Episode #8: Yolanda Kakabadse on Ecuador, Coronavirus & Climate Crisis
Yolanda Kakabadse is one of Latin America’s leading conservationists, and former president of the WWF, 2010–17) and environment minister in Ecuador (1998–2000). Here, she discusses the toll of coronavirus on her country and how a more sustainable world can be built after the crisis.
This interview, which took place on April 17th 2020, has been lightly edited for length and clarity. The full episode is available here.
Laurence Blair: First of all, perhaps you could just tell us what the situation is like in Ecuador right now?
Yolanda Kakabadse: I am in Quito, and as you have probably seen and heard in mass media the situation in Ecuador has not been good. Like many other countries around the world, we were not ready. But in addition, I would say there are two factors that need to be considered. One is that we were going through a terrible economic crisis before this pandemic. And that has made it very difficult for anybody in Ecuador to react immediately, putting funding forward for dealing with the emergency. But in addition to that, Ecuador is going through a process of great political confrontation between the present government in the party that led the previous government.
[Former President] Rafael Correa and his party that have aggravated the perception of what’s going on in Ecuador by creating lots of fake news, fake news illustrated by videos and photos of crisis anywhere else in the world in the last 20 years. And so presenting that information that gives the perception that things are terrible, the things that are bad anyway, but not as bad is they are illustrated by this political campaign to delegitimize the present government.
LB: That’s curious because the official figures suggest that about 7000 people died in the first two weeks of April in Guayas province, which is the epicentre of the crisis, around 6000 more than usually die in that period. So the crisis does seem to be very serious and yet there are people trying to make it seem even worse?
YK: I agree with you that the situation is bad. I wouldn’t trust on the numbers that you see because even serious media has been a addressing numbers in figures that do not reflect the reality that that have taken these fake news is is they have validated this fake news. So at this moment I would prefer not to give you numbers. But to question that not everything that we see is a reality, accepting that we are going through a very tough moment where the number of dead bodies in all of Ecuador, especially in Guayaquil, have been much higher than we would have liked.
LB: We’ve seen images of cardboard coffins being handed out and morgues being full…
YK: Only 20% of the the mortuary places have been working. Because the rest have closed down, that creates in itself a very serious problem.
LB: I wonder what it must feel like for you as someone who’s worked for several decades in in conservation. My understanding is that pandemics like the Coronavirus are linked to deforestation and habitat loss. And we might well see more pandemics in the future as these trends continue. It must be quite sad for you to see that these warnings have not been responded to quickly enough.
YK: That’s right. Manu Prakash has written that it’s terrible that we have to go through a pandemic to understand how deteriorated the planet is. And recognising that despite what we have been preaching for the last 50 years, in my case for 30 years — that the health of the environment is equal to that of human society — that we have not been able to change the mindset of decision makers, of policy makers, during these last decades is painful.
But it also forces us to recognise several mistakes and weaknesses in the environmental sector. We have not being working close enough to decision makers. Very often, science has not been delivered in the language that is understandable by policymakers. Very often we provide information in scientific language that many cannot understand. And I’m almost always a victim of that because not being a scientist. I need to have those messages delivered in very clear language that can be understand by anybody walking down the street. In that has not been the trend anywhere, in industrialised countries or in developing countries. In the scientific community, academia has been quite distant from policymakers and that needs to be corrected immediately.
It also needs to be corrected by by the environmental community in building bridges with all the other sectors, and in not being in a radical position of black and white, yes or no. There are always ways of negotiating proposals in ways that that can be implemented — not in one day because that is impossible, but giving ourselves timeframes for change that is absolutely necessary for the recuperation of habitats of degraded lands, of protecting forests and protected areas that have a purpose. And that purpose is is not understood by those leaders that we need on our side. This presents at the same time a challenge: how are we going to make that change in building relationships with all the other sectors?
