Ecuador’s Imperilled Paradise – One of the World’s Most Important, If Least-Known Battles: A Conversation with Dr. Ivonne Baki

In 2007, Ecuador’s President Rafael Correa proposed protecting his country’s biodiversity against huge oil revenue prospects. This was the archetypal mother of all environmental contests, and remains so. The United Nations Development Program (UNDP) signed on to President Correa’s proposal, and it was again discussed at the UN’s most recent 66th General Assembly. At that United Nations meeting,  US$52.9 million of both public and private sector donations were committed  to the proposal, as UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon joined President Rafael Correa in a special meeting, along with Ecuador’s indigenous Huaorani tribe. Two packed rooms at the U.N., and an overflow crowd of dignitaries there to listen indicates the excitement of  the Yasuni-ITT Campaign. But will the rest of the world listen?

The stakes are high: oil revenues in Ecuador to the tune of billions of dollars, or nations coming to Ecuador’s assistance to collectively help her leave that oil in the ground and thereby save some of the world’s most precious wildlife?

I spoke with Dr. Ivonne Baki, Ecuador’s Plenipotentiary Representative and head of the Yasuni-ITT Initiative about this unique opportunity – or crisis – in her country.

Michael  Tobias (MT): Dr. Baki, Ecuador’s Yasuní National Park, designated in 1979, is among the most biologically prolific areas on the planet and home to at least two indigenous non-contacted ethnic groups. It also holds, apparently, vast amounts of heavy crude oil in the ground, the equivalent of an estimated 407 million tons of carbon dioxide, carrying a US dollar value in excess of 7 billion. For nearly two decades there has been controversy, social, economic and scientific debate over how Yasuni’s indigenous people, habitat and potential oil revenues for all of Ecuador might be reconciled?

Dr. Ivonne Baki (IB): Well, Michael, as chair of the Yasuní-ITT Commission, my views are pretty straightforward! As you note, on the one hand we’ve got this incredibly beautiful, biologically and culturally diverse National Park. On the other hand, a developing country with a third of its population in poverty, and massive oil reserves underground. How do you maintain a sustainable balance between biodiversity and oil extraction? I don’t know if that is possible. Oil extraction by definition is not a sustainable endeavor. Yasuní biodiversity has been evolving for thousands of years – but damage from oil extraction could drive some of its unique species to extinction. That would represent massive long-term damage in the name of short-term profit. Moreover, looking at Ecuadorian history, oil revenues have not lead to investment in sustainable development. An entirely new energy matrix is needed – which is where the Yasuní funds will be invested.

MT: In what ways?

IB: We now hear a global call for clean, alternative energy sources and Ecuador has a huge unexplored potential to develop geothermal, solar, wind, and hydraulic energy. What we need to see are countries that will actually face the difficult decision of foregoing oil dependency to move towards a more sustainable, eco-friendly model of energy production.

MT: Is Ecuador up to it?

IB: Let me put it this way: if we continue to depend on oil to such a degree, IPCC studies demonstrate that there is no future for the planet and humanity; we are reaching a tipping point of CO2 emissions, the Earth’s tipping point. The balance between nature and oil extraction is simply not sustainable.

MT: So what are you proposing?

IB: To reach the goal of conserving Yasuní’s biodiversity, to protect the non-contacted indigenous people and the indigenous communities living in the Amazon and transit towards a clean energy model, the Yasuní-ITT Initiative is the one and only path to be taken. Yasuní is the ultimate precedent towards affecting such a paradigm shift.

MT: How much oil has already been extracted, what has the damage been, if any, and what, in your opinion, can be done as soon as possible to inhibit any further potential conflict (oil extraction versus in situ biodiversity) within Ecuador, and Yasuní specifically?

IB: Like many small developing countries around the world, throughout South America and in the Middle East for instance, oil has been the lifeline of our economy. Oil accounts for more than 50% of Ecuador’s export revenue. But what is different about a place like Ecuador, and Yasuní in particular, is the sheer abundance and richness of life here. And then consider that Ecuador has already extracted more than half of its original oil reserves in the Amazon basin.

MT: With effects that have been documented – to varying degree –  for years.

IB: Exactly. Consider the analysis by Bob Herbert of the New York Times, “Disaster in the Amazon.” In the Yasuní National Park, oil activity has been limited, the oil, located in the ITT block, is considered to represent about 20% of the country’s reserves.

MT: And those reserves have been left alone, to date?

