Yasuní: time for environmentalists to hold the line

Ecuador’s Yasuní National Park is one of the most biodiverse areas on earth. In one hectare, you’ll find more tree species in Yasuní than exist in the entirety of North America. The area is also home to several uncontacted tribes—indigenous Huaorani people who have chosen to isolate themselves from the rest of Ecuador and western civilization. They’re among the few holdouts in a world where American culture and businesses have penetrated to the furthest reaches of the globe, where children are almost as likely to recognize Mickey Mouse as they are Jesus or Santa Claus.

Naturally, Yasuní also has huge oil reserves buried under it. Under the lush forest, there are estimated to be 846 million barrels of oil (20% of Ecuador’s total reserve), which would take ten years to extract. It’s not just any oil, either. It’s bituminous oil, better known as tar sands, oil that wasn’t even economically viable to extract until recently, oil that releases 5-15% more carbon dioxide carbon in its extraction and refinement than traditional crude does. If you’ve paid attention to environmental news at all over the past few decades, then you know that the Ecuadorian Amazon basically wrote the book on how indigenous communities are exploited in the name of resource extraction. I can’t think of any other place on earth, except the Niger Delta, where local communities have been so hurt by petroleum. Cancer, birth defects, miscarriages, skin lesions, chronic infections and other medical problems are drastically elevated in people living near oil installations. Spills are extremely common, and attempts to clean them up are nonexistent or laughably inadequate (I’ve seen photos of a piece of wood stuffed inside a pipeline, supposedly to stop it from leaking). The roads in and out of the forest are unpaved, and to keep dust from blowing away, the companies regularly coat the roads in crude oil. Water is contaminated everywhere. Species are going extinct. People can’t farm. They can’t survive.

Rafael Correa, president of Ecuador, has proposed a somewhat novel conservation plan. Instead of extracting the oil in Yasuní, he’s said that he’s willing to leave it underground if the international community will pay him half of the value of the oil instead—about $350 million annually, or $3.5 billion total. (In Ecuador, all mineral resources underground automatically belong to the government, regardless of who owns the land above them.) This plan has stalled a bit since its proposal. Germany committed $50 million annually to the government of Ecuador for 30 years, but backed out because they felt that Correa wasn’t serious about conservation. Correa’s attempts to actually raise the money haven’t gone particularly well, so earlier this year, he announced plan B. Either he gets $100 million by the end of this year, or Yasuní opens for oil extraction. (Incidentally, the new constitution of Ecuador, which was ratified in 2008 under Correa’s administration, specifically prohibits resource extraction in national parks. But there are exceptions which can be made by order of the president.) Correa went to the UN this week to try to raise support for this plan, which Secretary General Ban Ki-Moon has supported. So far, $55 million of the necessary $100 million has been pledged. The Ecuadorians I’ve spoken to about this are deeply skeptical. My host dad, who works as a petroleum engineer in the Amazon, is doesn’t believe that Correa’s plan will work, because he doesn’t think Ecuador will be able to come up with the money. The clock’s ticking, and while Bill Gates could easily come up with the $45 million needed to stop what will probably be the greatest environmental disaster in the history of the world, he’s too busy focusing on “global health” to worry about the health of the living planet. Many Ecuadorians I’ve talked to feel that Correa doesn’t really care about preventing the extraction—he’s been overzealously threatening to go ahead with plan B instead of devoting time and energy to raising money for plan A. In general, his administration has been very pro-extraction (“We can’t afford to be beggars sitting on a pile of gold”, he’s said, conveniently ignoring the fact that Ecuador’s national debt has risen exponentially since oil extraction started in earnest.)