LB: I would add that perhaps the media also has a role, in terms of how people like myself as journalists present these issues, how we’re talking about habitat loss. Rather than treating these as separate issues in the environment pages on page 35 of your weekly newspaper, this stuff should be tied in with with economic news, with health news…
YK: Yes, I think the most important message is that if when we look at the perception of society of the environmental movement they believe that our interest is just protecting the forests and the National Parks, and maybe the quality of air in urban areas, and that’s not true. The environmental community wants to see a healthy society that thrives, a society that in economic and social and environmental terms, is living what we call quality of life.
But that message needs to be delivered in a way that generates dialogue and not confrontation. I’m afraid that around the world, many of the sectors and groups drive their message as an attack. I think we have to be firm in our messages, for example, in relation to fossil fuels, but it also needs an understanding that evolving into sustainable energy is a process where we need the financial sector, for example.
As long as the financial sector continues to fund investments in fossil fuels, we won’t be able to make the change. So when I see financial leaders speaking about sustainability, in understanding that there needs to be a change in the future, to not continuing the same way as the last the last century, it’s fantastic, because you see that that change is possible. But for the moment in 2020, the environmental community we don’t have enough allies in t to make that change.
LB: You’ve previously written that sustainability is dependent upon having dialogue to move beyond conflict. That works both on a community level — for example, one divided about how to use its forest resources — but also on a global one. Countries like Ecuador might be reluctant to shoulder the burden of carbon offsetting when rich countries have been polluting for centuries, for example. Now we’re also seeing that different countries are responding to this crisis in different ways, and both China and the US have been missing on the global stage. Do you feel like there’s going to be appetite and space for international cooperation on health and climate change once this storm has passed?
YK: I do. Basically, because there is a visible change of message, attitudes, and calls from groups like the The B team, for example, which I’m a member of. And therefore I follow every day’s work of a wonderful group of leaders from around the world who are trying to change the agenda, and you see day by day the growth in numbers of people who are changing, and who have influence in their own sectors, in their own countries. And that is great to see.
It’s also great to see how many leaders around the world — and I just saw this morning [Emmanuel] Macron, for example, saying we have to think about the unthinkable, what we thought was absolutely impossible in in a few days or weeks before. We are seeing now that leaders of countries and sectors are ready to move on to a new level of discussion.
Time to think the unthinkable is possible. We cannot go back to the business as usual: many of us say that would be a loss of opportunity, if you can think of opportunities coming out of this crisis.
I see this within my country, Ecuador, as well as around the world. It is a discussion that says, so, what is going to be the new normal? What is going to happen the day after? Are we ready to bet on that to invest in that, and how much is each one of going to contribute to a new paradigm, where the environment is valued in a different way. Not, as some leaders are saying today, that we need to be more flexible on on environmental conditions. But on the contrary, how much serious thinking are we going to give to the environmental criteria, conditions, programmes, and agendas so that we can guarantee that the next decades are going to be much more healthy than today.
The Global Footprint Network, for example, tells us every year how much the deterioration of ecosystems is growing and what we need to do to stop it. So that sort of message, the message of the hundreds of Greta [Thunberg]s that I hope we will have in the next weeks and months are serious calls for change.
LB: We’re seeing perhaps the biggest hit to global GDP since the 1930s, Ecuador’s economy is supposed to contract by about 6% this year, and the global oil industry is taking a real hammering. I wonder whether you think there’s will also be space for more systemic challenges — the doughnut model of sustainability, the Buen Vivir philosophy — to come to the fore again, or whether the focus will be more on details and existing actors.
YK: I think that you have to be an optimist. Otherwise, if we don’t hope for change in the better future, we should not be where we are. The opportunity and challenge that this crisis brings us is is exceptional. It’s a fantastic opportunity to address the crisis of today in dealing with structural disruptions that we have created in humanity, in all our societies. And these systemic risks of our times must be addressed with better communication of scientific data, to really invest in research, but also in communicating information that comes out of this research.
I think that this is also an opportunity to try to build stronger linkages with other sectors in countries, between countries, between societies, between groups, in my case between the NGOs — which has been one of the highlights of the last two decades to see how much NGOs have come together to be more efficient in when investing in common agendas. So I think that that should happen in all other sectors and should be stronger within online communities.
