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Ecuadorian Oil Politics and the Violation of Indigenous, Human, and Environmental Rights

Addressing the Yasuni-ITT Initiative under the Correa Administration


Government authorization of oil exploration has historically denied indigenous populations of the Amazonian region fundamental human rights, and continues to do so in the contemporary period. While President Rafael Correa and the government of Ecuador are committed to a reduction in poverty and inequality, oil exploitation in the name of economic growth cannot come at the expense of human rights. Although the 2008 Constitution and International Treaties are designed to protect the rights of indigenous Ecuadorians and the Amazon, the Correa administration has marginalized and stigmatized the voices of indigenous peoples and sustained practices of oil exploration that threaten livelihoods without their consent. Current plans to further exploit the Yasuni National Park have reignited an indigenous movement that has deep roots and numerous victories in Ecuador. An indigenous coalition YasUnidos is collecting signatures that constitute 5% of the electorate in order to reverse Correa’s mandate to extract oil with a Chinese partner in the Yasuni-ITT block. In response to these concerns, domestic policies, and international treaties, it is vital that the Correa Administration rescinds plans to exploit the Yasuni-ITT block and terminates all existing oil practices in the Yasuni National Park. 


The Yasuni-ITT Initiative of 2007 was designed to terminate Ecuador’s plan to expand oil drilling in the Amazon, thereby legitimizing the rights of Indigenous peoples and the environment as declared in the Ecuadorian Constitution and a multitude of international treaties. The intuition behind the initiative was to collect international donations in the name of environmental protection and to compensate the state of Ecuador for the economic sacrifice of keeping 846 million barrels of oil in the ground. After a failure to obtain adequate funding in the subsequent five years, Rafael Correa announced that Ecuador was forced to cancel the Yasuni-ITT Initiative and move forward with oil exploration in order to fulfill the social programs and economic growth of the state. The shift in policy sparked the mobilization of indigenous communities and environmental activists and the mission to collect signatures of 5% of the constituency, which would in effect reverse the presidential decree. 

History of Oil Extraction in Ecuador

Oil reserves were discovered in Ecuador in the 1930s and immediately had negative impacts on the indigenous Ecuadorians. Some have gone as far to criticize the introduction of the oil sector as an “expanded frontier of colonization” (Viatori 2009). A subsidiary of Shell was granted a 5-year exploration contract with a 30-year exploitation rights contract in the Oriente, an eastern region of Ecuador comprised of Amazonian rainforests and lowlands. The oil industry carried the legacy of the Spanish caste system, creating a discriminatory working relationship between indigenous workers and white minorities. Some indigenous workers were encouraged to work by Catholic missionaries, while others were hired by Patrones (owners and commissioners of the hacienda labor system), who would receive money in exchange for acquiring new recruits for the multinationals. The new industry immediately created exploitative labor relations and led to the abandonment of subsistence and local agriculture practices (Davidov 2013, 64). Additionally, Ecuador’s National Culture Law of 1972 recognized that all Ecuadorian citizens were partially indigenous, but that any inhabitants who were entirely indigenous were not in fact Ecuadorian under the law, and thus were not perceived to have a right to territory (Viatori 2009). 

Texaco rediscovered massive quantities of crude reserves in the 1960s, which carried Ecuador into the oil boom of 1967. In 1972 Petroecuador, the state-run oil corporation, constructed a 312-mile Trans-Ecuadorian Pipeline (SOTE) that provided the structural foundations for the destructive legacy of oil operations in Ecuador. By 1989 the SOTE cracked 27 times, which led to the release of 17 million gallons of oil into local waters (Ibid, 66). Environmental protections and regulations by the state were especially weak during this period of neoliberalism and Structural Adjustment of the 1980s and1990s. The administrations of Febres-Cordero and Sixto Duran Ballen relaxed regulations regarding international investments, lowered tariffs, and sold crude reserves to foreign companies in the hopes of economic recovery. There was not a concern for indigenous rights to territory during this period, which led to the monetary bribes and continual exploitation against local communities and resistance.  

Indigenous Movements & Mobilization

Ecuador has one of the strongest and most successful indigenous social movements in Latin America. CONAIE (Confederacion de Nacionalidades Indigenas de la Amazonia) and its subsequent political party Pachakutik originally formed in the 1960s to work towards cultural survival, economic and education reform, access to health care, and social justice amidst the arrival of oil companies (Davidov 2013: 67). CONAIE has its roots in many indigenous movements, but this federation encompasses and represents nine indigenous nationalities and twenty-seven organizations. By the 1980s the organization developed and gained momentum alongside the rising resource extraction by Texaco in the Amazon region. CONAIE achieved tangible success, such as the halting of neoliberal reforms in the 1990s and the removal of two presidents, Abdala Bucaram in 1996 and Jamil Mahuad in 2000. Further, CONAIE contributed to state institutions for bilingual education, health, and development. 

