Yesterday, I accidentally attended a discussion about oil in the rainforest and totally misunderstood what I was seeing.
I arrived at a coffeeshop early for a dance show. An hour before that show was supposed to start, the place filled up with college students. A young woman with a microphone introduced two men, who sat at a table on the small raised stage.
We were shown a short film about the rainforest that showcased the biodiversity of the forest, and the native people who live there. The film talked about the millions of barrels of oil, representing billions of dollars, that has been discovered under that rainforest. Then each of the men spoke at length. Their vocabularies were way over my head (I speak Spanish like a small child), so I had to guess at what they were saying.
Although the men were civil to one another, I assumed they were debating. I assumed immediately that the serious-looking gentleman with the neat hair in the pressed suit was all about exploiting the rainforest for economic prosperity, and that the shaggy younger dude in the jeans was all ‘Save the spotted owl!’ and ‘Equality for the native people!’ In fact, I remember thinking how people’s costumes imply certain value systems, no matter what country you’re in. I also remember thinking that the guys in the suits with the neat haircuts and shiny shoes always win in the end. The idealists always lose, no matter how impassioned their arguments or how right they are.
There are discussions about saving the rainforest at home, of course, but here it’s so much more immediate, more real.
When I got home, I looked up the Yasuní-ITT program they were discussing. What was really happening was so much cooler than I had imagined — and so much sadder.
Ecuador is not a wealthy country, and has been invaded and exploited by superior powers since Incan times. Using the billions of dollars in natural resources that were discovered in the rainforest to bring prosperity and economic power to the country should be a no-brainer for them, right? Wrong. First, Ecuador’s President Correa tried something really unusual.
Please, take two minutes of your day to watch this video clip and learn what creative solutions the human race is capable of when both sides of the table work together. It is simply astonishing — even though ultimately it didn’t work.
Sadly, it seems President Correa has, just this month, abandoned the program, citing a lack of support from the international community. He has approved drilling in the Yasuní forest. So I don’t think I was seeing a debate, since the issue is resolved. I think I just saw dissemination of news, the people of Ecuador are being informed of something they have no control over and given a chance to ask their questions. The debate is over.
I’m still impressed that Correa tried to have his oil and sell it too. It was a noble effort, and he fought for six years.
I’m impressed with Correa overall. He’s a larger-than-life figure here, more of a benevolent dictator (who has done a great deal to lift his people out of poverty during his tenure) than a democratic president.
Here’s my favorite story about Correa, taken from the Wikipedia entry on him:
“On 30 September 2010, the National Police went on strike over the passage of a bill that would end the practice of giving medals and bonuses with each promotion. In what was called an attempted coup d’état, protests included road blockades, storming the National Assembly and state-run television station, and the military seizure of the airport in Quito. President Correa went to debate with the rebellious police, but he was unsuccessful and instead challenged them to kill him, saying, “I’m not taking one step back. Gentleman, if you want to kill the president, here he is, kill him if you have the guts.” The police responded by attacking him and taking him hostage. While held in the hospital inside the police headquarters, Correa declared a national state of emergency.That night, an elite army unit rescued him from the hospital amid violent clashes between the police and the army.” That is one brave dude. Seriously.
Correa’s supporters want to wipe out term limits to keep him in office. Says one citizen “Correa is by far the best president Ecuador has ever had. He has achieved the best economic growth in Ecuadorian history, the largest increase in funding for healthcare, education, housing and infrastructure. Roads and bridges in Ecuador are now some of the best in Latin America, before him they were dirt or swiss cheese.”
But after six years of fighting to save Yasuní, even Correa couldn’t stop progress. At the end of the day, he’s just another guy in a suit and some shiny shoes who values money over all else. Correa promises to allow only the most ecological means of extracting the oil. He says the oil is worth $18 billion to the people of Ecuador, and that less than .1% of the forest will be destroyed, but we all know how these stories end. Poor people will still be poor, and the rainforest will die, and global warming will escalate. The dudes in suits will win.
What good will all that money be when we have no planet?