Yasuní-ITT Initiative to be Scrapped.

• August 21, 2013 • Comments (2)

It has been reported recently, that up to 80 percent of declared proven fossil fuel reserves will have to stay in the ground if we are to avoid a rise in a global average temperature of more than 2°C (the internationally agreed threshold for “dangerous” climate change). This means that between 60-80% of coal, oil and gas reserves of publicly listed companies are ‘unburnable’.

Yet, as we career towards a catastrophic 2˚C+ global temperature increase, all that glitters is still black gold.

On hearing that President Rafael Correa of Ecuador is to abandon the Yasuní-ITT Initiative, ‘devastated’ is the only word that comes to mind. Devastated, yet lamentably – not wholly surprised. In a televised address last Thursday night, Correa announced: “I have signed the executive decree for the liquidation of the Yasuní-ITT trust fund and with this, ended the Initiative”.

Correa cited the lack of donations to this ground-breaking oil drilling moratorium as the reason for its annulment, claiming that of the US$3.6 billion in contributions sought, the trust fund has only reached $13 million in actual donations and $116 million in pledges.

The Yasuní-ITT Initiative is (I am not yet prepared to refer to it in the past tense) a proposal to leave oil reserves untapped in the Amazon region of Ecuador, thus protecting parts of the remaining untouched areas of Amazon forest from oil extraction, and avoiding the associated social and ecological devastation that characterise oil developments in such critically biodiverse regions. Through the Initiative, Ecuador pledged to forgo the revenue that extraction would create for the country in exchange for compensation from the international community as a multilateral global climate change mitigation strategy.

I have been following the Yasuní-ITT Initiative since 2007 after reading a feature in the New Internationalist – it was a revelatory moment, as it appeared to me to be the most obvious and common-sense proposal offered up in the stagnating arena of international climate change cooperation; an initiative that could deal with the interlinked issues of climate change, Indigenous rights, ecological debt and a revolutionary step towards a transition to a post-oil global economy.

Amazon from the air

Picture: Luke Weiss

The Initiative was first conceived in 2006 by NGOs OilWatch (International) and Acción Ecológica (Ecuador), while contracts were being written up to grant drilling concessions in the Yasuní-ITT oil Block. It was an opportune moment to push for a radical alternative to oil extraction, with the incoming president’s ‘Citizen’s Revolution of 21st Century Socialism’ and the signing of the ‘Rights of Nature’ into the constitution.

Located in the Amazon region of Ecuador, the Yasuní National Park was declared a biosphere reserve by the United Nations in 1989. It is one of the most biodiverse places on Earth, with one hectare holding more tree species than the US and Canada put together. Over half of the park is inhabited by Indigenous communities including two non-contacted groups: the Tagaeri and Taromenane. The Ishpingo-Tambococha-Tiputini (ITT) oil fields within the park hold an estimated 920 million barrels of crude oil – approximately 20% of Ecuador’s total oil reserves. The Yasuní-ITT Initiative proposed to leave the oil untapped in exchange for receiving 50% of the projected revenue (estimated at the time to the value of US$3.6 billion) through donations from the international community – governments, private and public entities, NGOs, Inter-Governmental Organisations (IGOs), and individuals. This was a potentially substantial commitment by Ecuador – a country that is considerably dependent on its petroleum resources, as they make up over half of the country’s export earnings and about one-third of all tax revenues.

The successful implementation of the Initiative would achieve a number of key local, national and international benefits:

1. It is an innovative option for combating global warming by preventing CO2 emissions at source.

By committing to not extract the full amount, the Yasuní-ITT Initiative would prevent the emission of 410 million tonnes of CO2. The real value of the emissions avoided is far greater when taking into account the direct and indirect deforestation that occurs through oil exploration, the emissions generated through the construction of infrastructure, and the extraction process itself. This is a globally significant amount considering that in 2011, the estimated annual CO2 emissions of France was 360 million tonnes, and Brazil, 450 million tonnes.