If the history of resource extraction is any indication, Yasuní will likely go through. And that absolutely cannot happen. This is the front line of our climate war. Just as much as the Keystone XL pipeline cannot be allowed to happen, Yasuní needs to stay protected. Extracting the oil will involve massive deforestation to build roads, pipelines, and the like. The spills that will inevitably occur will have devastating impacts on the health of indigenous communities, not to mention the non-human inhabitants of the area. And then, of course, the actual burning of the oil will be an environmental disaster. I know we’re not going to win this war. But I also know that there are some battles that really, really matter. These are the ones that go into the history books, the ones where strategy and tactics are analyzed again and again, where tides turn and names are made, remembered. I want us to win this one.

Normally, my approach to activism involves documentation. Go into the Amazon, talk to the tribes, take dramatic high-contrast photos of oil spills and dignified mostly-naked hunters staring off into the brush. Show the world what’s at stake, make people aware of the situation, and pray that they’ll do the right thing.

The petroleum situation in the Amazon has been documented ad nauseum. Most people who are aware of environmental issues at all have read Savages or watched Crude or read about the suit against Texaco/Chevron, where earlier this year an Ecuadorian judge ordered the company to pay $18.2 billion in damages against communities in the Amazon during the 1970s (naturally, they’re still appealing, and trying to get the US government to intervene on their behalf, as Wikileaks recently uncovered/reported). If the proverbial bulldozers come to Yasuní, we won’t be saved by gorgeous magazine spreads showing exactly what will be lost in the extraction. We might be saved if people have the courage to stand in front of those bulldozers, to fight back whatever the cost.

I’m going to borrow a comparison from Lierre Keith here (used in her essay “It Takes A Village to Raise a Prarie”, which appeared in the last issue of the Earth First! Journal). In 1854, the US government passed the Kansas-Nebraska Act, which stated that residents of each state would be able to decide if slavery was allowed there. Abolitionists felt the emergency of the situation. They knew that if Kansas fell to slavery, the rest of the West would go too. And so they moved to Kansas by the thousands to put a stop to something they knew was wrong. They left their homes behind and risked their lives because they knew that they had to go, that this was simply the right thing to do.

I know that bringing a bunch of white environmentalists into the Amazon to stand up for tribes there is potentially problematic and paternalistic. Communities in the Amazon need to decide for themselves if they want oil companies there, though my understanding is that pretty much every indigenous community that has come into contact with oil companies has been very clear in their opposition to the theft and exploitation of their land. But if communities decide to fight and are willing to accept help, we need to answer that call. We need to do something besides writing nicely-worded petitions to the Ecuadorian government. We need the Kansas ethic again. We need a committed group of activists who are willing to go to the front lines, no matter what the risks, and stay there until the battle is over. Because doing anything else—turning a blind eye, putting our faith in the state, hoping without taking action—leaves us complicit.

I may still be here at the end of December, when Correa makes his decision. Assuming politics functions the way it always does, I’m sure the deadline will be pushed back, renegotiated. I’m sure actual work won’t start until later, even if he gives the go-ahead at the end of the year. But if I’m here when those bulldozers start clearing the way, I have no idea what I’ll do. I want, so badly, to say no, you can’t do this here. I want to stand for something real, and this is about as real as it gets. But I also don’t want to spend my life rotting in an Ecuadorian prison for something that ultimately didn’t make a difference (environmental protest is heavily criminalized here—blocking a road carries a five year minimum sentence, and 95% of people arrested on this charge are activists protesting mining and oil extraction). I’m an idealistic coward, and I don’t know how big the stakes need to be before that will change.

I’m going to Yasuní for a week on Monday. We’re going to be spending our time at an ecological reserve doing ecology and natural history stuff. I feel like an underground agent, pretending to be a scientist while searching for any glimmer of truth related to petroleum. We drive in on oil company roads, past their checkpoints. We show our WHO cards, proof that we’ve been vaccinated against yellow fever so we won’t expose the indigenous groups in the area. We go deep, deep into the forest, two canoe trips and two bus rides past the airport in Coca, and still, if you hike too far north from the station we’re staying at, you can hear company generators roaring in the night. I have no idea what I will see, if I’ll see anything, if it will give me some kind of moral clarity. But whatever it is, I’ll report back.

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