Under Fire: Ecuador’s Acción Ecológica

Paul Dosh and Nicole Kligerman

Acción Ecológica, one of Latin America’s most well-known environmental groups, had led the fight against Ecuadoran president Rafael Correa’s plans to expand the mining industry. While the group’s legal status remains up in the air, its more than 20 years of work has had a palpable influence on the country’s socio-environmental movement. The group was founded in 1986, when two Ecuadoran university groups joined forces: one made up of three women majoring in communications, and the other formed by several biologists making a documentary about ecological problems. The organization began by mounting campaigns against the problems associated with oil drilling and, in the 1990s, against the destruction of the manglares (coastal forests). By 1993, their educational and lobbying efforts had grown to include legal action against oil companies.

The group’s stated principles include nonviolence, direct action, and supporting local communities. The group’s president, Ivonne Ramos, differentiates between ambimentalismo del Mercado (market-based environmentalism), which she opposes, and ecologismo popular (grassroots environmentalism), which she supports. According to Ramos, the market-based environmentalism of, for example, the Nature Conservancy and the World Wildlife Fund, use the capitalist market to sell and appropriate ancestral lands. This approach does not question the root of the problems of the exploitation of natural resources, instead emphasizing the marketing of “green” and “organic” commodities, predicated on the assumption that Nature is a good to be bought and sold. By contrast, ecologismo popular emphasizes co-existence with the land, the Andean Pachamama, and a “cosmovision” of the universe.

Acción Ecológica’s work has long been conducted in partnership with indigenous communities that have suffered health problems, reduced access to land, and violence connected with oil and resource exploitation—problems that, in the case of the Tetete indigeneous nationality, led to the group’s extinction. Unsurprisingly, this provoked a steady stream of resistance and rebellion from many other affected communities, and Acción Ecológica’s two-decade-long track record has won the trust of many such groups. For example, in 1997, the group was a key player in driving out the Mitsubishi subsidiary Bishi Metals from the Andean mountain community of Junín, in the Intag region of Ecuador’s northern province of Imbabura.

In 2004, Quito mayor Paco Moncayo and the London-based multinational PricewaterhouseCoopers attempted to privatize water service, provoking a conflict that ended victoriously in 2007 for the opposition Coalition for the Defense of Water, of which Acción Ecológica was a principal organizational leader. According to Ricardo Buitrón, former secretary of the water coalition, this was an important event that fueled widespread support of the prohibition of all forms of water privatization and concession, which was adopted prominently into the 2008 Constitution.

But although opposition to privatizing household water service is a crucial and convenient rallying cry for movements demanding water rights, Ramos says, Acción Ecológica has been one of the most significant groups to awaken public consciousness around the many other types of projects that threaten water rights—forestry projects, oil drilling, agribusiness, as many as 230 hydroelectric projects, and, of course, mining. Without the educational campaigns of Acción Ecológica and other allied groups, awareness among poor urban dwellers about the complexity of water rights typically extends only so far as a diffuse belief that greedy corporations want to gouge poor people with high prices for household water service and/or that a given water supply has been polluted by extractive industry.

But Acción Ecológica has helped a broad coalition of social forces understand how water guarantees demanded by mining companies and other corporations can severely deplete the overall supply of available drinking water. Armed with this more comprehensive understanding, the social movement that was most recently visible in this year’s mining uprisings is approaching water rights in a broader, perhaps more effective fashion.

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