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Ecuador: the struggle for Sumak Kawsay



by Carlos Zorilla, 1 July 2011

Ecuador is the only Andean nation without any large-scale metallic mines (such as gold and copper). This unique state of affairs is about to be tested in the next few weeks when the Correa government signs exploitation agreements with Chinese and Canadian transnational miners looking to exploit the country’s copper and gold reserves. More importantly, the legitimacy of the nation’s Constitution, which grants nature rights, will also be tested.

There is no other economic activity in the world that would so clearly violate the rights of nature as large-scale open-pit mining. Large-scale mining, unlike petroleum, creates environmental liabilities that can endure for thousands of years. The impacts are order of magnitude worse.

Bingham Canyon, an active open pit copper mine in Utah, can be seen from outer space. It is over a kilometer deep and four kilometers across. A similar gaping hole in Chile’s Atacama desert, the Chuquicamata copper mine, has eaten a good part of the town by the same name and can, likewise, be seen from outer space. The infamous Ok Tedi copper and gold mine in Papua New Guinea, on the other hand, has devastated a whole river’s ecosystem, impacted fisheries and, by the time the mine closes, it will have destroyed 3,000 square miles of tropical forests, as well as the livelihood of 30,000 local inhabitants. The still-active mine disgorges nearly 160,000 tons of spent ore and waste rock per day into nearby rivers.

Water is the resource most impacted by these mines. Many mines around the world, including some in the US and Canada, are leaching heavy metals into rivers and the ocean today, and will continue to do so for thousands of years. Millions of gallons per day may have to be used, transported – and contaminated – as part of a normal mining operation. A good deal of that water will be mixed with toxic chemicals like cyanide, in order to extract the few grams of gold that is usually found in a typical ton of gold-bearing ore. Some of the water draining from mines is as acidic as car battery fluid, and more toxic.

In fact, according to the US Environmental Protection Agency, mining in the US accounts for over one half of all toxic releases into the environment, and produces an unimaginable 8-9 times more solid waste, per weight, than that all its municipalities put together. The costs of stabilizing and treating some of these impacts are staggering. A mining project in Montana is the single biggest Superfund site in the US, with nearly one billion dollars earmarked to try to clean up the huge toxic mess left behind after decades of mining and milling.1 You’d think so much destruction would add greatly to a country’s economy. Yet, in the US, the economy of mining adds less than 1% to the nation’s Gross National Product.

Thus, it is clear that there is no way that large-scale mining can avoid serious, irreversible, and long-lasting environmental impacts. This is especially true in places like Ecuador’s Condor Range, in the south east of the country where the first large-scale copper and gold mining projects are slated to start. The Condor Range, along with the Toisan Range, in the northwest of the country, where Chile’s Codelco is looking for copper, are areas of exceptional biological diversity, and are extremely rich in water resources. They are also rich in primary and secondary cloud forests – one of the most threatened ecosystems in the world. Both sites also harbor dozens of species of animals threatened by extinction, including several species of monkeys, jaguars and spectacled bears. The very steep topography, heavy rains (3000 millimeters annually) which gives rise to copious underground water, and ore laced with heavy metals, will make mining’s impacts at these two sites especially destructive. In other words, they have the perfect combination of elements to ensure a very long-lasting environmental nightmare.

In short, there is no way that large-scale mining in Ecuador can avoid grossly violating the rights of nature as guaranteed in the country’s Constitution. The 64 million dollar question is how will the Correa government justify approving these projects, and how will the country’s civil society, local governments, and judicial and legislative branches react.

There are indications of likely outcomes. To understand them, it’s necessary to take a quick look at the current situation.

