Ecuador’s Defenders of the Rights of Nature

Nicholas Carby-Denning

Thanks to the generous support provided by the Division of the Social Sciences 2015-2016 Research Travel Grant, I was able to conduct an immersive, year-long ethnographic research project in Ecuador for my dissertation titled “Re-Constituting the Nature of the Nation: NGOs, Biodiversity and the Defenders of the Rights of Nature in Ecuador.”

Ecuadorian environmentalists declaring themselves “Defenders of the Rights of Nature” are voicing opposition to controversial mega-mining projects and the expansion of oil industry activities in Yasuní National Park by invoking the “Rights of Nature” as enshrined in the 2008 constitution. These “Defenders of the Rights of Nature” accuse the government of repression and claim that the state has been prosecuting environmental and indigenous leaders as “terrorists.” Although this fits a trend of state violence and against indigenous and environmental activists across Latin America Ecuadorian State repression of environmentalists seems incongruous for a country that has been internationally praised for its progressive environmental stances: Ecuador added the “Rights of Nature” to its 2008 constitution and seriously considered leaving its oil reserves under the soil of the biodiverse rainforest during the Yasuní-ITT initiative.

At the center of the debate over the Rights of Nature and Extractivism in Ecuador is a political and linguistic struggle over the translation of “sumak kawsay,” not only over how the Kichwa term is translated into “buen vivir” or “good living” but also how it translates into the politics and policies of “development.” Though Sumak Kawsay was originally proposed by indigenous activists and environmentalists as an alternative to neoliberal “development,” it is now invoked by Alianza Pais (the dominant political party) in order to justify extractive industrial projects often located in remote, biodiverse, indigenous territories. While many intended “sumak kawsay” to fundamentally question the logic of development, “Buen Vivir” seems to have translated into an expansion of extractive industries to fuel the growth of an urban middle class at the expense of rural indigenous peoples.

My dissertation research investigated the struggle over extractivism, sumak kawsay and the Rights of Nature in Ecuador in three different phases primarily in Quito and along the northern and southern borders of Yasuní National Park.

Throughout my time in Ecuador I conducted participant observation in an NGO office working with the members of an Ecological Collective in Ecuador whose activist-intellectual members are a diverse group including biologists, ecologists, social scientists, and lawyers, who make use of their expertise in ways that give voice to marginalized communities and their struggles, often against extractive industry and militarized policing. The environmentalists with whom I worked and studied are pressuring the government to respect the territorial rights of indigenous peoples, organizing in national and social media, hosting festivals and utopian fairs, and participating in marches across the country. Their members host lecture series and courses at the universities; organize fairs featuring local produce, films and a bicycle-powered washing machine; and broadcast on alternative social media. Their advocacy and thought were instrumental and influential in writing the Rights of Nature into the 2008 Constitution. It was these activists who first imagined the internationally-heralded (but now defunct) Yasuní-ITT initiative which, while it lasted, kept the oil industry out of the biodiverse region. As a volunteer with this NGO, I translated human rights reports on state repression of protests, conducted interviews with key collective activists and conducted participant observation of: Marches across the city; demonstrations in front of government buildings, street protests, a utopian fair, an anti-mining rally/music festival, as well as the activism surrounding Pope Francis’ visit to Quito.

USFQ Tiputini Biodiversity Station – Northern Yasuní Border

For the month of September, I conducted a month-long research trip the University of San Francisco Quito’s Tiputini Biodiversity Research Station, a facility for researchers to study in the highly biodiverse northern region of Yasuní National Park. There, my central research aim was to develop an anthropological theory of Yasuní’s biodiversity, its value for visiting biologists and local communities, for the nation and for the planet. I also experienced life in a highly biodiverse region, following on Kohn’s theory that biodiverse rainforests are dense semiotic ecologies. While working as a volunteer, (performing mostly manual labor like carrying food, building supplies, and gasoline, and conducting trail maintenance) I interviewed station staff on the importance of biodiversity, the history of the station as well as its relation to the State, the oil industry, nearby indigenous Waorani communities, and the history of the failed ITT project. I also studied the research practices of primatologists, whose work sends them deep into the thick jungle, observing monkeys in remote forest for 8-12 hours at a time. I observed their research practices, technologies and methods as well as their subjective experiences of living and working in a very remote part of the forest with only handful of other primatologists and station staff. I also intimately experienced Yasuní’s biodiversity, contracting a parasite, which required medical intervention upon my return to Quito.

River Messenger Trip - Southern Yasuní Border

In the final phase of my field research, I observed how Ecuadorian and US environmentalists, support, organize and work with indigenous communities resisting extractive industry. The center of this research trip was a three-week “River Messenger” trip along the southern border of Yasuní National Park, a Women’s March consisting of two large rallies and a march across Puyo, and a traditional medicine “cleansing retreat” in the territory of an indigenous nation whose territory lies within the recently concessioned oil blocks. I aided and observed an association of indigenous women as they toured remote riverine communities by canoe along the southern border of YNP. I examined their community organizing work, watching as they gave presentations that addressed diverse issues including: the impacts of proposed oil development on local ecologies and wildlife, the causes and impacts of climate change, technologies of sustainable subsistence agriculture, domestic violence, and regional political resistance against extractive industry. I participated in the production of a short documentary video used to publicize the trip on social media by helping NGO staff with video/audio recording. At the culmination of the trip, Ecuadorian and US environmentalists coincided at a women’s march organized by a coalition of indigenous nations and environmentalists.  In each of these projects varied NGO actors provided different kinds of logistical, financial, technical, and political support, as well as video documentation and projection supplies and social media savvy to broadcast local and remote struggles globally. My dissertation will analyze the events of this trip to illustrate how these struggles over the rights of nature exemplify resistance to extractive industry and climate change happening across Ecuador and the globe.

The year I spent conducting research in Ecuador was immensely productive, and I am very grateful to the Social Sciences Division for providing me with the generous support to make these incredible research trips possible. This support allowed me to work with environmental activists in the capital, build the contacts and relationships necessary for extended research trips into the jungle, collect a plethora of valuable data, and make many incredible friends. Thanks to the Division of Social Sciences at the University of Chicago, to all my friends and colleagues I met in Ecuador, and to the organizations and institutions which hosted me for making this project a reality!

Nicholas Carby-Denning is a doctoral candidate in the Department of Anthropology.