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COVID-19 | The COVID-19 pandemic and oil spills in the Ecuadorian Amazon: the confluence of two crises

How can we reframe the current planetary crisis to find ways for decisive and life-changing collective action? The Amazon region of Ecuador, at the center of two crises—COVID-19 and a major oil spill—but also home to a long history of indigenous resistance, offers some answers.

Oil Spill Amazon

Navigating two crises

In Ecuador, the intensification of resource extraction and pollution, floods and weather disturbances have hit marginalized populations hardest. Indigenous peoples and people living in the Amazon have continuously suffered an enormous political and economic disadvantage when confronting extractive industries and allied state bodies. The vulnerability of the peoples and territory of the Ecuadorian Amazon region has been even more severely exposed during the COVID-19 lockdown period starting 16 March 2020.

On 7 April 2020, the Trans-Ecuadorian Oil Pipeline System and the Heavy Crude Oil Pipeline, which transport Ecuador’s oil, collapsed. The pipelines were built along the banks of the Coca River and the collapse resulted in the spillage of an enormous quantity of crude oil into its waters. The Coca river is a key artery in the regional Amazon system. It runs through three national parks that form one of the richest biodiverse areas on Earth, which has been historically preserved by the ways of life of the indigenous peoples who inhabit it.

The breakage of the pipelines impacted kilometers of rainforest riverways and tens of thousands of people. Indigenous populations living in surrounding areas are more at risk than non-indigenous populations because they rely on locally harvested food and water, which can become contaminated. Indigenous peoples find it difficult to comply with lockdown mobility restrictions since their subsistence depends on agriculture, hunting and fishing, which in turn have been severely impacted by the oil spills. The exposure to the virus due to the entry of technicians to repair the pipelines is another threat. These conditions have led the Confederation of indigenous nationalities of the Ecuadorian Amazon (CONFENIAE) warning of an impending genocide.

The Coca river valley before the erosion. Photo credit: Luisa Andrade

Despite the constitutional mandate to provide free and high-quality public healthcare for all citizens, the Ecuadorian national health system is fraught with problems. Health coverage in the Amazon region is precarious with a lack of medical facilities, doctors, and not enough COVID-19 tests and ventilators required to treat an outbreak. While elderly and people with comorbidities have been identified globally as most vulnerable to infection, the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights identifies indigenous people as a risk group. Indeed, historically, pathogens have been one of the most powerful factors in decimating indigenous peoples in South America.

Depending on how an issue is framed, different responses can be expected, including why something is considered or not a problem, who is responsible, and what needs to be done about it. Environmental problems derived from the extraction of natural resources such as oil are mainly framed as localized problems. Thus, the burden is placed onto affected communities and local and national governments, while their global and systematic character is disowned. What we aim to say with this is that while there are companies and governmental entities that are directly responsible, their actions respond to a global system that is based and sustained on extractivism.

As the COVID-19 pandemic shows, it is only when a crisis is understood as part of a global web of relations derived from complex power dynamics that we can imagine possibilities of globally coordinated and integrated efforts required for effective resolution. We are now living under global restrictions, which were once unimaginable, politically and economically.  The rapid adaptation of quarantine and travel restrictions reveals that when the message of ‘human life is in danger’ is embraced, societies as a whole are able to perform the collective drastic changes required in a short period of time.

For Ecuadorian grassroots organizations and scholars, the COVID-19 pandemic is a reminder of our interconnectedness, our collective vulnerability, and therefore our mutual obligations to our planet. The pandemic is just one aspect of the human-made planetary crisis along with biodiversity loss and climate change. We are interested in how to reframe the current planetary crisis that encompasses increasingly visible global diseases in order to find ways for decisive and life-changing collective action. We ask these questions by looking at the Amazon region of Ecuador, which is bearing the brunt of two crises: COVID-19 and environmental destruction through a major oil spill.

