Ecuador's Oil-Driven Economy Boosts Correa's Reelection Chances

The popular President is leading ahead of Sunday's vote. But in the long-term, economists say Ecuador must diversify -- and dump the dollar as official currency.

Correa has the popular touch
Correa has the popular touch
Carolina Brunstein

GUAYAQUIL - “Do you like this hat? It’s 19 dollars, but you can have it for 15...”

In the artisans' market of Guayaquil, the cheapest products -- usually woven wallets -- are never less than two U.S. dollars. Larger items can go for up to $10. Alexandra Paucar is at her stand in the outdoor market since early in the morning, selling woven scarves. And she isn't happy: “We see fewer and fewer tourists. Since we have had the dollar, people prefer to go to other places, where things are cheaper. I work all day and still do not have enough money.”

Alexandra says that she doesn’t know who she will vote for in Sunday's national elections. She does not like any of the candidates, and is convinved that the result is already decided. All polls predict a victory for President Rafael Correa. “It is true that he has done some things," she says, noting some major public works projects. "But life is still hard here."

In the center of Guayaquil, Ecuador’s most populous city with some 2.3 million inhabitants, temperatures top 80 degrees Fahrenheit for much of the year. In the plaza in front of the church of San Francisco, which doubles as the city's financial center, a group of young people with green colored shirts symbolizing Correa’s campaign give out brochures.

Guillermo Lasso, the former banker trailing Correa in the polls, was in the neighborhood two days earlier.

Boom times in Guayaquil (photo:Alfredo Molina)

Economics have indeed been at the center of the campaign. Even though a big chunk of the population believes they have benefited from income redistribution policies of the Correa government, the president's focus on the oil and mining industries leave an uncertain future for the country.

“During these years, the economy has grown an average of 4.3%, not a very good number considering the resources available in the country," says Jaime Carrera, director of Ecuador's Fiscal Policy Observatory. "The dependency on oil has gotten worse."

Carrera says public spending and debt have consolidated the state-controlled, oil-centric economic model. “Subsidies of all types have been created: for fuels, transportation, human development," Carrera says. "They have also increased public-sector wages.”

The monthly minimum wage is $318, and the average income per family is close to $550 dollars, which is higher than in other Latin American countries, but lower than the basic food basket, which was set last month at $595. Inflation is expected to reach 4% this year.

Poverty, according to the National Statistics Institution, is at 27% and in rural areas it rises to 49%. But that is down 10 percentage points than when Correa took over as President in 2007. Some 60% of exports are petrolieum, with 20% traditional products such as bananas, coffee and cocoa and another 20% by semi-manufactured goods.

Still some worry if the model, which is dependent on imports, is sustainable in the long-term. Sociologist Franklin Ramírez, researcher from the Latin American Social Sciences Institute in Ecuador (FLACSO), points out the necessity to “diversify the production matrix, to step away from the dependency on oil”.

In 2000, under the government of President Jamil Mahuad and a ferocious economic crisis, the country adopted the US dollar as its currency. None of the presidents that followed him dared to reverse this system. The dollar has given the country a certain level of stability, after decades of anxiety. Correa himself has been very critical about the dollarization of the economy, but admits that the system cannot be reversed from one day to the other. It remains to be seen if it would be part of the next administration.

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Ecological Angst In India, A Mining Dumpsite As Neighbor

Local villagers in western India have been forced to live with a mining waste site on the edge of town. What happens when you wake up one day and the giant mound of industrial waste has imploded?

The mining dumpsite is situated just outside of the Badi village in the coastal state of Gujarat

Sukanya Shantha

BADI — Last week, when the men and women from the Bharwad community in this small village in western India stepped out for their daily work to herd livestock, they were greeted with a strange sight.

The 20-meter-high small hill that had formed at the open-cast mining dumpsite had suddenly sunk. Unsure of the reason behind the sudden caving-in, they immediately informed other villagers. In no time, word had traveled far, even drawing the attention of environment specialists and activists from outside town.

This mining dumpsite situated less than 500 meters outside of the Badi village in the coastal state of Gujarat has been a matter of serious concern ever since the Gujarat Power Corporation Limited began lignite mining work here in early 2017. The power plant is run by the Power Gujarat State Electricity Corporation Limited, which was previously known as the Bhavnagar Energy Company Ltd.

Vasudev Gohil, a 43-year-old resident of Badi village says that though the dumping site is technically situated outside the village, locals must pass the area on a daily basis.

"We are constantly on tenterhooks and looking for danger signs," he says. Indeed, their state of alert is how the sudden change in the shape of the dumpsite was noticed in the first place.

Can you trust environmental officials?