Correa is strapped for cash. The Chinese have cash and need copper (and petroleum), and have been lending heavily to Correa’s government. Thus the government will bend over backwards to try supply the raw commodity to the Chinese, so they can add value to it and ship it back to Ecuador as finished products. Not much change there since the good ol’ colonial days. The main difference is that the Constitution forces the government to get more money from the extraction of the country’s mineral resources. The details are being worked on right now in the form of case-by-case exploitation agreements with each company. There is some wiggle room in the negotiations, but if the letter of the law is minimally respected, mining companies will have to pay a lot more for Ecuador’s minerals than anywhere else in Latin America and, possibly, the world. Thus, there is a real economic incentive for the Correa government to switch the green light on for mining. However, if that same respect for the law is upheld – and specially Constitution rights – there is no way that large-scale metallic mining can take place in this Andean nation.

We know what the Executive will try to do. The Legislative has shown as much back bone to stand up to executive demands as a Jellyfish. It’s turned into a rubber-stamp-anything-that-comes-from-the-executive kind of place. The country’s court system, including the constitutional court, has seldom, if ever, been impartial; the less so now, after a recent populist referendum gave the executive constitutionally questionable rights to intervene in its makeup.

The Not-So-Wild Cards

We are then left with local governments and civil society. In Ecuador, local governments are autonomous. I’m referring to provincial, municipal and township governments (equivalent to small municipalities). Some of these have openly said that they will not allow large-scale mining in their territories. Especially troubling for the Executive will be the provinces where the executive-backed referendum lost by large margins, and where the biggest mining projects also happen to be located, such as the province of Zamora Chinchipe. In these cases, the executive will try to impose the rights of the national government over local government rights. It will not be easy; even with cooped courts. The Constitution gives these governments firm rights, and they will fight hard to keep the national government from usurping them.

Civil Society

So, we can count on the Executive to approve, the Legislative and Judicial to go along, local governments to try to uphold their rights, but civil society will fight.

Regardless of whether the local governments are victorious in affirming their rights or give in to the Executive, or of whether the courts try to reign in the power of the transnationals or not, civil society will fight for their rights, with constitution in hand. For, besides giving nature rights, Ecuador’s Constitution gives its people the right to resist activities or processes that threaten Constitutional rights. Two of those rights are the right to a safe environment, and the right to Sumak Kawsay – equivalent to a “good life”, or well-being. In the minds of most campesinos and indigenous peoples, peace within the communities and a healthy environment are very much part of that vision. And, judging by the past, communities and civil society groups will use the Constitutional right to resist in order to stop mining from creating social strife in their communities and contaminating their environment.

The rural activists will not be alone. A coalition made up of urban activists and academics, supported by a few anti-Correa Assembly members- all from the left- will also resist the government’s extractive plans, which will keep Ecuador’s economy tied to exporting commodities, as it has for decades. In a exceptionally biologically and culturally diverse country as Ecuador, their arguments goes, the extractive model not only no longer makes any sense, but threatens the country’s potential to develop a truly sustainable economy. The social strife, environmental impacts and cultural havoc, added to the usual economic boom-and-bust nature of resource dependency that the extractive model delivers cannot be justified, and is just not needed in countries like Ecuador.

Thus, we can be absolutely sure that the extractive agenda imposed by the Executive will provoke wide-spread social protests. Among other things, the conflicts will strain the popularity of a government already strained and weakened by serious internal dissent and a drop in popularity. It will also inevitably lead to an increase in the criminalization of the social protest and human rights violations. After all, we are talking of a president who, in 2007, publicly said that anyone opposed to development is a terrorist, and who’s government legally classifies as terrorism the blocking of roads in protests; one of the most popular forms of public protest in the country. And, if in spite of all the social and legal mayhem the mines are allowed to open, and given the clear Constitutional violations the action implies, it will undoubtedly lead to human rights and environmental justice challenges, which will likely end up being resolved in international tribunals, putting billion of dollars of mining investment at risk.

One of the more serious consequences of the insistence on the mining agenda will be a lethal weakening of the faith in the country’s legal system and, especially of the idea of the importance of fundamental rights, Constitutional guarantees, and the rule of law. These are cardinal principles not to be trifled with. Ecuador’s people already don’t think much of their judicial system; it can ill afford further deterioration.

