The Yasuní-ITT project was a proposal by the government of Ecuador, launched in 2007 by president Rafael Correa, to refrain indefinitely from exploiting the oil reserves of the Ishpingo-Tambococha-Tiputini block, three oil fields within the Yasuní National Park in eastern Ecuador, in exchange for 50% of the value of the income it would be forgoing from the world community.
In the spirit of co-responsibility, the plan was to raise US$3.6bn over a period of 13 years. Six years later, however, on 15th August 2013, Correa announced its death in a televised speech due to a severe lack of funds raised. “With great sadness, but also with the absolute responsibility for our people and history, I had to make one of the hardest decisions of my administration,” he said.
There is an estimated 846 million barrels of oil within the ITT block, approximately 20% of the country’s proven oil reserve, and equivalent to US$7.2bn. With the Yasuní-ITT project now defunct, this area is open to exploration.
An Unprecedented Proposal
Seen as a stepping stone by environmentalists and a model for other sensitive areas, the Yasuní-ITT initiative seemed like the perfect way to integrate ecosystem protection, climate change mitigation, development aid, and support for the rights of indigenous peoples. The 10,000 km2 park represents nature in all its glory and is one of the most biodiverse reserves in the world, designated a UNESCO Biosphere reserve in 1989.
It is also home to a number of indigenous groups. The Amazonian Quichua or Napurunas people, the Waorani people, and two groups in voluntary isolation, the Tagaeri and Taromenane, all reside within the Yasuní National Park.
The project was the first of its kind to implement the concept of ‘net avoided emissions’, presented to the world by President Correa in 2010. This mechanism seeks to achieve a net reduction of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere at the national and global level by not exploiting known oil reserves in developing countries. The effort must be compensated by developed countries, which in turn obtain carbon credits for their investment.
More than 50 countries, governments, private enterprises, and individuals joined the project and started collaborating after the Yasuní-ITT Trust Fund was officially launched on 3rd August 2010.
However, after receiving pledges totalling US$116m but raising just US$13m in actual donations, Correa announced that he had an obligation to his people, particularly the poor, to move ahead with the oil exploration. “It was not charity that we sought from the international community, but co-responsibility in the face of climate change,” said the president.
As he announced the scrapping of the plan, Correa emphasised the oil exploration will not exceed 1% of the total area of the Yasuní National park and that offshore techniques will be used.
However, polls show that that a staggering 78%-90% of the Ecuadorian population are against oil drilling in the Yasuní National Park.
The main issue at play is: who will assume the environmental costs of the exploitation of Yasuní? Leaving the oil underground would avoid the emission of 410 million metric tonnes of CO2 into the atmosphere.
Economist Bard Harstad, professor at the Kellogg School of Management says his research has shown that leaving fossil fuel in the ground is the most effective climate policy “There exists no better climate policy than not drilling-not least when one considers jungle-preservation as a bonus. Preserving the Yasuní would be a great public good for the world, and it should be in the world’s interest to pay for it.”
Other countries, however, seemed less interested is making this novel concept work. “The world has failed us,” said Correa. “The key factor in this failure is that the world is highly hypocritical and the prevailing logic is not that of justice, but of power. The polluting countries are also the richest and most powerful.”
Karen Orenstein, international policy analyst with Friends of the Earth US says that “the fact that developed countries haven’t fulfilled their end of the bargain is not at all a surprise… one needs to look no further than the virtually empty coffers of the world’s newest multilateral climate fund -the UN’s Green Climate Fund- to see that rich countries don’t put their money where their mouths are when it comes to providing funds for developing countries to confront the climate crisis caused by developed countries.”
“Another concern,” says Harstad, “has been that if we suddenly pay countries to not extract fossil fuel, then this will set precedence for the future. But what is the consequence of such precedence? It is actually a beneficial one: the precedence could give countries an incentive to conserve now, hoping for a similar scheme later. This hope (and thus the precedence) is therefore working for us – not against us!”
Local and international environmentalists have expressed thorough disappointment with President Correa’s decision, and hundreds of protesters gathered outside the presidential palace in Quito on the days following his decision. More recently, on 27th August, there were severe clashes between protesters and the police, four people were arrested and the police was accused of using tear gas and rubber bullets.