I would say that the most important challenge ahead is to build better linkages between biodiversity and ecosystems and climate change. I still feel even though there we have worked many years in building both agendas, that we are artificially separating climate change and biodiversity loss. When when the reality is that climate change is the result of degraded ecosystems and a terrible approach to the wealth of biodiversity that this planet is giving us. We have forgotten to link the loss of ecosystem services with climate change.
We think it’s all emissions and technology and carbon footprint and the need to pay for carbon emissions? No, no, no, no. The discussion has to be more down to earth. As long as we degrade ecosystems, climate change will grow.
If we don’t invest in ecosystem restoration, there won’t be a change in the quote unquote behaviour of the planet, and this to be a priority.
LB: It’s fascinating to see this new strand of of scientific thinking catching up with the idea that both local and global climate systems are intrinsically linked. Because this has been argued for centuries around the world, and also today by indigenous people in Ecuador, for example, or people seeing the effects of lithium mining in Chile, Bolivia and Argentina, in the Chaco in Paraguay, and in the Amazon. On that note I was wondering where you’ve experienced the most wonder in the natural world in Ecuador and where you are looking forward to returning after lockdown?
YK: I have two favourite ecosystems in my country: the tropical forests of the Amazon, and the archipelago of the Galapagos. I think both ecosystems give you a very strong punchy message that we humans are just one more species. And that as long as we don’t look after the ecosystems of the species in those ecosystems, we won’t be able to guarantee a healthy life for human society.
But it’s terribly important for Ecuador at this moment is to rethink what tourism and ecotourism means. We cannot continue with the same pattern of tourism. I have always criticised that the Galapagos has something like [150,000] visitors per annum at this moment when, in my opinion, it should be probably a third of that. Otherwise the industry is unsustainable: the same thing happens with the Amazon.
And, of course rethinking the extractive industry. I think that is probably one of the main challenges because it’s not only going to, and already is destroying, the basis of development in Ecuador, but all over Latin America and South America. What we see at this moment is in aggression, against life, against ecosystems, against biodiversity against the balance of life, a lack of balance that is reflected in the crisis.
We are living today with COVID-19 course, unless we change those patterns. The next the next crisis is just around the corner.
LB: Do you see that shift going on in Ecuador — or is the Lenin Moreno government doubling down on Correa’s reliance on the fossil fuel sector?
YK: Yes, unfortunately, not everybody in the government coincides with the importance of the medium- and long-term vision. Many actors are short sighted and looking after their immediate income. In a way you understand, because we have to deal with an economic crisis. If so, the answer may involve being much, more creative in proposing new models in new industries close and — quote unquote — a new form of economic development.
I think agriculture provides lots of space for being creative. This is an agricultural country that has probably forgotten. like Venezuela. did the wave of opportunities for agriculture. When that is the real potential. Not only in ecosystems, the biodiversity, the investment in science and research in biodiversity, the bioeconomy, has a lot of potential. That is not being addressed enough and I hope that this crisis raises the profile of those activities in investment, as an alternative for equity.
LB: That’s fascinating, given what archaeologists and researchers are saying about growing evidence that the ancient Amazon in Ecuador was a motor for agricultural development and diversity across South America.
YK: The resurgence of that agricultural diversity, of medium and small size, could be of enormous potential for the country. And we see now, during this crisis, how the small and medium agriculture sector guarantees food security to all the families across Ecuador who thought they wouldn’t have food provision.
LB: I think that conversation about food security and the vulnerability of supply chains is happening elsewhere around the world too. Finally, what’s on the horizon for you once lockdown is over?
YK: I haven’t stopped working at all under lockdown. On the contrary, the work has increased because in addition to the normal agenda, I’m working on some issues related to Ecuador itself into providing responses and providing a conditions for the economic sectors to start working again. What is important for me is the reflection that many of the meetings for which I travelled a lot are not necessary, the meetings are necessary, but the travel is not.
But also the reflection of how much we have to link environmental agendas to economic development, to the financial sector, to the agricultural sector, to investments on the restoration of degraded land, to the importance of recognising that there is a system in this planet and that system has to be respected. The moment that you break one of the parts of this chain of life, it has an impact somewhere else.