If civil society succeeds in stopping Correa’s mining agenda, the first clear proof of its intention will have come from the regional meeting that took place in Cuenca, Ecuador in June of 2011. Here, representatives from local governments, indigenous people, NGO’s and communities affected by mining from all over Ecuador and Latin America, came together for three days of discussions, and debated the mining issues and the deeply flawed development model it offers. The results put into evidence the growing, and fierce, resistance taking hold all over the continent to the extractive model of development. The costs are not worth it, the consequences too great, and the people have had enough, are some of the messages that came out of the event. And, perhaps the most important message, that THEY WILL RESIST the imposition of that model.

The successful grass-roots resistance to two large scale copper mining projects in the 1990s in the Intag area of northwest Ecuador has shown the rest of country that resistance is not only possible, but can lead to positive developments. Part of the success of Intag’s struggle was due to the support the communities received from local governments, but there’s no doubt that the resilience of the people and communities and their ability to organize proved essential.

Because of this union of forces, Intag’s communities and organizations were able to not only stop a large copper mining project- twice- but also to develop their own alternatives to mining; from a successful shade-grown coffee coop and community ecological tourism, to the creation of dozens of community-owned forest and watershed reserves, and are proposing small-scale hydroelectricity production, to mention just a few of the alternatives. All these not only benefit and strengthen local economies and communities, but also maintain social peace and conserve Intag’s cloud forests and its threatened wildlife and water resources. What this sustainable model doesn’t do is violate Constitutional rights.

Intag’s example is a real effort at attaining sustainability; social, economic and environmental. Ironically, attaining sustainability is a primordial responsibility Ecuador’s Constitution demands of its people and governments. By its insistence on opening up this mega-diverse country to large-scale mining, the government, environment, and most of the people of Ecuador, only stand to lose. And lose big time. The winners, as always, will be the transnational corporations, Ecuador’s elite, and the citizens of the rich countries who consume most of the world’s resources. Left behind will be desecrated landscapes, contaminated waters, human rights violations and trampled constitutions.


1. Breaking New Ground; The Mining, Minerals and Sustainable Development Project (MMSD) Project, Published by Earthscan for RED AND WBCSD . 2002

Rights of Nature in the Constitution:

1. The right to fully respect its existence and to maintain and regenerate its vital cycles, structure, functions and evolutionary processes.

2. The right to restoration.

3. The responsibility of the state to: encourage individuals, corporations, and groups, to protect nature and to promote respect for all the elements that form an ecosystem.

In cases of severe or permanent environmental impact, including those linked to the exploitation of nonrenewable natural resources, establish the most effective mechanisms to achieve the restoration, and take the appropriate measures to eliminate or mitigate adverse environmental consequences.

Apply precautions and restrictions for activities that may lead to the extinction of species, destruction of ecosystems or the permanent alteration of natural cycles.

For more information on mining’s near-perpetuity impacts:

For more information on the impacts of the OK Tedi mine:

* First published in Upside Down World

Seeds of ‘Good Living’ in Ecuador?*

Roberto Navarette interviews René Ramírez.

René Ramírez

René Ramírez is Ecuador’s National Secretary of Planning and Development. He previously worked as an academic and is the author of several books related to alternative views on economic and human development. Ramirez spoke to Roberto Navarrete during a recent visit to the UK about what his government is trying to achieve in the wider context of Latin American politics.

In May this year there was a referendum in Ecuador to reform the Constitution. Can you tell us a little more about this and what issues were at stake in the consultation?

Constitutional reform is at the centre of our project to transform the political framework of the country. A socialist project implies a separation of the state from the dominant economic interests in the country. There can be no truly socialist transformation while the state is co-opted by economic elites. We have been in government for nearly four and half years and I can honestly say that this separation has not yet happened. This is not because the government did not wish this to happen. The executive branch has become de-corporatised. It has not happened because certain economic interest groups have been seeking impunity from the judicial system in relation to acts of corruption, as has happened throughout history, in order to accumulate wealth. So, without carrying out a profound reform of the judicial system it will never be possible to separate the state from the economic interest groups. That explains the amount of money that went into opposing the reforms.