“In the name of development”

To understand the complexity of this human and ecological disaster, it is necessary to retrace some historical steps. On February 2, 2020, the San Rafael waterfall, the highest in Ecuador, collapsed. At that time, hydrologists warned that a phenomenon known as ‘regressive erosion’ could affect upstream infrastructure. On April 7, 2020 the Ministry of Energy and Non-Renewable Natural Resources announced that the pipelines broke due to landslides that occurred in the San Rafael sector. Hydrologists associate the landslides with the construction and operation of the Coca-Codo Sinclair hydroelectric dam (CCSHD).

Location of the most relevant events generated by the regressive erosion phenomenon of the Coca River. Infographic credit: Luisa Andrade

According to Carolina Bernal, PhD in Geomorphology and Hydrosedimentology, the CCSHD caused a serious imbalance in the transport of sediments and water through the river flow which produced a  regressive erosion phenomenon which was responsible for causing sinkholes along the banks of the river. One of these sinkholes broke the oil pipelines. This risk had been mentioned in the earlier preliminary environmental impact study of the hydroelectric project.

CCSHD was inaugurated as part of Ecuador’s hydraulic mission during the presidency of Rafael Correa. The dam, like other hydroelectric projects carried out during his mandate, was politically legitimatized as “provider of clean energy and ‘good living’ for Ecuadorians and the world”. The rhetoric concerning the sustainable energy transition to renewable sources in the national energy matrix has been notably inconsistent with the dam’s high impacts on people and the environment.

The socio-environmental impacts associated with CCSHD and the oil spill were foreseen by the scientific community and civil society who were dismissed as “antidevelopmentalists” by Correa’s government. Some anticipated that the dam would a be major disruption of downstream sediment for the Napo River and would require extensive road-building and line construction in the primary forest. Others have questioned the true purpose of the dam, arguing that it was not about sustainable development for local people, but rather to provide electricity to the oil fields.

One of several sinkholes caused by the regressive erosion of the Coca River. The sinkhole captured in this picture is close to the town of San Luis. Photo credit: Carlos Sanchez (August 2020)

Going beyond business as usual

Even if the world is still embroiled in the COVID-19 pandemic, the responses to this crisis have revealed stark unequal, racial, and geopolitical differences. The indigenous populations affected by the spill and the pandemic have denounced the failure of the state to attend to these two emergencies. The many commentators on the current changes in the social and economic constellation of the world are urging for the re-evaluation of our way of life and the possibility of a radical change. For Ecuadorian indigenous organizations and the environmental justice movement, the pandemic and the environmental crises call for a radical rethinking of economic growth and our current model of development.

Scholars like Maurie Cohen see COVID-19 as “a public health emergency and a real-time experiment in downsizing the consumer economy”. Accordingly, the outbreak could potentially contribute to a sustainable consumption transition. For Phoebe Everingham and Natasha Chassagne the crisis is an opportunity to challenge the atomized individualism that underlies overconsumption. For them, Buen Vivir, a central concept to Ecuador’s development planning, drawn from the historical experience of indigenous communities that have lived in harmony with nature, is a post-pandemic alternative for moving away from capitalist growth and re-imagining a new form of traveling and tourism.

We cannot return to ‘a normal’ that ignores the global environmental crisis which led to the inequitable and polluted societies that enabled the spread of COVID-19. The extractive vision of the living world is endangering humanity’s very existence. Is there space for a greater appreciation of the complexity of these intertwined crises? When will we see, as Bayo Akomalafe states, “Earth’s interconnected geological and political processes”?.

The extractive environmental activities that underpin capitalist development and a planetary-mass consumption culture are jeopardizing the very existence of humanity. Though environmental disasters have decimated and violated the rights of indigenous peoples in the Ecuadorian Amazon for years, they continue to resist. Before the COVID-19 pandemic, groups of Amazonian indigenous organizations promoted a model of autonomous governance of the Amazon region of Ecuador and Peru through the “Sacred Basins Territories of Life” initiative.

