In response to Ecuadorian President Noboa’s plan to continue oil extraction in the Yasuní National Park – in defiance of the August 2023 national referendum result – a press conference was called on 25 January 2024. The president of the Confederation of Indigenous Nationalities of Ecuador (CONAIE), Leonidas Iza, denounced the president’s proposal as illegal and authoritarian. He attributed the country’s deteriorating security situation, the “internal armed conflict”, to the government’s adherence to neoliberal policies of the prior administrations of Guillermo Lasso and Lenin Moreno.
The future of Ecuador’s Yasuní National Park is once again in jeopardy, despite the nation voting to protect the reserve and keep oil in the ground during the national referendum on 20 August 2023.
In view of the deteriorating security situation in Ecuador, newly elected President Daniel Noboa announced that he plans to ignore the referendum by which a “yes” vote, approved by 60 percent of voters ensured no new oil exploration in the reserve, the restoration of sites contaminated by oil, and a time limit of one year to dismantle existing oil drilling infrastructure.
The Yasuní Biosphere Reserve was designated as a World Heritage Site in 1989 by the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO), and is one of the most biodiverse areas in the world, as well as the home of several groups of Indigenous peoples, many living in voluntary isolation.
Oil drilling in the park from 2016 led to a global campaign to save the park led by the local NGO Yasunidos, who promoted the diversification of Ecuador’s economy away from reliance on oil. The group involved Indigenous communities, local and international NGOs, and foreign governments in the campaign – who offered finance through international institutions to save the park. Yasunidos’ efforts brought the group into conflict with the government of Rafael Correa (2007-2017), whose lack of commitment to the environment and to upholding the Rights of Nature and of Indigenous Peoples, as enshrined in the Constitution, was mirrored by the failure of the global community to provide the required resources to protect those rights.
How the deteriorating security situation in Ecuador affects environmental protection
As murders, kidnappings, and prison riots bring Ecuador into a state of chaos in 2024, Daniel Noboa has announced that measures to maintain oil and mineral revenues are needed to enable the government to regain control of the country. These measures include a moratorium on the outcome of the Yasuní referendum for at least another year.
The government’s announcement of the proposed moratorium on 25 January 2024 provoked an outcry. In a press conference called by Yasunidos, Leonidas Iza, president of CONAIE, made a plea for the referendum – which had been 10 years in the making – to be respected, and for oil to be left in the ground. Iza took the opportunity to denounce the measures taken by Noboa against the Rights of Nature and the rights of Ecuador’s Indigenous peoples.
Speakers at the conference argued that it was unconstitutional to reject the results of the referendum. CONAIE and the Alliance of Organizations for Human Rights, among other groups, announced that preparations were being made to take the case to the Inter-American Court of Human Rights. Yasunidos has already begun proceedings against the government in Ecuador’s Constitutional Court.
The Coordinator of the Yasunidos collective, Pedro Bermeo, said that President Noboa was not entitled to call for a new referendum. He called on the Constitutional Court to dismiss Noboa if he failed to comply with the will of the people.
Bermeo argued that removing tax exemptions enjoyed by the country’s largest businesses would provide a viable alternative cash source to fund Noboa’s militarisation response to rising violence in the country, without need for oil exploitation.
Leonidas Iza accused the President of being anti-democratic and authoritarian, of being part of an elite that does not contribute to society, and of using the media to insult those people who struggle to survive: the small farmers and rice growers who work to feed the Ecuadorian people.
Iza denounced President Noboa for bowing to pressure from world powers, in enabling the US government to contribute to the militarisation of Ecuador against organised crime.
The Ecuadorian government is failing to combat inequality and crime
Both the CONAIE president and Yasunidos’ spokesperson, Pedro Bermeo, reiterated that funds provided to combat narco-trafficking and organised crime were being funnelled to the armed forces, who had been infiltrated by criminal elements. They argued that the wealth of the country has been extracted from the people and from nature, with profits accruing to the elites who enjoy tax exemptions.
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In an effort to raise funds to address crime, Noboa has increased the rate of VAT to 15 percent. This tax has imposed the heaviest toll on the poorest citizens. Iza pointed out that some Ecuadorians are living on US$3 dollars per day, with one quarter of the population – 4 million people – living in poverty or extreme poverty; they lack access to healthcare, education, and sufficient food, a situation acknowledged by Noboa himself. Why, then, asked Iza, is the government going to tax the poor but not the rich? Ecuador is the most unequal country in the region.