At the centre of the government’s proposals was the reform of the judicial system, as part of a democratisation of the economy. For example, question 3 of the referendum had to do with the separation of the banking system and the private mass media which generate hegemonic content and is protected by a judicial system that leaves unpunished all kinds of criminal actions in which these groups are involved. The clearest example is the bailing out of the banking system. In this case the banks extended loans to its associated business firms registered in offshore havens. These firms emitted bonds, which had no value, to increase their patrimony, that in turn gave them access to loans from the state Central Bank. When the crisis broke out and they went into bankruptcy the judicial system allowed their behaviour to go unpunished. Then the mass media, through their links with these economic and financial interests, was tasked with spreading the idea that the banks needed to be saved, and if this was not done, it could lead to a worse crisis. So, for example, they organised a march of the ‘black ribbons’ which was broadcast by the TV channel associated with the bank that went into bankruptcy.

So we cannot talk about the referendum without understanding the political economy context in which it occurs. That explains the extreme opposition that took place. Question 6 of the proposals had to do with the illicit accumulation of private wealth. We are used to hearing about corruption in the public sector when in fact we find that the largest fiscal deficits have occurred as a consequence of the excesses of the private sector, of illegal siphoning of resources and of trials that been manipulated in a corrupt way. There was an investigation recently in Guayaquil [Ecuador’s second city] that showed that certain economic groups that were prosecuted by the state always hired the same lawyers who invariably won their cases against the state. So this is not a judicial system that is fair. One of the articles of the Constitution indicates that a state in which the rule of law applies cannot be achieved unless an efficient and fair judicial system is in place.

The regulation of the mass media is a fundamental issue because, we can ask: where do the de facto economic powers lie in the country? They lie in the banking system and its articulation with the mass media. We are not looking to restrict freedom of expression, but to establish regulatory bodies similar to those that exist in the majority of European countries.

Another question has to do with the rights of nature. It is widely believed that Bolivia is the South American country that has advanced the most in this issue, but Ecuador is the only country that has incorporated these rights into the Constitution. Bolivia has a law that defends the Pachamama (Mother Earth) but it does not have constitutional status. In this article of the constitutional reform we have sought to penalise violence against animals as it happens in some regions where bullfights still exist.

Finally, this referendum has to be seen in the context of what happened on the 30th of September 2010, when there was an attempted coup d’état against the government of President Correa, and it was necessary to give a strong signal that the process of change will continue advancing through democratic channels.

Relations between Ecuador and Colombia deteriorated drastically during the government of Colombian ex-President Alvaro Uribe as a result of a military attack on FARC guerrillas just inside Ecuador. I understand that a shift has occurred in Colombian foreign policy since President Santos took office in August 2010. What changes do you perceive, if any, in relations between Ecuador and Colombia?

The first thing is that we condemn the violation of the territorial integrity of any country in the world. In this case we could not allow the territory of our country to be invaded. I think that this is a good example of how the new spaces that are being created in Latin America such as UNASUR (Union of South American Nations) allow for the resolution of conflicts such as this. I am very hopeful that this process will continue in a positive direction.

I think Santos has realised that Colombia cannot become isolated from what is happening in the rest of Latin America. To remain isolated could have economic repercussions, especially in their relationship with Venezuela. Colombia’s relations with Ecuador have been different than with Venezuela. Historically we have had good relations with Colombia, and I think that our problems are well on the way to being solved. The ambassadors to both countries have returned to their posts and we are attempting to do something we already do in our southern frontier [with Peru], which is a bi-national plan, one based not on the militarisation of the frontier but instead based on the development of frontier areas to avoid the violence that has existed there.

We are victims of the Colombian conflict. This should be clear to everybody in the world. The cost of maintaining a military presence of more that 10,000 men at the frontier with Colombia is very high for Ecuador, especially when we are seeking to deploy our military forces in tasks related to development and internal security and so it is in our national interest that this conflict is solved.

The concept of ‘Good Living’ is one of the central pillars of President Correa’s ‘Citizens’ Revolution’. What is meant by the concept?

