What’s not worth it, is going down the old fossilised route, based on fossil fuels as the central resource, with a fossilised mindset that should have disappeared a hundred years ago. What’s worth it is living waters, living forests and living cultures.
Without the Amazon, the “lungs of the planet,” life just won’t work. Rainforests keep our climate stable and maintain the global balance of water, carbon, and oxygen - the crucial elements that make life possible. The Amazon rainforest is the most developed rainforest on the entire planet, over two-thirds of all fresh water on Earth is found within its basin, over a fifth of the world’s oxygen is produced here.
The Achuar people emphasise that the root cause of the threat they face is the modern culture of overconsumption, and called on the people of the global North to “change the dream of the modern world” – from one of accumulation and consumption to one that honours and sustains life.
The Yasuní National Park lies in the heart of the Ecuadorian Amazon is one of the most biologically diverse areas on earth. It contains more documented insect species than any other forest in the world and is among the most diverse forests in the world for different species of birds, bats, amphibians, epiphytes and lianas. Yasuní is a critical habitat to 23 globally threatened mammal species including Jaguar, Giant Otter, Amazonian Manatee, Pink River Dolphin, Giant Anteater and Amazonian Tapir. Ten primate species live in the Yasuní including the threatened White-Bellied Spider Monkey. An accounted 4,000 plant species, 173 species of mammals and 610 bird species live inside the park. Some of the last human populations with absolutely no contact with civilisation, living in voluntarily isolation from the rest of humanity and completely dependent on a thriving forest for survival, are located deep in the core of the park.
One of the most high-profile and high-risk conservation proposals in the world has brought this incredibly diverse corner of the world to international attention. For, one of the most remote corners of Yasuní National Park sits on top of nearly a billion barrels of oil.
Ecuador is a relatively poor country. The three oil fields in the park in question are often referred to as ITT, short for Ishpingo-Tambococha-Tiputini. They contain at least 850 million barrels of probable reserves of heavy crude oil — around one-fifth of the country’s total reserves. Ecuador estimates the exploitation of the ITT oil fields would yield around $7 billion of revenues for the government over the course of 20-30 years.
Most of Ecuador’s current oil supply comes from Amazonian sites in and around the park, many of which have been degraded and disastrously polluted by the development (see chevrontoxico.com). What to do about the oil lying under the still-intact core of Yasuní has turned into an explosive political matter in this country, which on one hand heavily relies on oil money, but on the other has become increasingly proud of its Amazonian jewel.
Rafael Correa, the President of Ecuador, announced in 2007, then just in his fifth month of office, at the general assembly of the United Nations, the country’s commitment to maintain indefinitely unexploited reserves of 846 million barrels of oil in the ITT. If the international community could compensate Ecuador for around half of the expected revenues, around $3.5 billion, the Ecuadorian government would leave the ITT oil locked in the ground and establish a mechanism to ensure it stays there in perpetuity. The money would be used to finance alternative energies and community development projects.
This proposal known as the ‘Yasuní ITT Initiave’ contains three objectives: 1) to reduce CO2 emissions, 2) to protect biodiversity — including the rights of indigenous peoples living in voluntary isolation, and 3) to reduce poverty in Ecuador.
So why would anyone or anything outside of Ecuador care to contribute financially to this proposal? The answer comes in the surprisingly global nature of the initiative. “This would be an extraordinary example of global collective action, that would allow not only to reduce global warming, which benefits the whole planet, but also to introduce a new economic logic for the 21st century, which assigns a value to things other than merchandise.”
This proposal is unique because it seeks the creation of a post petroleum society and economy that provides sustainable living conditions for all, including uncontacted indigenous peoples. These goals are based on Ecuador’s vision of “the good life” (“sumak kawsay” in Quichua, “el buen vivir” in Spanish), a concept derived from indigenous cultures on living in harmony with nature and specified in their 2008 Constitution.
