Funding shortfall blamed for collapse, but wider problems cited as landmark initiative hits buffers
The Yasuni ITT initiative was hailed as the ‘future of conservation’ when it was launched in 2007 (Pic: Geoff Gallice/Flickr)
By Ed King
Last Thursday in Quito Ecuador President Rafa Correa confirmed the news that many had feared for some time – the Yasuni initiative was finished.
A pioneering and audacious proposal to persuade rich countries to pay Ecuador to preserve its Amazon rainforests, the project was feted around the world.
In 2007 wealthy countries and donors were asked to stump up US$3.6 billion to keep 846 million barrels of oil worth around US$ 7.2 billion in the ground.
The country’s submission to the UN in 2011 predicted this would avoid over a billion tonnes of carbon dioxide emissions in a 30 year period, but this wasn’t just about preventing global warming.
Yasuni’s pristine jungles cover 10,000 square kilometres, home to velvet worms, crab spiders, narrow-mouth frogs and two tribes living in voluntary isolation.
“The world has failed us,” lamented Correa in a televised address, accusing rich nations of lacking the responsibility to deal with climate change.
And as angry protestors gathered outside the Presidential Palace, jostling a police cordon, pundits were queuing up to apportion blame.
But what seems clear is that for many, the plan to stop oil exploration in the Ishpingo-Tambococha-Tiputini (ITT) regions of Yasuni seemed – and perhaps was – too good to be true.
The park is home to 2,200 species of tree and more than 100,000 different types of insects per hectare (Pic: Geoff Gallice/Flickr)
Guy Edwards is a Latin American analyst at Brown University and co-founder of the Intercambio Climatico news service.
He says Yasuni was popular with the public, and Correa’s decision has sparked “anger and dismay” among many, but points to a variety of reasons for its collapse.
“Factors contributing to its demise were the financial crisis forced possible donors to reconsider; the confusion about some of the Initiative’s details; and the Ecuadorian government’s hints at the possibility of ‘Plan B’ to drill caused a further decline in interest,” he says.
“Unquestionably, Ecuador’s Yasuni-ITT Initiative was a bold and ambitious attempt to avoid carbon emissions, protect biodiversity, uphold the rights of nature and indigenous peoples and encourage the transition to sustainable development.
“However the primacy of oil for Ecuador’s development reveals the fragility of such policies to economic necessity.”
Despite anger directed at Correa, it seems clear his government did not receive the financial assurances they asked for at the Yasuni-ITT launch.
Leading donors included Spain, Germany and Italy, which signed a€35 million debt-swap with Ecuador in 2012. Others included Georgia, China and Colombia, while foundations in USA, Japan, Russia also made contributions.
But together these fell well short. Figures emailed to RTCC by the UN Development Programme, which ran the Yasuni Trust Fund with Ecuador, indicate commitments of US$52,227,852 were made, with US$10,190,820 deposited in the bank.
Ecuador’s plan for an OPEC oil tax to fill the breach apparently met with a cool response from other members of the oil cartel.
And with developed countries still debating how they can raise the US$100 billion by 2020 promised in 2009, the hopes of further cash injections dried up.
Speaking to RTCC in February, Ecuador climate diplomat Daniel Ortega admitted that the global economic crisis had hit the project hard – but others point to a lack of clarity from the government on how the money would be managed.
Ecuador’s government defaulted on a $3.2 billion debt in 2008, and State Department cables exposed during the Wikileaks drama in 2009 revealed US concern over a “lack of clarity on the guarantees that the GOE will provide”.
Collaboration with the UNDP was supposed to assuage these worries, but critics like Bill Twist from the Pachamama Alliance, which works with local tribes, say the plan “lacked integrity” from the start.
“The whole time Ecuador was trying to enroll international support they were also moving forward with plans for oil exploitation of adjacent rainforest lands that were more than 20 times the size of the Yasuni-ITT oil block,” he told RTCC.
“I think the decision is unfortunate and that it is totally disingenuous for Pres. Correa to accuse the international community for being in some way responsible for the failure of the initiative—accusing the international community of hypocrisy for not supporting the plan.”
Other analysts are more sympathetic to Correa, pointing out that Ecuador relies on oil for a third of its national budget. Political analyst Jose Fuentes from Quito’s Flacso University told the Guardian the President had opted “for economic pragmatism” in ditching the plans.
Poverty eradication is one factor. Despite its oil wealth, this is a poor country that has seen public spending triple since Correa took power six years ago.
And in a bitterly ironic twist, the country spends as much each year in subsidies that encourage fossil fuel use as it was trying to raise in the Yasuni ITT Trust fund.
Bloomberg analysts say poor economic growth forecasts have forced the President to try and increase the flow of oil from their current rate of 527,000 barrels of crude a day.
The three untouched blocks of oil in Yasuni now have an estimated value of US$18.3 billion, and reports suggest Chinese-owned PetroOriental and Spain’s Repsol are already circling.
The worst affected, apart from the diverse species that live in Ecuador’s Amazon, are the Huaorani, Tagaeri and Taromenane tribes, who still regard the forests as home.
Bill Twist warns of “significant negative impacts” for local communities in the coming years, calling on the government to work with tribes to develop safeguards restricting the reach of oil companies.
“How much care the government actually puts into the process of consultation will be a key indicator of the degree of social and environmental impact the eventual development process will produce,” he says.
Internationally, this is also a blow for Ecuador’s hard working and engaging team at the UN climate talks. Led by Daniel Ortega, the country has offered a progressive and proactive voice to negotiations.
The Yasuni-ITT Initiative and related “Net Avoided Emissions” proposal were regarded by many as a template for global efforts to promote and fund conservation, and were being followed closely by NGOs and governments alike.
