Rights and Responsibility: The Failure of Yasuní-ITT and What it Means for Ecuador’s Indigenous Peoples

Oil blocks in the Yasuní National Park

In the wake of President Rafael Correa's decision to terminate the historic Yasuní-ITT initiative the big question has been: Who is to blame for the initiative's failure? In his announcement last Thursday evening, Correa made his position clear, "The world has failed us...It was not charity that we sought [from the international community]. It was shared responsibility in the fight against climate change."

Correa was not wrong for blaming the industrialized world for not funding Yasuní-ITT; rich countries were reluctant to contribute to a climate initiative that did not grant them carbon credits, and it didn't help that a global financial collapse came just months after Ecuador launched the initiative. However, amidst all of his finger pointing, Correa failed to mention his role in undermining the initiative's credibility.

Yasuní-ITT makes up 12% of the one million hectare Yasuní National Park, part of a UNESCO Biosphere Reserve that may be the most biodiverse place on Earth. It contains more endemic tree species in one hectare (2.5 acres) than there are in all of the U.S. and Canada combined. This PBS infographic shows that while the park is the size of Delaware, it contains as many species of reptiles (121) as there are in all of Europe. The park supports as many species of birds (596) and as many species of mammals (187) as there are in all of Canada. Perhaps more importantly, the park is territory of the Waorani indigenous people, and two nomadic Waorani clans – the Tagaeri and Taromenane – who live in voluntary isolation.

But the park is no stranger to oil operations. As you can see from the map below, the government of Ecuador started drilling in Yasuní long before last week's announcement. In the 1990s the Maxus Oil Company began operating in Yasuní and in 1993 they built the 180 kilometer Via Maxus oil road through the heart of the park. Since then the government has divided over 40% of the park into oil concessions, and you can see that there are oil wells even outside of the oil blocks. Spanish company Repsol operates in Blocks 16 and 67, Chinese company PetroOriental operates in Blocks 17 and 14, and a Chinese conglomerate Andes Petroleum operates in Block 62. State-run oil company PetroAmazonas operates in Blocks 15, 12 and Block 31, which along with Block 14 border Yasuní-ITT. The steady encroachment of oil activity in Yasuní served as a red flag for potential donors to the initiative.

Carlos Andrés Vera, an Ecuadorian journalist who is directing a documentary about the Taromenane uncontacted tribe in the park, questioned the government's intentions to preserve Yasuní-ITT in a 2012 interview with The Guardian: "The oil companies have already carried out exploratory studies there. I have testimonies from local people who say they are already building tracks to they can push ahead with plan B. They say they are trying to save Yasuní, but that's bullshit." To hear more analysis from Vera, check out his interview in Spanish with Ecuador en Vivo.

How could Correa expect the global community to donate billions of dollars to protect a fraction of a national park that he was actively chopping up into oil blocks? How could he expect the world to donate when he regularly spoke about a "Plan B" to drill the ITT wells if the world didn't pay up?

Yasuní-ITT was a bold and revolutionary initiative, but the government's push to drill the rest of its Amazon undermined the plan's credibility. Nowhere is this clearer than in the area immediately south of Yasuní. As part of his XI Oil Round Correa is attempting to auction off a 6.5 million acre swath of indigenous territory in the rainforest that is roughly 22 times the size of Yasuní-ITT. This does not include the 1.5 million acres of rainforest that state oil company PetroAmazonas is looking to develop in coordination with other partners. Looking at the government's own map you can see that the area comprises Ecuador's last major swath of rainforest that has not yet been contaminated by oil drilling.

But the government's extractive drive has even graver consequences than undermining the initiative's credibility; it is threatening the very existence of Ecuador's indigenous peoples, especially those living in voluntary isolation. The Tagaeri and Taromenane are nomadic relatives of the Waorani who inhabit what is now the area of Ecuador's Yasuní National Park. Both clans have resisted contact for millennia, retreating further into the forests as missionaries, loggers, oil companies, roads, and colonization encroached around them.

For the nomadic Tagaeri and Taromenane whose ancestral territory once spanned large swaths of forest, they literally are now surrounded on all sides and are forced to survival within an incredibly reduced territory. The Ecuadorian government has been unwilling or unable to protect both groups, and instead has promoted policies that are escalating unfettered resource extraction on their ancestral lands, which has led to conflict between the Waorani and their nomadic brethren.

In March while walking to collect food in the forest near their community of Yarentaro in the Ecuadorian Amazon, two Waorani adults, Ompore and his wife Bogueney, were attacked and killed by members of the Taromenane. Before attacking with spears, the Taromenane expressed their anger to Ompare and Boguene – who survived long enough to give details of the tragedy – at the Waorani's inability to stop the destruction of their rainforest territory. They said they were tired of the noise, their trees being cut down, foreign crops, the intrusion of infrastructure and colonists, and the construction of oil platforms. Both groups view the Waorani as intermediaries between them and the outside world due to their distant familial ties, and view the Waorani as having the duty of stopping the encroachment onto their territory. In a reprisal killing a band of Waorani massacred over a dozen Taromenane and kidnapped two young Taromenane girls.

In a written statement, Humberto Cholango – president of Ecuador's national indigenous federation CONAIE – stated, "This is the result of a structural problem. The development model followed by the Ecuadorian state since the beginning of the petroleum era has done nothing but increase pressure on the lives of the indigenous nationalities... These pressures on indigenous territories have provoked conflicts between Waorani and the Tagaeri and Taromenane, encounters that have turned into violent confrontations." These kinds of confrontations are only likely to increase with increased pressure upon isolated groups.

As Amazon Watch colleague and ClearWater International Field Coordinator Alex Goff noted last week, "Article 57 of Ecuador's own constitution prohibits extractivist operations in the intangible zone within Yasuní National Park for the protection of isolated peoples. Violation of this right is labeled 'ethnocide' by the constitution. Why then, we might ask, does Ecuador have to receive a sum of money to follow through on its own human rights commitments?"

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