Perhaps the most innovative component of the Yasuní-ITT Initiative is the simple but revolutionary idea that leaving oil underground in the first place is an effective way to battle global climate change. Ecuador’s pledge to keep that oil untapped forever will keep about 410 million metric tons of CO2 out of the atmosphere. If successful in Ecuador and then replicated in other megadiverse and hydrocarbon-rich countries - as Ecuador is promoting — this concept of leaving oil underground could actually make a difference, especially if funding comes via contributions and not a trading scheme that would allow trade-off emissions by a polluter.
There is a critical, but not widely appreciated point regarding this offer. Ecuador is not asking for charity. President Correa often fiercely points out that under this arrangement, with Ecuador only seeking half the expected revenues, it is actually the leading contributor, in effect giving over $3 billion. So in reality, Ecuador is just looking for an array of other international contributors to simply match its contribution. In that sense, President Correa rejects the idea of other funders being termed “donors,” seeing them instead as fellow “contributors” to this globally important cause.
Climate change and NASA scientist James Hansen independently elaborated the scientific basis for what is being proposed by Ecuador. Hansen concluded that, in regards to maintaining the climate to which humanity and the rest of the biosphere are adapted, an atmospheric concentration of CO2 exceeding 450 parts per million (ppm) is “dangerous” and that the current level of 385 ppm is already deleterious. The combustion of the entire world’s remaining oil, gas and coal reserves would greatly surpass this critical threshold. Therefore, forgoing extraction of otherwise available fossil fuels is actually a concept humanity must embrace to avoid catastrophic climate change.
Another global component of the Yasuní-ITT Initiative is the extraordinary global conservation importance of Yasuní National Park. The park is strategically located at the intersection of the Amazon, the Andes Mountains and the Equator. This location puts it in the core of a globally important northwest Amazonian trifecta.
First, Yasuní National Park is at the centre of a small zone, dubbed the quadruple richness centre, where South America’s amphibian, bird, mammal and vascular plant diversity all reach their maximum levels. In fact, these diversity levels are the highest within the entire Western Hemisphere. The data do not yet exist to do this type of analysis at the global level, but when they do, we just may be able to finally call Yasuní the richest spot in the world. Among its more spectacular records is the greatest amphibian diversity known in the world and the greatest concentration of tree and shrub species on the globe as well. There are more species of frogs and toads within Yasuní than are native to the United States and Canada combined. If that doesn’t impress you, how about the fun fact that just one single upland hectare (2.47 acres) in Yasuní contains more tree species than are native to the continental United States and Canada combined.
Second, Yasuní and the greater northwest Amazon area is the most intact section remaining in the Amazon Basin. This is largely because the northwest Amazon is now the only major section of the Amazon Basin without a major highway cutting through it. It is now well documented that paved roads are the greatest trigger of tropical deforestation.
The freshly paved Inter-oceanic highway in southeast Peru has already triggered scary spikes in deforestation and colonization in that part of the Amazon. The massive deforestation unfolding along the highways throughout the Brazilian Amazon is also well-documented. But the greater northwest Amazon continues to exist largely intact and with no cross-cutting highways.
Third, Yasuní falls within the wettest section of the Amazon Basin, both historically and most likely well into the future.
The scientific evidence indicates that the greater Yasuní region maintained wet conditions during dry climatic periods in the past — and climate change models indicate that it has a high probability of maintaining wet conditions in coming decades as the eastern Amazon suffers intensifying climate change-induced drought conditions. The ever-wet conditions fostered by its proximity to the Equator and Andes Mountains will likely not disappear under any climate change scenario, whereas the eastern Amazon could very well transition into more seasonal forest or even savannah. Yasuní may therefore serve as a refuge for Amazonian populations or species that will become non-viable in other parts of the Amazon due to climate change.
To summarize this trifecta, the Yasuní region is the 1) most biodiverse, 2) most intact and 3) wettest section of the Amazon Basin, making it one of the premier conservation sites in the world. Quite simply, Yasuní National Park and the surrounding intact forest of the northwest Amazon is one of the last best hopes for sustaining Amazonian biodiversity and wilderness in the long term.
