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Conservation v oil: Ecuador's Yasuni-ITT Initiative PDF Print E-mail
The International

In 2007, the Ecuadorian government announced that it was willing to forego extracting the oil within the ITT block of Yasuni National Park on the condition that it received half of the expected monetary value of that oil in the form of payments from the international community. It became known as the Yasuni-ITT Initiative.

In a 2009 publication, co-authored by the former President of the Ecuadorian Constituent Assembly, Alberto Acosta, the initiative was described as the world's first 'post-oil development proposal.' Its supporters hoped that it might provide a way to overcome the long-standing but accelerating trend in Latin America in which the environment is destroyed in the name of economic development.

However, on August 15, 2013, in a televised address to the nation, Ecuadorian President Rafael Correa announced that he had decided to end the initiative by signing an executive decree for the liquidation of the Yasuni-ITT trust fund.

The evolution of the Yasuni-ITT Initiative

Yasuni National Park covers an area of about 982,000 hectares, or roughly 2.4 million acres, at the intersection of the Andes, the Equator and the Amazon rainforest. Extremely rich communities of plants, amphibians, birds and mammals converge within its boundaries, including several rare and endangered species, and two groups of indigenous peoples living in voluntary isolation.

In 2007, an estimated 796 million barrels of crude oil were discovered in the Ishpingo, Tambococha and Tiputini (ITT) oil fields within the park. This represents 20 percent of Ecuador's oil reserves.

Existing oil concessions in Yasuni and elsewhere have set a worrying precedent for how drilling activities are likely to affect the area's inhabitants and ecology. Liquid and solid wastes and toxic production water contaminate ecosystems. The drilling itself and the infrastructure that accompanies it causes widespread deforestation. According to the Yasuni-ITT trust fund, the land clearing that would result from drilling in the ITT block would result in the emission of more than 400 million tons of carbon dioxide. Drilling would have significant psychological and social impacts upon the indigenous people living in the area, and likely render their traditional way of life impossible.

Shortly after the discovery of the oil, companies from China, Brazil and Chile signed a memorandum of understanding with the state oil company Petroecuador regarding the development of the ITT oil fields. But in April 2007, then Minister of Mines and Energy, Alberto Acosta, put forward a counter-proposal that would allow Ecuador to generate state revenue from the oil without actually extracting it. This proposal was officially endorsed by President Correa in June 2007.

A trust fund administered by the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) was officially launched in 2010 with the aim of raising $3.6 billion over the following 13 years by means of donations from the international community. But by the time of Correa's speech on August 15, the trust fund contained only $13 million.

Collective responsibility: a notion before its time?

Correa said in this speech that he was left no choice but to end the initiative because "the world has failed us." Ecuador's National Secretary of Communication said on Twitter that, "'The world powers' hypocritical capitalism has not assumed responsibility."

From the start, Correa's government has framed the protection of the Yasuni as the responsibility of all countries, particularly industrialized countries, rather than of Ecuador alone. Correa repeatedly emphasized that Ecuador, as a developing country with a large poor population, could not afford to hold back oil drilling if it did not receive payment in exchange for doing so. In his speech on August 15, he explained that, "It was not charity that we sought from the international community but co-responsibility in the face of climate change."

The international community did not step up to meet this role, responding largely with indifference.

President Correa's role

It would be difficult to assess the evolution and fate of the Yasuni-ITT Initiative without considering the role played by President Correa. On the international stage he became personally associated with the initiative, yet several people within Ecuador doubted his commitment to it from the start.

Alberto Acosta ran against Correa in the January 2013 Presidential elections. During the campaign he told the Guardian that, if Correa won, the Yasuni-ITT Initiative would be dropped. He said that Correa was "preparing to blame rich nations for not giving enough to make it work."

The President has been accused of sending out ambiguous and conflicting messages regarding the initiative, which likely damaged its credibility in the eyes of foreign governments. Scott Wallace, writing in the National Geographic, says that the series of angry ultimatums issued by Correa, in which he threatened to terminate the initiative if donations were not more forthcoming, served to liken the initiative to an extortion or blackmail situation – which only increased the wariness of potential donors.

In January 2010, Correa rejected a long-negotiated deal which had been brokered by his own government with the UNDP and several other countries, which would have secured about half the money required for the trust fund. The reason he gave for rejecting the deal, was that donors were attaching too many conditions to the use of the monies. This brought the initiative close to collapse.

Remarks that Correa has made in other contexts have cast doubt upon the authenticity of his commitment to environmental protection. The blog REDAMAZON provides a translation of a speech given on his radio station in December 2007, in which he referred to environmentalists as 'extortionists' and 'infantile leftists who want to destabilize government.'

The interplay of democracy, development and the environment

For most observers, Correa's decision to end the initiative did not come as a surprise. Indeed, oil companies appear to have been laying infrastructure for exploiting the ITT oil for months prior to his announcement. The fate of the Yasuni-ITT Initiative can be traced in line with more general trends in the policy choices made, and values espoused, by Correa's administration.

In 2007, Correa was elected on an anti-neoliberal platform which promised to simultaneously achieve economic development, social equity and environmental protection. A new constitution was adopted in 2008 to great international acclaim due to progressive elements such as the definition of nature as a rights-holding entity, and of the territories of uncontacted groups as inalienable and irreducible.

Yet as time went on it became increasingly clear that these commitments to economic, social and environmental objectives did not sit easily together. In a report published in May 2013, by EJOLT, an umbrella group of environmental justice organizations, it is claimed that Correa's government has done more to further natural resource extraction than any in Ecuador's history. Terra-i, a collaborative mapping initiative, recently published data showing that deforestation rates during the first three months of 2013 outpaced 2012 rates by over 300 percent.

As reported by Scott Wallace and Alexander Zaitchik in Salon magazine, Correa has voiced on more than one occasion the phrase, "We cannot be beggars sitting on a sack of gold." Implicit to this is the assumption, which has informed a succession of policy choices, that the environment is something that must be sacrificed for the greater imperative of material wellbeing. Natural resources are characterized as national property to be exploited by the state on behalf of the people. These assumptions were evident in Correa's speech on August 15, in which he said that without revenue from the ITT fields, the National Plan of Good Living – which encompasses a range of health, education, and infrastructure projects – could not be implemented.

Correa states that his decision was made on behalf of the Ecuadorian people yet, this claim is not supported by the results of national opinion polls which suggest that the majority of the population is opposed to drilling in the ITT Block.

John Vidal, writing in the Guardian, cites the president of Acción Ecológica, one of the main environmental groups in Ecuador, as saying, "The government doesn't have the right to dissolve the Yasuni-ITT Initiative because this doesn't belong to them." This is a reference to the fact that the proposal originated from civil society organizations before it was incorporated into government policy.

The initiative was born as a critique of oil capitalism, and was intended to inherently express a profound questioning of the extractivist model of development. Since becoming government policy, it has become increasingly detached from these original values. Its originators recognized that in order to establish harmonious relations between humans and nature, a fundamental shift in existing models of consumer culture and economic development is required. Correa's announcement could be interpreted as a confirmation of this opinion that, for an initiative like this to work, it must be underpinned by a far more substantial shift in business-as-usual practice and values than was demonstrated in this case.

A coalition of indigenous and environmentalist organizations have vowed to keep oil companies out of the ITT block even after Correa's decision. Whether they succeed or fail, there remains one cause for optimism: the idea of leaving fossil fuels in the ground will serve to inform and inspire the many communities and countries facing the same development choices as Ecuador.