“By terminating the plan, Ecuador has eliminated its most powerful contribution to the UN climate talks which helped legitimize its rhetoric against developed countries’ woefully inadequate response to climate change,” says Guy Edwards.
“As a result, Ecuador’s position at the UN climate talks has been weakened.”
Race to save Ecuador’s Yasuní national park from oil lobby
Green groups campaign for a petition to force a national referendum to block president’s unilateral sanction for drilling
A demonstrator holds a sign that reads in Spanish ‘Ecuador doesn’t love life’ during a protest outside the government palace in Quito. President Rafael Correa has abandoned a unique plan to persuade rich countries to pay Ecuador not to drill for oil in the pristine Yasuní rainforest reserve. Photograph: Dolores Ochoa/AP
The fate of one of the hotspots of global diversity is hanging by a thread as conservation and indigenous groups in Ecuador race to raise a petition of over half a million names which would force a national referendum on whether foreign oil companies be allowed into the Yasuní national park.
President Rafael Correa of Ecuador appeared to sign the death warrant of the park last week when he unilaterally dissolved a radical conservation plan which guaranteed that the 840m barrels of oil thought to lie below one area of the park would remain unexploited if the international community raised $3.6bn (£2.3bn) over 13 years. Although $336m had been pledged by governments, local authorities, charities and individuals around the world, only $13m is said to have been deposited in the two trust funds administered by the UN.
Correa’s decision to allow oil companies to drill below one of the most biodiverse places on the planet, where at least one tribe lives in voluntary isolation, was met by demonstrations in Quito and condemnation by international conservation organisations.
The only chance of stopping the companies now is to raise a petition of 5% of the country’s 10m voters to force a referendum. If the names can be collected, Correa is likely to be defeated because recent polls suggest a large majority of Ecuadoreans remain in favour of the Yasuní-ITT initiative. This week marches were being planned in cities including Quito, Machala, Cuenca, Puyo and Guayaquil.
“The government doesn’t have the right to dissolve the Yasuní-ITT initiative because this doesn’t belong to them,” said Esperanza Martinez, the president of the Acción Ecológica environmental group, which is part of the coalition. “The initiative was a proposal that came from civil society.”
Correa has gone on the offensive, accusing ecologists and his critics of being naive, and saying poverty destroys nature faster than the oil industry. “The real dilemma is this: do we protect 100% of the Yasuní and have no resources to meet the urgent needs of our people, or do we save 99% of it and have $18bn to defeat poverty?” he said. “There are groups that are politicising the Yasuní-ITT issue to finally ‘beat’ the government, and especially to manipulate young folk.”
He raised the stakes by threatening to force newspapers to go entirely digital. In a series of tweets he said that if the necessary signatures were gathered and there was a referendum, he would propose that newspapers be published in digital format only “to save paper and avoid so much indiscriminate cutting of trees.”
Environment minister Lorena Tapia promised minimal environmental impact if the oil companies went in. “The park will stay as it is, as much as the government can do. We will use the best technology and the strictest control,” she said.
But conservationists said oil would inevitably lead to destruction, not just from pollution of waterways and industry infrastructure, but from tens of thousands of people flooding in to the area in search of land and work, as they have done everywhere else in Ecuador where oil has been exploited. The area north of the Tapo river, just a few miles from Yasuní, was exploited in the 70s and is now a heavily populated, highly polluted area of towns, farms and with little original forest left.
“The greatest fear is that roads will be biuilt and people will enter the park. If that happens Yasuní could be like other oilfield areas in Ecuador. Correa says the bulldozers could be starting work within weeks,” said Kelly Swing, professor of environmental science at the Universidad San Francisco de Quito and director of the Tiputini research station on the edge of the Yasuní park.
Hollywood stars this week joined international conservationists. Actor Leonardo di Caprio, in a series of tweets, said: “Sad day, but fight is not over. Correa abandoned Yasuní, but people of Ecuador have not.”
Leading environmenatal activists accused Correa of “failing the world”. Nnimmo Bassey, drector of Environmental rights action in Nigeria and former chair of Friends of the Earth International, said: “Life is more valuable than crude oil. No-one can buy the planet and all she has to offer. All who value the planet, no matter where we are located, must defend Yasuní. The Ecuadorian constitution recognizes the right of nature. Let us tell President Correa that opening up Yasuní ITT to the claws of the oil predators is a blatant abuse of nature and her rights.”
He added: “Now, the only hope that remains is the reaction from the people of Ecuador. This act brings to the fore the critical struggle that we must wage around the world to ensure that elected officials do not usurp our sovereignty after being sworn into office. And the protests that greeted the announcement is a sign that the people of Ecuador are clear about the fact that the decision to allow the assault on Yasuní is not with the consent of the people.”
Uncertainty surrounds the money that has already been contributed. The Ecuadorian government created both an international and a national trust which together collected about $13m. According to one source in government, deposits below $ 50,000 will not be returned.
Correa’s abandonment of the Yasuní initiative is a blow to both global climate change and biodiversity. It is estimated that protection of the park would have avoided 407m metric tons of CO2 emissions and 800m metric tons of CO2 from avoided deforestation.
Source: The Guardian
Editorial: SELVA-Vida Sin Fronteras
Gustavo López Ospina
Pieter Jan Brouwer
Assistant: Emilia Romero
The Amazon Pink Dolphin’s Voice is associated with the International Environmental Mission, a grass roots citizens movement created by Chilean Senator Juan Pablo Letelier.
SELVA Vida Sin Fronteras acknowledges Kevin Schafer’s important contribution towards protecting the highly endangered Amazon pink fresh water dolphin. Title photographs of our “The Amazon Pink Dolphin’s Voice” were taken by Mr. Schafer.