For someone visiting the place for the first time, the changes may not stand out. "But we have lived all our lives here, we know every little detail of this village. And when a 150-meter-long stretch cave-in by over 25-30 feet, the change can't be overlooked," Gohil adds.

This is not the first time that the dumpsite has worried local residents. Last November, a large part of the flattened part of the dumpsite had developed deep cracks and several flat areas had suddenly got elevated. While the officials had attributed this significant elevation to the high pressure of water in the upper strata of soil in the region, environment experts had pointed to seismic activities. The change is evident even today, nearly a year since it happened.

It could have sunk because of the rain.

After the recent incident, when the villagers raised an alarm and sent a written complaint to the regional Gujarat Pollution Control Board, an official visit to the site was arranged, along with the district administration and the mining department.

The regional pollution board officer Bhavnagar, A.G. Oza, insists the changes "aren't worrisome" and attributes it to the weather.

"The area received heavy rain this time. It is possible that the soil could have sunk in because of the rain," he tells The Wire. The Board, he says, along with the mining department, is now trying to assess if the caving-in had any impact on the ground surface.

"We visited the site as soon as a complaint was made. Samples have already been sent to the laboratory and we will have a clear idea only once the reports are made available," Oza adds.

Women from the Surkha village have to travel several kilometers to find potable water

Sukanya Shantha/The Wire

A questionable claim

That the dumpsite had sunk in was noticeable for at least three days between October 1 and 3, but Rohit Prajapati of an environmental watchdog group Paryavaran Suraksha Samiti, noted that it was not the first time.

"This is the third time in four years that something so strange is happening. It is a disaster in the making and the authorities ought to examine the root cause of the problem," Prajapati says, adding that the department has repeatedly failed to properly address the issue.

He also contests the GPCB's claim that excess rain could lead to something so drastic. "Then why was similar impact not seen on other dumping sites in the region? One cannot arrive at conclusions for geological changes without a deeper study of them," he says. "It can have deadly implications."

Living in pollution

The villagers have also accused the GPCB of overlooking their complaint of water pollution which has rendered a large part of the land, most importantly, the gauchar or grazing land, useless.

"In the absence of a wall or a barrier, the pollutant has freely mixed with the water bodies here and has slowly started polluting both our soil and water," complains 23- year-old Nikul Kantharia.

He says ever since the mining project took off in the region, he, like most other villagers has been forced to take his livestock farther away to graze. "Nothing grows on the grazing land anymore and the grass closer to the dumpsite makes our cattle ill," Kantharia claims.

The mining work should have been stopped long ago

Prajapati and Bharat Jambucha, a well-known environmental activist and proponent of organic farming from the region, both point to blatant violations of environmental laws in the execution of mining work, with at least 12 violations cited by local officials. "But nothing happened after that. Mining work has continued without any hassles," Jambucha says. Among some glaring violations include the absence of a boundary wall around the dumping site and proper disposal of mining effluents.

The mining work has also continued without a most basic requirement – effluent treatment plant and sewage treatment plant at the mining site, Prajapati points out. "The mining work should have been stopped long ago. And the company should have been levied a heavy fine. But no such thing happened," he adds.

In some villages, the groundwater level has depleted over the past few years and villagers attribute it to the mining project. Women from Surkha village travel several kilometers outside for potable water. "This is new. Until five years ago, we had some water in the village and did not have to lug water every day," says Shilaben Kantharia.

The mine has affected the landscape around the villages

Sukanya Shantha/The Wire

Resisting lignite mining

The lignite mining project has a long history of resistance. Agricultural land, along with grazing land were acquired from the cluster of 12 adjoining villages in the coastal Ghogha taluka between 1994 and 1997. The locals estimate that villagers here lost anything between 40-100% of their land to the project. "We were paid a standard Rs 40,000 per bigha," Narendra, a local photographer, says.

The money, Narendra says, felt decent in 1994 but for those who had been dependent on this land, the years to come proved very challenging. "Several villagers have now taken a small patch of land in the neighboring villages on lease and are cultivating cotton and groundnut there," Narendra says.

They were dependent on others' land for work.

Bharat Jambucha says things get further complicated for the communities which were historically landless. "Most families belonging to the Dalit or other marginalized populations in the region never owned any land. They were dependent on others' land for work. Once villagers lost their land to the project, the landless were pushed out of the village," he adds. His organization, Prakrutik Kheti Juth, has been at the forefront, fighting for the rights of the villages affected in the lignite mining project.

In 2017, when the mining project finally took off, villagers from across 12 villages protested. The demonstration was disrupted after police used force and beat many protesters. More than 350 of them were booked for rioting.

The villagers, however, did not give up. Protests and hunger strikes have continued from time to time. A few villagers even sent a letter to the President of India threatening that they would commit suicide if the government did not return their land.

"We let them have our land for over 20 years," says Gohil.

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