Ecuador President Pulls Plug on Innovative Yasuni-ITT Initiative, Authorizes Drilling in National Park
Indigenous groups and civil society vow resistance
FOR IMMEDIATE RELEASE | August 16, 2013
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Quito, Ecuador – In an evening address to the nation on Thursday, Ecuador's President Rafael Correa officially terminated the historic Yasuni-ITT proposal, and announced that PetroAmazonas, the state run oil company, would initiate plans to exploit the Ishpingo, Tambococha, and Tiputini oil fields that lie beneath the eastern part of Yasuni National Park within weeks.
Launched in 2007, the proposal sought to keep some 920 million barrels of oil underneath the park permanently in the ground in exchange for financial contributions from the international community to offset a portion of Ecuador's forgone revenue. The plan would also have kept an estimated 410 million tons of CO2 – the major greenhouse gas driving climate change – from reaching the atmosphere. But Correa, citing the proposal's lack of contributions, signed a decree to liquidate the UNDP trust fund, and declared drilling in the national interest, a designation that sets in motion final approval from Congress to pursue drilling.
Yasuni is an area of extreme biodiversity located in the Amazon region of Ecuador. The park was declared a UNESCO Biosphere Reserve in 1989 and contains what are thought to be the greatest number of tree and insect species anywhere on the planet. In just 2.5 acres of the park, there are as many tree species as in all of the U.S. and Canada combined. The park is also territory of the Waorani indigenous people, and two nomadic Waorani clans – the Tagaeri and Taromenane – who live in voluntary isolation.
The decision outraged Ecuadorians, among whom the proposal was immensely popular. A recent poll cited 90% of the population favored leaving the ITT oil fields untapped. The initiative also caught the world's attention as an innovative plan to preserve biodiversity, protect indigenous rights, and fight climate change, all while providing Ecuador – an OPEC member who depends on oil for the majority of its export earnings and GDP – with needed revenue. But only $336 million was raised, a combination of cash contributions, debt cancellation, and in-kind donations.
There was little interest from Annex I countries who, despite professed interest in addressing climate change and recognition of share responsibility, were unwilling to contribute to an initiative that did not provide carbon credits and essentially fell outside existing market based schemes for emissions reductions.
However, Correa's own contradictory policies and mismanagement of the initiative may have been its ultimate undoing. Seeking $3.6 billion, Correa initially gave a deadline of one year to obtain the funds. There would be eleven such deadlines over the life of the proposal, led by five different negotiating teams. Correa frequently spoke of a "Plan B" drilling option that was being developed in case the initiative failed, which left potential investors skeptical that Correa was indeed serious about keeping so much crude in the ground. Political and financial guarantees were too little and came too late. A 2008 default by Correa on global Brady Bonds also set a poor precedent for keeping international commitments.
And while Correa had always maintained the proposal was only for the ITT fields and not the entire Yasuni Park, many were surprised to learn that there is already drilling inside the park. Three different oil blocks overlap the western reaches of Yasuni, and expanding oil drilling in these areas undermined much of the initiative's credibility. Similarly, just south of the park, are 13 new oil concessions – some 6 million acres – currently being tendered by the government in a new oil bidding round.
Atossa Soltani, executive director of Amazon Watch and an ambassador for the initiative lamented, "Correa has abandoned the most revolutionary and popular proposal of his presidency. With more time and better management, this initiative could have been a true model for the world for safeguarding the climate, biodiversity, and the rights of the uncontacted groups. Promises of 'best practices' and state of the art oil drilling technology will not be enough to protect this ecologically fragile and culturally sensitive 'protected area'."
In a press conference this morning, Humberto Cholango, president of the powerful Confederation of Indigenous Nationalities of Ecuador (CONAIE) put the blame squarely on Correa. "This is the absolute failure of the government. This is a sad day for all living beings, for all living things. But Ecuadorians will defend this initiative." He stated that they would use all mechanisms to prevent drilling from happening, including a possible national strike, pressuring Congress to put the question of drilling to a national referendum, and appealing to Inter-American Human Rights Commission of the Organization of American States (OAS) who have previously issued precautionary measures that oblige the government to protect the lives of two uncontacted groups within the park.
The decision by President Correa comes at a time of conflict and recent violence in the Park. In March, two Waorani were killed by members of the uncontacted Tagaeri-Taromenane, and a retaliatory attack by the Waorani led to several deaths. While an investigation is still underway, increased drilling, road building, and industrial activity in the park is expected to only exacerbate an already tense situation, as the Tagaeri-Taromenane find themselves encroached upon.
The origin of the Yasuni-ITT proposal has its roots in civil society. It began as a call by CONAIE in 1995 for a moratorium on drilling in Yasuni national park, which then became a central component of later efforts by civil society groups and academics to put forth a vision for a post-petroleum economy in Ecuador.
Esperanza Martinez, president of the environmental group Accion Ecologica explained, "The 'Yasuni proposal' has always been a peoples' proposal. Its ultimate fate is not up to President Correa or any one person. While we are shaken up by the decision, the proposal has merely come back to where it began. And we are going to do everything in our power to keep the oil in the ground, and keep the global treasure that is Yasuni, intact."