ANALYSIS: Ecuador’s Biodiverse Paradise Could Still Be Lost to Oil

By Pamela L. Martin, PhD

CONWAY, South Carolina, February 16, 2010 (ENS) – In December 2009, as the world waited for a global climate change agreement at the UN Copenhagen climate summit that was never resolved, one bright spot for conservation remained – the protection of a paradise of biodiversity, a portion of Yasuni National Park in Ecuador’s Amazon.

Ecuador’s innovative plan to keep some 850 million barrels of oil underground and avoid nearly 410 million tons of the greenhouse gas carbon dioxide was heralded as a first step forward for the planetary protection of megadiverse areas.

Yasuni National Park (Photo courtesy Government of Ecuador)

In exchange for keeping the crude oil in the ground in the Ishpingo, Tampococha, Tiputini (ITT) region of the national park, the Ecuadorian government asked for compensation of $350 million a year for 10 years. The money was to go into The Yasuni Trust Fund to be managed by the United Nations Development Programme.

Overall, Ecuador’s signing of the environmental trust fund agreement with the UN Development Program at Copenhagen would have stood as a symbol that pathways to protection for ecosystems of the developing world from the peoples of the developed world are possible.

However, on December 14, 2009, just two days before the scheduled signing by Ecuadorian government officials and UNDP representatives, President Rafael Correa sent word via e-mail to his team in Copenhagen not to sign the agreement that had been in high-level negotiations for months.

Roque Sevilla, president of the Ecuadorian Commission for the proposal, said that the group had met with President Correa on December 10, 2009 to review 33 observations that the government wanted to include in the negotiations.

The following Saturday, December 12, final Ecuadorian government observations from the Finance Ministry were included to prepare for the official signing in Copenhagen on December 16.

Yet the Ecuadorian negotiating team came home from Copenhagen without accomplishing their goal – the agreement was not signed.

The Yasuni-ITT proposal, named after the Ishpingo-Tambococha-Tiputini oil field, is pioneering in four ways:

  • it calls on the world to avoid emissions, rather than pay for over-emitting
  • it calls for co-responsibility between developing and industrialized countries to pay to keep global diversity hot spots intact
  • it would form the largest environmental trust fund in the world
  • it would protect not just the plethora of plant and animal species that inhabit Yasuni, but also the two uncontacted indigenous groups that live within its borders – the Tagaeri and Taromenane peoples

During his weekly radio address on January 9, President Correa criticized the Copenhagen team for accepting conditions in the UNDP trust fund that were “shameful” and “threatened the sovereignty” of their country.

President Rafael Correa (Photo courtesy Office of the President)

On January 27, President Correa declared, “We are the ones who have to put the conditions” in the trust fund. He claimed that the negotiating committee’s error was in the terms of reference.

Correa said, “We are not asking for charity, but for just compensation for environmental services.”

The president’s criticisms centered on the composition of the international environmental trust fund board, which Yasuni-ITT Commission President Sevilla says, “Ecuador designed, not the donors, and he [President Correa] knows that.”

The board was composed of three Ecuadorian government officials, two donors, and one UN member with voting rights, as well as two non-voting members: one indigenous member and one citizen delegate.

The shocking news of President Correa’s pull-back after over two years of progress towards agreement prompted the resignations of Sevilla, President of the Commission Foreign Affairs Minister Fander Falconi, and Commission member Yolanda Kakabadse, a former environment minister.

Sevilla explained the basis of his discomfort with a question. “How do I go and say to the donors, at the last minute, now the plan is not the same?” he asked.

Falconi said after his resignation, “Evidently, there are oil interests that want to drill.”

Less than one year earlier, in the same weekly Saturday radio address, President Correa said that “enthusiasm for the Yasuni-ITT initiative was contagious.”

Yet those involved in the initiative from the beginning – like Esperanza Martinez of Accion Ecologica, and Alberto Acosta, the former Minister of Energy and Mines who originally proposed the initiative to President Correa – have been warning for over a year that the proposal was destined to failure because the government did not create clear policies to support it.

Indigenous woman in Yasuni National Park (Photo courtesy Government of Ecuador)

Acosta explained in a 2009 interview, “The government under President Correa has to be pressured from the inside by the Ecuadorian civil society and the outside by the international civil society. Both must pressure the government to change, act and consolidate.”

“Something is clear and it is that we have to be conscious that this initiative could fail,” Acosta said. “President Correa will blame the ecologists for not doing enough to gain the funds or that not enough outside money was given; but the real problem lies in the government’s lack of clarity.”

Even though government support for the initiative has waned, Acosta and Martinez assert that protecting Yasuni National Park is of vital importance.

“Yasuni is not going to be drilled in so easily,” Martinez said.

One by one, President Correa has denounced former friends and members of his party, Alianza Pais, who have disagreed with him, like Falconi and Acosta.

While insulted by President Correa’s comments, former Foreign Affairs Minister Falconi still supports the trust fund. “I think as a country we must push the initiative,” he said. “We are defining the new ethics of conservation; it is the heart of Alianza Pais’ political project. I am willing to sacrifice my own hide for this because I believe we are talking about building a different society.”

