Yasuní-ITT: A groundbreaking initiative that hit the wall

What could have been a blueprint for sustainable development initiatives in oil-rich countries, has been dropped amid condemnation of lack of support from international community and criticisms of poor management.

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Situated in the Western Amazon in the north-east of Ecuador and bordering Peru, Yasuní National Park comprises almost 10,000km² of pristine rainforest and was designated by UNESCO as a World Biosphere Reserve in 1989. It is one of the most biodiverse places in the world, housing a vast variety of amphibian, bird, mammal, insect, and plant species: the average hectare of Yasuní contains more tree species than are native to the whole of the North American continent.

Yasuní National Park. Photo courtesy of The Guardian

Furthermore, this biodiversity remains relatively unspoiled by outside activity, and may hold significant future value as a genetic pool or source of new medicines or crops (such as cancer-cutting drugs or disease-resistant crops). In addition to the variety of animal species, the park is also home to several indigenous groups. Yasuní forms a significant part of the ancestral territory of the Waorani people, while Ecuador’s only two indigenous groups in voluntary isolation, the Tagaeri and the Taromenane, are known to live within the park’s boundaries.

However, Yasuní holds one last natural “treasure” which has served to seriously complicate the way the park is viewed by the state and outside actors:


Underneath a small corner of Yasuní, now known as the Ishpingo Tambococha Tiputini (ITT) block, lie an estimated 850-1000 million barrels of crude oil. The oil deposits account for as much as 20% of Ecuador’s proven reserves, and when the initiative was first launched in 2007, it was reckoned that the state would stand to gain some US$7.2 billion from exploiting them.

In the context of Ecuador’s strong dependence on oil exports for state revenue and foreign currency, the findings heralded a significant boost to government resources for national social programs, which had already begun to increase considerably under the new Correa government. Exploitation of the ITT fields would not be entirely without precedent: several other blocks within Yasuní, notably block 31, have already been subjected to exploration by oil companies, which had provoked fierce opposition from indigenous Waorani groups whose home and livelihoods would be severely damaged or even destroyed by the activities.

Members of the Waorani. Photo courtesy of Yasuní Green Gold

The Ecuadorian government was faced with a huge dilemma: exploit the oil and gain unprecedented economic rewards, or stay true to its recently-adopted stance on sustainable development, the Rights of Nature, and sumak kawsay (a philosophy based on indigenous worldviews of living “well” rather than living “better” through the means of exponential economic growth brought about by exploitation of natural resources and the environment; the 2008 Constitution enshrines this philosophy as a national development blueprint).

In the end, it decided to go for the latter option, and so the Yasuní-ITT Initiative was born. Far from this being a process followed by the government alone, however, the initiative was driven by actors at the local level, including environmental organisations highlighting the biological importance of the park, and indigenous groups and their allies who were keen to emphasize the threat that development of the oil fields would pose to the original inhabitants of the area.

The initiative was launched by President Rafael Correa shortly after his election at the end of 2006. It promised to set a new standard for resource management and efforts to combat climate change, by pledging to leave the oil underground. The idea was to leave the oil underground, and thereby not only avoid the widespread damage to the surrounding environment and biodiversity that would inevitably occur (as it has throughout the history of oil extraction in the Amazon and other fragile ecosystems across the world), while protecting the ancestral home and lifestyles of numerous indigenous communities, several of them consisting of uncontacted tribes; it would also be a unique yet simple way of combating climate change: just leave the oil underground, where it can’t be burned, and avoid the emissions of hundreds of millions of tons of carbon dioxide!

This would be achieved not only through the non-extraction of the oil, saving an estimated 400 million metric tons of CO₂, but also through the avoided deforestation that would be a by-product of any extractive activities, saving a further 800 million metric tons. In exchange for this promise, Ecuador’s government calculated the revenue that they would stand to earn from extracting and selling the oil, and asked that the international community contribute half of this ($3.6bn) over 13 years, via a trust fund managed by the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP), set up in 2010. Ecuador reached out mainly to foreign governments, but also left the door open to companies and individual donors, with the condition to all of them that any significant contributions (of $50,000 and above) would be reimbursed in the event that any future Ecuadorian government decided to exploit the oil after all. The money would then be used to fund sustainable development initiatives, such as the development of clean, renewable energy sources, programmes of reforestation and afforestation, and social development plans aimed at improving the lot of Ecuador’s rural Amazonian communities.

The Yasuní-ITT Initiative’s principal aims can, then, be summarised in three objectives: to protect the park’s biodiversity and ecosystems; to support and protect the indigenous groups living in the park and ensure the survival of their cultures and customs; and to ensure the net avoided emissions of greenhouse gases through unburned oil and avoided deforestation.

The novelty of the initiative lies in its “polluter pays” principles, where countries of the world that have long engaged in polluting industrial activities and have been the biggest contributors to climate change would stump up the cash to finance strategies of climate change adaptation and mitigation, and hopefully lead to a new development paradigm where the exploitation of natural resources and fossil fuels for short-term economic gain was no longer the only course of action for a government, let alone one of a developing country. The argument from the Ecuadorian side was that, through the positive effects of avoiding such quantities of climate-altering greenhouse gas emissions, the whole world would share the benefits of the scheme.

