Ecuador Scraps Plan to Block Rain Forest Oil Drilling

Idea had been hailed as a revolutionary way to combat climate change.

The decision by Ecuadorian President Rafael Correa to abandon a plan to spare the species-rich Yasuní rain forest in eastern Ecuador from oil development has dashed hopes for what environmentalists had hailed as a historic approach to weaning industrial society from its dependence on fossil fuels.

"Ecuador and the world have lost an opportunity to shape a revolutionary initiative," said Alberto Acosta, Ecuador's former minister of energy and mines, and one of the chief architects of the so-called Yasuní-ITT Initiative, which Correa unveiled to the international community in 2007. "It was a giant step on the road toward post-extractivism."

The initiative had called for leaving an estimated 850 million barrels of untapped Amazon crude in the ground in the Ishpingo, Tambococha, and Tiputini oil fields—the ITT Block—located inside Yasuní National Park.

In return for preserving the wilderness and preventing an estimated 410 million tons of carbon emissions from entering the atmosphere, Ecuador had sought from developed countries $3.6 billion in compensation, roughly half the revenues the country would have accrued from exploiting the resource.

The United Nations Development Program had set up a trust to administer the funds.

Scientists regard the Yasuní rain forest as one of the most bio-diverse places on Earth, teeming with an extraordinary abundance of birds, primates, reptiles, and amphibians. The park contains more tree and insect species in a single hectare (2.47 acres) than in all the U.S. and Canada combined.

Yasuní also harbors two groups of highly vulnerable, uncontacted indigenous people who wander the forests as hunter-gatherers in near-total isolation from the outside world. UNESCO designated Yasuní a World Biosphere Reserve in 1989.

The two isolated indigenous groups are factions of Waorani (Huaorani) that refused to accept contact with missionaries in the 1950s and '60s. Waorani leaders fear that continuing oil development in Yasuní poses a grave threat to their uncontacted brethren.

Shared Responsibility Shirked

The initiative was considered one of the most popular programs of Correa's left-leaning government.

Recent polls showed 90 percent of Ecuadorans in favor of leaving the oil in the ITT Block untouched, and supporters around the world saw the plan as a novel approach to reducing the cost of preserving Yasuní's rich biological and cultural diversity while grappling with the vexing issue of climate change.

But support from prospective donor nations was far more restrained. By the time Correa called for the liquidation of the UNDP trust fund last Thursday, Ecuador had managed to collect only $13 million in donations and another $116 million in pledges.

Not nearly enough, he said, for a country that depends on oil production for nearly 50 percent of its export earnings.

"It was not charity that we sought [from the international community]," said a combative Correa in a nationally televised speech from the presidential palace in Quito. "It was shared responsibility in the fight against climate change."

According to Correa, the amount Ecuador sought in compensation constituted "just payment" for environmental services and its proposed role in helping to preserve the "lungs of the world."

"The proposal was meant to awaken the conscience of the world and to generate a new reality," he said. "Sadly, we have to say that the world has failed us."

In authorizing state oil company Petroamazonas to commence operations in the ITT Block, Correa said anticipated revenues from stepped-up production were urgently needed for social programs aimed at alleviating miserable living conditions among Ecuador's most disadvantaged citizens.

History Not Made

The decision to scrap the Yasuní-ITT Initiative has stirred fierce opposition from environmentalists and indigenous rights groups.

"This is a decision of transcendental importance, not only for Ecuadorans, but for all of humanity," said Humberto Cholango, president of the Confederation of Indigenous Nationalities of Ecuador.

Scoffing at Correa's assertion that the international community was to blame for the plan's collapse, he added: "This is a failure of the government of President Rafael Correa."

Critics charge Correa for appearing to hold Yasuní hostage, which they say undermined the confidence of potential donors.

Over the life of the initiative, Correa repeatedly threatened to drill in the ITT Block if wealthy nations failed to ante up.

"It came off as a kind of blackmail," Acosta, the former energy minister, told the Guayaquil newspaper El Universo. "The government failed to transform this powerful initiative into a credible proposal."

Despite Yasuní's status as a national park, the oil frontier has steadily advanced within its boundaries over the past two decades, as economic imperatives have trumped calls for conservation. At least five active concessions already blanket the northern half of the park.

Last year while on assignment for National Geographic, I witnessed Petroamazonas workers laying a brand-new oil road into the park in Block 31, adjacent to the ITT Block.

At the time, detractors said the 45 million barrels of known reserves inside Block 31 were too small to justify the massive investment in the concession.

The real reason, they feared, was to lay the infrastructure for an eventual move into the ITT Block next door. Those suspicions seemed to be borne out by Correa's announcement last week.

Correa and his advisers described the decision to abandon the initiative as one of the most difficult of his government.

"All of us, including the president, are very sad to have to make this decision," wrote Ivonne Baki, who has been heading Correa's development team for the Yasuní-ITT Initiative, in an email to National Geographic News.

"The concept of net avoided carbon emissions was not accepted by the developed countries because of its avant-garde nature and because it was ahead of its time," said Baki, who was entertained by the National Geographic Society on a visit to Washington last year.

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