Critics have argued that Correa himself never really liked the proposal, including environmental groups like Acción Ecológica, Alberto Acosta, who was minister of energy and mines in 2007, and Roque Sevilla, ex-president of the Yasuní-ITT Initiative, who said that a lack of transparency and effective strategies by the government in their marketing scheme for the project – as well as bad timing – could be to blame for its failure. Acosta wrote a piece on 17th August on the failure of Yasuní noting that “what was serious was that the President of the republic never got tired of insisting (…) like in Cancun in 2010, in one of the big international summits, that if the money couldn’t be found by international support that ITT oil would be exploited. This repetitive position didn’t send off secure signals to potential contributors.”
Correa was also accused of having already drawn up a blueprint for getting at the oil whilst lobbying for the scheme at the same time. Most controversial is that the park is no stranger to oil explorations. Journalist and documentary maker on the Taromenane tribe, Carlos Andrés Vera, says 40% of Yasuní is already being exploited by oil companies and the ITT area is being prepared for the same treatment. A licence to state-run oil company Petroamazonas to drill in Block 31, which borders ITT, was only just recently given and the company operates in many other sectors of the park.
On 22nd August, The Confederation of Indigenous Nationalities (CONAIE), the Confederation of Peoples of Kichwa Nationality (ECUARUNARI), the Confederation of University Students, and Acción Ecológica presented a proposal for a referendum to the Constitutional Court, which would aim at banning oil exploitation at Yasuní. They will need to collect over half a million signatures, a total of 5% of all registered voters in the country, in support of the petition to save the ITT block.
High Cost for a Poor Country
Ecuador is a member of the OPEC (Organization of Petroleum Exporting Countries) that depends on oil for a third of its national budget. It is a still a developing country with high levels of poverty and inequality and a need to finance public projects. Correa assured that part of the oil revenues would go towards development projects such as schools, conservation efforts, and hospitals.
Petroamazonas will lead the drilling, which Correa assured would be conducted in only 1% of the park, and is estimated to bring in around US$18bn. We are facing “the biggest economic global crisis of the last 80 years,” he said, and reminded the people that 50% of the population are currently without basic public services.
Yasuní-ITT was “the most serious and concrete proposal against climate change, but we have to look after our own people. This decision is a disappointment for all. History will judge us,” said the president.
Faced with criticism over the consequences of oil drilling on indigenous people, the government claims that the isolated native communities will not be impacted, since the fields to be exploited are far from the “intangible zone”, where they live. Justice minister, Lenín Lara, has also reiterated this.
Yet environmental experts and academics refute this claim. “The Taromenane are hemmed in on every side. And even if the work is done with the best technology, pressure is going to be put on these peoples,” said Vera.
Development in various parts of the national park has already diminished areas where uncontacted groups can maintain their lifestyles “They are forced to move around seeking refuge in the last few areas that don’t have any wells or roads. This means they inevitably end up encountering outsiders and violence ensues. Their numbers will probably continue to dwindle in light of processes that are already out of control,” says Kelly Swing, founder of the Tiputini Biodiversity Research Centre in Yasuní.
The other main concern expressed by the public has been the environmental impact that oil exploitation will have on the national park.
José Lema, the president of the association of geological engineers of Ecuador, has cited the work Petroamazonas is doing in the Pañacocha field, located in another nature reserve in the north of the country, which has received international recognition for environmental best practices when facing critics.
The Pañacocha field produces 18,000 barrels per day and the crude is not processed in any way within the protected area. “Every project creates disturbances; the aim is to reduce them as much as possible by using the best technology,” he said.
Wilson Pástor, a former minister of non-renewable resources, says the most polluting activity is the treatment and separation of water, gas, and oil, which means “in practice setting up a refinery, and the refinery will not be built in the ITT… so the entire intervention will only affect 190 hectares.”
Nevertheless, Kelly Swing says that “We do have our doubts about how well this will be done or if adjustments will be made that drastically change the amount of forest that eventually gets eliminated. If roads are opened, people move in and the impact expands exponentially.”
Who Is To Blame?
No one can argue that we are all to blame on some level for climate change, for being materialistic consumers of all kinds of products, “especially plastics and fuel,” says Kelly Swing. But, most importantly, she says, “we are all to blame for not noticing that a few billion dollars is a pretty fantastic bargain when we’re talking about the possibility to save as much as 10% of all the species on the planet.”
The Amazon rainforest is, after all, the ‘lungs of the world’.