Political Landslides: Water and the Environment in Ecuador’s Presidential Elections

By N. H. Gill
(Feb. 28, 2021) — On February 12, a wall of rocks and mud buried Chanchán, a small community in the Andean province of Chimborazo in central Ecuador. Although the government knew of the risk ahead of time, two bridges, 25 homes, farm animals and wild creatures were swept away by a fault in the earth, the presence of underground water, and an environmental history that has altered the region’s watershed and left its hills without trees.

Two weeks later and 400 kilometers north, the last of the Cascada San Rafael, Ecuador’s tallest waterfall, collapsed into the Río Coca, briefly forming a dam 80 meters high on one of the major tributaries of the Amazon River before collapsing into the waters below. The massive erosion began last year when the riverbed formed a sinkhole above the waterfall. Now, with communities downriver at risk, an emergent wave of erosion is moving upriver, undermining roads and oil pipelines, and threatening the country’s largest hydroelectric dam located 15km upstream.

In both cases, geologists suspect anthropogenic change and the disturbance of regional watersheds played a role in the disasters. In Chanchán, the government is investigating whether a leaky irrigation canal built across the slopes above the community may have contributed to the landslide there. Intensive agriculture and centuries of deforestation have also limited the land’s ability to absorb seasonal rainfall, increasing the risk of landslides and floods.

Landslide in Chanchán. Photograph by El Comercio.

In Coca, many blame the construction of the Coca-Codo Sinclair hydroelectric dam for altering the regional watershed, destabilizing the riverbed, and triggering the shift in the river’s course. While its location in an area prone to earthquakes, flooding, and volcanic eruptions is enough to have precipitated the event alone, like the landslide in Chanchán, authorities knew of the risks in advance but were unable, or unwilling, to act.

While distinct in their own ways, the two disasters encapsulate many of the challenges facing the South American nation. For example, entrenched poverty and social inequality can lead poor families, often indigenous, to settle in high-risk areas precisely because their instability makes them more affordable. Residents in the area have been plagued by landslides for years, but the government has failed to act. In January, a man was killed and four injured in a landslide while building an irrigation canal in Armenia, just below Chanchán.

The Coca-Codo Sinclair project, on the other hand, represents a different set of challenges, but ones that were also clearly identified ahead of time, and ignored. Under former President Rafael Correa, construction of the power plant was outsourced to China’s state-owned hydropower company, Sinohydro Corp., but for reasons that remain unclear, the smaller, original design was transformed into a plan for the largest infrastructure project in the nation’s history. Despite warnings ahead of time, the project was plagued by accidents, design flaws, and wildly over-budget. Two years after the plant was inaugurated in 2016, its turbines were clogged with debris and thousands of cracks had appeared in its structure. Now, it may end up in the river below, just like the Cascada San Rafael.

Coca-Codo Sinclair. Photograph by Federico Rios Escobar.

To make matters worse, Correa’s vice president at the time, Jorge Glas, who oversaw construction of the plant for the government, has been imprisoned for his role in a separate bribery scandal involving the construction of series of infrastructure projects built by the Brazilian construction company, Odebrecht. Given the expensive price and poor quality of the Coca-Codo Sinclair plant, questions have been raised about that contract, too.

The events also shed light on the motivations of Ecuadorians who voted in the first round of presidential elections that were held on February 7. While there were no proverbial landslides, voters destabilized the political landscape by abandoning the nation’s leading parties and backing long-shot candidates from the indigenous Pachakutik party and the Izquierda Democrática. While neither of those candidates won enough votes to advance to the second round, their parties became the nation’s second and third largest in congress, respectively, taking a combined 33 percent of seats and becoming electoral kingmakers overnight.

Perhaps more importantly, Pachakutik candidate Yaku Pérez, an environmentalist who campaigned to protect the country’s water, all but tied Guillermo Lasso, a former bank executive and leader of the country’s second-largest political party. Pérez, a former prefect of the mining province of Azuay whose name signifies water, also championed a referendum there, in which 81 percent of voters approved a ban on future mining projects in the region’s five watersheds.

Cascada San Rafael following intial collapse of riverbed, 2020. Photograph by Ecuador’s Ministerio del Ambiente.

Voters also supported Pérez in Chimborazo, where the landslide buried Chanchán, and he won in Sucumbíos province, where the Coca-Codo Sinclair dam is located. Nationally, he won a plurality in all of the Amazonian provinces, as well as the central and southern highlands, a historic return for an indigenous politician in a nation still torn by racism.

With his strong showing, Pérez demonstrated that Pachakutik can build a broad coalition that goes beyond the nation’s indigenous communities, and his support signaled the growing appeal of environmentalism in a country where natural resources have traditionally played an outsized role in the political economy. A shift of this magnitude in public opinion threatens the viability of long-term natural resource projects, especially in a country known for changing its mind.

However, while the election was close and Pérez is contesting some ballots, voters will now likely choose between Arauz and Lasso, who symbolically carry the weight of two decades of failed government on their shoulders. Apart from his work as CEO of Banco de Guayaquil, Lasso, 65, is known for having served as governor of the province of Guayas and Superminister of Economy in the lead up to the collapse of the nation’s financial system in the late 1990s and early 2000.

Andrés Arauz
Guillermo Lasso
Yaku Pérez

For his part, Arauz began his career as an economist at the central bank in 2009 under Correa and rose quickly to become Minister of Knowledge and Human Talent five years later. Relatively unknown until last year, Arauz now leads the nation’s largest political party while Correa is a fugitive in Belgium, wanted for kidnapping a political opponent and stealing public funds. A question hanging over Arauz’s candidacy is what he might do for Correa to change that if he wins.

More pressing, however, are the challenges posed by events like those in Chanchán and along the Coca River, where the government’s poor management of the nation’s watersheds has transformed natural events into natural disasters. With the government now crippled from Correa’s spendthrift decade in power, followed by stagnation and decline under outgoing president Lenin Moreno, no matter who wins the next president will have few resources to deal with these challenges, and even fewer to invest in the future.

Voters are now faced with the distinct choice between Arauz and Lasso, which might be distilled down to the anachronistic question of states versus markets. Arauz promises a return to the state protectionism and populist policies of his mentor, while Lasso wants a smaller government and to integrate the economy more closely with global markets. Of the two competitors, early polls show Lasso may have the upper hand.

Nevertheless, the electoral success of Pachakutik, as well as the Izquierda Democrática, to a lesser extent, shows that many voters are tired of politics as usual. Both candidates now have an opportunity to shake up the presidential race by incorporating environmental issues into their party platforms ahead of the runoff vote in April. But while voters sent the two candidates a warning in the first round, whether either will act in time remains to be seen.

Cover photograph: amalavida.tv – Flickr, CC BY-SA 2.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=34904683
Photograph of Andrés Arauz: Ecuador Ministro Coordinador de Conocimiento y Talento Humano
Photograph of Guillermo Lasso: Mabel Velástegui
Photograph of Yaku Pérez: Asamblea Nacional

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