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Development alternatives or alternatives to development? – Discuss in relation to Oil extraction in Ecuador.

Development alternatives or alternatives to development? – Discuss in relation to Oil extraction in Ecuador.


The argument about what development is or is not has not been settled and perhaps cannot be settled- development means different things to different people in different contexts. Mainstream notions of development is one that has to do with “modernity” and all that comes with it- technology, industrialization, capitalism, growth, infrastructure among others. A distinction between developed and developing countries is then derived from these indicators, so that a country is developed only when it is technologically advanced, highly industrialized or rich in infrastructural development. Unfortunately, in recent times, it has been observed that these indicators are bringing us development without sustainability, “growth- fuelled development” are ecologically, socially, and financially unsustainable (Gerber and Raina 2018)  – capitalist growth causing destruction to ecologies, industries polluting our environments with toxic waste and these ultimately leading to contemporary global crisis such as climate change. While the global economy does not completely dismiss this form of “development”, they have tended to propose what could be called “development alternatives” – How we can do development differently so that we can still “grow” but grow at a limit, the subjects of degrowth, post-growth, green-growth have become development alternatives, yet they have not been very effective in regulating “growth at all cost” as capitalists have not responded in ways that are reinforcing. What then is the way forward? – Does the global economy need alternatives to development?  

 Oil extraction is not a completely negative venture, natural resource extraction to some extend have successfully financed programmes that delivered some positive gains in the Ecuadorian region (Arsel et al. 2016a ; Pellegrini 2012). However, in the case of Ecuador, it has not fulfilled its promise of “development” because oil-extraction focused on “growth – at all cost” – undermining the very natural resources base that it relied on, the livelihood of indigenous people and politicizing its activities to exclude the poor and marginalized. I argue that indigenous people though continually relying on extractive activities for their survival, development in the Ecuadorian region does not lie in the deepening of extractive activities. Rather, extrativism can be done in ways that can benefit the indigenous fully – so that, it would not only be done while preserving the rich natural resource base but also does not alter all other sources of livelihoods, living  the indigenous with no options than a continuous reliance on the meager gains. In this essay, I would discuss oil extraction in Ecuador, the paradox of oil – development; I would unpack the paradox with a rebuttal and finally propose some alternatives to development. 

Brief History about oil Extraction – The Case of Ecuador  

Oil exploration began in Ecuador in 1964 and commercial oil extraction in the Ecuadorian Northern Amazon started in 1967 with the government of Ecuador partnering with Texaco and the Gulf companies of the United States of America. After the discovery of oil in Ecuador the commodity has become the main and largest export commodity for the oil nation (Arsel 2012). Oil contributes about 40% of the foreign exchange earnings of Ecuador and form the main source of revenue for the government (ibid). For over three decades PetroEcuador and Texaco were the only companies drilling oil in Ecuador. Oil extraction Ecuador fuelled modernization in Ecuador, boosted their economy and helped the living standards of the people. Although oil extraction in Ecuador transformed their economy, mismanagement of waste from the oil extraction led to heavy pollution in the community. According to Arsel (2012) over 18 billion gallons of toxic wastewater was disposed into the Amazon rainforest, which caused lots of damages and pollution to the environment and posed health risks to the people. This pollution was caused basically because the Texaco company was using substandard technology and there were no formal environmental laws that govern the operation of oil extraction companies. In 1990 PetroEcuador took over from Texaco and began full operation.  

Oil drilling and environment destruction in Ecuador  

Oil extraction has serious implications and consequence for the environment. Reckless operations by the oil companies result in dare consequence which is devastating to the communities and the environment (Arsel et al.2019 ). The effects of this consequence affect the health of the people living in the communities; affect their livelihood activities such as farming, fishing and hunting. In most cases the community lands are grabbed, displaced and dispossessed without compensation (idem) . 