The proposal has been developed by an alliance of indigenous peoples and nationalities of Ecuador and Peru to forge a new post-carbon, post-extractive model by leaving fossil fuels and mineral resources underground, retaining around 3.8 billion metric tons of carbon, to protect our planet and the well-being of future generations. The proposal would cover around 30 million hectares of land between Ecuador and Peru, home to almost 500,000 indigenous people of 20 different nationalities. Can these counter-hegemonic proposals which claim the interconnectivity of all species in this world be critically revisited in the times of the pandemic?

COVID-19 brought the world to a halt. This ‘portal to a new era’, as Arundhati Roy proclaimed, offers us a chance to question deeply our social and economic relations. Perhaps this could be the moment in history where we also can finally reframe localized environmental disasters as global concerns and act accordingly. This is the opportunity to politically and socially rethink how to transition to a different kind of development that acknowledges and changes the damaging way global lifestyles directly impact the indigenous peoples and natures of the world.

This blog article was first published on Undisciplined Environments.

About the authors:

Jacqueline Gaybor is a Research Associate at the International Institute of Social Studies of Erasmus University, in The Hague and lecturer at Erasmus University College in Rotterdam. Email: gaybortobar@iss.nl.

Wendy HarcourtWendy Harcourt is a Professor of Gender, Diversity and Sustainable Development at the International Institute of Social Studies of the Erasmus University, in The Hague. She is a member of the Editorial Collective of Undisciplined Environments. Email: harcourt@iss.nl.

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Covid-19 | Strengthening alliances in a post-Covid world: green recovery as a new opportunity for EU-China climate cooperation?

As nations turn their attention to fighting the economic crisis resulting from the Covid-19 pandemic, green recovery seems to be a good—and perhaps for the first time, possible—option. As climate change remains the most pressing challenge despite the severity of the global Covid-19 pandemic, a green recovery plan to slow down global warming and meet climate goals becomes imperative. Leaders in the EU are taking the lead in greening the recovery, while China seems to be following suit. A ‘green consciousness’ seems to be emerging. Could these efforts improve EU-China relations and help these two global powerhouses work together to fight climate change? asks Hao Zhang.

Chinese and EU flag
Credit: Friends of Europe on Flickr

As the IMF’s latest report on fiscal policies shows, the Covid-19 crisis won’t change the global climate that is also in crisis, but responses to it might. Even though science hasn’t produced an answer on whether the current economic crisis induced by the pandemic will indeed affect the stock of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere, efforts to address it certainly will. It is undeniable that the current health and economic crisis together create a threat to our current development trajectory and that the scope and severity of the issue to some extent make lasting efforts and immediate actions crucial. These decisions on how we will recover from the pandemic and the resulting crisis will shape our society for the next few decades and, even more importantly perhaps, how we deal with our climate and environmental challenges. As the IPCC’s report warned that our current ambition and willingness are far from pushing us to reach our goal of containing global warming, a green recovery plan becomes imperative in a post-Covid-19 world.

The question then arises: How do we green our recovery? As the IMF suggests, fiscal policymakers should take the lead in making policies that support climate goals without undermining the purpose of boosting the economy. Then, finance ministries should be able to set up concrete and practical projects to implement these policies. In addition, public support for the green policies with the rationale that curbing emissions would likely reduce the risk of respiratory diseases is indispensable. In a post-Covid-19 world, this might sway the public in support of green measures in a way it never has before.

The EU seems to be taking the lead in employing green measures to recover its lockdown-hit economies. As policymakers tend to believe that a green plan can better help revive the economy, concrete actions can be witnessed. In May this year, the European Commission proposed a €750 billion recovery fund with green conditions, 25% of which is to be set aside for climate action, meaning that one-quarter of expenditure with a ‘do-no-harm’ clause can potentially rule out environmentally damaging investments.[1] In addition, the Commission also issued a €1.85 trillion, seven-year budget and pandemic recovery package. This EU green recovery package could be introduced elsewhere to stimulate the economy while fighting climate change.