2. It would protect the biodiversity of Ecuador, Indigenous groups and support the voluntary isolation of Indigenous cultures living in the Yasuní National Park.

Picture: Luke Weiss

Picture: Luke Weiss

Scientists have identified the Yasuní National Park as one of most biodiverse places on Earth. Amphibians, birds, mammals, insect and plant species show a higher density than anywhere else in the world. Additionally, there is no way to escape the fact that the history of oil activities in the Amazon has been devastating for the ecosystems and Indigenous communities, and that ANY extraction will negatively affect the livelihoods of Indigenous communities. Communities are still suffering from over three decades of oil drilling by Chevron who dumped more than 18 billion gallons of toxic wastewater, causing a wave of cancers, miscarriages and birth defects. The incursion from outside interests such as loggers and oil companies also heightens tensions between Indigenous communities, exacerbating ethnic conflicts within the area as Survival reported earlier this year.

3. It is an example of a transition from an oil dependent economy towards the use of renewable energy sources, consolidating a new model of climate resilient development in the country.

The Initiative stipulated that money accrued in the trust fund would be reinvested in a new energy matrix for the country, financing renewable energy projects (hydro, geothermal, solar, wind, and biomass). The Revenue Fund window would be replenished by investment revenue and interest from the Capital Fund would finance activities in conservation, reforestation, energy efficiency, agro-forest management, social programmes, and research.

By steering the economy away from fossil fuel dependency through the reinvestment of the generated funds in alternative energy production and forest protection, the total reduction of greenhouse (GHG) emissions achieved by the Initiative must also include a decrease in emissions from future renewable energy production and the preservation of carbon stocks in forested areas.

4. Action on global climate change and an example of an alternative sustainable development model.

The Amazon accounts for one tenth of the total carbon stored in land eco-systems, thus preserving the remaining Amazon Rainforest (the ‘lungs’ of the Earth) is an imperative if we are to pull the reins on CO2 production and GHG emissions. Regarding global climate change, the guarantee of not emitting is clearly preferable over the trading of emissions reductions, as it is not an offset or a reduction in emissions, but an abatement of future emissions.

It also bypasses the inefficiencies in the International Climate Change Regime – where we have seen decades of climate change negotiations via the UNFCCC process (i.e: carbon trading) achieve very little in actual global C02 emissions reduction. Rather than trading emissions permits – protecting the area from any oil development and thus preventing CO2 emissions is an optimum solution. The Initiative circumvents the issues associated with REDD+ programmes (Reducing Emissions from Deforestation and Forest Degradation) by highlighting that the best option for action on climate change is simply to leave forests well alone. In doing so, it recognises that forests support interconnected ecosystems and host a diversity of species and humans that have been able to manage forests and livelihoods in a mutually enhancing sustainable way for millennia. In this sense, the project would be supporting one of the most effective ways of stabilising the climate – that is, to protect these highly biodiverse areas indefinitely, allowing for the most effective GHG mitigation strategy: keeping the oil in the soil and leaving these eco-systems untouched to naturally store and process CO2.

A new economic model for transition

Additionally, the Initiative can serve as an example of a development model that can be replicated in other areas of the world, as explored in the recent EJOLT publication: Towards a Post-Oil Civilization: Yasunisation and other initiatives to leave fossil fuels in the soil. The report calls for collective international action and co-responsibility for stewardship over the shared global commons. Viable places for the ‘Yasunisation’ of resource rich economies include Nigeria, Colombia, Bolivia, Madagascar, Ghana, South Africa, Europe, Canada and New Zealand. The extractive industries that could be Yasunised include coal mining, and extreme energies such as fracking and tar sands extraction. This would maintain unburnable carbon underground – keeping the “oil in the soil, tar sands in the land, coal in the hole, gas under the grass”.

Blaming the International Community

President Correa stated on Thursday that, “The world has failed us”, he blamed “the great hypocrisy” of nations who emit most of the world’s greenhouse gases: “…it was not charity that we sought from the international community, but co-responsibility in the face of climate change”.

