to be thankful for. We get out somehow and head off again in a sort of Laurel and not so Hardy prairie adventure. Paul drives the rest of the way.

After making up for time lost in ditches, we stop around midnight in a National Park on the North shore of the Lake Superior. “Wow man ! look at those stars. Let’s pull over and smoke a joint”. We do. We walk across a frozen lake admiring the glittering night sky. “Wow Man !”. The night sky is a jewel, but as we walk back we realise that the car is axle deep in the snow. “Wow man, heavy duty”. It’s past midnight in an isolated park, North of nowhere, and we haven’t seen a single car drive by since we stopped about half an hour ago. We’re worried. We’re really worried. Worried that we don’t have the blankets or candles or any of the other things they tell you to take if you don’t want to freeze to death on a lonely highway north of Superior. “Oh shit man”.

I don’t know what we do, or how we do it. Perhaps we dig with our hands or put branches under the tires. We certainly pray. I keep thinking about stories of mothers who wrestle cougars or crocodiles to death, or lift cars over their heads to save their children. It feels like the same kind of mystical experience. I know Jesus is on our side. On the third try we get the car out.

It begins to dawn on us that we’ve been optimistic about the time it will take to cross the prairies in the middle of winter. Optimistic about the amount of money we need and optimistic about the ability of the house plants to survive. When we finally arrive in Edmonton, the snow is piled five feet high and the house plants are dead. Thankfully we are still alive, but we have no money. We stay the night in a room in the therapy hostel, and in the morning I borrow five dollars from Paul, who borrows it from someone else, and buy a bus ticket to Vancouver. I leave the next day. We wish each other good luck.

On the other side of the mountains the weather is much better: the grass is green and the cattle are fat. But one thing doesn’t change, money is still a problem. Thankfully there are refuges for those who don’t have any: shelters for the needy, which I have never considered myself to be, at least until now. After convincing those who needed to be convinced, that, Canadian citizen or not, I’m stranded with no money or place to stay, I’m given a bed in a men’s hostel close to Pigeon Park, where the pigeons are outnumbered by the drunk and homeless. There I see the first person I know, ‘Max’. We had met a few years ago picking strawberries in Abbotsford, about twenty five miles from Vancouver. I’m glad to see a friendly face. I call out. He looks at me blankly and wanders unsteadily into a grim looking hotel.

At the hostel they give me vouchers for meals in the White Spot Lunch, a greasy spoon with its complement of cigarette mouthed waitresses, men who would not be out of place in a 30’s Bowery film, and an owner with a drooping moustache and an enormous belly covered by a grease stained semi white apron who looks like he has seen his best days, but might still convince himself to cut your throat if you don’t pay. I eat well. At night, back in the dormitory, I sleep soundly, with wallet and knife under the pillow.

After waking and checking that I‘m alive and documented, I set off in search of a more comfortable place to stay. I hunt through telephone books and anything else I can think of in search of friends, anyone I might know. But like the history of the men in the hostel, no trace is evident. Then, on the third day, salvation calls. My heart leaps when, sitting in a bus stopped at a traffic light close to the Burrard Street Bridge, I notice a Volkswagen passing in the opposite direction. There she is, a vision of a clean room, conversation, and perhaps more. In a Zhivagoesque scene, I shout and wave frantically, Sandy, Sandy, Sandy … while she, oblivious, drives off slowly in the other direction.

I give up on my invisible friends as a source of shelter, and head to the race track in the Pacific Exhibition Grounds. I know the season is to start around February or March, and I hope I might find a room in exchange for work. But fate doesn´t seem to be on my side. The scene is desolate. Apart from the seagulls shitting on the Greenpeace boat forlornly exhibited in the winter rain and the few hardy ducks that sit contemplating their navels, not much seems to be going on.

Of the few people braving the rain, no-one is interested in giving me work. I go back the next day, and then the next, until finally I manage to persuade someone to take me on. Wayne, a thin, dapper man with a Clark Gable moustache and an affable manner, seems like a decent type, and appears to be doing well enough. He has some good horses, he says, they’re in California for the winter…he’ll give me a 5 by 5 concrete block room complete with thin mattress, iron bed and burlap sack over the window, some horses to look after and, best of all, money.

