NOW AVAILABLE: Mining and democracy in Intag, Ecuador

For those of you who’ve been waiting for it (probably no one), I’ve finally translated my final study abroad paper into English. You can view and download the entire thing as a PDF here.

It’s a thrilling tale of mining companies, small-scale farmers turned activists, betrayal, lies, possible illegal cyanide dumping, long speeches at regional assemblies, journalism and constitutional law, and all for the low, low price of FREE!


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.

Intag: development and protest

If you’re a scientist, you might like to know that the Intag Cloud Forest Reserve is home to some of the most spectacular biodiversity on the planet—219 species of birds recorded, more orchid species present than in the entire United States. Even if you’re not science-minded, you’ll appreciate the fact that the Andean tropics contain at least 15% of the entire world’s plant species when you’re walking through the forest or stopping to admire the breathtaking views of rolling hills punctuated by the occasional plot of maize, yucca or banana. Locals in the pueblos surrounding the forest walk for hours to harvest food and visit family members in neighboring towns. The whole area isn’t a postcard for living in harmony with nature—there’s plenty of blaring radio music at all hours of the day and night, not to mention beer and rowdy games of fútbol. Spend the night in Plaza Gutierrez or any other town on the edge of the forest, and you’re likely to be woken at 5am by crowing roosters or the sounds of a pig being slaughtered. But the chaos of daily human life blends almost seamlessly with the natural world, and the area has an undeniable beauty to it, the kind that makes you want to pack up everything you own and buy a one way plane ticket to Ecuador.
Of course, if you’re a mining company, you see Intag in an entirely different way. In addition to its spectacularly biodiversity, Intag has been, depending on who you asked, blessed or cursed with mineral riches—copper, concentrated enough to justify extraction, in a world which has come to rely on the metal for telecommunications cables.
The fight in Intag started in the early 1990s, when Mitsubishi began exploratory work near Junin, one of the communities in the region. Initially, people were excited. The company meant jobs in an area where work was getting harder and harder to come by. But then wages were lowered and people started getting sick, skin irritated from the initial work being done. In 1995, Defensa y Conservacion Ecologica de Intag (DECOIN) was formed to fight against mining in the area. They tried to talk to the company and contacted government representatives asking them for help. When they received no reply, they burned down the mining camp, which convinced Mitsubishi that they would do better leaving the people of Intag alone. They left the area for good in 1997.
In 2002, the Ecuadorian government auctioned the mining claims in Junin off to another company, this time from Canada. Ascendant Copper tried to win people over with promises of schools, hospitals, computers and work, but by then, locals had done some research on mining in nearby areas and decided that the development projects weren’t worth the destruction of their forest. In the words of activist Marcia Ramirez, “Nosotros sabemos que la mineria no es desarollo” (we know that mining is not development).
The people of Junin had Mitsubishi’s original environmental impact statement, which stated that four communities would have to be relocated to make room for an open-pit mine, and that desertification of the mined area would occur. When he spoke to us, activist Carlos Zorilla wanted us to understand exactly what mining entails, because he says most people don’t know. He’s lived in Intag for years and has been fighting against mining since Mitsubishi first came to the area. He told us that the copper they wanted was buried 500 meters underground, and that the only way to get it out was to dig an open pit. The ore in Intag is 0.6% copper, which is high enough to make it worth the effort to extract in today’s market. The 99.4% of the ground that isn’t copper includes mercury, arsenic and uranium. The processing required to extract the copper from the rest of the earth would leave behind heaping piles of toxic waste, laced with heavy metals and radioactive elements. In addition, the mine tailings would almost certainly be leaking sulfuric acid, which is created when iron sulfide in the earth is exposed to air, oxidizes and combines with water. Tailings are generally left in ponds, lined with plastic, capped to prevent leakage. But they invariably leak. A quick glance at the list of Superfund sites in the United States will turn up hundreds of old mines scattered across the desert West. The list reads like a toxic apocalypse—contaminated groundwater, elevated cancer rates, neurological problems in surrounding communities. Carlos asks us what we think will happen if you take the same process and move it from a sparsely populated desert to a lush cloud forest full of flowing rivers and unparalleled biodiversity. No one answers. No one needs to.
When Ascendant Copper realized their development plans weren’t going to win people over, they began a smear campaign, accusing DECOIN activists of attacking them and saying Carlos was embezzling money from the group. When that didn’t slow the opposition, they sabotaged the local radio station and hired paramilitaries to come to Junin. When the people guarding the road into town wouldn’t let them through, the paramilitaries began shooting and spraying the people with tear gas. I watched a video of this attack, and in my mind, it would be dishonest to describe it as anything but a one-sided massacre. Efforts were made to contact police and convince them to defend Junin from further attack, but these requests amounted to nothing. Marcia told us that the government does what it wants, with little respect for human rights. “Lo que nosotros digamos no cuente para él” (what we say doesn’t count for him), she said, referring to president Rafael Correa and his pro-mining vision for Ecuador.
