Yasuni, Commons, Pachamama


I am in Ecuador at the moment, where I arrived with my family 6 days ago for a three months trip in Latin America. I have just came back from a conference on the Yasuni area of the Amazon, where  in the last 30 years, petroleum enclosures have been threatening the common land of the Waorani and some of the last indigenous peoples still living in isolation in the Amazon. We learn that there is no clean oil exploration, that the amount of toxic by-product — even in the case of no spillage — is enormous and very difficult to handle, with toxic consequences for sources of fresh water and all forms of life depending on it. Around the wells used to search for oil,  the percentage of oil in the land was so high to be 20 or 30 thousands times above the maximum level for safe agricultural production.

The aim of the encuentro was to try to counter the ambiguity of the Ecuador president Correa who in 2007 has offered a plan that Ecuador will not allow extraction of the ITT oil fields in Yasuní, if the “world community” can create a compensation trust to leave the oil permanently in the ground and fund Ecuador’s “sustainable development” into the future. I leave aside here the fact that in the recent versions of the proposal this “compensation trust”  was substituted with a marketisation of the Yasuni in terms of carbon credit bonds, a mechanism highly criticizable not only because carbon credit markets have been found ineffective to meet the need of carbon reduction and because they tie the resources destined for social and ecological ends to speculation, but also because they threaten the autonomy of the indigenous people over their territory, since carbon bonds requires the local indigenous to act in the interest of the “monetary value” of the Yasuni carbon bond in competition to all carbon bonds issued around the world.

However, a part from the carbon market replacing the trust, Correa seems to want to master an incredible juggling exercise. On one hand, declared that no further oil exploration will be undertaken in the Yasuni area, while on the other hand and at the same time, he is signing  permits for further exploration. I asked people around, and the reasons given to me  for this contradiction are various, ranging from the fact that he is a very whimsical man, passing through the effect of the oil lobby, and arriving to the fact that the plan was never his in the first place, but of economist Alberto Acosta, who originally proposed the plan and since then he left the government.  (Acosta was at the encuentro, and a very critical voice, calling for a moratoria of all oil exploration, invoking the new constitution,  claiming the movement project as a life project not only for the indigenous or the Ecuador people, but for the entire planet, since Amazonia is the source of water for the rest of Ecuador and Yasuni has the greatest biodiversity in the world). But maybe this juggling is really the manifestation of the fact that to coopt the commons one needs to leave the options open, so as to navigate the contradictions and jump in the moment when opportunity arises.

“The country is yours, power is yours”

The project of commons-cooptation seems to me quite evident walking around the city of the encuentro — Orellana — and the nearby city of Coca — a dusty oil town, the gateway of the Yasuni park. They are both covered in posters that invite citizens to think of their city, their country and their resources as theirs. Posters like “your resources, we handle them well”, or “the country is yours, you have the power” seem to show that wanting to instil a sense of “common ownership” is clearly important from the state/oil companies propaganda’s side. A different sense of “common ownership” instead came up in the Yasuni encuentro, where I have been hearing several indigenous voices speaking, all demanding for an uncompromising end of oil exploration and an end of oil activities in the Yasuni. One after another these voices gave different illustrations of the reasons for this, but all repeated different versions of the same tune: Pachamama.

Pachamama is the deity of Andean origin and refers to “mother earth”, not just as geological earth or nature but also as a set of relations, a deity of reproduction, a protective rather than creative deity or perhaps better, a deity for which human creation is just a moment of a reproduction cycle. In this sense, the discourse is quite distinct from Western environmentalism, that — a part from the gaya hypothesis — sees earth  as simply the context of human activity. It seems to me that paradoxically, the insistence on Pachamana, as the sacred mother earth from which we depend on, is, quite amazingly, a materialist  approach to nature. The idea that “mother earth” is a precondition of our existence  echoes Marx’s notion that earth is the mother of value, that is the precondition for all human activity, an insight often left out in the compendia of Marxist thought.
The deity of Pachamama is a deity of protection, but as all religions, is a reflection of a human cosmological vision that grounds action. It is man and women who must protect earth, if earth must deliver the means for human survival. Otherwise, “la Pachamama tiene hambre frecuente y si no se la nutre con las ofrendas o si casualmente se la ofende, ella provoca enfermedades.” (wikipedia) The story of climate change seems to fit quite well this narrative.

In the Encuentro on the Yasuni, Pachamama is evoked endlessly in all different ways, until one realises there is little mysticism in Pachamama, or at least, the rational kernel of mysticism is grounded on solid material reality, the reality of property relations, of clashing idea of “common ownership”. The indignation of the people whose land is threatened with petrol leaks and toxic waste find in Pochamama a value discourse that clashes with the value discourse of the oil companies and the state, but at the same time enable them to compete with this discourse in terms of seeking alliances and building up the scale of the movement.

