Rafael Correa: Chávez’s heir? An analysis of Ecuador’s deforestation dispute

Daniel Rey

The Yasuní National Park is one of the most biodiverse areas on the planet.

The Yasuní National Park is one of the most biodiverse areas on the planet. Photo source: Geoff Gallice via Flickr Creative Commons.

In August Ecuadorean president Rafael Correa launched a scathing attack on readers of The Guardian in the aftermath of his decision to begin the legal process for deforestation of the Yasuní National Park. Responding to criticism of his policy, Correa rebuked his detractors on Twitter, questioning: ‘Why don’t you fight so that your countries don’t pollute?’. Correa’s approach to dealing with European disapproval underscores his attempt to internationalise the issue and further his credentials as Latin America’s anti-imperialist kingpin.

Nonetheless, this latest example of Correa’s outspoken, pink tide anti-imperialism has received a mixed reaction both domestically and in leftist international spheres where he usually finds plenty of support.

Moreover, the motivation behind deforestation is twofold. On the one hand it is simple economics: using 1% of the available petroleum resources will bring in approximately $18m. Secondly, it forms a part of Correa’s hopes to succeed Hugo Chávez as the principal continental scourge of neoliberalism.

In 2007, to save the park President Correa challenged the international community to generate the money to provide Ecuador with half the estimated revenue which deforestation would bring in. Environmentalists hailed this attempt to compensate Ecuador for missing out on major economic gains, and Correa’s gambit was initially well received, garnering the support of UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon and the UN Development Programme.

However, despite Correa seeking $3.6bn in remuneration, only $330m was pledged and according to Quito, only $13m arrived. Following that, after a ten hour debate in parliament, Ecuador approved a bill on 3 October allowing 0.1% of the Amazonian Yasuní National Park to be used for oil extraction. Despite the lengthy deliberation the motion was passed by 108 votes to 25.

President Correa has come under domestic and international pressure following his deforestation plans

President Correa has come under domestic and international pressure following his deforestation plans. Photo source:  Presidencia de la Nación Argentina via Wikimedia Commons.

Correa had argued that conservation of the Yasuní National Park, comprising an area of 10,000km2 should be a global ‘co-responsibility’, and that a low-end national polluter such as Ecuador, with its developing economy, should not have to succumb to pressures from wealthier nations who disregard their own domestic environmental responsibilities.

Correa framed the move in this way to appease protesters domestically. There have been demonstrations in Quito, but they have been insufficient to prevent Correa, who won a convincing re-election earlier this year, from progressing with the policy. That said, domestic political and environmental opponents harbour hopes that they will collect enough petition signatories to demand a national referendum to decide the matter.

From the perspective of the many Ecuadorians who support him, the reality is that judiciously utilised financial rewards will provide significant benefits to national social and economic programs. However, not for the first time, the rights of indigenous groups whose lives will certainly be affected by the drilling have been largely neglected.

Internationally, the best way to understand Correa’s handling of the issue is from the context of the pink tide’s anti-imperialist rhetoric. Significant structural changes in Cuba and the death of Hugo Chávez in March of this year have left a leadership vacuum at the top of Latin America’s vocal, if informal, syndicate.

Correa has been positioning himself for this role for a while, most notably through his London embassy’s patronage of Julian Assange, but it is on Latin American issues such as this and international debt that Correa must stand tallest if he is to take over Fidel Castro’s and Hugo Chávez’s mantle.

Through his international rhetoric, Correa has made the issue of the Yasuní National Park less of an environmental one and more a question of Ecuadorian sovereignty over its own territory. He hopes to receive plenty of credit for the resultant social programs and for standing up to overseas pressures: two key pillars that would enhance his international profile and help cement his dissident reputation.

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