The first thing to say is that the concept of ‘Good Living’ or Sumak Kawsay (in the Quechua language) arises out of the political struggles of the people. This is important to emphasise because generally proposals come from intellectuals, academics, the UN Economic Commission for Latin America and the Caribbean for example, but this concept comes from people’s traditions and is now enshrined in the Constitution of the Republic of Ecuador. Clearly it represents a fusion between a Western outlook, from an Aristotelian perspective, which merges with an indigenous perspective, the Sumak Kawsay (‘Good Living’). Ecuador is not Bolivia. Ecuador does not have such a large indigenous population, it contains a larger mestizo population, but it coexists within a plurinational state, which contains about 14 indigenous communities. We believe that the world does not need development alternatives but alternatives to development. It is necessary to create a completely different world.

Perhaps one of the greatest failings of the ‘existing’ Socialist countries was that they never put into question the issue of progress, they never questioned the concept of growth. We believe that it is necessary to do this. It goes beyond concepts such as welfare and wellbeing. When you translate this to Spanish, wellbeing is only part of life . The concept of ‘well living’ is broader than that. We are looking for methods that allow us to better measure ‘”good living'” beyond traditional indicators such as GDP per capita, income or consumption. We have developed an indicator in Ecuador called ‘life expectancy of a healthy and well lived life’ which has to do with an attribute that Economics has forgotten about. Economics deals with public, private and common goods but is has forgotten about what Aristotle calls “relational attributes”, which relates to the questions of how we create a society and how human beings relate to nature. We can take this into account by measuring, not through monetary means, but by measuring time. In order to have a good life the first thing is to be. We are also developing another indicator that has to do with what we might call a more “green” perspective, which is Nature’s life expectancy. One of the best indicators used by ecological economics to measure environmental degradation is deforestation. But it is not the same to deforest an environmental space that is mega diverse than to cut a planted forest. That is why we are calculating the lifetime of a given environmental space, or in other words nature life expectancy implicit in economic development. We are advancing in a virtuous relation associated with the concept of ‘good living’ that has to do with peace and with the survival of indigenous cultures, about participation in public affairs and collective action, and ultimately the relationship between humans and nature. So, it is a change of philosophy that implies a re-think of our public policies.

The Ecuadorean government has proposed to the international community a mechanism to refrain indefinitely from exploitating the Ishpingo-Tambococha-Tiputini (ITT) oilfields, located within the Yasuní National Park, the zone with the highest biodiversity in the world. This would be done in exchange for contributions from rich countries of about 50% of the value of the oil reserves. What is the current government policy on the exploitation of the Yasuní–ITT oilfields? Are you getting a significant contribution from rich countries?

The Yasuní–ITT project is to me the most important project undertaken by Ecuador and it marks a change in perspective from development to ‘Good Living’. I am going to mention a few characteristics of the project to illustrate the paradigm shift we are seeking. The first is similar to the change from curative to preventive medicine, in environmental terms. Instead of ameliorating the damage you prevent damage to be caused in the first place. We are saying, I am not going to emit CO2 when I decide not to extract oil. The opportunity cost for a country like Ecuador is quite high. It represents 20% of the oil reserves of Ecuador. This is no mean feat for a country that needs about 60 billion dollars to satisfy the needs of its population in terms of health, education, telecommunications, just to mention three things that we need to satisfy. There you have a very important change. If one wants to seriously tackle climate change we need to go to the root of the problem, not just to reduce the existing levels of CO2 emission, which we obviously have to do, but we need to tackle it from its point of inception, the production of oil, which is the cause of CO2 emission.

Another has to do with the change in perspective with respect to cooperation. It is not simply a question of giving aid to a poor country. What we have to understand is that we are all co-responsible for a common wealth at a global scale. It is to change from a conception of private property to creating an awareness of a common wealth at a global scale. Climate change and global warming is not something that affects a single country, it is a problem that affects the whole world. So, what we are looking for is not only the money, but also a form of collective action in participating in the Yasuní–ITT project.