CONAIE as a federation united and strengthen the voices of indigenous concerns. Indigenous movements are often romanticized and homogenized into a solid vision by outside observers.  These concerns, however, were not always unitary in Ecuador: “Amazonian peoples tended to be concerned with oil exploration and environmental issues, while highland groups focused on land tenure and neoliberal economic policies” (Becker 2011, 9). Further, “Amazonian indigenous peoples are becoming unified against what they perceive as a renewed offensive of oil and mining companies that want to penetrate their territories with the support of the government” (Martinez Novo 2013,118). This has become apparent with the rise of YasUnidos and its leadership in attaining signatures for the referendum against Yasuni-ITT extraction. 

Domestic Politics: The Correa Administration

Rafael Correa was initially elected as President of Ecuador in 2006 with a Citizen’s Revolution platform, which served as a symbol of hope and an ally for strong indigenous movements, such as CONAIE. Correa wore indigenous attire, spoke in Kichwa (the primary language of indigenous populations), and held his first public event at an indigenous site. The promise of constitution reform, while successful, fell short of the vision of mainstream indigenous movements. The two main concerns after 2009 were the state centralization of institutions away from the collective rights of individual communities and the growing state control and use of natural resources via water policy, mining practices, and oil extraction (Martinez Novo 2013). Pachakutik, the main political party of CONAIE, entered the political arena “as means to advance indigenous agendas and obtain much needed resources for community development.” (Rice 2012). Although participation in electoral politics has given the federation a stronger voice and advanced many of their concerns, it has also failed to guarantee a commitment to indigenous and human rights as they once hoped. 

The international community has criticized Correa’s administration as petro-populist, which means that the government is reliant upon oil wealth to fuel social programs and maintain popular support. While this mechanism was successful in the short-term, the fall in oil prices and the rise in inflation pose a serious challenge to the continuity of petro-populism in Ecuador. This economic stance influences the administration seek further funds from new oil exploration projects. Correa is “building his government on policies of economic development without expressing proper concern for the environment and people’s rights cost him support while it gained him the label of pragmatic from the business class” (Becker 2011, 2013). The focus on economic development and poverty alleviation statistics has marginalized the voices and the consent of indigenous communities who are most impacted by the growth of the oil sector. 

Moral Considerations

Human Concerns

The perpetuation of oil extraction in the Ecuadorian Amazon disregards fundamental human rights of all its citizens, particularly the inhabitants of extractive regions. The oil sector is often promoted as a public good “for the people,” in its ability to add immense wealth towards social programs and national development projects. While these projects have indisputably helped to alleviate poverty and inequality under the Correa administration, they have done so at the expense of human rights violations. Historically, the oil industry has caused displacement and degradation of living conditions. This has led to critiques of cultural extinction wherein previously uncontacted populations were threatened by the presence of the industry (Solis Tenesaca 2013). Going forth with the Yasuni-ITT project would impede upon the cultural integrity and the self-determination of indigenous populations to autonomously select their means of sustainability and wellbeing. Malpractice and lack of regulations often result in accidents that affect freshwater sources and soil. Such damage to sources of basic human needs have caused terrible health problems and rates of cancer that triple the national average (Jarrin 2014). 

Concerns for Mother Earth

The 2007 Yasuni-ITT Initiative, which was implemented to prevent oil extraction in exchange for international donations, originally pronounced environmental concerns at its core. Refraining from ITT block extraction would save 846 million barrels of oil and an estimated 407 million tons of carbon dioxide (Tym 2014). The initiative was framed around the concept of climate debt, which meant that industrialized countries would compensate Ecuador as both means of “payback” for their previous wrongdoings and as means of poverty alleviation. Although there were environmental intentions behind this initiative, economic concerns ultimately were prioritized when Correa withdrew the initiative in 2013. 