One environmental impact oil drilling had on the Amazon rainforest of Ecuador is the disruption of the wild habitation in the forest. Just like any other forest, oil extraction has become a menace to wildlife. Loud noise from human activities, vehicular movements, extraction machines disrupts avian species. The infrastructural development from the oil industries operation like roads, pipelines, electricity, wellpads interfere with the natural inhabitants of the wild animals fragmenting and displacing them.  

Another negative impact oil drilling has on the environment is pollution of water bodies, air and land. Oil spillage in the oil fields in Ecuador and many oil fields around the world have affected the wildlife and fishes in the sea. For example, the 2010 BP’s explosion in the Deepwater Horizon rig in the Gulf of Mexico, the spillage occupied over 68 thousand square miles of sea surface killing about five thousand marine animals, one thousand turtles and about one million seabirds. These spillages also have long term devastating effects on the health of the people as the use the water for their domestic use and for animals. Also, emission from these oil companies pose health risks to the communities that live around the drilling sites such as respiratory diseases, cancers and cardiovascular diseases, asthmas. 

The dangerous emission of carbon from the heavy machines used in oil drilling also contributes massively to climate change. The aftermath of the Second World War which brought about the industrial revolution has increased the uses of more fossil fuel. This has led to more emission of greenhouse gases into the atmosphere causing climate change disasters and threatening the lives of people. Carbon which is the main pollutant from these emissions results from industrial use of fossil fuel, and coal from the drilling sites which are released into the atmosphere leading to climate change. Although, measures have been placed to reduce the emission by taxing more for machines that emit more carbon, the situation has not change significantly. 

It is clear that oil drilling as a natural resource gift and blessing has negatively affected the environment which will consequently affect human health if pragmatic measure is not taken to control the activities of these oil companies. 

The paradox – Extrativism and the Indigenous people. 

Indigenous people have welcomed extractive industries in their communities with the belief that it is capable of given them alternative livelihoods, escape poverty or improve economic growth (Ozkaynak et al. 2015; Aragon and Rud 2013). The optimism is always that oil discovery and the eventual extraction will boost economic growth, eradicate poverty and put money into the packets of the citizenry. The irony of this in most cases is that this indigenous people neglect and abandon their source of livelihood activities such as farming, fishing and grasp the meager low skilled jobs in the oil companies. Unfortunately, the scholarship on “the resource curse” indicates that globally, the extraction of non- renewable resources is directly linked with poor economic indicators, which means that countries that are dependent on renewable resources for their GDP growth often record poor economic growth – “Immiserizing Growth”( Arsel et al.2019). 

However, it is problematic when the people, despite experiencing the negative impacts, remain silent and continue to vest their hopes in what has failed them – “the paradox”.  While the struggles of resistance in the face of extractive projects are very much expected, silent and consent has not seen much investigation (Adaman et al. 2017). When people do not react or resist to the negative impacts of extractive industries because they do not directly affect them (The NIMBY attitude), it is to some extent expected. But what if the people are cognizant of the negative impacts on their welfare and overall local development and yet, remain silent or continue to welcome such projects (inverse NIMBY Syndome)? In Ecuador, according to (Arsel et al. 2019 ), “Oil has left indelible marks on the collective consciousness of the region with buses, restaurants, hotels all referencing them in relation to the sector.”  By mounting these messages, they continually play on the mindsets of the people into believing that there is no other alternative than the one presented – the oil led- development. Even what it means to be an indigenous is gradually being redefined by the industry, political and state actors who believe that the only development alternative possible in the Ecuadorian region lies in the deepening of material resources that is linked to deepening extractive activities (Arsel et al.2019). Unfortunately, those that have opposed this ideology have faced opposition from the majority who subscribe to the belief that more extraction is the only solution to the Ecuadorian development needs. It appears that when there are no alternatives, the people prefer to remain in what appears to be their most familiar plight 