Another fundamental problem has to do with a different developmental perspective in relation to countries that participated in the extermination, even genocide of their indigenous peoples. The Yasuni ITT project aims to ensure the indefinite survival of the human cultures that inhabit that space. Let us remember that the Yasuní–ITT is inhabited by the Tagaeri-Taromenane indigenous minority groups that have lived in isolation, and our goal is to allow the indefinite survival of these groups. So this has to do with the preservation of human cultural diversity.

Another point has to do with the construction of a new financial architecture. Even though the fund now resides at the United Nations, when the initiative was first proposed the idea was that was that it would be based in the Bank of the South, as a way of building a counter-hegemonic balance to the Bretton Woods institutions, that is the World Bank and IMF. As the Bank of the South is not yet fully operational, the UN administers the fund but our intention is to transfer it to the Bank of the South as soon as it becomes fully operational. If we do not build a new political architecture we will not be able to have a balance of power.

We know that whoever controls capital at a global level controls power. The Yasuní–ITT is a flagship project of our government. It is innovative, it is not just words. The government has been working on it for four years already and we will continue with it in order to create awareness at a global level about the need to change the pattern of consumption. This is something at the root of the concept of ‘Good Living’. The neoliberal outlook on social issues has generally focussed on poverty, when the real problem is excessive wealth. To open the debate on this issue in Ecuador, instead of concentrating on the index of poverty we have raised awareness about the index of wealth and we come to the conclusion that with only 2% of the income of the richest people we would end poverty in Ecuador. This has a lot to do with the environment. Our environmental problems do not primarily have to do with the poor; they have to do with the levels of consumption of the rich. So the paradigm of the Yasuní–ITT project represents an attempt by a small country called Ecuador to make all of us reflect on how to transform the structures of power, of geopolitics at a global scale, through a concrete proposal such as this.

Finally, how significant is Ecuador’s role in Latin American processes of economic and political integration that are taking place? Can you talk about concrete initiatives that Ecuador has promoted as part of ALBA and UNASUR?

ALBA (Bolivarian Alternative for the Americas) to my mind is something that should happen at a world scale, something that has to do with another type of trade and integration that arises from recognition of complementarities between countries but not through competition but seeking an agreement on a common project at a regional level. I do not think of ALBA as separate from other integration processes going on in Latin America, such as UNASUR, OEALC (Organisation of Latin American and Caribbean States) and CELAC (Community of Latin American and Caribbean States), which doesn’t yet exists but which we are trying to make into a reality. This is important, as one can have a more equilibrated relationship when we are dealing with a group of countries that are at the same level of development. When there is divergence between countries it is more difficult. I always stress that in UNASUR we cannot say that we are all starting from the same level. As Ecuador, we cannot compare ourselves with countries such as Brazil, Argentina or Chile. So there has to be a sense of solidarity between nations. In the case of ALBA we are achieving a better level of complementarity and integration because we have an advantage, which is that we have the political will to do it. This is something that should not be underestimated because the speed at which you achieve integration depends on the goodwill of the counterpart. That is why integration within ALBA advances faster that within UNASUR, because UNASUR involves a process of negotiation, whereas in ALBA we have a common political and ideological perspective. This allows us to achieve political representation in international decision-making institutions. So, it is not the same for Ecuador to come with a proposal as a single country than to be supported by a group of countries such as ALBA, which represents a number of votes. I had personal experience of this when we attended the Copenhagen climate change negotiations. As the ALBA group we were practically the only ones who opposed the position of the more industrialised countries, an experience that revealed the cynicism and the crisis of multilateralism in global institutions. We could not have done this unless we had a common political perspective with respect to a specific issue such as climate change. We could say the same in relation to other issues such as immigration, trade, etc. In this sense the role that ALBA plays is very important because I do not think that we can achieve a society of ‘Good Living’ in Ecuador unless we achieve political integration. An integral part of this concept is to build a great Latin American nation.

Roberto Navarrete is an editor of, a website covering Latin America related issues such as politics, media and culture.


* First published in New Left Project

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