In addition, the EU launched the world’s largest programs for innovative low-carbon technologies under the fund from the EU’s emissions trading system. This innovation fund is created to finance breakthrough technologies for renewable energy, energy-intensive industries, carbon capture, use and storage, etc. These could help create local job opportunities, lead the economy to a climate-neutral place, and also help the EU maintain its technological leadership in climate change. It is obvious that the EU pays great attention to the future of clean technologies, yet it allows member states and the market space to decide how the money is spent. The member states will be allowed to use their allocations from the EU’s Recovery and Resilience Facility for a wide range of green projects detailed in their national energy climate plans, and their proposals will be reviewed by the Commission; at the same time, private capital will be encouraged to invest in clean energy technologies.

On the other side of the world, in China, residents also survived the first wave of the pandemic, and the government is now also making recovery plans. This May, in the report on the work of the government, the development of renewable energy and efforts toward the clean and efficient use of coal were emphasized.[2] At the same time, this year for the first time Beijing has decided not to set an economic growth target, which is interpreted as a way to help China shift away from energy-intensive infrastructure projects.[3] This indeed has sent out a very positive signal; however, given that China still hasn’t submitted its Nationally Determined Contributions (NDCs) for the next reporting round, it also raises concerns about a lack of practical assurance.

Nevertheless, the cooperation between the EU and China in regard to green recovery seems promising. At the recent 22nd China-EU Summit on September 14 this year, President Xi Jinping stated that

China is interested in forging a green partnership with the EU and constructively participating in the global process of tackling climate change and preserving biodiversity. We are researching on reaching our long-term vision in the mid-century,[4] which includes carbon-peaking and carbon-neutrality.[5]

It is thus obvious that economic recovery after the Covid-19 pandemic is considered a top priority for leaders of both the EU and China, and it becomes increasingly clear that both parties are interested in a recovery package that aligns with their green transition goals.

Looking ahead, the EU and China can cooperate with each other in a few fields. First, the EU’s experiences could help China transition more rigorously to the use of green energy, especially in cutting the number of carbon-powered plants and subsidizing new energy vehicles. Second, the EU and China could agree to channel public and private funds to low-carbon investments both at home and abroad. Both parties are big investors of overseas development projects; they can thus work together to invest in projects subject to green terms. Going a step further, the EU and China could also work on developing international standards for sustainable finance[6], and China could learn from the EU’s experience in committing to more ambitious climate targets, specifically making ‘decarbonization’ a top priority in its next five-year plan.[7] Hopes are high for future cooperation between the EU and China in leading the world toward a green recovery, yet key decisions need to be made by both parties.

[1] Refer to Climate Home News, “EU €750 billion Covid recovery fund comes with green conditions”, May 27, 2020.

[2] Refer to ccchina.org.cn, 一图读懂2020政府工作报告, May 29, 2020.

[3] Refer to Climate Home News, “China prioritises employment over GDP growth in coronavirus recovery”, May 22, 2020.

[4] President Xi confirmed that China will try to reach carbon-neutrality before 2060 in his speech at a high-level meeting to mark the UN’s 75th anniversary on September 22nd, 2020.

[5] Refer to Global Times, “推动疫后全球经济复苏 中欧领导人视频会晤定目标”, September 15, 2020.

[6] Refer to China Dialogue, “Hopes for EU-China climate deal centre on a green recovery”, June 17, 2020.

[7] Refer to China Dialogue, “中欧气候协议前景如何?”, September 14, 2020.

About the author:

Hao ZhangHao Zhang is a PhD candidate at the International Institute of Social Studies (ISS), Erasmus University Rotterdam (EUR). Before joining ISS, she was a master’s student majoring international affairs at School of Global Policy and Strategy at University of California, San Diego. Her current research focus on policy advocacy of Chinese NGOs in global climate governance. Her research interests lie in Chinese politics, global climate politics and diplomacy.

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