The Yasuni National Park is one of the most biodiverse regions in the world. Despite the development of technology in the oil sector, clean extraction is never guaranteed. Ecuador was witness to this risk in May 2013 when its largest oil pipeline, the SOTE burst (Huffington Post 2013). Environmental destruction is a common theme in the history of Ecuador’s oil industry. For example, the 1993 lawsuit “Aguinda v. Texaco” represented over 30,000 indigenous Ecuadorians and accused Texaco of grave environmental degradation. Between 1972 and 1992 Texaco released 19 billion gallons of toxic materials into local water supplies (Davidov 2013, 66). Another contract with US-based oil company Occidental (also referred to as Oxy) was violated in terms of environmental damage, which led to the discontinuance of oxy in the state of Ecuador (Cervone 2012, 259). Scenarios such as these demonstrate how the government can defend indigenous Ecuadorians by discouraging irresponsible oil extraction. This mentality, however, should be forward thinking and proactive about the environmental destruction that coincides with oil extraction. This is a moral consideration not only for the inhabitants themselves, but one that recognizes the right of the environment itself. 

Economic Concerns

There is an illusion of progress that characterizes resource-rich lands in any geographic context. The truth, however, is that natural resource wealth does more harm than good. The disparities between myth of advancement and reality of underdevelopment are all the more visible in terms of oil, the most controversial natural resource. The phenomenon that characterizes this paradox is referred to as the “resource curse,” meaning that natural resource wealth, or simply the prospect of this wealth, actually impedes upon economic growth, political stability, and social well being, instead of progressively benefiting and developing the state as a whole (Humphreys et al 2007, 1). Further, states blessed with mineral wealth are more likely to experience civil wars, weak democratic institutions, corruption, and negative economic conditions (Collier 2007). In analyzing the resource curse, it is worthwhile to acknowledge that economic diversification would not only improve the status of human and environmental rights, but would also contribute to long-term economic growth and stability. 

Legal Considerations


The National Constitutional Assembly of 1998 declared Ecuador a pluricultural and multiethnic state under the law. This in turn gave indigenous communities the legal right to preserve cultures and proceed with independent political organization and administration (Martinez Novo 2013, 115). This stance would technically need to be written into legislation, which wouldn’t come into effect until the 2008 constitution was publicly approved by a referendum vote. The 2008 Constitution was ushered in after the 2006 election of Rafael Correa, and gave hope to indigenous communities that the government would become a participatory democracy with a focus on collective rights. 

The 2008 Constitution brought Ecuador to the forefront of indigenous rights reforms in Latin America by declaring the state plurinational and intercultural (Viatori 2009, 5). To be considered indigenous, however, communities were required to receive approval of legal status via a lengthy petition process. While the new constitution appeared to advance indigenous rights, it ultimately prioritized individual rights over collective rights, which advanced projects of state centralization and national development in front of indigenous autonomy (Martinez Novo 2013, 120). 

Article 57 of the Ecuadorian constitution provides direct protections to indigenous populations and the sovereignty of their historical territory. This article states violations against self-determination and isolation as criminal activities by law, which includes extraction without consent. Section 7 of Article 57 explicitly states the obligation to consent: 

“The free, prior and informed, within a reasonable period on plans and programs of exploration, exploitation and marketing of non-renewable resources that are on their land and that may affect their environment and culture, participate in the benefits deriving from such projects and to receive compensation for damages social, cultural and environmental factors that cause them. The inquiry to be conducted by competent authorities is mandatory and timely. If the consent of the community consulted is not obtained, will proceed according to the Constitution and the law.”

This article demonstrates that it is illegal for the Ecuadorian government and multinational corporations to proceed with exploration and extraction without the consent of indigenous communities as a whole. Thus, even with a successful referendum, the Yasuni-ITT extraction would be illegal under the constitution. There is a loophole, however, that is stated in Article 407 of the constitution that: 

“Prohibits extractive non-renewable resources in protected areas and areas designated as intangible, including logging, and in exceptional cases exploitation of these resources can be based on a request by the President of the Republic after a declaration of national interest by the National Assembly, which he sees fit may call a referendum.” 

This last article discreetly centralizes state power into the hands of Correa and the National Assembly and strips indigenous autonomy that was popularly perceived to have the right to consent. This legal consideration ultimately recognizes that the national interest of the federal government is above the human rights of Amazonians in Ecuador in the potential exploitation of the Yasuni-ITT block. The Correa administration must address and reframe their actions in the context of national laws and respect the right to consent of inhabitants. 

The 2008 Constitution also recognizes the environment itself as an entity with rights. These rights include: 

“the right to exist, persist, maintain and regenerate its vital cycles, structure, functions and its processes in evolution” [with a government mandate to take] “precaution and restriction measures in all the activities that can lead to the extinction of species, the destruction of the ecosystems or the permanent alteration of the natural cycles.”

