Ecuadoran president Rafael Correa pulls no punches. Whether from the balcony or in the studios of state-run television, the sharp-tongued South American leader regularly speaks his mind—and most Ecuadorans have learned to cross him at their peril.
Last week, Correa scolded international powers for failing to rally behind his $3.6 billion plan to protect a large patch of Amazonian rainforest and isolated indigenous tribes by leaving a vast stash of oil underground. “Sadly, the world has let us down,” he said, announcing his decision to scrap the bold preservation project and drill for crude under the jungle in Yasuní National Park.
But when green groups and indigenous leaders poured into the streets of Quito to protest this week, Correa turned his tongue on his compatriots. Though gringos got an earful, his main target, unsurprisingly, was local media, which dared to air the discontent. “Now our greatest ‘environmentalists’ are the mercantilist newspapers,” he lashed out on Twitter. “Well then,” he continued, “let us hold a popular plebiscite to propose that newspapers convert to digital- only publishing to save on paper and avoid indiscriminate waste of so many trees.”
Media advocates were quick to answer. “Is this a bad joke?” Rosental Calmon Alves, director of the Knight Center for Journalism in the Americas, asked on Twitter. Others doubted whether he would carry through on the threat. But jungle politics is nothing new for Correa, a tub-thumping populist styled after Hugo Chavez, the late Venezuelan leader whose broadsides against the United States and a running battle with independent media were the calling cards of his so-called Bolivarian revolution for “21st-century socialism.” Since Chavez’s death from cancer in March, the post of Latin American browbeater-in-chief has been vacant, and Correa has emerged as the likeliest successor.
Coming to power in 2007, the U.S. trained economist, who holds a doctorate from the University of Illinois, has clashed repeatedly with the press, threatened to bankrupt a newspaper, and hauled contrarian journalists to court, where the rulings rarely disappoint him. Convicted after a lightning trial to three years in jail for “defaming” Correa in an op-ed piece, El Universo editor Emilio Palacio fled to United States, where he won political asylum last year.
Undaunted, Correa ginned up a new communications law to tighten control over privately owned publications that United Nations Special Rapporteur Frank La Rue called “unacceptable,” and which a Colombian newspaper branded as “the final blow” against freedom of expression. In June, the bill breezed through the rubber-stamp legislature.
All this from the leader who unblinkingly granted asylum to fugitive Wikileaks publisher Julian Assange—who he called “a hero of freedom of expression”—and flirted with doing the same for the rogue American security analyst, Edward Snowden.
Could the collapse of the so-called Yasuní-ITT initiative be a turning point for the Bolivarian strongman? Certainly, it did little to improve Ecuador’s international standing, which Correa lately had been keen to burnish. Sebastian Lesch, spokesman for Germany’s Ministry of Economic and Development Cooperation, complained that Berlin had not been informed of Correa’s decision. He attributed “exclusive” responsibility for the collapse of the preservation initiative to the government in Quito.
Nor did Correa’s attempt to blame “hypocritical” foreigners go over well on the Ecuadoran street. Several thousand marched in the capital and other cities on Monday to oppose Correa’s announcement to send the state oil company, PetroAmazonas, to look for oil in the nature preserve. “Don’t touch the Yasuní!” their banners demanded.
“Now it’s up to all Ecuadorans to defend the Yasuní and the isolated indigenous tribes,” said Humberto Cholango, president of the National Indigenous Confederation, Conaie, on Twitter.
The implications of the Yasuní debacle extend beyond Ecuador. Seven years ago, when president Rafael Correa unveiled the preservation initiative, he drew global applause. Covering 3,800 square miles of the eastern flank of Ecuador’s Amazon basin, the Yasuní rainforest was a naturalist’s dream, with more tree species in a single hectare (2.5 acres) than in all of North America. Braces of pastel green parrots nest in the 10-story jungle canopy. Five-foot-long river otters gambol in the Pastaza River while pumas, tapirs, and rhinoceros beetles patrol the forest floor.
Yet like most patches of paradise, the Yasuní is in danger. Since 1970, the park’s animal population has shrunk 30 percent, as timber cutting, settlers, and development projects have encroached. Some 28 percent of the vertebrate species red-listed by the International Union for Conservation of Nature live there. The peril only grew last decade when engineers confirmed 930 million barrels of heavy crude oil in the park’s Ishpingo-Tambococha-Tiputini exploration bloc.
Instead of allowing Big Oil to plunder the forest for oil that, when burned, would release tons of climate-changing carbon gases into the atmosphere, Quito proposed that donors from rich, polluting nations pay Ecuador for safeguarding the unspoiled forest.
The price tag was hefty: $3.6 billion. But, Correa argued, this was just half the market value of the oil trapped in the coveted ITT bloc. By keeping the oil underground and out of fuel tanks, he reasoned, the world could avoid spewing some 400 million tons of climate-warning greenhouse gases into the atmosphere.
So Ecuador set out to sell the Yasuní plan, dispatching the articulate Ivonne Baki, an artist and diplomat, to chat up heads of state and global notables. Former president Bill Clinton took interest. So did the former Spanish prime minister Felipe Gonzalez, ex-Soviet premier Mikhail Gorbachev, and the Guatemalan Nobel laureate Rigoberta Manchú. A consortium of European countries led by Germany pledged funds to be shepherded by the United Nations. Last year, Ecuador even built a replica of the Yasuní rainforest, replete with dangling lianas and bird calls, in the convention center in Rio de Janeiro at the during the 20th anniversary of the UN conference on the Environment and Sustainable Development.
But seven years on, Ecuador had managed to raise a little over $13 million and had pledges of just $300 million, and by mid-summer the whole deal fell apart. In a nationwide broadcast, Correa bitterly complained of first-world indifference. “The world is full of hypocrisy, because what prevails is not the logic of justice of the logic of power,” he charged.
Others saw administrative incompetence and Bolivarian brinksmanship at work. “A failed attempt at extortion,” was how oil market analyst Gustavo Coronel, a former director of Venezuela’s state oil company PDVSA, branded Correa’s attempt to “threaten European nations to dig into their pockets in order not to drill.”
As it happened, even as the government was stumping for the Yasuní reserve, construction crews were building roads to the oil fields. “The infrastructure is already in place to exploit the oil,” warned former energy minister Alberto Acosta, who challenged Correa in this year’s presidential campaign. “He [Correa] is getting ready to blame rich nations for not giving enough to make [Yasuní] work.” Finally last week, Correa asked Congress to allow drilling in the reserve.
That is a shame. Yasuní’s failure “is one more demonstration of what the world stands to lose in delaying and putting off addressing the crisis of climate change,” says Steve Schwartzman, a rainforest expert with the Environmental Defense Fund.
It also could be a cautionary tale about implementing complex plans to save the environment in regions where politics is a jungle. “Clearly confidence is a key factor for all kinds of aid projects and environmental protection,” Schwartzman says. “If you’re going to get public- or private-sector investment, people need to know that they can rely on local partners.”