It rains all the time. I feel like I am living on like Noah’s Ark. But nothing lasts for ever. Soon the spring leaves begin to appear. I begin to enjoy life. My little room becomes a refuge. Each morning I step out to look across the river onto the coastal mountains and breathe in the smell of the cedar mills down in False Creek. I am as happy as I have ever been. Spiritual revival, the Tao, Lotus Land. I am walking on air. I meet Laura. She works walking ‘hots’, is interesting, and is interested in me. So we sleep together, do acid in Stanley Park, talk horses, drink wine and watch foreign films at the somewhat unfortunately named “East Vancouver Cultural Centre”. But nothing lasts forever.

Tony is my co-worker, we look after about eight horses each. He has a couple of his own in the barn and is an experienced worker with aspirations of sorts. Tony definitely does not walk on air, nor is he interested in the Tao or the East Vancouver Cultural Centre. He likes to play tricks on me. He talks of animals suffering from ‘rain scalds’. I suppose I bother him. I work hard and don’t complain, and Wayne promises me one of the good horses that are to arrive shortly from California. Maybe this is the key, no way to be sure, but I’m certain that something is wrong when Tony accuses me of giving “needles” to his horse. An absurd idea perhaps, but Tony’s sense of the absurd is not that well developed. He isn’t keen on his “hippy” co-worker, so the long hair, and the needles, have to go.

The confrontation starts. Wayne stands by but says nothing. Tony goes a little berserk and hits me somewhere. Surprised, I do nothing. He hits me again. This time I fall back against the wall. He stands back shaking, neck bulging, face purple, fists at the ready. This is his mistake. He lacks the killer instinct. At least I can say that for him. Or perhaps he is just so certain that hippies high on love and peace don’t fight back. As he comes for me the third time I hit him a good straight left, and that’s that, suddenly it’s all over. I see him the next day in the racetrack kitchen. He has a black eye. “It was his ring” I hear him say. I tell them at the barn that I was once a boxer. I think some of them believe me.

I quit. Going back East, I tell Wayne. Just like that. It seems unfair to Laura. I like her, and but for the unforeseen would probably still be here, working. It even seems a little tragic, but for reasons I’m not able to define, I’ m determined to go. We sleep together for the last time, and then go down to Central Station. It is early May. I board the train for Edmonton to see Paul, the 65 Chev, and the duck he now has living in his bathroom.

BOLIVIA ON MY MIND. (Part I)

When I first arrived in South America in the nineteen seventies, supposedly on my way to Tierra del Fuego, Patagonia and the, for me, mythical Magellan Straits, I don’t suppose Bolivia was on my mind.

I didn’t make it to the straits of course. I got stuck in the South of Colombia, in Cali to be exact, with no money to get any further, in the company of a blond German friend who much to my dismay turned all the girls heads, a rolled up dollar bill and some white powder thoughtfully provided by a member of the Peace Corps.

How come you’re back so soon asked Anne, a woman I’d met on the plane from Panama (a DC3, I think it even had bullet holes from the Korean War) to Medellin 1, where I showed up only a month after I’d supposedly left on my round South America tour. I can’t remember my reply, it was probably pretty feeble, but I do remember feeling awkward, as if I’d somehow failed, despite having travelled from Toronto across Canada and then down West Coast of the US and Mexico, through Central America and eventually into Colombia. In retrospect I hadn’t done so badly, and definitely had no regrets about missing Bolivia.

The second time around

The objective this time, some forty years later, was not Bolivia but rather, once again, Argentina. The result wasn’t much different, although I did get closer, to Bolivian border town of Bermejo to be exact, a place where everyone seems to be involved in trading something or other, tourists are not that common, and the presence of huge rafts supported by what seem to be airplane inner tubes, and that don’t appear to move during the day, suggests that most of the traffic and the goods are contraband. Isn’t that what borders are for?