Moving forward with the exploitation of the Yasuni-ITT block would be in direct violation of this article because oil extraction is a direct threat to the biodiverse ecosystem and will undoubtedly alter “natural cycles” of the Amazon. The Ecuadorian constitution essentially fulfills the right to the environment and the right of the environment. Its growing dependency on the oil sector contradicts their legal stance on environmental rights. 


Ecuador has signed and ratified numerous international treaties wherein oil extraction in the Amazon against the will of indigenous inhabitants is a violation of their commitment to international law. Foundations of the international human rights laws stem from the UN Charter and the UN Declaration of Human Rights, which serve by “promoting and encouraging respect for human rights and fundamental freedoms for all without distinction as to race, sex, language and religion.” Oil exploitation also directly threatens legal obligations under the International Covenant on Economic, Social, and Cultural Rights (ICESCR) and the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR) (Leckie 1998, Alston et al 1987). The installation of oil rigs and detrimental effects of extraction, such as contamination directly threaten the right to access housing, food, education, and health as stated in the ICESCR. While these covenants are non-binding in terms of enforcement and repercussions, Ecuador is legally under their jurisdiction and therefore has a legal obligation to abide. 

In reference to oil extraction, the 2007 UN Declaration on Indigenous Rights essentially protects the land, territory and resources of indigenous inhabitants, as well as their right to maintain and preserve that land according to their autonomous decisions in Articles 8, 26, and32. Article 32 of the Declaration on Indigenous Rights states that: 

“States shall consult and cooperate in good faith with the indigenous peoples concerned through their own representative institutions in order to obtain their free and informed consent prior to the approval of any project affecting their lands or territories and other resources, particularly in connection with the development, utilization or exploitation of mineral, water or other resources” 

Further oil extraction of the Yasuni-ITT following the referendum (i.e. without their consent) would directly violate the legal obligation of the state to acquire consent prior to events that would exploit territorial resources. Additionally, the International Labor Organization Convention No. 169 on the rights of Indigenous and Tribal Peoples supports the right to fundamental freedoms and human rights without hindrance or discrimination. The convention requires that governments both include indigenous inhabitants in decision-making processes affecting their lands and that their priorities are respected to promote economic, social, and cultural development of such populations (ILO). Lastly, the Organization of the American States Protocol of San Salvador addresses the right to health, “understood to mean the enjoyment of the highest level of physical, mental and social well-being” (OAS Article 10). The Correa administration has a responsibility and an obligation to fulfill the mandates of these International Human Rights Laws as they fall under their jurisdiction. 


The legal obligation for the Correa administration to terminate oil extraction in the Yasuni National Park also falls under the jurisdiction of international environmental law. The 1972 Stockholm Declaration on the Human Environment declared that environmental protection coincided with the fulfillment of basic human rights. The declaration states: “Man has the fundamental right to freedom, equality, and adequate conditions of life, in an environment of a quality that permits a life of dignity and well-being” (Shelton 1992: 112). Further, the Organization of the American States Protocol of San Salvador Article 11 states that parties have the right to a healthy environment and that the government has an obligation to protect and preserve that environment (OAS). These legal declarations primarily point to the right to the environment on behalf of suitable context for human growth in development. 

In direct reference to the protection of the Amazon, however, the Amazon Cooperation Treaty speaks more on behalf of Mother Earth. The treaty declares the duty to: 

“Promote the harmonious development of their corresponding Amazon territories in such a way that these joint actions produce equitable and mutually beneficial results and achieve also the preservation of the environment, and the conservation and rational utilization of the natural resources of those territories.”

Obligation to fulfill the mandate of the 1980 Amazon Cooperation Treaty not only refers to the Yasuni-ITT block of the Yasuni National Park, but also speaks to the duty to preserve the entirety of the Amazon. It is widely known that oil extraction already threatens the waters, plants, and animals of the Amazon as a whole, and that further production will continue to have detrimental effects to the current and future standings of the environment. 

Policy Considerations

Recognizing the magnitude of these moral and legal considerations, the Correa administration should promptly revoke oil extraction plans in the Yasuni-ITT block of the Ecuadorian Amazon. As of April 14, 2014, YasUnidos and other activists submitted over 756,000 signatures to the National Electoral Council, which is more than the 5% of the electorate required by law (584,000 signatures) (Alvaro 2014). The Correa Administration must respect the democratic right of this referendum and withdrawal extraction plans effective immediately. The government must overcome the loophole presented in Article 407 of the National Constitution. Moving forth with extraction would not only violate the political rights of these indigenous communities, but it would gravely violate human rights and environmental rights. 

