QUITO, Ecuador, August 16, 2013 (ENS) – Ecuador’s President Rafael Correa has approved oil drilling in Yasuni National Park, signaling the collapse of an innovative trust fund that would have conserved this biodiversity treasure trove.
In a nationwide address on radio and television Thursday night, President Correa explained that the Yasuni-ITT Initiative, introduced six years ago, had only attracted investment of US$13.3 million dollars instead of the US$3.6 billion Ecuador needs to compensate for lost oil revenues.
“I think the initiative was ahead of the times, and could not or would not be understood by those responsible for climate change,” said Correa.
Yasuni-ITT Initiative was a proposal by the government of Ecuador to refrain indefinitely from exploiting the oil reserves of the Ishpingo-Tambococha-Tiputini (ITT) oil field within the Yasuni National Park, in exchange for half of the value of the reserves, or $3.6 billion over 13 years from the international community.
The reserve has around 920 million barrels, or 20 percent of the country’s proven oil reserve, Correa said.
The goals of the initiative were to conserve the extraordinary biodiversity in the park, protect indigenous peoples living in voluntary isolation, and avoid greenhouse gas emissions. The Yasuni-ITT Trust Fund was officially launched on August 3, 2010, administered by the Multi-Donor Trust Fund of the UN Development Programme.
Yasuní National Park and UNESCO Biosphere Reserve contains more species of plants and animals per acre than anywhere else in the world. The park also is home to the Tagaeri-Taromenane, an indigenous people living in voluntary isolation.
After receiving pledges totaling more than its goal of US$100 million by its deadline of the end of 2011, the Ecuadorian government announced in early 2012 that it would move forward with the Yasuni ITT Initiative.
“Unfortunately, we have to say that the world has failed us,” said President Correa Thursday, visibly disappointed. He added that the launch of the initiative coincided with the worst global economic crisis in 80 years.
“What we asked was not charity,” he said, “it was responsibility in the fight against climate change.”
Correa said more than 400 million tons of carbon dioxide, CO2, would have been avoided, contributing to the fight against global warming. He tried to ease environmental fears by saying that oil drilling would affect less that one percent of the park.
The Yasuní ITT Trust Fund received support from governments of Spain, Colombia, Chile, Georgia and Turkey; sub-national regions of Wallonia in Belgium, Rhone Alpes and Meurthe-et-Moselle in France; and private sector organizations and foundations in the Ecuador, Japan, Russia, Turkey and the United States.
Donations have come in from Leonardo DiCaprio, Edward Norton, Bo Derek and Al Gore. In addition, through the Donate to Yasuní, online donation option, the fund received contributions from more than 500 individuals, including one person who donated her annual income. The Yasuní Initiative led to the establishment of Yasuní support groups in many countries and received strong support from the academic community.
In January, pledges amounted to $300 million, according to trust officials, but only a fraction of those pledges were deposited into the trust account.
Oil companies such as PetroEcuador are preparing to drill. Roads are being built on the margins of the formerly protected area, in known jaguar habitat.
Alberto Acosta, Ecuador’s former energy minister, ran unsuccessfully against Correa in February’s presidential election, warning that the government’s environmental policies were going to change.
“If Correa wins, the ITT initiative will be dropped. The infrastructure is already in place to exploit the oil,” Acosta warned in a campaign speech. “He’s preparing to blame rich nations for not giving enough to make it work.”
Dr. Matt Finer, a scientist at the Washington, DC-based Center for International Environmental Law, is among those disappointed by President Correa’s decision.
“It is deeply disappointing that this alternative model for dealing with oil and gas reserves in mega-diverse rainforests did not work,” he told “The Guardian” by email from Peru. “The Yasuni-ITT Initiative was the lone exception to the relentless expansion of hydrocarbon projects deeper into the most remote tracts of the western Amazon. Now there is really no viable alternative to stop the wave of drilling slated for the most biodiverse region of the world.”
Dr. Finer was among dozens of scientists who signed a 2004 letter to Ecuador’s then President Lucio Gutiérrez in which they explained the importance of protecting Yasuni National Park.
“Yasuní National Park has major global conservation significance, for the following reasons,” the scientists wrote. “The park is one of the few ‘strict protected areas’ in the whole region of the Western Amazon (National Parks of IUCN Category II). Only 8.3% of the Amazon currently falls within any type of protected area.”
“The park harbors a total of 25 mammal species protected under CITES and/or listed as Endangered, Vulnerable, or Near Threatened, as well as many other ‘species of concern’ in groups such as amphibians, reptiles, birds, and plants,” they wrote.
“For example, the park is one of the most important refuges for the Giant Otter (Pteronura brasiliensis), a Critically Endangered species within Ecuador and Endangered globally. The Giant Otters use a large part of the Tiputini River and watershed in Yasuní, and one of the confirmed populations is very close to the construction zone of the proposed Petrobras road,” the scientists wrote. “Yasuní also harbors the Amazonian Manatee (Trichechus inunguis), another Critically Endangered species within Ecuador that is Vulnerable globally.”
“Yasuní is the most diverse area in South America, and possibly the world,” said Dr. Peter English of the University of Texas at Austin, publishing a study demonstrating this in 2010. “Amphibians, birds, mammals and vascular plants all reach maximum diversity in Yasuní.”
“We have so far documented 596 bird species occurring in Yasuní,” said English, a bird specialist. “That’s incredible diversity to find in just one corner of the Amazon rainforest and rivals any other spot on the planet.”
“The 150 amphibian species documented to date throughout Yasuní is a world record for an area of this size,” said Shawn McCracken of Texas State University. “There are more species of frogs and toads within Yasuní than are native to the United States and Canada combined.”
The scientists also confirmed that an average upland hectare in Yasuní contains more tree species, 655, than are native to the continental United States and Canada combined. “In just one hectare in Yasuní, there are more tree, shrub and liana (woody vines) species than anywhere else in the world,” said Gorky Villa, an Ecuadorian botanist working with both the Smithsonian Institution and Finding Species.
Finally, the scientists estimated that a single hectare of forest in Yasuní contains 100,000 insect species. According to entomologist Dr. Terry Erwin, that is the highest estimated diversity per unit area in the world for any plant or animal group.