Yasuni-ITT Failure “A Great Hypocrisy;” Oil Drilling Proposed
Calling it an abject display of global climate change politics, President Rafael Correa said Thursday that he has abandoned the Yasuni-ITT initiative, a bold and ambitious plan to persuade rich countries to pay Ecuador not to drill for oil in the pristine Yasuni rainforest preserve, located in the nation’s eastern Amazon region.
The president said the global recession was in part responsible but chiefly blamed “the great hypocrisy” of nations who emit most of the world’s greenhouse gases.
Yasuni, Ecuador’s largest national park, was declared a World Biosphere Reserve by the United Nations in 1989 and is home to two Indian tribes living in voluntary isolation from modern society.
Correa said he had commissioned technical, economic and legal studies on the basis of which he would seek the backing of the national assembly for drilling in the region, a step required by the country’s constitution.
Environmentalist hailed the initiative when Correa first proposed it in 2007, saying he was setting a precedent in the fight against global warming by lowering the high cost to poor countries of preserving the environment.
Correa says the effort would have set an environmental precedent. “It was not charity that we sought from the international community, but co-responsibility in the face of climate change.”
Oil is Ecuador’s chief source of foreign earnings. The country produces 538,000 barrels of crude a day, delivering nearly half its production to the United States. As OPEC’s smallest member, Ecuador depends on oil for a third of its national budget.
The initiative’s main goal was to maintain a moratorium on drilling in Yasuni National Park. ITT refers to three untapped oil blocks known collectively as Ishpingo-Tambococha-Tiputini. The three oil fields in Yasuni represent 20 percent of Ecuador’s oil reserves.
Correa had sought $3.6 billion in contributions, about half the market value of the over 840 million barrels of oil estimated to be under the reserve’s jungle floor.
But Correa said Thursday evening that Ecuador had raised just $13.3 million in actual donations in pledges and that he had an obligation to his people, particularly the poor, to move ahead with drilling. The U.N. and private donors had put up most of the cash.
And while Correa’s proposal generated interest, there were few takers, some say in part because he insisted that Ecuador alone would decide how the donations would be spent. European countries expressed the most interest but still balked.
Correa said the initiative was “before its time” and had suffered because it was launched in the midst of the global economic crisis. But he also blasted developed nations for not supporting the project.
Matt Finer, a scientist at the U.S.-based Center for International Environmental Law, expressed dismay at the decision.
“It is deeply disappointing that this alternative model for dealing with oil and gas reserves in mega diverse rainforests did not work,” he said via email from Peru. “The Yasuni-ITT Initiative was the lone exception to the relentless expansion of hydrocarbon projects deeper into the most remote tracts of the western Amazon. Now there is really no viable alternative to stop the wave of drilling slated for the most biodiverse region of the world.”
Even though Correa has now authorized oil exploration in the protected area of Yasuní National Park, it’s not quite a done deal. The reason is Article 407 in the Constitution, which states that the extraction of natural resources in protected areas may be allowed only in exceptional cases and only with the approval of lawmakers. Correa’s party does have a majority in the Assembly. But opposition lawmakers claim approval by the Assembly must also be accompanied by a popular vote.
Article 407 reads, “Activities for the extraction of non-renewable natural resources are forbidden in protected areas and in areas declared intangible assets, including logging. Exceptionally, these resources can be tapped at the substantiated request of the President of the Republic and after a declaration of national interest issued by the National Assembly, which can, if it deems it advisable, convene a referendum.”
Indigenous and environmental groups in Ecuador have said that any decision on the fate of Yasuni should be made in a national referendum. Polls show that between 78% and 90% of Ecuadorians are opposed to drilling in this sensitive region.
Yasuni is not the only oil drilling that Correa’s government plans in the Amazon region. The government is also seeking to auction oil concessions in 13 blocks of 770 square miles each south of Yasuni closer to the border with Peru.