The will of the people has not been respected
Iza argues that democracy (the will of the people in the referendum) has been sacrificed to increase the wealth of the rich and the profits of those companies extracting oil, known as “black gold”, from Block 43 of Yasuní. In effect, democracy has been sacrificed in the name of tackling organised crime.
Just five months following the “yes” vote of the referendum and two months after taking office, Noboa is calling for a new referendum on the project, which would cost another US$70 million dollars of public funds.
Leonidas Iza questioned Ecuador’s involvement in what is called the “three-way ring-trade”, a circular swap of weapons employed by the US administration under President Biden to enable the US armament of Ukraine while US military aid to Ukraine is being held up in the US Congress. The US government is to provide Ecuador with US$200 million dollars’ worth of US-made military weapons, in exchange for Ecuador sending older Russian-made weapons to Ukraine. Iza said: ‘We did not agree to this indirect participation in a war without our permission.’
He asked why funds were being used to support the Ecuadorian armed forces, which had been penetrated by organised crime, rather than being distributed among those who could uphold the people’s independence and sovereignty in a multi-cultural and plurinational state.
The poorest sectors are the victims of organised crime and the capitalist system benefits
That agents of narco-trafficking have penetrated the highest levels of the government has been exposed by a number of investigations, including that of the “Metástasis” case, which has led to the arrest of 31 Ecuadorian judges, police officers, and other state officials suspected of links to organised crime interests.
Noboa himself, in an interview with the BBC on 13 January 2024, acknowledged that the country was in danger of becoming a narco-state. On 9 January his government announced a state of emergency following a series of prison uprisings and the escape from prison of one of the country’s major drug traffickers, José Adolfo Macias, alias “El Fito”, who had been sentenced to 34 years in jail in 2010.
In just one police raid on a banana plantation in Vinces, on 22 January 2022, the police decommissioned 22 tons of cocaine, valued at between US$300 and US$500 million dollars on the global market, and an arsenal of assault weapons. Some of the boxes carried the initials of European airlines.
It is the poorest people who are the victims of organised crime, networks of which are integrated into the neoliberal economic structure, based on an extractive model that benefits the elites, according to Iza. He argued that the delinquents of the barrios in coastal cities are the product of inequality and neoliberal policies, the victims of a series of government administrations.
Iza pointed out that the whole capitalist system benefits from the drug trade. ‘Why mention only 22 mafia groups in Ecuador? Why not mention the global mafias’, the CONAIE president asked, ‘the Albanian mafia, the Sinaloa and Jalisco Nueva Generación cartels of Mexico, the way in which the profits derived from narcotics trafficking are laundered through Ecuador’s gold exports? Who is benefiting from the illegal mining? Who is benefiting from organised crime – which is not exclusive to Ecuador, seeing that organised crime accounts for three percent of global GDP? – The poor people are not responsible for the global drug trade. Ecuador has received financing from the UN: where is the money?’, he asked, ‘Are the armed forces benefiting from this money?’.
Iza said that the climate crisis had to be taken seriously, that the science was clear. The Amazon is affected by droughts and flooding, from which the poorest people are suffering the most. He referred to the lack of water in Peru and the need to protect this our most precious natural resource, which is becoming scarce. He stated that mining is gradually depriving the urban populations of their water supplies over the whole region, that poverty and inequality are driving Ecuadorians to migrate.
The speakers called for an alternative economic model, one not based on extracting resources from nature, but one that upholds nature and life, a model in effect approved by a majority vote in the referendum to save the Yasuní, to provide hope for the future. There was a call for social justice and for unity, not allowing the discourse of war to divide the people against each other, or to limit the Rights of Nature. There was a call for “Yes” to life, “Yes” to hope, “Yes” to save the Amazon from the extractive industries.
Linda Etchart is a lecturer in Human Geography at Kingston University London, and a regular contributor to Latin America Bureau’s Environmental Defenders Series. Her publications include Global Governance of the Environment, the Rights of Nature and Indigenous Peoples: Extractive Industries in the Ecuadorian Amazon (Palgrave Macmillan, 2022).