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Decades of petroleum production and water pollution by oil companies endangers local people. Image: Rainforest Action Network / Flickr

The concept of Sumak Kawsay or Good Living is derived from the precapitalist cultures of Andean and Amazonian indigenous people and pits the real experiences of living and struggling against colonial forms of racism and capitalist exploitation.

It can be understood as a cosmovision – a practice of harmony between individuals, as well as within society and of both individuals and society with nature, understanding humans and environmental nature to be part of the same unity, part of nature, and their main role in the systemic whole to be the reproduction of life in its integrity.

It emphasises the idea of living together, plurality and diversity, and requires the self-organisation of communities and co-operation within and among them. Communities organise to extend their autonomy from the state, and at the same time demand that states recognise, provide guarantees and act to protect the rights of indigenous people. It promotes a transformative, critical, collective and inclusive pedagogy – sensitive to specific identities and values.

For indigenous communities, the appropriation of communication technologies, full participation in mass media and intercultural communication that extends dialogue between different forms of knowledge, particularly between the epistemologies of the global south – all are fundamental for resistance and emancipation. The objective is not merely to live from nature, but to live with nature.

Ecuador’s Montecristi Constitution

The concept of Sumak Kawsay was the driving force behind Ecuador’s 2008 constitution, which recognises “the right of the population to live in a healthy and ecologically balanced environment that guarantees sustainability and good living”, acknowledging that socio-economic equality should go hand-in-hand with environmental justice.

Soon after, however, the Ecuadorian government approved a deeply contradictory National Plan for Good Living (2009-13) that included the promotion of large-scale mining projects as a way of achieving good living.

An important gap can be observed between constitutional legality and practice, between discourse and action. The exploitation of oil fields in the Yasuni National Park provides a landmark case-study of this contradiction that saw the government of Ecuador put the short term interests of the oil corporations ahead of indigenous people’s rights that it had vouched to protect.

The Yasuni-ITT Initiative

The Yasuni-ITT Initiative was approved in 2007 by President Rafael Correa in response to a collective struggle from below that aimed to keep oil under the ground of the Yasuni National Park – home to the Ishpingo, Tambococha and Tiputini tribes (ITT).

When oil was found in the ITT block, it was estimated that production could reach 920 million barrels and it was confirmed that it had reserves of 412 million.

Oil companies immediately made their move to exploit the field. Opposition inside and outside the government followed. Yasuni Park was declared a Reserve of the Biosphere by UNESCO in 1989 and a Refuge of the Life of the Pleistocene.

Extracting oil would mean an attack on the lungs of the planet and a boost to climate change and the consequences were easy to foresee as Texaco/Chevron oil exploitations in the Amazon had already dispossessed many indigenous communities and made many people sick.

The Yasuni-ITT initiative attempted to protect the rights of the indigenous peoples and of nature and to crystallise the concept of Good Living. Exploitation of the ITT would mean a production of about 100,000 barrels off extra-heavy crude per day but profits would be short-term since production would decline within 10 to 15 years.

It would be necessary to build a thermoelectric plant as well as another plant to reduce the density of the crude and transport it. Estimates suggested that each barrel of crude extracted would leave behind nine barrels of toxic waters, plus foreseeable cleaning costs.

The proposal of the Yasuni-ITT initiative, on the other hand, was to keep the oil under the soil in exchange for compensation from rich countries of (US)$350 million per year. Oxygen for the world in exchange for money for the state of Ecuador. Several European countries supported the proposal at first, but the plan never materialised.

Correa lamented that the initiative had to be abandoned because the wealthy countries stopped supporting the plan. He also justified the decision by promising that the profits would be redistributed to improve well-being.

He accused left-wing protesters of “infantilism”, arguing that the government was in favour of environmentalism, but not of “that infantile environmentalism of not using our resources, of letting our people starve to death while sitting on gold mines”.  According to Correa, a minority of people should not prevent the majority from improving its well-being.

Opposing “Progressive Extractivism”

Alberto Acosta, then Minister of Energy and Mining who later ran against Correa for the presidency, argued, in opposition to this vision of “progressive extractivism”, that the extractivist model does not bring wealth to the majority of the population. He spoke of “the curse of abundance” whereby the abundance of natural resources in fact brings poverty to the population.

Extractivism, he argued, contributes to concentration of wealth, a rentier mentality, corruption and clientelism, as well as environmental degradation and the violation of the rights of indigenous peoples.

In this view, the extractivist model reduces internal investment, innovation and economic diversification. When the economy is organised around extractivism, fundamental sectors like agriculture, livestock and manufacturing are left aside. According to critics, this model is vulnerable to the global market, does not generate added value, harms small producers and does not contribute substantially to employment. Short term economic growth goes together with rising inequality.

Powerful mobilisations of CONAJE (Confederation of Indigenous Nationalities of Ecuador) and CONFEIAE (the Ecuadorian Confederation of Amazonian Indian Nationalities) managed to delay important drillings.  Correa responded by threatening to send in the military. With the government discarding the Yasuni-ITT Initative, the utopia of Sumak Kawsay was suspended. A rare opportunity in history was lost. Bad living won.

Jose Pedro-Caranana is a lecturer in Communications at Saint Louis University, Madrid. Jose Maria Tortosa is a former professor of the Department of Sociology at the University of Alicante.