At the point where the lazy, black-water Cuyabeno runs into the faster currents of the Aguarico, carrying a chill from their Andean source, sandbars stretch out from the verdant banks. These are the Playas de Cuyabeno, and the name has attached itself to the indigenous Cofan community in this region, deep inside Ecuador’s portion of the Amazon Basin. Until very recently, an assortment of thatched, wooden dwellings sat above the river. Today it has been replaced by an orderly hamlet of evenly spaced, two-story, prefab houses, all steel and white plaster, connected by improbably clean roads, and sprinkled with basketball courts and childrens’ playgrounds. This is Ecuador’s first Comunidad de Milenio (Millenium Community), a $21 million benefit from the proceeds of the Pañacocha oil field that borders the community. Under the terms of the country’s 2010 Hydrocarbon Law, a portion of the royalties from oil production must be ploughed back into the communities affected by drilling and extraction.
The region’s indigenous people have good reason to welcome these freshly minted villages after forty years during which their ancestral lands were ravaged by Texaco, Occidental and other foreign petroleum concerns. Each comunidad comes with wifi, cable TV and a well-stocked school and health center, while the shipshape streets and parks give a modern eco gloss to the older rituals of jungle living. When President Rafael Correa, the popular left-wing leader of Ecuador since 2007, traveled to Playas de Cuyabeno for its grand opening last year, he drew attention to its ecofriendly design: “There will be no motorized vehicles. People will walk and use their bikes.”
For his devotees, the comunidads are the latest perks of his “citizens’ revolution,” which has seen one of the most ambitious, and costly, assaults on poverty in South America. Correa rarely fails to point out that his country’s oil royalties are no longer flowing to the oligarchs in Quito, Guayaquil, Miami or Houston, and that they are bettering the lives of all (in accord with his administration’s Buen Vivir national plan). In almost every sector—access to free education and healthcare, dignified housing, public works, labor and disability rights, social security, fair wages, broadband access and economic growth—the performance indicators are impressive. But for Correa’s critics on the left, the new jungle settlements (up to 200 are to be built) are the slickest of bribes, intended to buy smooth passage for the oil companies, both state-owned and foreign, that are lining up to drill in the most remote reaches of the Amazon. Correa’s own popularity, sharpened by fears of a decisive electoral swing to the right, has tempted him to consider seeking a fourth term in 2017. If he mounts another run, the battle over the Amazon oil reserves will be a big talking point in the election, but the outcome will also be shaped by deals being made on the other side of the world, in Beijing.
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The new comunidad of Playas de Cuyabeno (photos by the author)
When he took office in 2007, Correa appointed a Debt Audit Commission to determine which of Ecuador’s crushing debt obligations should be honored, and which were illegitimate. It was a bold response to the debt trap that captured so many South American countries during the previous three decades. Acting on the commission’s recommendations, Ecuador defaulted on $3.9 billion of its external debts, and the country instantly became a pariah on the international finance markets. PetroChina offered a lifeline with a $1 billion two-year loan at a 7.25 percent interest rate. In repaying it diligently, Ecuador would be able to reestablish its standing as a trusted borrower.