Ecuador-China free trade agreement poses serious environmental risks, critics say

  • A free trade agreement with China is awaiting approval in Ecuador’s National Assembly, but some lawmakers are reluctant to pass it due to new policies that could lead to pollution, deforestation and a decline in endangered species populations.
  • The focus of concern has been the waste that Ecuador would receive from China, including pharmaceutical products, electrical parts, batteries, scrap metal, single-use plastics, glass and contaminated liquids.
  • The agreement could also ease the application process for permits in the mining, oil, agriculture and energy sectors, which could let many foreign companies off the hook for actions damaging the environment.

Ecuador’s new free trade agreement with China is getting backlash from critics worried about public health risks and potential damage to the environment.

The agreement, which was signed last May but still needs approval in Ecuador’s National Assembly, has come under fire for policies that could overwhelm the country’s waste disposal systems, increase deforestation and let polluting companies off the hook, among other issues.

“This is one of the smallest economies in South America starting to negotiate with the largest economy in the world,” said Diana Castro, a researcher with Latinoamérica Sustentable, an environmental NGO. “The situation is completely unequal and is going to translate into impacts on Ecuador’s ecosystems.”

The agreement covers virtually all of Ecuador’s exports and is expected to boost non-oil exports by several billion dollars over the next decade. But it also allows Chinese waste to enter the country that will be difficult to process, including pharmaceutical products, electrical parts, batteries, scrap metal, plastics, glass and contaminated liquids.

Ecuador barely has the adequate infrastructure for processing its own waste, let alone the waste of other countries, WWF-Ecuador said in a statement. It’s especially unprepared for processing the waste of products not made in Ecuador, like single-use plastics and certain industrial chemicals.

“With this free trade agreement, Ecuador is going to turn into a garbage dump,” said Esther Cuesta, a member of the National Assembly, during a debate earlier this month. “…The people who negotiate on behalf of Ecuador are people who don’t love this country.”

Chinese and Ecuadorian officials shake hands after agreeing to a free trade agreement last May. (Photo courtesy of Presidency of the Republic of Ecuador/Flickr)

The agreement also includes exports of bananas, coffee, citrus fruits and other monoculture crops that could exacerbate deforestation, as farmers in the country will likely want to expand products exempt from tariffs, some organizations pointed out.

Increased agriculture would also boost imports of pesticides and other agrochemicals, which could result in pollution and public health risks for rural communities, experts told Mongabay.

The inclusion of shrimp and other marine species in the agreement has also become a concern for some environmental groups, who said Chinese companies already put stress on endangered fish populations and contribute to the deforestation of mangroves.

The agreement also mentions creating a friendly environment for Chinese investors by facilitating the application process for permits needed in the mining, oil, agriculture and energy sectors, among others. That could prove disastrous, critics said, given Ecuador’s poor track record with oil spills, gas flares and other forms of contamination.

“Ecuador has already experienced many crimes committed by Chinese companies against human, collective and natural rights. It’s unacceptable that, with this [agreement], these investments are protected even more,” said a statement published by 97 organizations in Ecuador opposing the agreement.

China has made the region a focus of investment over the last several decades, issuing hundreds of billions of dollars in loans to build roads, bridges and dams, as well as to set up mines and oil pipelines. In each of those countries, China has come under scrutiny for funding projects that skirt environmental regulations and public health concerns, resulting in pollution, deforestation and conflicts with local communities.

A review of China’s track record, submitted to the U.N. late last year, counted 28 projects connected to Chinese banks and companies that committed systematic human rights or environmental abuses. Ecuador had eight of them, ranging from fishing sites to oil blocks and mines.

A vote in the National Assembly was suspended after debate earlier this month, and a new vote date hasn’t been scheduled. Lawmakers won’t be able to make changes to the agreement like a regular law, only approve or reject it completely.

If passed, this would the fifth free trade agreement that China has signed in Latin America, following Costa Rica, Peru, Chile and Nicaragua. Negotiations with Honduras were still ongoing late last year. Uruguay and El Salvador have also expressed interest in trade agreements.

“Countries that have already signed free trade agreements with China show us that environmental impacts are only exacerbated,” Castro said. “They don’t improve. Ecuador is already experiencing a trend that will simply be deepened or aggravated by the agreement.”

Banner image: The Napo River in Ecuador. Photo courtesy of Alexander Schimmeck/Flickr.

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