It was a close run thing however. I actually crossed the river to Aguas Blancas on the Argentinean side, where both the Bolivian and Argentinean migration offices are housed. In fact, I made the short journey twice.

Looking back I suppose I was somewhat casual about getting into Argentina. It hadn’t occurred to me that a Canadian passport would be a problem, and at first there wasn’t. It was Patricia that got the grilling: Oh, Colombian passport… wait a minute says the female officer, who, fingering the document as if it were property of a leper, promptly disappears into the back office. She reappears a few minutes later accompanied by a burly white shirted male officer who fires a barrage of questions: you got a name in Argentina? anywhere to stay? A Hotel? A friend? You have a flight out? A ticket? etc. etc. etc.

The frontier: Bermejo and the Bermejo River.

Aguas Bancas-Bermejo - Bermejo, Bolivia
Photo: Walter Ramallo Viajeros.com <http://www.viajeros.com/fotos/bermejo-2009/855502&gt;

The questioning continues until someone notices that I haven’t paid the ‘reciprocity tax’. Patricia is now forgotten. What’s it all about? The Australians, the Canadians the ‘Americans’ charge us a fee for getting into their countries, he says, so we do the same thing. Hence the reciprocity bit.

It doesn’t sound like an unreasonable thing to do. I tell the official that the Brazilians did the same thing when eye scans were made obligatory for entering the U.S. Anyway, I’m quite willing to pay. So how much is it? He doesn’t know, or at least he’s not sure. Could be US $120 he says… but you can’t pay in cash, only on line… and this, of course, involves crossing the river and going back to Bolivia. It wasn’t the answer I‘d been expecting.

There’s a chance, I imagine, that they’ll let me in with my UK passport, which I’m also carrying. I suppose that if it was simply a UK passport my chances would not be much better, perhaps even worse given the ongoing Malvinas-Falklands dispute, but as it’s an E.U. document I expect, or rather hope, that there will be little or no problem. I’m wrong. It has no exit stamp from Bolivia, says the white shirt stiffly as he examines the passport. No, that’s in the other passport. But it has to be here in this passport. Why? He doesn’t have a ready answer, and I strongly suspect that he’s wrong, but unsure of himself as he has never come across something like this – and he’s certainly not going to tell me that – rather than make some sort of mistake or appear uncertain, he refuses. Better to be wrong than sorry.

As I’m getting the exit stamp annulled, the Bolivians smile at me, and I admit that perhaps it’s better this way: better to give the money to the Bolivians, who are poor, than to the Argentineans, who are not. 2

Back over the river in Bermejo, we reconsider, rent a room in a cheap ‘hostel’ where the shared and rather grubby bathrooms don’t work, the shared shower has only a single board covering the window and the water is cold. If it had bars it would be called a prison. There are no other tourists here. Our room is also pretty dingy, but on the positive side, it’s cheap and there are only a few cockroaches to be seen, at least during the day. At night we wrap our food in a plastic bag and hang it outside on the washing line, so the greedy little beasts can’t get at it.

When I finally log on – the internet is often desperately slow in Bolivia – the reciprocity tax turns out to be only $75, and we decide to pay it. But it doesn’t make any difference, the system won’t accept my card, and when I call Buenos Aires to find out what’s going on, they tell me they don’t take debit cards, Visa or otherwise. It’s what ‘you’ ask us for says the friendly but determined voice at the other end of the ‘line’. I’m willing to pay I tell him, I want to pay. But it doesn’t work and, besides, it’s late on Friday afternoon…

I go back across the river the next morning in a final attempt to get into the country, but while the officials are different, and very pleasant, the answer is the same. It seems a shame, but rather than staying another day in Bermejo we decide to turn around and head back to Tarija and Bolivian wine country. Argentina won’t cry for me.

