Ecuador’s Yasuni-ITT Initiative Failed, What’s Next?

Kelly Swing
Dr. Kelly Swing canoeing in Yasuni National Park (Photo courtesy Kelly Swing)

By Kelly Swing

TIPUTINI BIODIVERSITY STATION, Ecuador, August 23, 2013 (ENS) – We’re all extremely disappointed by the decision of President Rafael Correa to approve oil drilling in the Ishpingo-Tambococha-Tiputini area of Yasuni National Park and cancel the trust fund that would have compensated the country for leaving the oil underground, although it certainly did not come as a surprise.

Various fronts are already planning protests and next-step strategies.

The easiest thing in the world is to point fingers. Just whose fault is the failure of the Yasuní-ITT Initiative? At one level, it’s yours and mine because we are materialistic consumers, and not enough of us saw fit to give the idea our financial support.

Kelly Swing
Dr. Kelly Swing canoeing in Yasuni National Park (Photo courtesy Kelly Swing)

At another level, it’s the fault of the initiative’s promoters who somehow didn’t manage to connect with those willing or wanting to be convinced.

At still another level, maybe it was just a question of bad timing and a tight global economy.

In the end, laying blame doesn’t fix things, but we do need to reflect on what happened and where we go from here. It’s definitely time to wake up from the dream, escape from these years of being in a daze of blind hope and complacency, when we so wanted this plan to be the salvation of Yasuní National Park and didn’t want to believe that it could fail.

One important positive outcome of the Yasuní-ITT Initiative is that it brought attention to the overall situation in eastern Ecuador. And now, our hope is that the world will not be able to ignore what’s going on here. We can no longer plead ignorance.

From near the beginning, the initiative was fraught with difficulties partly because it was innovative but mostly because of a lack of credibility – based on historical instability and several other factors. After this embarrassing bailout, Ecuador will likely have no credibility whatsoever on the international scale.

Forested bank of the Tiputini River in Yasuni National Park (Photo courtesy Kelly Swing)

This credibility problem could have been overcome entirely up until the 15th of August by announcing to the world that because Yasuní is indeed so special, Ecuador has decided to keep this block of rainforest undeveloped in perpetuity, with or without the support of the rest of the world.

That would have eliminated any idea that the Yasuni-ITT Initiative was similar to an extortion/ransom situation. Rafael Correa, President of this self-denominated “poor country,” would have been seen as a world hero for the environment and may well have been nominated for a Nobel Prize as a consequence.

The world would probably have responded in a much more positive way and the country may have received even more economic support than what was being solicited through the initiative – 50% of the value of the reserves, or $3.6 billion over 13 years.

Oil extraction operations are already scattered across more than half of Yasuní National Park. Now, there’s a suggestion afloat that sacrificing less than one percent of the ITT Block will yield a payout of US$18  billion. Two problems here: indirect impacts and time frames.

One percent of the Yasuní Biosphere Reserve amounts to 20,000 hectares, and each of those hectares houses more than 100,000 species of animals, many unique to this area and found nowhere else on Earth.

One of the smallest primates in the New World, the Golden-mantled Tamarin, is only found in the Yasuni Biosphere Reserve. (Photo courtesy Kelly Swing)

Such small proportions as one percent are always put forth as suffering environmental impacts, but they only represent areas inside the chain-link fences of the operation, typically not taking into account that the opening of roads has historically resulted in habitat loss or degradation across a swath of at least five to eight kilometers. If we keep building roads, nothing of nature will be left, and soon.

Enumerating the species that will be impacted by any operations in Yasuni is an impossible task due to the fact that several hundred thousand species are present in the region. Undoubtedly, large emblematic species such as jaguars, tapirs, peccaries and monkeys are most vulnerable to landscape changes, but everything that exists in the region is vulnerable at one level or another.

On the financial side, the country has to front tens to hundreds of millions to start exploitation, development will take years before production and positive cash flow begin and those billions in profit will be spread out across 30 years, meaning that annual impact on Ecuador’s economy will be minimal. Damages will occur throughout that period and lawsuits will continue for 50 or more years.

harpy eagle
A harpy eagle, the New World’s largest raptor, in Yasuni National Park. This eagle requires expanses of untouched forest to survive. (Photo courtesy Kelly Swing)

Ecuador was the first country in the world to recognize in its constitution that nature should have rights similar to those assigned to people in most modern countries. Ecuador’s constitution also invites anyone to denounce and sue any entity that violates those rights.

In another section of the constitution, the territories of uncontacted groups are defined as inalienable and irreducible. According to that same document, any exploitation within their areas of activity is considered tantamount to genocide.

From a purely philosophical perspective, two specific arguments should have individually sufficed to justify keeping all of Yasuní intact – the extreme level of biodiversity and the presence of human beings living in voluntary isolation. The uncontacted Tagaere and Taromenane people have no vote and no voice; their right to self-determination will certainly be violated if we continue to develop more and more in the areas they occupy, whether or not those happen to fall inside an officially designated protected area that they cannot possibly know about.

If someone doesn’t draw a line in the sand, we can only expect that the rainforest south of the Napo River will suffer impacts similar to those seen in areas north of the Napo. When the oil industry came into that region half a century ago, it was the beginning of the end. Horizon-to-horizon devastation has been the result. If we start down that same path, why would the scenario play out differently 100km away? What we learn from history is that we learn nothing from history.

Beware of the fact that this is not the only environmental hazard looming for Ecuador. Farther to the south, there are US$200 billion in copper and gold ore slated for extraction through “environmentally sound” mountain-top removal.

{Dr. Kelly Swing is a professor of environmental science at the Universidad San Francisco de Quito and founding director of the Tiputini Biodiversity Station, a scientific field research center in the Ecuadorian Amazon. He serves as director for Boston University’s Ecuador Tropical Ecology Program and is an adjunct professor in the Department of Biology at Boston University.}

Copyright Environment News Service (ENS) 2013. All rights reserved.

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