For Acosta, who was president of the Constituent Assembly that wrote the new 2008 Constitution in which nature is granted rights, the issue is political.

Acosta asserts that President Correa “has consolidated a power of personality with authoritarian and messianic characteristics.”

Both Falconi and Acosta are calling for broad societal mobilization in support of the Yasuni-ITT proposal.

Meanwhile, oil industry experts who doubted Correa’s commitment to protect Yasuni National Park may have been right all along.

In a 2009 interview, one former oil industry member of a 2007 working group consisting of representatives from Enlap (Chile), Sinopec (China), and Petrobras (Brazil) to study oil extraction in the ITT block, commented that President Correa was pretending to pacify what he called “infantile ecologists” by giving them the chance to collect funds to support the initiative.

Gas flare in Yasuni National Park (Photo by Lore Priss)

Another working group member, who wishes to remain unnamed, said that President Correa was creating a competition in which he knew oil companies would win by telling both sides, “Perfect, there is a business interest put on the table by oil companies, you [environmentalists] do your thing too and we’ll see who gets the most funding.”

An industry expert involved in a multinational corporation that drills within the park, who requested anonymity, predicts that ultimately President Correa will tell environmentalists and industrialized countries, “OK, you cannot say anything; you had the chance to save oxygen for the world, you had the chance to be part of the solution to the climate change problem. We proposed, we traveled around the world; but you didn’t accept it. So, don’t ask me for more than I can give. I am responsible for my people. People of Ecuador you are aware of my proposal. I have given the opportunity, one year, six months, whatever, but I can’t sit idle while my people are in need.

Joan Martinez Alier, a professor in the Department of Economics and Economic History, Universitat Autonoma de Barcelona, doubts that President Correa was pretending to support the Yasuni-ITT Initiative. Rather, he says that “pressures from the petroleum industry, the billions of dollars at play, and anxiety about poverty and implementing social programs, his ignorance and dislike for environmental issues as a leftist old-fashioned economist, and his vanity impede his ability to recognize other successes and lead him to opt for the sale of oil.”

In late January 2010, as news of the latest scientific study confirming Yasuni National Park one of the richest biodiverse places on the planet made headlines, President Correa rolled out his Plan B – drilling in Yasuni National Park.

Petroamazonas SA, a unit of the state-run company Petroecuador, will receive government funding of $715 million over the next three years to develop Block 31, just next to the ITT block, and further concessions in 11 blocks in the southeastern portion of the Amazon, oil company manager Wilson Pastor announced at a press conference January 25.

Block 31 covers 200,000 hectares, most of them within Yasuni National Park, which UNESCO has declared a world biosphere reserve.

In mid-December when the government-led Yasuni-ITT team in Copenhagen was on the brink of signing the UNDP Environmental Trust Fund agreement to leave oil underground in the ITT block, Executive President of Petroecuador Admiral Luis Jaramillo suggested drilling in the southeastern section of the Amazon to feed more oil into the new refinery built with Venezuela in Manabi on the Pacific coast.

Acosta warns that now Ecuador has “a president that is each day a more isolated human being and is beginning to swing at the right and the left without thinking about how it is affecting his countrymen.”

The effects of oil development in and around the Yasuni National Park are increasingly violent.

Take for example the 2009 slayings of Sandra Zabala and her two children, 11 and 16 years old, in the Los Reyes area near Yasuni National Park. The three were found speared to death in an area of farms and oil wells just 10 kilometers (six miles) from the delineation of the Zona Intangible that protects uncontacted indigenous groups.

Minister of National Heritage and Culture Maria Fernanda Espinosa (Photo courtesy Office of the President)

Researchers suspect that the killing was carried out by Taromenane, an indigenous group that went deeper into the forest to avoid contact with others. They claim that these groups are protesting incursions into their areas of the forest.

Pablo Fajardo, activist and attorney for the billion dollar lawsuit against Chevron-Texaco for environmental damages to the Northern Ecuadorian Amazon, says that these uncontacted groups have been telling us, “Do not pass here; it is dangerous,” for years and we have not listened.

President Correa claims he still supports leaving oil underground in the ITT block and has appointed Minister of National Heritage and Culture Maria Fernanda Espinosa and well known former journalist and presidential candidate Freddy Ehlers to lead the new delegation.

Yet potential donors like Germany, Spain, and Belgium have certainly lost good faith in Correa’s commitment to saving Ecuador’s paradise of biodiversity.

The question remains as much political as economic. Can the 75 percent of Ecuadorians recently surveyed who say they oppose drilling in the ITT block of Yasuni National Park, convince their president to listen to them?

{Dr. Pamela L. Martin is an Associate Professor of Politics and International Relations at Coastal Carolina University in Myrtle Beach, South Carolina. She also has taught at La Universidad San Francisco de Quito, Ecuador. Her new book with the working title, “From Kyoto to Quito: Global Governance from the Amazon,” is scheduled for publication later this year by Lynne Rienner Publishers of Boulder, Colorado.}

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