Can the failure of the Initiative be laid at the feet of a non-responsive international community? Yes, in part. We live on a shared planet and our failure to protect one critical region will affect us all. Yet the reasons for the foundering of the Initiative are as complex as the problem of climate change action itself – contributing factors have been: the budgetary austerity adopted by governments post-2008 after the global financial crisis, the unwillingness of governments to participate without the exchange of tradable carbon credits, and a concern that it fell outside existing market based schemes for emissions reductions. Equally problematic was the nature in which Correa had touted the Initiative on the international stage – it has not been backed by environmental NGOs as supportively as one might expect. This has been due, in part, to an uneasiness expressed by some critics that the Yasuní-ITT proposal is ‘ecological blackmail’, amounting to ‘environmental extortion’ – holding Indigenous groups and the world to ransom. A theatrical bargaining was played out in the numerous deadlines Correa set for the money to be raised by, as well as the ever-looming threat of reverting to a “Plan B” to commence drilling if donations were not forthcoming: ‘cough up or the Amazon gets it’. However, it is the contradictions of the Initiative in the context of Ecuador’s national oil and mining expansion that stand out as the most striking of the challenges of the Initiative.

Ecuador’s neo-extractivism – Correa, the ‘people’s capitalist’

The Yasuní-ITT Initiative appears tokenistic when positioned against the wider extractive policies of Correa’s government. Funding president Correa’s ambitious initiatives and programmes as part of Ecuador’s ‘citizen’s revolution of 21st century socialism’ relies on wealth generation from Ecuador’s oil, gold, silver, and copper mining reserves. His policies regarding mining, oil and gas expansion hugely contradict not only his own statements on Indigenous rights and the environment but also question the strength of his backing of the Yasuní-ITT Initiative. Oil exploration is growing apace across the Ecuadorian Amazon. In adjacent oil blocks south of the park, 13 new oil concessions – some 6 million acres – are currently being tendered by the government in the most recent oil bidding round. Oil exploitation is already happening elsewhere within the Yasuní Park, and cynically, in anticipation of the collapse of the Initiative, preparations have been in place for some time to exploit the ITT block. This has undermined the project both ideologically and practically. It is a contradiction that sees conflicting economic and environmental models of development existing side-by-side, literally, in the Yasuní National Park. All this makes a mockery of the revolutionary inclusion of the Rights of Nature in the Ecuadorian constitution.

There is no such thing as environmentally friendly oil drilling.

Correa aimed to counter criticisms from environmental groups last week by claiming that oil drilling will be carried out with the best technology available to minimize the environmental impact, and presidential spokesman Fernando Alvarado declared on Twitter also last week that exploration will be carried out safely: “Yes we can intervene with environmental responsibility”.

Picture: Luke Weiss

Picture: Luke Weiss

This is one of the biggest fallacies used by governments when soliciting support for extractive developments. It is simply not true, the devastation of vast swathes of the Amazon by oil extraction is testament to this. Kelly Swing, founding director of the Tiputini Biodiversity Station on the edge of the Yasuní asserts that oil development has far greater consequences for species-rich places like Yasuní, starting with countless millions of insects, many unknown to science, scorched each night by gas flaring. In forests impacted by oil development, up to 90 percent of the species around denuded sites die, he says.

I heard first hand the real impacts of oil exploration in the Ecuadorian Amazon on Indigenous communities and ecosystems when I was working with the Native Spirit Foundation. During the 2011 annual Native Spirit Festival, we were privileged to be joined by respected Elder and Secoya Shaman, Delfin Payaguaje, the son of Fernando Payaguaje, one of the greatest spiritual masters of the Secoya. The Secoya people (also known as Angotero, Encabellao) are an Indigenous ethnic group living in the Amazon, just north of the Yasuní. This is where Chevron dumped toxic wastewater, spilled around 17 million gallons of crude oil, and left hazardous waste in hundreds of open pits dug out of the forest floor. In my naivety, I was excited to hear Don Delfin’s thoughts on the Yasuní-ITT Initiative, yet the reality was that his community were ­– of course – much more concerned with more immediate issues, including directly dealing with oil and logging exploration and territorial disputes with other communities and the government. Don Delfin is a commanding yet incredibly humble and kind man, who openly shared his encyclopaedic knowledge of the rainforest – he is able to identify over 1,000 plants and their use, including insects, birds, mammals and other mythological beings that you can’t see.

