Injustice in Ecuador: Ecuadorian government shuts down leading environmental group
16 March 2009
Posted by Daniel Denvir
Last Monday, environmentalists were shocked to learn that the Ecuadorian government had shut down Accion Ecologica (Environmental Action), withdrawing the legal status of one of South America’s best-known environmental groups. Accion Ecologica has in recent months supported indigenous-led, mass protests and highway blockades against President Rafael Correa’s support for large-scale mining.
Ecuador possesses a fantastic ecological and cultural diversity, from coastal dry forests and mangroves, to Andean wetlands, to a breathtaking corner of the Amazon rainforest. Ecuador’s environmental movement, sustained by an alliance between the country’s indigenous and peasant organizations and urban environmental groups, is one of Latin America’s strongest, making Ecuador’s Left one of the region’s greenest.
Health Minister Caroline Chang initially claimed that Accion Ecologica failed to undertake the work specified by the NGO’s charter. But as a public outcry arose in Ecuador and criticism poured in from civil society organizations around the world, including Amnesty International, Chang changed tack, saying that it was simply a matter of needing to move Accion Ecologica ‘s registration to the Ministry of the Environment, a body that did not exist at the time of Accion Ecologica ‘s founding. In a press release, the Health Ministry said, “the suspension of the environmentalist NGO Accion Ecologica has nothing to do with persecuting this organization.”
Yet Accion Ecologica now has no legal status with which to operate and was not warned in advance of the ministry’s action, making it hard for most activists to believe that the move was merely an attempt at streamlining government administration.
Accion Ecologica leader Ivonne Ramos released a statement calling the government’s action arbitrary. “If the elimination of our legal status is a retaliation against our organization’s opposition to government policies such as large-scale mining and the expansion of the oil frontier, it would set a precedent for authoritarianism that is intolerable in a democratic regime,” she wrote.
Organizations in North America have helped to publicize Accion Ecologica ‘s predicament, including Canada-based Mining Watch, San Francisco-based Amazon Watch, and the Ecuador Solidarity Network (with whom this writer volunteers his time).
Rafael Correa’s 2006 presidential campaign called for a crackdown on tax evasion by the wealthy, better funding for social services like health care and education, and a foreign policy more independent of U.S. power. Correa also spoke in favor of environmental rights, and received the backing of many Ecuadorian environmentalists and the country’s powerful indigenous confederation. But disagreement over large-scale mining, and the concessions awarded largely to Canadian mining companies, has created a growing rift between the president and the country’s grassroots movements.
In January, indigenous-led street blockades protesting a new mining law shut down highways throughout the country.
In a Thursday interview with Quito’s El Comercio, former Minister of Mines and Energy Alberto Acosta called the government’s move “a form of violence.” He said, “If Accion Ecologica had committed an error, there should have been some mechanism for them to respond to the allegations — but not just withdrawing their legal status.” The erstwhile Correa ally has long worked with the country’s environmental and indigenous peoples’ movements. In July 2008, he quit as president of the assembly drafting Ecuador’s new constitution, but played a key role in ensuring that a number of green provisions were included; the establishment of legal rights for nature has drawn a fair share of international attention, protecting the earth’s “right to exist, persist, maintain and regenerate its vital cycles, structure, functions and its processes in evolution.”
Accion Ecologica has often criticized mainstream environmentalism, arguing in favor of ecologismo popular, similar to what people in the United States call environmental justice. Confronting the stereotype that environmentalism is only espoused by the comfortable and middle class, Accion Ecologica works closely with communities affected by industrial shrimping, logging, mining, and oil exploitation, forming a particularly strong bond with the Confederation of Indigenous Nationalities of Ecuador (CONAIE), one of Latin America’s most powerful movements.
Since its founding 20 years ago, Accion Ecologica has played a lead role in defending Ecuador’s Amazon rainforest against oil exploitation, logging, and mining. Since the 1990s, they have supported the landmark, multi-billion dollar lawsuit against Texaco, accusing the oil giant of polluting the rainforest’s land and water and sickening the indigenous people and peasant farmers who live there. But opposition to large-scale mining, built upon decades of experience with oil exploitation, has increasingly defined Ecuadorian politics. Movements now pose the novel question of whether, in a poor country like Ecuador, natural resource exploitation is truly the only path to development.
Daniel Denvir, a journalist who recently moved from Quito, Ecuador, to Philadelphia, Pa. He is writing a book on poor people’s environmentalism in Ecuador.