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Ecuador’s extractive policies and the silencing of dissent

Ecuador's policy of silencing NGOs that question government policies and programs has gotten the world's attention. UN experts on human rights claim it is a strategy to asphyxiate civil society. Español

Ecuador's President Rafael Correa speaks during a press conference in Quito, capital of Ecuador, on Feb. 22, 2017. Xinhua/SIPA USA/PA Images. All rights reserved.

Five United Nations experts on Human Rights issued the following statement in January of 2017: “It seems Ecuador’s government is systematically dissolving organisations when they become too vocal or challenge official orthodoxy. This strategy to asphyxiate civil society has been implemented through two decrees - 16 and 739 - that give the authorities power to unilaterally dissolve any kind of organisation.”

The Straw that broke the Camel’s Back

The exceptionally harsh criticism by the United Nations was triggered by Ecuador’s supposedly progressive government’s attempt to shut down the country’s oldest environmental organization: Acción Ecológica. The organisation was falsely charged with using social networking sites to espouse support for violent tactics supposedly used by the Shuar Indigenous People’s revolt against a large-scale copper mining project in the south of the country. The revolt took place in December 2016 and led to the death of a police officer, a crime which is still unresolved. The Shuar were trying to reclaim part of their ancestral land from which local residents had been violently evicted by the government to make room for a Chinese mining company’s infrastructure. The government’s response was to suspended civil rights in the entire Morona Santiago Province, site of the confrontations. Thousands of elite police forces as well as military personnel were sent to the region, homes were searched and indigenous and rural leaders arrested without legal warrants. A massive manhunt is currently underway to arrest others linked to the rebellion. At the same time, a severe news blackout has been imposed, making it all but impossible to find out what is really happening in Shuars’ territory. But the news that does manage to filter out is alarming.

Due to national and international rejection of the government’s high-handedness, and support for Acción Ecológica, in early January 2017 the government stopped the organisation’s dissolution. However, as of February 2017 the siege-like conditions in Morona Santiago are still in place.

Quito-based Acción Ecologica is not the only environmental organisation targeted by the current government for challenging its extractive policies. In December 2013, the Pachamama Foundation was shut down for supporting the indigenous people’s rejection of the planned opening up of new regions in the Amazon to oil exploration. The same executive decrees used against Acción Ecológica were used against Pachamama. What the two NGOs have in common is their active support of the right of communities and indigenous peoples to peacefully oppose the government’s aggressive oil and mining development programs affecting both their lands and their rights. And this kind of opposition, which may scare investors away, is simply not allowed by an administration that at one time labeled terrorist anyone who opposed development.

The decrees used to shut down Acción Ecológica and Pachamama - seen by most legal experts are flagrantly unconstitutional - were also used to the same end with the National Union of Teachers (UNE), Ecuador’s oldest and most prestigious teachers’ union. And also when the government in 2015 tried - but failed - to close down Fundamedios, an NGO dedicated to promoting and protecting free speech, which the government accused of “allegedly disseminating messages with political undertones”.

One wonders if any organization in the world dedicated to promoting and protecting the right to free speech does not, in fact, disseminate information with “political undertones”. However, hard to believe as it may seem, this is one of the prohibitions included in the presidential decrees targeting civil society organizations which oppose its plans and programs. They are just one of several tools used by the authorities in Ecuador to criminalize social protest.

When presidential decrees are not enough, Mr. Correa has used the courts to silence journalists and researchers who have denounced unsavory aspects of his administration. The most renowned case is that of journalist and former member of the National Assembly Fernando Villavicencio, whom the courts sentenced to jail and to pay President Correa $141.000 for allegedly slandering him. It is no coincidence that Mr. Villavicencio is one of harshest and most effective critics not only Mr. Correa’s administration but, specifically, of the country’s oil policy. His book “Ecuador: Made in China” has laid bare the embarrassing trade deals with China regarding oil pre-sales to Chinese companies, linked to multi-billion dollar Chinese loans with extravagantly high interest rates.

When presidential decrees are not enough, Mr. Correa has used the courts to silence journalists and researchers who have denounced unsavory aspects of his administration. 

In 2011, two other journalists were sued by Correa for moral damage resulting from the content of their book linking the President to his brother’s unlawful business deals. Again, the submissive Ecuadorian courts sided with the government and ruled against the journalists. One of the ironies of this case was that the government itself ordered the investigation the journalists reported on. Correa also sued, and won, a forty million claim against several journalists and the director of the opposition newspaper El Universo, which motivated a strong international outcry. Mr. Correa gave up in the end his right to be compensated, but not before the lawsuit and the court sentence had the intended effect of chilling dissent. One of the journalists found guilty sought and was granted asylum in the United States.

As in the case of Acción Ecológica, national and international pressure helped to dissuade the government from closing down Fundamedios. But Pachamama has not been allowed to reopen.