* * * * * * *

1.  Medellín:  The first visit to Medellín, was, shall we say, interesting. The years of silver and lead as they called them (Años de Plata y Plomo ) which roughly translated means pay up or you’re dead, had not yet begun: Pablo Escobar, a local resident who would become the world’s most famous Cocaine King, had only recently left University, while the Medellín Cartel, which by 1989 had become so powerful that it declared ‘total and absolute war’ against the Colombian government, was still in its pre infancy. That said, a bomb did go off somewhere in the city while I was staying, and the guerrilla was ‘out there somewhere’ Anne warned me one day when we went wandering in the countryside. She wasn’t joking, although the second phase of the Civil War, this one involving the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) lead by Manuel Marulanda or Sure Shot (Tirofijo), was also still in its initial stages.

All in all, though, I felt pretty safe in Medellín. It was one of the most beautiful cities I’d ever seen, the other being Vancouver, and seemed a pretty relaxed place to be a drink coffee, or tinto as they call it. Although on a more personal level there were ‘incidents’. For example, the night the American exchange students, (female and from Boston if I remember correctly) arrived at the house where they and I were staying, followed by two drunk and rather impatient Colombian men. As the only male in the house at the time I was expected to stand up to them, and ‘persuade’ them to leave. I don’t know what they said to me, but I do know that the decibel level was high and that if the face of one of them had been any closer he would have been kissing me. It clearly wasn’t meant to be friendly and I was certainly worried, in part about how of the house owner, a local university professor – whose friend ran a local steel mill and owned an impressive vintage car in which we would drive down to the local liquor store to buy Aguardiente – would feel about his furniture being splattered with blood, skin and pieces of bone. Mine, I might add. In the end I suppose my passive resistance (I like to think of it as Gandhian) had some effect, at least that’s what I tell myself, although the men finally left only when one of the girls began screaming the house down.

2.  Bolivia is a poor country: According to the CIA Factbook (yes, that’s the dear old Central Intelligence Agency), Bolivia is the poorest nation in South America, even taking into account Surinam, Guyana, and French Guiana, and that despite growing at a fairly healthy rate (5%+) over the last few years. With a Gross Domestic Product (GDP) per Capita of only US$4,900 (the UK weighs in at some US$37,100), it lags some way behind Argentina, whose GDP per capita is US$17,700. Of course, the statistics offer little hint about how the money is being spent or distributed, and given that South America is the most unequal continent on earth, the panorama in Bolivia would likely continue to be pretty desperate if it weren’t for the advances made in the last few years under the Morales government. There are no real numbers for inequality (GINI index) since around 2008, so it’s impossible to come up with hard data to support the claim, but anecdotic examples include the fact that Bolivia is one of only three countries in the ‘developing’ world that provides an income for all its retirees and that the Morales government recently raised the minimum wage by 20%. A cynic might point out that there’s a presidential election just around the corner, but that’s how democracy works, isn’t it? Or is that just being cynical?

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.

CODEGEM

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 http://www.lahora.com.ec/index.php/noticias/show/523677/-1/Aparecen_pistas_de_masacre_en_Otavalo.html#.Ur9blfvMve0

[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.

http://www.omct.org/es/human-rights-defenders/urgent-interventions/ecuador/2006/11/d18376/

[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.  http://www.enamiep.gob.ec/index.php/component/content/category/13-noticias

[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 http://www.forbes.com/sites/jessecolombo/2013/11/13/if-this-chart-breaks-copper-and-copper-exporters-will-plunge/

[xv] Tatyana Shumsky. Wall Street Journal. Millions of Tons of Metals Stashed in Shadow Warehouses. 27 December 2013.  http://online.wsj.com/news/articles/SB10001424052702304244904579276830893405644

ECUADOR: SOME OBSERVATIONS REGARDING THE YASUNÍ – ITT PROPOSAL By Gerard Coffey*

 “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 lalineadefuego.info , a Spanish language virtual magazine published in Ecuador. http://www.lalineadefuego.info


[1] TAROMENANI, EL EXTERMINIO DE LOS PUEBLOS OCULTOS. http://vimeo.com/35717321

[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. http://www.rainforests.net/betadiversity.htm

[4] Yasuní Rainforest Campaign/Save America’s Forests News Story May 25, 2007 http://www.saveamericasforests.org/Yasuni/News/ITT/Index.html

[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 http://www.businessdictionary.com