Current rates of production amount to 550,000 barrels of crude oil per day. Ecuador may be the smallest member of OPEC, but the state is overly dependent on the natural resource for the functioning of the government and its social programs. Ecuador must work towards the diversification of the economy by investing in alternative sustainable markets. These new sectors must be environmentally friendly (i.e. not industrialization or resource extraction) and should be catered towards a domestic labor market that is well educated and highly trained. Putting more energy towards diversifying markets will dissolve the resource curse and produce long-term economic growth. 

Unfortunately governmental policies have already tolerated the violation of human rights, and thus must direct oil profits to relief programs in the very communities where oil is being extracted. Indigenous communities suffer from contaminated water and agricultural soil, and thus the government is responsible for securing access to these basic human needs. The Correa administration must set up a new social program in the name of indigenous communities of Yasuni National Park that financially guarantees access to economic, social, and cultural rights, such as access to clean water, healthy food, housing, and autonomous education. Until these policy concerns are addressed, human rights violations will perpetuate under the hand of the government. 

Alternative Narratives

What is at stake is the autonomous voices of indigenous communities and the government’s disregard for their wants and needs. It is important to recognize, however, that these communities might not always have a unitary vision and that some perspectives may be excluded from the mainstream forum. Under these circumstances, it is important to acknowledge individual rights and the agency of any actor to accept oil extraction within their territory. While it may be destructive environmentally, especially for future generations, oil extraction can provide benefits for indigenous communities via reparations and compensation. These compensation plans are often criticized as forms of bribery that polarize communities and damage community relationships.  

The government has used this narrative of economic benefits to gain popular support for oil extraction. The arrival of the oil sector to the Amazon contributed to “modernization” with roads, new technologies, and formal work settings. According to the government, not only are indigenous communities compensated individually, but they benefit from the rise in social programs and national development projects. While this is true, this view does not take into consideration the opportunity cost of perpetuating oil extraction in precious lands (i.e. the violations against environmental rights and human rights). 

Correa’s administration is typically seen as part of the Leftward Turn of Latin America alongside Bolivia and Venezuela. Ecuador is sometimes referred to as the island of peace because it remained relatively stable while the rest of South America greatly suffered from violent regimes in the 1980s and 1990s. Correa’s platform of a Citizen’s Revolution and his firm rejection of neoliberal policies gained popular support. He even sought to mark the “change of epochs” by introducing an Ecuadorian Truth Commission that would expose the human rights violations brought by neoliberalism from 1984-1988. In Correa’s April 2014 op-ed to the Boston Globe, he proclaims that Ecuador has in fact achieved a formal democracy, as well as “real” democracy “which provides access to rights, equal opportunities, and decent living conditions” (Correa 2014). Ecuador’s political and social strengths in the post-neoliberal period appear as a success on paper, but what this political realm excludes are the voices that don’t always reach the political arena. 

Correa’s leftist movement is assumed to coincide with popular indigenous movements such as CONAIE, but since 2009 this hasn’t stood entirely true. CONAIE has even gone as far to publicly state that Correa is “racist, authoritarian, and antidemocratic” (Becker 2011, 139). A more realistic perception of government-movement relations is that indigenous bodies serve as  “check” to state actions via pressure and accountability. The referendum conducted by YasUnidos and supported by civil society is a testament to that relationship and the willingness of indigenous movements to take responsibility for their livelihoods. 


The good intentions of the Correa government under the Yasuni-ITT Initiative are tainted with the ultimate goals economic development. There is even evidence that the Correa Administration prepared a “Plan B” and pursued a $1 billion oil deal with China at the same time international donors were contributing to the Yasuni-ITT Initiative (Hill 2014). Ecuador’s Ministry of Economic Policy appears on every page of a “China Development Bank Credit Proposal” that was discovered by The Guardian in 2014. This discovery questions the foundations of Correa’s environmental protection project and if the administration planned to extract oil in the ITT block all along. 

It is crucial that the Correa Administration withdraw plans to extract oil in the Yasuni-ITT block on the basis of their commitment to indigenous and environmental rights in national legislation and international treaties. Oil extraction has historically violated the rights of indigenous communities, which inspired mass mobilization to advance the rights of indigenous Ecuadorians. If the Correa administration continues the Yasuni-ITT and further oil extraction without the consent of indigenous inhabitants, they will be greatly threatening the fundamental human rights of micro-communities and environmental rights of the Amazon in its entirety.  

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