Delfin Payaguaje and Luke Weiss at the 2011 Native Spirit Festival

Delfin Payaguaje and Luke Weiss at the 2011 Native Spirit Festival

However, it was heartbreaking when he shared with us the impacts of oil pollution on his community – his son died of stomach cancer and five people in his small community have died of cancers and brain tumours. Don Delfin’s deep knowledge and wisdom as a Shaman and healer has been acquired over many decades, and through the generations – yet he does not know how to heal the new diseases affecting his community because his grandfather never taught him about these. They simply did not exist before oil exploitation in the area. Equally harrowing was when he explained that one of the most dangerous impacts of oil exploitation was the building of roads which accompany the projects – his grand daughters and grand nieces had been run over by trucks. Delfin was deeply saddened by the fact that where there are roads, no forest will ever grow again.

The consequences of roads creeping deeper into the Amazon is starkly illuminated in this time-lapse satellite video. Bruce Pengra of the UNEP GRID Sioux Falls, shows how they bring people, development and deforestation. Though this is footage is of the Brazilian Amazon and mostly shows deforestation for agriculture, it is a clear to see the ‘fishbone effect’ and the mass deforestation that the construction of roads causes.

What next for the Yasuní-ITT Initiative?

Recent polls show that 90% of Ecuadorians support the Yasuní-ITT Initiative. In response to Thursday’s decision to terminate the Initiative, hundreds of Ecuadorians have taken to the streets to protest and are calling for a national referendum to reverse the decision.

A coalition of environmental and Indigenous groups is vowing to keep the government and oil companies out of the ITT block. Humberto Cholango, president of CONAIE (Confederation of Indigenous Nationalities of Ecuador) said that they would do “whatever is necessary” to block oil exploration in the area.

In a press conference last week Indigenous groups represented by CONAIE, ECUARUNARI (Confederation of Peoples of Kichwa Nationality) and Pachakutik (Plurinational Unity Movement), announced that there will be mass mobilisations on August the 27th. It will be the beginning of national protest on behalf of the poorest and most marginalised of the country, and against oil extraction in the ITT block as well as the criminalisation of protest.

 Sign the Avaaz petition: Salvemos el Yasuní

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Amy Woodrow Arai

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Since graduating with a degree in politics and development, Amy has been working on issues concerned with Indigenous rights, biodiversity protection, alternative economics and action on global climate change. She worked with the Native Spirit Foundation, which provides a platform for dialogue between the Indigenous world and modern societies, coordinating an annual film festival and workshops, screenings and events through the year. She also worked at the Gaia Foundation, working with communities to revive Indigenous knowledge to secure land, seed, food and water sovereignty and to protect Sacred Natural Sites. She worked specifically on highlighting the devastating impact of the global extractive industries and supporting communities to strengthen resistance to mining in their territories. Concerning the challenges that face humanity today, she believes that there is much to learn (and re-learn) from Indigenous cultures and traditional knowledge. She is also excited by the many possibilities and social movements presenting alternatives to our unsustainable global economy.

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  1. […] I have been following the Yasuni-ITT Initiative since I first heard about it in 2007 and was devastated to hear the announcement of its annulment in August last year – see here for my response then, and more detailed information about the Initiative: Yasuní-ITT Initiative to be scrapped. […]

  2. […] I have been following the Yasuni-ITT Initiative since I first heard about it in 2007 and was devastated to hear the announcement of its annulment in August last year – see here for my response then, and more detailed information about the Initiative: Yasuní-ITT Initiative to be scrapped. […]

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