My argument against the paradox 

As described earlier, indigenous people despite the fact that their expectations of a better life with the existence of extractive industries have been cut short – The fact that they do not benefit fully from these industries and that they are faced with environmental impacts caused by these industries. Yet, they continue to embrace it. The question worth raising is that, to what extent do communities have the agency and power to oppose extractive activities – and agency here is not limited to just rejecting but also the freedom to choose and operate with other livelihoods without being pinned down by the state or other actors, agency also mean that what alternatives are available to them?  Therefore, it is not enough to conclude on the paradoxical nature of the indigenous, rather a deeper analysis is needed to understand the underlying factors accompanying their paradoxical choices. I believe this paradoxical nature of the indigenous on the subject of extractive industries can be linked to what (Gaventa 1982) termed as “the hidden forces of power” which shape the actions and consciousness of the people in ways that are not apparent.  In the Ecuadorian case, material conditions have determined the perceived lack of alternatives which then means that there are and must be alternatives which can only be visible to the people if they are freed from the consciousness imposed by the “hidden forces of power”. How were the indigenous people living their lives before the extractive industry? 

What is the alternative – “Indigenous –led” development vision? 

As established earlier, it is not so much about growth itself but how we “grow”. Oil extraction in Ecuador has impacted negatively on natural resources so that even the water bodies have been polluted with toxic chemicals and killing indigenous people who relied on these for survival.  There is therefore a need to question industrial production that is done based on limitless growth. If extractive industries would respect ecological boundaries, avoid over-exploitation of our limited natural resources  – trees that are cut down for production would be replaced (afforestation), dumping of toxic waste would be done in ways that would not affect our water bodies,  and industrial activities not destroying  natural inhabitants of animals. The point is, there is a way to grow and since extractive activities like other capitalists acativities are inevitable for consumption purposes, then limited growth while preserving our natural resources is an alternative. 

While discussing alternatives in the Ecuadorian region, it is important to look at the living conditions of indigenous people before the begining of oil extraction. From the movie, crude, indegenous recounted what their conditions were – “That was life: rituals and living freely in the jungle. It was a beautiful time, we had a clean jungle, and the fauna was very clean and without damage. Life reigned and was a more comfortable life; let’s just say it was a paradise for the Secoya people” (Crude 2009). According to this narrative, indigenous people enjoyed a better and happier life in their small, simple conditions. As stated by (Layard 2005) “Indigenous people live under very simple conditions yet, if you compare them to most people living under modern conditions in the global north, there is no evidence that they live happier lives than them”. Unfortunately, “development has traditionally been about dissecting  the political, socio-economic and cultural processes of black, brown and other subjects of color in the so-called global south and finding them regressive, particularly in comparison to the so-called progressive global North” (Pailey 2019 : 5). If modernity has brought development to the people, then there is the need to rethink what constitutes “the good life”. Although attempts made to embrace the emerging concept called “buen vivir” – concepts that suggest the application of indigenous values and practices as opposed to oil led- development (Walsh 2010), was not successful, it promises to bring to the people the “good life” they once lived and enjoyed before oil extraction in their region. Crucial  


In a nut shell, I have discussed oil- led development and how it has failed indigenous people in extractive regions like Ecuador. I have showed how the agency of the people could be a reason why despite failure of oil-led development, they have continuously relied on it. I have argued that development in Ecuador does not lie in the deepening of extractive activities. Rather, A different way of doing oil extraction – which would not alter all other alternative livelihood sources, one that would not undermine the natural resources but benefit in a significant way, indigenous lives. I have also proposed some alternatives to development – the need to respect ecological boundaries while doing extractive activities (growth with limits) as well as the need to rethink modernity as the ultimate indicator and look to indigenous practices found in the new concept, “buen-vivir”. 


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Arsel, M., Pellegrini, L. and Mena, C., 2019. Maria’s paradox: oil extraction and the misery of missing development alternatives in the Ecuadorian Amazon. 

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Gaventa, J., 1982. Power and powerlessness: Quiescence and rebellion in an Appalachian valley. University of Illinois Press. 

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