There is a major battle surrounding a large part of the world’s biodiversity, and many Americans don’t even know it. The Yasuni, a large Amazonian region in Ecuador, is home to substantial oil reserves, and the president of Ecuador, Rafael Correa, wants to tap into this resource and put the money towards social programs, but others fear the cost to the Amazon and to the indigenous peoples who live there.
Because of the complexities of the decision the Ecuadorian people have called for a referendum to vote on the drilling issue. However, this choice will have to overcome the drawbacks of freedom of expression and the press in Ecuador. True democratic decisions hinge on the ability for people to communicate their viewpoints, and, given the state of censorship in Ecuador, I fear the livelihoods of Ecuadorians, particularly the indigenous peoples of the Amazon, may be at stake.
Previously, the Ecuadorian government had offered world leaders an opportunity to pay it a portion of the potential benefit of the oil reserves in return for protection of the Yasuni. Enthusiasm for this plan worldwide did not pan out. President Correa decided to end the offer short of its full time span because of what he considered to be lackluster progress on raising the funds to provide the support for what he feels are much-needed social programs. A big drawback to his plan, though, is the environmental and health costs it would have for Ecuador, especially given what past drilling has cost the Amazon.
Despite the lessened flow of information in Ecuador, people still seem to have a variety of opinions on the matter. While I was in Quito, I witnessed an older man protest in the plaza about the damage that drilling for oil does to the land and people. I also met people who were enamored with Correa and trusted him to lead the country (despite accusations of manipulating the constitution to allow him a longer term) because of the economic improvements since he took office.
Students in particular seemed to be split on the issue. I had the opportunity to visit with students at ESPE, a college outside of Quito, and I asked them what they thought about the plan to drill in the Yasuni. Some were invested in the president’s plan to use the money from the oil reserves to invest in development for public schools and infrastructure. Others were concerned about protecting the environment, finding sustainable development, and respecting the health and rights of the indigenous people who still live in the Yasuni region of the Amazon.
These students tapped into the complexities of the development versus environment debate that is occurring in Ecuador. Their discussion with me was thoughtful and shows the benefits that the marketplace of ideas can have on difficult decisions such as the future of the Yasuni. But these contrasting opinions definitely do not get equal airtime with the public due to government influence and control on the press, and that is concerning for those who are interested in Ecuador’s democratic process.
After spending time around Quito during the Thanksgiving holiday, I understand much better how torn Ecuador is over this issue; I myself still cannot decide what I think of the plan to sell off parts of the Yasuni to companies (primarily Chinese companies) to drill. But it’s not my decision to make, ultimately. The people who know the issue and area best should make the call: the Ecuadorian people.
Ultimately, democracy and the marketplace of ideas are the best way to determine the future of environmentalism and development in Ecuador, the first nation to include the rights of nature in its constitution. Clearly, environmental protection is important to the people, but development and growth is also essential to their livelihoods. Correa might think he knows best for the people, but he should let them speak and listen to their wishes for their own future.