DECOIN: a different kind of tactic

Intag’s Ecological Defense and Conservation (DECOIN) is another organization targeted by the government for opposing mining programs. This is a very small grassroots environmental organization working since 1995 in the Intag area in the extremely bio-diverse northwestern Ecuadorian forests. One of its main activities is working closely with local governments and communities to protect the region’s embattled cloud forests and to protect the communities’ water sources. To do so, it has been working very closely with seven local governments and 35 communities to preserve more than 12.000 hectares of Intag’s forests, and provide safe drinking water to thousands of residents. Dozens of mammals, birds, plants and other species facing extinction also benefit from these community and local government run forest reserves. But most of these collectively protected areas are now in danger of being turned into open-pit mines as a result of the Ecuadorian government’s extractive agenda.

Although the UN-denounced decrees have not been used against DECOIN, the organization has felt the government’s displeasure in other ways. The tactic used in this case has been for the President himself to publicly slander DECOIN’s leadership on several occasions. In late 2013 and early 2014, and on nationally televised presidential addresses, President Correa spread damaging lies and misinformation about several activists involved in the resistance to mining. As a matter of fact, the president specifically targeted me. I happen to be one of DECOIN’s founding members and I actively report to an international audience on events related to the mining project in Intag. From the government’s perspective, my real crime has apparently been my writing a manual for the affected communities on what to expect when multinational mining companies show up unannounced at their door. The manual contains peaceful tactics for communities to use in defending themselves from the corrosive and often destructive practices of the mining corporations and their allies. Correa’s lies were so egregious that Amnesty International issued a worldwide Urgent Action document aimed at guaranteeing my personal safety. This was not the first time I had been targeted by extractive interests. In late 2006 a Canadian mining company tried to have me arrested on trumped-up charges, and it very nearly succeeded.

While other organizations targeted by the Ecuadorian government are large, urban-based and relatively well funded NGOs, DECOIN is very small, and our work is limited to just one part of one out of 221 counties within Ecuador’s 24 provinces. Why, you might wonder, should the government go so out of its way to silence us?

Correa’s lies were so egregious that Amnesty International issued a worldwide Urgent Action document aimed at guaranteeing my personal safety.

Intag is where the government is intent on pushing large-scale open-pit mining projects at all costs. Given its well-known lasting environmental impacts in this kind of fragile, highly bio-diverse ecosystem, it is obvious that these projects are bound to be strongly oppposed. And we at DECOIN are very vocal indeed about our opposition. We also very actively support the constitutional rights of the communities to oppose this kind of so-called development – in fact, a scheme that is the very embodiment of unsustainability.

According to experts who carried out a preliminary environmental impact study based on a small copper deposit, the mining operations in Intag would entail the relocation of at least four communities, pollute rivers and streams with heavy metals such as lead, arsenic, cadmium and chromium, and cause “massive deforestation” leading to local desertification. They would also damage one of the world´s most biologically important protected areas: the Cotacachi Cayapas Ecological Reserve. The predicted massive deforestation would also have a fatal impact on the critically endangered brown-faced spider monkey, the spectacled bear, and dozens of other mammals, amphibians, plants and bird species facing extinction. After these impacts were identified, five times larger copper reserves were discovered in the region.

In the past twelve months, the Ecuadorian government has accepted requests for hundreds of new mining concessions, thus expanding exponentially the area set aside for the industry. The expansion is being carried out without any prior consultation with local governments or communities, in stark violation of the Constitution. Dozens of these concessions actually impinge protected areas, which raises the question of whether the companies know something about the redrawing of their boundaries that the rest of the country does not. The concessions, moreover, cover most of the country’s upper watersheds in the Andean range and include primary forests, prime agricultural lands and hundreds of towns and villages. In this context, the repression experienced by the Shuar in the south of Ecuador could be interpreted as an attempt to intimidate and silence what will undoubtedly and inevitably be countless future protests challenging this runaway extractive rush.

In the Intag area, where I live and work, the story is no different. About 85% of Intag’s area is being encroached by mining concessions requested and granted to transnational mining companies - quite a few of them of the fly-by-night type. Currently CODELCO, the world’s largest copper producer, is exploring for copper deposits deep inside primary forests which were formerly used by communities for ecological tourism. And in 2017 it is being reported that BHP Billington, the world’s largest mining corporation, has expressed interest in joining in partnerships to develop the copper and molybdenum deposits lying beneath this biodiversity wonderland. Given Intag’s 22 year history of resistance to mining development - which has so far managed to kick out of the region two transnational mining corporations - , the carrying out of the corporations’ plans is not likely to be a bed of roses. The uprising in the south of the country is also making oil and mining companies uneasy. The government’s strong-arm response to silence dissent in the communities, and the intimidation of NGOs that support these communities’ opposition to the mining interests, are meant to quell their unease.

This article was previously published by The Ecologist.

About the author

Cuban-born Carlos Zorilla has lived for more than 35 years in Ecuador, where he is a leading activist opposing extractivism in this country. He is the co-founder and former President of DECOIN (Defensa y Conservación Ecológica de Intag), which works to protect the environment and promote the sustainable development of the Intag Valley in North Western Ecuador.

Nacido en Cuba, Carlos Zorilla ha vivido más de 35 años en Ecuador, donde es un destacado activista y opositor del extractivismo en este país. Es cofundador y ex presidente de DECOIN (Defensa y Conservación Ecológica de Intag), organización que trabaja para proteger el medio ambiente y promover el desarrollo sostenible del Valle de Intag, en el noroeste de Ecuador.


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