IB: Yes, they are so far unexploited. But, to go back, the environmental impact of the more than 40 years of oil exploitation in Ecuador has been evaluated as severe, particularly regarding the impact of roads and infrastructure construction for this activity, related deforestation and oil spills. In Ecuador, we have already witnessed the tragic side effects of this oil drilling. International oil companies have dumped billions of gallons of toxic waste into our water supplies over the past few decades through illegal practices from which we are only now recovering. Biological studies have shown that many species have already disappeared throughout Ecuador.

MT: And the ITT initiative?

IB: The best strategy for Ecuador will be to concentrate on the oil extraction of its mature oil fields, what is called improved oil recovery, where the additional environmental impact is relatively low and profits can compete with those from new blocks that could thereby remain untouched, hence promoting the conservation of the most sensitive areas, such as the Yasuní National Park. The Initiative promotes the creation of new clean energy technologies which can create methods that work with nature instead of against it; in favor of our future as human beings without compromising environmental preservation, and the future of coming generations. The recognition of the importance of biodiversity has also to be internalized so that the thought of harming the environment in the name of energy seems counter-intuitive and even immoral.

MT: One journalist who visited Yasuní (Esme McAvoy) described the conflict as “Oil or life? Ecuador’s stark choice.” Ecuador’s new Constitution, ratified in 2008, is one of the few documents in human history that enshrines “the rights of nature.” How is this Constitutional declaration currently playing out in your country?

IB: Ecuador is indeed the first country in the world to recognize nature as a subject of rights, an example that should not only be praised but followed.  The post-2008 situation is playing out gradually, as the country is starting a transition towards a model of development based on well-being and rights of nature, in which the Yasuní-ITT Initiative exerts a very important role in promoting this important transition. The Proposal’s objective can be qualified as both holistic and revolutionary because, in addition to addressing the root of global warming and biodiversity loss,  it also aspires to fight poverty and inequality within Ecuador; to stop deforestation and promote reforestation, to protect the National Parks and invest in research and sustainable development. Given the fact that the Yasuní-ITT Initiative is a governmental project, it offers an opportunity for oil-producing developing countries, such as Ecuador, to end their dependence on an extractive economy and seek dignified development opportunities through the sustainable use of its natural resources.

MT: And in relation to the Kyoto Protocol?

IB: Considering the Kyoto Protocol’s current limitations, Ecuador has put forward this innovative alternative, that even promotes a new climate change mitigation mechanism (Net Avoided Emissions) to allow the active participation of developing countries in the mitigation of climate change, protecting biodiversity, the rights of indigenous peoples and promoting a new style of human development, that is equitable and sustainable.

MT: The Fund’s administration?

IB: The Yasuní Fund, administered by UNDP, will collect the contributions during a 13-year period. Taking into account the positive international reception of the Initiative, we expect that the adverse effects of the recent economic crisis will be overcome in the future, and the need for effective solutions to climate change and biodiversity conservation will prevail. What Ecuador is doing is to convey the importance of this Initiative by stressing the international community’s shared responsibility and interest in its success. Yasuní is definitely a world ecological reserve that is worth much more than its oil underground. A new internationally-binding agreement is necessary for climate change mitigation, and cannot be postponed indefinitely.

MT:  How will the assets be targeted, the funds allocated?

IB: This fund will enable the State to earn interest in perpetuity, which will be invested in five areas: 1) Conservation and prevented deforestation in at least 19% of national territory; 2) Reforestation and afforestation of 1 million hectares; 3) Efficiency improvements in national energy consumption; 4) Social development and sustainable production for the populations living in the areas, particularly in the Amazon region; and 5) Scientific and technological research in topics related to the Initiative.

MT: And the precise financial goal?

IB: The goal of the Yasuní-ITT Initiative is to raise $3.6 billion by 2024; half of what Ecuador could have expected to reap in profits from drilling for Yasuní-ITT’s oil. The President’s commitment to the Yasuní-ITT Initiative is firm and consistent with the environmental laws under the new Ecuadorian Constitution, comporting with the important rights of nature, as well as the National Development Plan policies. The commitment that nations and individuals need to exercise is not a mere cooperation but a necessity, in my opinion, in order for humanity’s future to be sustained on this unique planet.

MT: Ultimately, it really does come down to that very poignant statement by biologist E. O. Wilson, “The one process ongoing…that will take millions of years to correct is the loss of genetic and species diversity by the destruction of natural habitats. This is  the folly our descendants are least likely to forgive us.”

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~ by FSVSF Admin on 3 October, 2011.

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