Eventually, DECOIN was able to get Ascendant Copper to leave Intag, largely because an Ecuadorian court ruled that the mining concessions had been granted illegally. But for the people of Junin and the surrounding communities in Intag, the fight is far from over. Rafael Correa, president of Ecuador, is deeply invested in mining as a form of development, and has said, “We can’t afford to be beggars sitting on a pile of gold.” While the new Ecuadorian constitution (written in 2008 under Correa’s administration) was the first in the world to give rights to nature, in practice, the government’s policies have been very pro-extraction. Correa believes that the country’s rich mineral resources, combined with a socialist platform of high taxes and wealth redistribution, can bring Ecuador a more prosperous future. His vision is one of responsible mining, where companies comply with strict environmental regulations and pay high taxes on the wealth they do extract—10 or 15%, according to my academic director. This money is substantially more than a company pays to mine on US federal lands, where regulations written in the 1870s allow companies to acquire gold mining claims for $5 an acre and pay no royalties to the government for any gold extracted. But for Carlos Zorilla, Correa’s vision is incompatible with the rights laid out in the Ecuadorian constitution, which says that people have the right to a good life.
The mining issue has been deeply divisive in communities in the Intag area. During my time there, I spent three days with a family in Plaza Gutierrez, one of the poorest pueblos in the forest. My host mother told me that the mining question has turned families and towns against each other. Plaza Gutierrez is rare, because almost 100% of the people who live there are opposed to the project. But the town where she grew up, Garcia Moreno, is almost 100% in favor. She told me that she’s opposed to mining, as is one of her sisters, but that her mother and another sister are very much in favor. Communities in the interior want the mining companies to come, because they think they will get jobs. She’s not convinced, she told me. The poorest people in Intag are the ones most opposed to the mining, so what does that tell you about their supposed “development?” There might be jobs at first, but then the company will hire outsiders. It’s not worth the loss of the environment. People just need to work harder, tend their crops, find other ways to get by. But mostly, she said she doesn’t want there to be any more fighting. She described the conflict with the paramilitaries as a guerra—a war. She said that if the government wants mining, they’ll probably get their way, because after all, they’re the government. She doesn’t want to see her home divided, fathers refusing to talk to their sons, pueblos full of bitterness and hatred. She wants her home preserved, but more than that, she wants peace.
Now, the Ecuadorian government is once again trying to open Intag to mining. This time, they’re working directly with Codelco, a Chilean mining company which extracts 12% of the world’s copper annually. The government has asked Codelco for technical assistance in developing Ecuador’s mineral resources, which means that if armed men come to Junin again, they will do so with the full force and power of the state supporting them. Carlos said that in recent years, Correa’s administration has been consolidating power in the executive and criminalizing protest—blocking a road now carries a five year minimum sentence, and 95% of people who are arrested on this and similar charges are activists opposing mining and extraction. When Carlos tried to register DECOIN as an NGO in Quito, he wasn’t able to, because legally recognized groups in Ecuador have to comply with the government’s development plan, which includes mining. Another NGO representative told Carlos, “Get this through you head—the state is going to control everything. Find something else to do.”
Carlos and Marcia seemed confident that they can defeat the latest incursion on their home. I wish I could share their optimism, but I’ve read this story so many times in so many places after the epilogue has been written. Sometimes the activists win, but mostly, they don’t. The documentary screen fades to black, and solemn white text appears to list and catalogue the precise tactics the company used to finally get their way. Sometimes, the decision is still being appealed, but the filmmakers know that including this fact is the only way they have to let themselves fall asleep at night; their thin, inadequate shield from the brutal reality that is power. I want a better story for the people of Intag. I want to go back and talk to more people, try to figure out how one-sided Carlos’ account of the struggle is, meet those who live in Intag and aren’t opposed to mining and see what they think needs to happen to allow the people there to live better lives. I want to tell this story to the rest of the world, in the naive hope that in truth, there is at least a glimmer of power. I want people to understand that the technologies in their lives are not without a cost, and that this story has been repeated thousands of times all over the world in the name of cheap oil, necessary resources, development and profit.
Meanwhile, I will honor Carlos and Marcia’s requests for help. If you’re compelled by this story and want to learn more, the DECOIN website has more information. If you’d like to make a donation to support the legal defense fund and the other work DECOIN does, more information is here. And if you have any old computers or cameras that you’d be willing to donate, the people of Intag need them to document their struggle, get the word out, and help improve the quality of education in local schools.