And if all that weren’t enough, Yasuní is also one of the few places left in the world still home to indigenous peoples living in voluntary isolation. At least two uncontacted groups inhabit the Yasuní region — the Tagaeri and Taromenane — and a mystery third group may actually inhabit the area in and around the southern part of the ITT oil fields. These voluntarily isolated groups are relatives of the Waorani, an indigenous group who first made peaceful contact with the world in the late 1950s after decades of bloody clashes with intruders to their territory, such as oil company workers. Numerous Waorani communities are still thriving deep within Yasuní, including a couple near the ITT area itself. (A footnote: cancer rates in oil producing areas of the Amazon are 31 percent, whereas the national average is 12.3 percent).
Unfortunately, not all is perfect in the world of the Yasuní-ITT initiative. A couple of nagging problems continue to cause policy headaches. For one, we are talking about a national park that should be protected anyway, right? Despite its designation as a national park in 1979, the Ecuadorian government continued to promote oil development in Yasuní. The southern section of the park was finally placed off-limits to the oil industry in 2007 with the delimitation of a Zona Intangible, an untouchable zone designed to protect the core territory of the Tagaeri and Taromenane. A year later, the new Ecuadorian Constitution — which made headlines around the world in September 2008 by being the first to grant rights to nature — banned oil extraction in protected areas altogether. However, this protection came with a loophole: Drilling in protected areas, such as Yasuní National Park, may proceed if approved by the President and declared by Congress, who may call for a public referendum, to be in the national interest. And President Correa has made it crystal clear that he will quickly move towards drilling if the initiative does not succeed — an option ominously referred to as Plan B in Ecuador. While Correa often states that if drilling does move forward, it would be with the best technology and inflict minimal ecological impact, the BP disaster in the Gulf of Mexico clearly illustrates that such promises are dubious and disasters still happen.
One must also understand that these oil fields have been targeted for exploitation for nearly 20 years. Detailed development plans exist. Petroecuador, the Ecuadorian national oil company, would love nothing more than to be given the green light to move forward with this drilling project. Therefore, President Correa’s decision to launch and stick with this initiative instead of aggressively moving towards exploitation, as he easily could have, should be appreciated and applauded. Responsible journalists and bloggers should consider the complexities of the situation before inking out bad titles like, “Ecuador says pay us oil money or the rainforest gets it.” In reality, Ecuador’s proposal is daring in a good way. It is a rare chance to snatch major victory from the jaws of defeat.
Another pesky problem is the oil next door. The oil concession immediately adjacent (to the west) of the ITT zone is known as Block 31. The extraordinary rainforest boasted by Ecuador in support of the ITT Initiative is the same extraordinary rainforest in Block 31. But Ecuador is quickly moving towards development of the oil in Block 31, even as they vigorously promote the wonders of the Yasuní-ITT Initiative. In other words, to the disbelief of many international observers, Ecuador is treating them as two totally different beasts instead of one connected masterpiece. And as we know from the activities of companies such as Chevron and Texaco in the northern Ecuadorean Amazon, once the damage is done, no amount of money can repair it.
Since the initiative launch, Ecuador has maintained a consistent request: In exchange for keeping the ITT crude oil in the ground in perpetuity, the Ecuadorian government seeks around $3.5 billion over 13 years from the international community, which represents half of the expected revenue.
Though the Yasuní-ITT Initiative was first launched at a governmental level in September 2007, the seeds for the idea were sown far earlier. In the mid-1990s, activists, researchers and scholars began calling for a moratorium on oil drilling in this region. This was primarily the outcome of the ongoing Texaco oil disaster, which clearly demonstrated the severe environmental and social effects of oil drilling. More and more human rights and indigenous organisations in the Amazon region started opposing the oil extraction as well. In 2000, Alberto Acosta and Acción Ecológica published the book ‘El Ecuador Post-Petrolero’. This helped to define a larger plan that included a move toward alternative energy sources in the context of global climate change, with support for those part of the developing world not included in the Kyoto Protocol, and protection for the rainforest and the peoples living within it.
