How will Ecuador’s elections affect the future of the Amazon? (Al Jazeera)

QUITO, ECUADOR – Environmentalists and Indigenous communities in Ecuador are concerned about the fate of the Amazon rainforest ahead of Sunday’s presidential elections, as the two leading candidates’ environmental plans received moderate to poor rankings from advocates.

Illegal logging, oil spills and large-scale mining projects have threatened both the rainforest, often called the lungs of the planet, and local Indigenous communities during the COVID-19 pandemic, which has spurred an economic crisis across the country.

But environmental issues have been largely ignored in presidential debates ahead of the vote, in which 16 candidates are competing to be the next Ecuadorian president – all on vastly different environmental platforms that could shape the Amazon’s fate.

“In my years, I have seen everything [politicians] offer and fail to deliver. Absolutely none of their campaign promises make it to Indigenous people,” said Patricia Gualinga, an Indigenous Kichwa leader who lives in the Amazon rainforest.

Gualinga said she has slightly more confidence this year in Yaku Perez, a lawyer and an anti-mining activist with Pachakutik, the political party of Ecuador’s Indigenous movement, who is currently polling third in the presidential contest.

But Perez is 10 to 15 percentage points behind the frontrunners: Andres Arauz, an economist and former central bank director who is with the new Democratic Center party, and Guillermo Lasso, a former banker now with the right-wing Creating Opportunities (CREO) party.

Arauz is the successor of former socialist President Rafael Correa, a divisive figure who intensified oil extraction in the Amazon to fund social programmes, while Lasso’s campaign is centred on creating jobs by increasing investment in oil and mining extraction.

Pandemic effect

Scientists have long said protecting the world’s rainforests, particularly the Amazon, is critical to preventing climate change and future pandemics.

But Ecuador’s Amazon, which covers about 42 percent of the country and is home to more than 500,000 people from 11 Indigenous nations, is facing mounting pressure due to increased deforestation, contamination and conflicts between industries and Indigenous communities.

Current President Lenin Moreno, who is not up for re-election, lost the support of environmentalists and many Indigenous peoples in 2019 after he inaugurated the country’s first two open-pit mines in the southern Amazon, home to the Shuar Indigenous community.

The move was part of a larger government plan to expand the country’s mining sector from 1.6 percent to 4 percent of its gross domestic product (GDP).

It came more than 10 years after Ecuador’s 2008 constitution became the first to recognise the rights of nature and the Indigenous concept of Buen Vivir (Good Living), which assures all citizens the right to water, food sovereignty and to live in a healthy environment.

But threats to the Amazon have increased during the COVID-19 pandemic.

For instance, the illegal logging of balsa wood, a rare and expensive light wood, has skyrocketed. “There are no adequate forest controls, which has allowed the felling of balsa, in particular, to increase to incredible levels in the last year,” said Carlos Mazabanda, Ecuador field coordinator for environmental group Amazon Watch.

Indigenous communities also say mining and oil companies put extra pressure on those trying to quarantine in their territories. In April and November, two major oil spills contaminated the Napo, Coca and Shiripuna rivers, affecting the food and water supply of local Kichwa and Waorani communities.

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