Letter From Ecuador
When Renee Arevalo purchased a small plot of land just off the main road to Shushifindi several years ago, it seemed like a great opportunity. A rectangular block of freshly plowed dirt off the well-traveled route toward one of Ecuador's oldest oilfields, the sizable lot looked like the perfect spot to build a small house for his family that would double as a tire repair shop. But then the rains came. The hard, driving rains of Ecuador's Amazon basin have made this rainforest region one of the most ecologically spectacular places on the planet. But at Arevalo's new home, the rains brought only a foul smell, sort of like a gas station. Then Arevalo noticed that the puddles of water that blotched his dirt yard had thick, multicolored swirls on top. When he poked a wooden stick a few feet down, thick black sludge bubbled to the surface.
Arevalo has a wide, square face that looks permanently creased from worry. He's lived here with his family for five years now, he told me when I met him outside his home recently. They drink from a nearby well. But the family is always sick, he said. His children have constant stomachaches. And recently, his mother-in-law died of liver cancer. I asked him what he thought was the cause. "Of course it's from the oil," he said. A bony white cow curled up in the mud flicked away the circling flies with his tail. "But what can I do? Who can I complain to?"
Arevalo is just one of thousands of Ecuadorians left angry in the wake of decades of oil exploration that began in the 1960s and continues, albeit in a more modern form, today. He's also part of a growing force of poor and indigenous people across the country, from the peaks of the Andes to the lowlands of the Oriente, who have grown suspicious of Ecuador's government. Famous for its backroom dealings with oil companies and international financial institutions, the national leadership is widely seen as having enriched the elite at the expense of more than half the population, which struggles to get by on less than a dollar a day. In fact, among the indigenous, poverty is far worse--87 percent, according to the World Bank. And since 2000, when the country adopted the American dollar as its official currency to curb runaway inflation, that dollar has bought them a lot less than it used to.
The combination of the sorts of economic reforms pressed by the United States, World Bank and IMF in the 1990s and the failure of the region's tremendous oil and gas wealth to benefit the poor and indigenous have led to a broad backlash against globalization across much of Latin America--illustrated by the rise of Hugo Chávez in Venezuela, the fall of Bolivian President Carlos Mesa in June and the elections of a range of leftists, from "Lula" in Brazil to Néstor Kirchner in Argentina, who've vowed to reject the old Washington Consensus and do more for the poor. (Whether they've delivered on those promises is debatable.) And the developed world's addiction to oil has fueled oil companies' aggressive push into the most remote parts of the world, which until recently were largely undisturbed by Western-style modernization.
The resulting clash of interests and cultures reached a breaking point in Ecuador this past spring, when thousands of protesters crammed the capital demanding the resignation of President Lucio Gutiérrez. Although elected with the backing of the leading indigenous party, Gutiérrez lost indigenous support soon after meeting with George W. Bush and IMF officials, when he abandoned much of his pro-poor rhetoric and vowed to expand oil production--even if it meant using the military to do it. His attempts to consolidate power and shut out the opposition by, for example, sacking the Supreme Court and stacking it with his supporters finally led to his downfall.
Former Vice President Alfredo Palacio has now assumed the presidency. But it's unlikely that the longstanding conflict over who's helped and hurt by Ecuador's vast oil reserves, and what should be done about it, will be resolved anytime soon.