Sadly, though, the initiative was plagued by numerous issues throughout its life, before in August 2013 the inevitable happened: President Rafael Correa addressed the nation to announce that the necessary financial contributions had not been made, nor were they even remotely on track to do so, with just $13.3 million actually deposited in the trust fund, along with a further $116m in pledges. The government was to pull the plug on the Yasuní-ITT Initiative, and would push ahead with plans to develop and exploit the oil fields.

Correa claimed that the world had “failed” Yasuní, saying that “it was not charity that we sought from the international community, but co-responsibility in the face of climate change”. However, critics of Correa have claimed that the initiative’s failure was more down to the mixed signals sent out by the government over the potential “Plan B” development of the oil fields, which was always looming in the background and which, some claimed, had actually become the government’s preferred course of action some time before the final announcement that put an end to the Yasuní-ITT Initiative. As an open letter from the NGO Amazonia Por La Vida to members of Ecuador’s National Assembly put it, “It’s not that the world didn’t understand the initiative, it’s that the government could not drive it home for want of conviction and guarantees”.

President Rafael Correa. Photo courtesy of Infolatam

To others, Correa’s decision is the final straw that confirms his government’s complete U-turn, from the inspirational rhetoric of the early days and promises of a shift from the previous neo-liberal development model to one based on co-existence with nature and the ideals of sumak kawsay, to a return to the bad old days of extracting the country’s natural resources for shorter-term financial gains, no matter what the environmental and social fallout. Correa’s defence in this case is that the vast sums of money that stand to be gained, now estimated at upwards of US$18billion, are essential for the social programmes needed to further Ecuador’s development and to eradicate poverty, which as Correa points out can prove one of the greatest pressures on the environment.

Ecuador’s constitution stipulates that any extractive activities in protected areas such as Yasuní were not permissible, unless explicitly ruled otherwise by the National Assembly, Ecuador’s legislative branch, or approved in a national referendum. Therefore, Correa had to submit a presidential decree asking that the Assembly declare the Yasuní-ITT oil deposits “of national interest”, and on 4 October this was finally approved after a couple of weeks of debate. The result was never in much doubt: Correa’s Alianza País coalition holds 100 of the 137 seats that make up the Assembly.

What was more contentious, though, was the decision to seek approval from Assembly members rather than through a referendum, as opponents of the government’s plans have called for. Opinion polls since the U-turn in August have been hard to come by, but before then the initiative enjoyed widespread support across the country, with some polls indicating around 80% of Ecuadorians in favour of the initiative, and over 66% opposed to the exploitation of the oil.

Given this state of affairs, it can perhaps be of little surprise that Correa preferred to take the safer option of relying on his ample Assembly majority, rather than consulting an electorate that may well have rejected his plans. However, a campaign is now underway to collect the necessary number of signatures – some 600,000, or 5% of the electorate – in order to trigger a referendum under a citizens’ initiative, part of Correa’s efforts since 2006 to increase citizen participation in the country’s political process. The country’s Electoral Council gave the green light to the campaign to begin officially collecting signatures the day after the Assembly had officially approved of the drilling, and so the race is now on to see if the 600,000 signatures can be gathered.

However, given the determination of Correa’s government to press on with plans to get at the Yasuní oil, illustrated by the extensive and hard-hitting advertising campaign that it has carried out since August in an attempt to sway public opinion, and the significant executive powers that Correa enjoys, it would be naive to think that simply getting the 600,000 signatures down on paper will lead to one final twist in the tale in favour of the Yasuní. Correa remains a highly popular president, and already has several indigenous Waorani leaders on board, after promises of new roads, houses, hospitals, and the utilisation of the most modern and efficient technology to ensure that any drilling has as limited an environmental impact as possible.

Correa’s message has been simple: “do we protect 100% of the Yasuní and have no resources to meet the urgent needs of our people, or do we save 99% of it and have $18bn to defeat poverty?” While the numbers he uses refer to the fact that the plans will, as claimed by the government, affect just 0.1% of the entire park, the worry that some opponents have is that the roads that will accompany any drilling operations will inevitably lead to deforestation, illegal settlements and logging, and thereby have a knock-on effect that will end up affecting much more than the area identified by the government. That is not to speak of the unknown impacts on some of the rarer plant and animal species found in the park, or of the uncontacted and semi-nomadic indigenous tribes. Correa may use simple and hard-hitting facts such as the ones above, but opponents can easily hit back in a similar fashion: save the unique natural qualities of the Yasuní, or irreversibly damage it in exchange for the equivalent of 10 days’ of global oil consumption.

It looks like something of a lost cause, but with the first barrel of Yasuní-ITT oil not expected to be produced for another two years or so, the campaign to collect the 600,000 signatures may just offer one last glimmer of hope for those who want to protect this unique corner of the earth.

Photo courtesy of Amazon Watch