Quito, Ecuador – Environmentalists and Indigenous communities in Ecuador are concerned about the fate of the Amazon rainforest ahead of Sunday’s presidential elections, as the two leading candidates’ environmental plans received moderate to poor rankings from advocates.
Illegal logging, oil spills and large-scale mining projects have threatened both the rainforest, often called the lungs of the planet, and local Indigenous communities during the COVID-19 pandemic, which has spurred an economic crisis across the country.
But environmental issues have been largely ignored in presidential debates ahead of the vote, in which 16 candidates are competing to be the next Ecuadorian president – all on vastly different environmental platforms that could shape the Amazon’s fate.
“In my years, I have seen everything [politicians] offer and fail to deliver. Absolutely none of their campaign promises make it to Indigenous people,” said Patricia Gualinga, an Indigenous Kichwa leader who lives in the Amazon rainforest.
Gualinga said she has slightly more confidence this year in Yaku Perez, a lawyer and an anti-mining activist with Pachakutik, the political party of Ecuador’s Indigenous movement, who is currently polling third in the presidential contest.
But Perez is 10 to 15 percentage points behind the frontrunners: Andres Arauz, an economist and former central bank director who is with the new Democratic Center party, and Guillermo Lasso, a former banker now with the right-wing Creating Opportunities (CREO) party.
Arauz is the successor of former socialist President Rafael Correa, a divisive figure who intensified oil extraction in the Amazon to fund social programmes, while Lasso’s campaign is centred on creating jobs by increasing investment in oil and mining extraction.
Scientists have long said protecting the world’s rainforests, particularly the Amazon, is critical to preventing climate change and future pandemics.
But Ecuador’s Amazon, which covers about 42 percent of the country and is home to more than 500,000 people from 11 Indigenous nations, is facing mounting pressure due to increased deforestation, contamination and conflicts between industries and Indigenous communities.
Current President Lenin Moreno, who is not up for re-election, lost the support of environmentalists and many Indigenous peoples in 2019 after he inaugurated the country’s first two open-pit mines in the southern Amazon, home to the Shuar Indigenous community.
The move was part of a larger government plan to expand the country’s mining sector from 1.6 percent to 4 percent of its gross domestic product (GDP).
It came more than 10 years after Ecuador’s 2008 constitution became the first to recognise the rights of nature and the Indigenous concept of Buen Vivir (Good Living), which assures all citizens the right to water, food sovereignty and to live in a healthy environment.
But threats to the Amazon have increased during the COVID-19 pandemic.
For instance, the illegal logging of balsa wood, a rare and expensive light wood, has skyrocketed. “There are no adequate forest controls, which has allowed the felling of balsa, in particular, to increase to incredible levels in the last year,” said Carlos Mazabanda, Ecuador field coordinator for environmental group Amazon Watch.
Indigenous communities also say mining and oil companies put extra pressure on those trying to quarantine in their territories. In April and November, two major oil spills contaminated the Napo, Coca and Shiripuna rivers, affecting the food and water supply of local Kichwa and Waorani communities.
Mazabanda said the longstanding lack of oversight worsened during the pandemic due to a lockdown that limited movement of people, park guards and researchers through the Amazon, while massive budget cuts to the Ministry of Environment resulted in nearly 400 staff layoffs that included park rangers and administrators in the Amazon.
The government said the ministry cuts were part of an 8.3 percent reduction in state spending that was necessary to address a pandemic-fuelled economic crisis that caused Ecuador’s GDP to contract by 9 percent in 2020.
“We cannot deliver resources that we do not have or that we do not receive,” Vice Minister of Finance Fabian Carrillo told local media in October.
Ecuador’s unemployment rate reached 6.6 percent in September, almost double what it was in 2019, while poverty also increased for many families.
In that context, many presidential contenders have staked their efforts to revive the struggling economy on expanding oil and mining extraction projects, said Natalia Green, vice president of Cedenma, an environmental organisation.
“The pandemic happened for a reason, and it is precisely because we are destroying the planet. Now the answer to this pandemic is to continue destroying the planet,” she said.
Cedenma is one of 60 environmental organisations involved in a project known as Verdescopio that analyses each presidential candidate’s environmental plan and history on environmental issues. The candidates have been labelled “Green”, “Concerning” or “Toxic”.
Yaku, who was ranked the most “green” of all the presidential candidates, has been a water rights advocate and rose to prominence in 2018 when he called for a referendum against large-scale mining activities as president of the Indigenous movement Ecuarunari.
As part of his campaign, he has promised to transition to a “post-extraction” economy, use renewable energies like wind and solar, and enact greater protections for sensitive ecosystems such as mangroves.
Critics say it is unclear, however, how he will create new jobs without a concrete alternative to the extractive sector. Oil and mining account for almost 9 percent of Ecuador’s GDP. Others wonder if he will actually take on the powerful mining lobby while in office.
“That will be a really big challenge for him,” said Mazabanda. “The mining companies in this country are very strong.”
Arauz, who is currently leading in the polls, has a more ambiguous environmental profile and was rated as “concerning” by the Verdescopio project.
He has outlined plans to transition away from a post-oil economy and promised to restore ecologically degraded areas, work to reduce greenhouse gas emissions, and transition away from the use of plastics and other petrochemicals.
But Arauz’s close connection to former President Correa – who funded any social programmes through oil extraction during a commodities boom and promoted large-scale mining projects at the end of his presidency – has environmentalists worried, said Green.
For his part, Lasso has acknowledged the need to address climate change and proposed improving fuel quality to reduce air pollution and introduce renewable energies. But he has also pledged to strengthen the economy by increasing oil and mining operations, earning him a “toxic” label from the environmental groups.
Neither Arauz nor Lasso’s campaigns mention plans to protect the Amazon, though Lasso has expressed the need for “sustainable and responsible” mining. Green said environmentalists do not believe such a thing exists.
Speaking from the Amazonian city of Puyo, Gualinga said the rainforest needs to be treated as a space “that maintains a balance for the planet” – not just resources.
“Nature is a living being and has rights,” she said, referring to the country’s constitution. “And politicians have to start to embrace this new reality.”