The geopolitics and financing of the initiative have also come into question. Throughout 2009, many analysts were worried that Ecuador would attempt to fund the initiative by selling carbon credits for the untapped oil, thereby eliminating the global benefit of reduced emissions from not drilling. Fortunately, that option now seems off the table as Ecuador appears to be seeking pure contributions only.
By September 2009, the German government had pledged $50 million over 13 years to the initiative and Spanish officials were considering a plan to pledge $18 million over the same time period. Numerous other countries were reportedly interested as well, such as France, Italy, Sweden and Belgium.
December 2009 was poised to be a major turning point in the life of the initiative as Ecuador was set to sign off on a trust fund agreement with the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP). This trust fund would add a great deal of credibility and reliability to interested, but still skeptical contributors, by having a UN body collect and manage the incoming funds. This trust fund would also establish the critical mechanism of reimbursing contributors should a future Ecuadorian administration decide to break the agreement and drill — which in theory would then serve as a major deterrent for that disgraceful scenario from ever actually happening (because the government would have to pay out big bucks years before attempting to cash in on ITT). The trust fund was to be signed at the centre of the environmental world at that time, the Copenhagen climate summit. But at the joint Ecuador-UNDP press conference, oddly, nothing was actually signed. And then all hell broke loose.
During his weekly radio address on January 9, 2010, President Correa informed the world that he had personally given the order to his team in Copenhagen to reject the trust fund agreement. He criticised the terms as “shameful” and charged that they “threatened the sovereignty” of the country. Correa’s criticisms centred on the composition of the trust fund board, which did not give Ecuador a decision-making majority on how the money would be spent. All the members of the high-level negotiating team, including Correa’s foreign minister Fander Falconí, immediately resigned due to the harsh and very public words aimed at their work.
The rest of January 2010 was a tumultuous time, as all eyes were on President Correa to see if the Yasuní-ITT Initiative was dead or to be revived. The day-to-day drama was headline news for weeks within Ecuador. Bitter words were exchanged between the Correa administration and some of the initiative’s originators and most vocal supporters. Was Correa slyly trying to torpedo the initiative at a critical moment to facilitate oil drilling, or was he still committed to the initiative but truly just didn’t like the set-up of the trust fund? Fortunately, it appears to be the latter, as by early February 2010, the initiative was back on its feet. President Correa signed a decree inducting a new high-level team, including a more prominent role for his Vice President Lenin Moreno, an ardent supporter who just so happened to be born in a remote jungle town within the ITT oil block.
The decree also did away with any short-term time limits, giving the new team space to breathe and backing off of earlier threats to cut off the initiative if not successful by June 2010. A sophisticated new three-pronged team headed by Moreno was established, consisting of an international negotiation team, an intra-governmental team, and a technical team. The international negotiating team is headed by Ivonne Baki, a pick criticised by environmental groups due to her previous support of Texaco in the gruelling oil contamination law suit crawling through an Ecuadorian court. After being tapped as lead negotiator, however, she quickly emerged as a vocal supporter for the initiative, arguing “not a drop will leave ITT” if negotiations go well, and quickly set off to Europe and the Middle East alongside Moreno to lobby potential contributors. By the end of February, there was more good news as members of all parties of the German parliament restated their support for the initiative after being assured by the Ecuadorian ambassador that everything was back on track. President Correa also announced in March that he personally will promote the initiative again and that his preferred option A is still to keep the ITT oil underground.