Agricultural chemicals, population and environmental justice

I’ve been researching the agricultural inputs market in Ghana for my internship, and I’ve realized just how easy it is to buy agricultural chemicals here. Within a block of the Burro offices are at least two shops selling a variety of pesticides—everything from organochlorate insecticides, which are broad-spectrum neurotoxins, to atrazine, a common herbicide which has been linked to birth defects (see the excellent New York Times story here for more information). You can even buy glyphosate, which is the active chemical in Roundup, Monsanto’s famous broad-spectrum herbicide that kills anything with green leaves. Monsanto’s patent on glyphosate expired a few years ago, meaning that any company can manufacture glyphosate herbicides. So if you want a liter of Roundup in Ghana, all you need is $4 and the ability to walk around the corner.

Virtually every farmer in Ghana uses these broad-spectrum herbicides on their fields, and as far as I can tell, there is no such thing as organic produce here (at least not in the Koforidua market).There are sometimes adverse health effects experienced by people applying these chemicals, though more with insecticides than herbicides. There’s also a long history of associated environmental problems with agricultural chemicals (see: Silent Spring and the Bhopal chemical plant disaster).

The chemical issue, to me, is less an example of the wealth-environment paradox (see last post), and more an example of environmental injustice. Ag chemical exposure, as I understand it, it pretty directly linked to wealth around the world. It’s not like American farms don’t use these chemicals, it’s just that farmers can pay people (who usually happen to be low income people of color) to apply the neurotoxins for them. Or it’s done by machine. On the other side of the equation, well-off people live in places where organic produce exists and can afford to buy it; the rest of the world gets a healthy dose of toxic chemicals along with their fruit.

So why do farmers use these chemicals? In short, because they tend to increase output. Large, industrial farms in the US tell us that without them, we couldn’t feed the world. (“If everyone ate organic, you’d have a few healthy people and a lot of dead people” is what a Walla Walla wheat farmer told us on an environmental studies class trip last spring.) Small, Ghanaian farmers need that increased output to feed their families, and all the data in the world about neurotoxicity and birth defects won’t change that reality. In the long run, I believe industrial agriculture will collapse. Eventually, we’re going to run out of oil to make these chemicals with, our soil will run out of nutrients, our farmland will salinize and turn to desert, and we won’t have cheap, government-subsidized water to irrigate California.

But in the short run, I think they’re right. How could grass-fed, local meat ever replace the perverse efficiency of a factory farm (assuming people keep eating meat at current and growing rates, which seems like a pretty healthy assumption)? How could we produce enough to feed the world on small-scale local farms?

I’ve read so many environmentalist laments against the toxicity of agricultural chemicals, most recently by Sandra Steingraber in Orion. Many of them seem to assume that if we knew what these chemicals were doing to our soil, water and bodies, we would stop using them. But what if that’s not true?

As I’ve come to realize just how toxic civilization is (and I mean that literally: modern civilization is largely sustained by a variety of carcinogenic and toxic chemicals), I’ve also started thinking that the logic underlying environmentalist appeals might not hold water. Sure, the world responded to Silent Spring by largely banning DDT. But if we laid out chemicals on a balance sheet—you get enough food to (theoretically) feed the world, a variety of convenient consumer products, electronics (one of the most toxic manufacturing processes on earth) and cars, and for all this, you run the risk of getting cancer, having a child born with birth defects or experiencing lead poisoning—would we choose to go without? Increasingly, I don’t think so. Would you give up the Internet if it meant your cancer risk went to zero? What about cars, or cheap food?

Of course, I’m oversimplifying. It’s possible we could retain some of the benefits of technology without so much disease and destruction. But I don’t think it’s likely, especially in the case of agriculture. Insecticides are a perfect example. By definition, they’re designed to kill living animals, and they’re designed to work on a variety of different organisms. It’s not a question of whether these chemicals could affect humans; it’s a question of at what dosage, or at what level of accumulation?

We’re at seven billion, headed to nine in the next few decades. Do we want people to starve, or do we want them to get cancer? Because the classic refrain—that most, if not all environmental problems stem from overpopulation—is not going to make those people go away.

If I could redesign the world from scratch, I have a decent idea of what it would look like. But given what we have now, I have no idea how to proceed. I want to know what chemicals are doing, and I want them regulated. I want environmental justice—if we’re willing to pay the price for civilization, that price should be evenly distributed regardless of gender, race, income level or country of birth. I’m aware that this might be impossible, and that it’s the very people least likely to have any of civilizations “benefits” (laptops, cars, or even access to medical care) who are most likely to experience its ill effects. I know that we overproduce food in the US, and that we’re eating all the wrong things, and I’m hoping that if we fix that, we’ll be able to find a better food system in the process. I know that I have no right to tell Ghanaian farmers what chemicals they should or shouldn’t use, but I want to make a world where they don’t need to use them and no one needs to starve because of it.