By Jane Halbedel
12.12.2012 was the day NEOSC members gathered and were treated to an exceptionally informative presentation: “In the Land of Sumak Kawsay: A Gringo’s Foray into Ecuador’s Struggle Towards Sustainability.” The “gringo” was none other than the NEO’s Rainforest Committee Chair, Dr. Michael Melampy, who, after being awarded a Fulbright scholarship, spent five months teaching a class on environmentalism at the Universidad del Azuay.
Michael explained that the new formulation of Ecuador’s constitution in 2008 essentially provides a “fundamental and profound respect for nature and recognizes the rights of nature and places where they can reproduce and evolve.” This document is the first of its kind because it uniquely recognizes that biodiversity has rights.
Going back 500 years, Ecuador’s economy was even then steeped in textiles, bananas, oil, gold and copper. Michael reminded us that, despite the declaration of the importance of Ecuador’s biodiversity, there are efforts afoot for large-scale mining and extraction giving cause for the Indigenous communities to march in protest throughout major cities in Ecuador. Michael compared this valiant effort to the Sierra Club marching through various cities across the U.S.
Despite a 20 billion dollar lawsuit levied against Chevron that was won due to gross water and land contamination and despite escalations in cancer cases in the areas owned and operated by Chevron, with the case now under appeal in various courts, oil companies are “chomping at the bit” to gain greater access. This in a portion of the Amazon rainforest that is notably ranked third in the world for its rich and dense biodiversity.
Per a proposal initiated in 2007, President Rafael Correa is willing to withdraw Ecuador from these future drilling prospects in the Amazon if the country is compensated 3.6 billion dollars… and “to leave indefinitely untouched an estimated 850 million barrels of oil inside Yasuni’s northeastern corner in a tract known as the ITT Block.” [National Geographic] Unfortunately, there has been little support, thus far. (“The 3.6 billion in compensation, [is] roughly half of what Ecuador would have realized in revenues from exploiting the resource at 2007 prices, as payment for preserving the wilderness and preventing an estimated 410 million metric tons of fossil fuel-generated carbon emissions from entering the atmosphere.” National Geographic – January 2013 Special Edition.)
With mineral prices being at an “all time high,” Ecuador’s mineral wealth is even more than enticing. Despite the pursuits of mining and extractive industries to gain access to portions of the Ecuadorian Amazon rainforest, the potential Ecuador has for ecotourism is “huge.” Costa Rica entertains two million foreigners each year with an exceptional contribution of 17% of the country’s GDP. The main difference being, Costa Rica has already constructed infrastructure to accommodate this level of tourism that contributes so significantly to the country’s overall wealth. The question is, will Ecuador do likewise, or allow Big Oil to conduct more of its drilling in some of the most pristine and richly biodiverse areas found on Earth?
Michael contends conservationists should be trumpeting the critical aspects of the Ecuadorian Constitution and become proactive with other organizations in helping to protect the Amazon rainforest. Further, he explained, Ecuador will need to lay out the framework, with specific legislation and the manner by which these laws will be enforced, in order to ensure the protection of Ecuador’s vast biodiversity.
To Correa’s credit he has built schools, roads, and hospitals, and should he be re-elected, as is predicted. It is clear this former Minister of Energy and dedicated environmentalist will make decisions that will not only directly impact his country, but the planet.
*** Those wishing to learn more, please see the January 2013 edition of National Geographic, 125th Anniversary SPECIAL ISSUE: WHY WE EXPLORE.“Rainforest for Sale.”