Part of Correa’s quick turn-around after his harsh words in January may be the overwhelming public support for the initiative. In Ecuador, Baki notes, a recent poll indicates that nearly 90% of the public approves of the project and would vote against drilling ITT if it came down to a referendum. Baki says the next step is to launch an aggressive advertising, social networking, and promotional campaign focused on Europe, North America, and Australasia. Insiders say the new strategy is an attempt to put public pressure on elected officials, while also drawing upon the financial resources and discontent of a global population that finds itself increasingly frustrated with slow-paced climate negotiations. “The next 2 years are going to be telling because we know there is now finally a budget to carry out a real publicity campaign,” says Kevin Koenig, the Amazon oil campaign coordinator for Amazon Watch based in Quito.
Many Ecuadorians are proud that their government is pushing back against global oil companies. Ecuador is home to what may be the world’s largest environmental lawsuit, one pitting 30,000 Cofan natives against Chevron for environmentally injurious practices committed by its predecessor company, Texaco. Said Pamela Martin, a former Fulbright Scholar and political scientist at Coastal Carolina University in South Carolina who has worked in Yasuni since 2006, “Many involved in the Texaco situation have said ‘nunca mas’ [no more] and have supported the Yasuní initiative because of what they’ve learned in their multiple-decade battle with Texaco and Chevron.”
The money still needs to come from somewhere though and in early March 2010, Vice President Lenin Moreno and new Yasuní-ITT Commission President Ivonne Baki travelled to Iran to seek support for the proposal, along with obtaining the support of OPEC, of which Ecuador is the smallest member, among other joint initiatives. So as the United States and allies seek to isolate Iran for its nuclear programs, Ecuador announced its support of the country and its desire to work jointly with Iran on other projects, including hydroelectricity. And there are other global relationships that appear decidedly contradictory to the aims of the Yasuní-ITT Initiative. Venezuela and Ecuador have formed a joint initiative to construct an oil refinery on Ecuador’s coast, prompting concerns that drilling ITT may be necessary to meet the demands of the new refinery. And there is speculation that a possible loan from China could come with backroom-deal strings attached to the development of ITT by a Chinese oil company.
The United States has been quiet about any position regarding the Yasuní-ITT Initiative. However, there is an interesting, but little-known, Yasuní-US connection. The vast majority of ITT oil, if exploited, would most likely be burned by American drivers. In 2009, Ecuador sent 182,000 barrels of crude oil a day to the United States and was their 13th largest supplier worldwide. The oil in ITT is heavy crude and would surely be transported from the Amazon to the Pacific coastal port via the heavy crude pipeline, known as OCP. In 2009, over 70% of the oil transported in the OCP pipeline went to the US. Drilling for oil in the world’s most biodiverse wilderness area so it can end up being burned in American cars, whose drivers are probably completely unaware that their commute is driving rainforest destruction, is a dreadful thought.
But the international response to the initiative still has been tepid. By mid-2012 only about $200 million had been pledged. In response Correa has issued a succession of angry ultimatums, leading detractors to liken his proposal to blackmail. With the initiative stalled and Correa warning that time is running out, activity on the oil frontier continues to advance through eastern Ecuador, even within Yasuní’s limits. Every day, another bit of the wilderness succumbs to the bulldozers and backhoes.
Environmental campaigners are deeply concerned about stepped up drilling plans in other parts of the Ecuadorian Amazon but they see merit in supporting the Yasuni Initiative as a means by which to enable Ecuador to extricate itself from its current “oil debt trap.” At present, Ecuador relies upon oil income for more than half of its annual export revenue. “If the world is so concerned about preserving biodiversity, protecting indigenous rights and trying to find solutions to climate change, this proposal merits support,” he adds. “It’s not perfect but, regardless, it’s important for Ecuador and the world.”
Six years later, the revolutionary proposal known as the Yasuní-ITT Initiative, is poised to be either one of the great victories, or great fiascos, in the history of rainforest conservation and maybe of this planet.
[this text has been pieced together from different online sources, with extra thanks to Pamela Martin for her kind permission to use the article she wrote with Matt Finer “Ecuador’s Amazon-sized Challenge to the world’ Parts I, II & III”]