Standing on Pachamama allows this rebellious indigenous discourse to reveal three elements of conflct:

First, the question of use and access of land, of who has access and who can use it, the question of the community of commoners.  This claim is made in terms of a basic bipolarism between who will promote life in the Yasuni, and who will promote death in the Yasuni: as it is mentioned in the large banner of the encuentro, Yasuni is between life and death, and speech after speech remind us that the coalition of the Yasuni movement is a coalition that has embraced the project of life. The project of life find its political actors, its “commons entrepreneurs” in those who recognise a basic truth, and that is that the precondition for the reproduction of human life, of human creativity, of human existence, is our relation to Earth, because we and everything depend on Earth. As one man said “we cannot live  without Pachamama, we have to eat, we have to dress ourselves, so we need Pachamama.” That is, we need not just “resources” as things to extract, but the processes that reproduce these resources, because we have also to eat and drink and dress tomorrow and for generations to come. From the recognition of the basic dependence, to the identification of the clash, there is a simple step: “those who do not believe in Pachamama, are sucking the blood of Pachamama”, that is oil and water, and thus also threatening the survival of the people. And since the river connects the various communities, and Pachamama is Pachamama for all, Pachamama also represents also the condition for the preservation of all communities. As put it by another intervention:

“we are here for life of Pachamama, for the life of all nationalities.”

This discourse is actually extended, as around the Yasumi there is a discursive recomposition that exceeds the struggle and the preservation of the indigenous communities, and begin to involve “planetary Pachamama”. Yasuni after all is a planetary lung of crucial importance for global climate and biodiversity, as all the rest of the Amazon rain forest.

The claim over the Yasuni is thus in the first instance a claim over use and access: the people who recognise the importance of the Yasuni for their preservation must have use access to the forest.

The second element that emerge as a clash in ownership is the question of control. Who control the destiny of the forest? Those who have secular knowledge on how to preserve it, to maintain its life while reproducing theirs, or the government? One man pointed this out:

“The government cannot negotiate on matters of the Amazons behind our back”

another one said:

“the territories are autonomous and the companeros tiene da administrar el territorio [the comrades must administrate the territory]”

Autonomous control of the territory by the indigenous community is crucial for the maintenance of the use appropriate use.

Finally there is the question of the overall value system that is able to articulate use/access and define the whats and hows of control, the value system that gives a particular form of property and ownership life and sustenance.  This is a clash between Pachamama (and communal man) vs homo economicus (and earth as a mine).  As a Quechi from Peru told us :

“Pachamama: this is what we drink, we eat, we dress.  . .. It is a lie that we need to work, to earn money, in order to raise children. It is by defending the land that we do this.”

The lie is of course a lie to the extend we see it from outside, from a different value system and value practices, in the case of the speaker, from the value system captured in Pachamama. In our daily life within capital’s loops, the lie of having to run the race to acquire money to get by is a very potent reality, one that blur our vision and hide our ultimate dependence to the eco-system. Thus, this third conflictual element is the most difficult to deal with and recognise in a politically effective way, because in the course of the reproduction of daily life as “homo economicus”, our true “dependence to Pachamama” is structured in such a way that we see only our dependence on money and, therefore, on the social mechanisms that reproduce and accumulate money. How we do disentangle from this is one of the most important question we face. And obviously is not only a question of “false consciousness”, because the dependence on money is real ..

Thus,  we have here a clash between two claims of ownership and the politics of “alliances” around these two claims. One, by the state and oil companies as “representative” of the ecuadorians, for which they administrate their oil resources while preserving the forest (sic — an impossibility). On the other by the Waorani as “representative” not only of ecuadorian, but of humanity as a whole, since the Waorani commoning on the Yasuni is the only way to sustain the Yasuni as planetary commons.  To to put in another way  we have the following points: 1) earth provides food, clothing and all we need — it cannot come from anywhere else! Hence to the community of the Yasuni, the preservation of the forest is of crucial importance. 2) therefore the indigenous claim common *ownership* to the part of earth that give them sustenance, the yasuni - to the jungle, the river, the bio-physical relations therein.   3) a claim of common ownership that almost naturally turns into a claim of autonomy in terms of the administration of the territory, since the *preservation* of the Waorani is one with the preservation of the Yasuni, and 4) Pachamama and homo economicus reveal two distinct and clashing valuing and measuring rationalities upon which notion of ownership (use access + control) are built. Yet, Pachamama is not lack of recognition of pay offs. The indigenous commons ownership also translate in pay offs to the Ecuadorian people (preservation of water sources for the entire country) and the world (through preservation of Amazon sink), thus the Yasuni is also a commons to them, at a different scale, and with different modalities of use-access and control, yet a common nevertheless. Hence, the struggle here also provides a basic general framework within which to devise schemes of compensation and reparation through which not only the Yasuni stay without oil and trash, but also without poverty.

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