An Innovative Idea Scrapped as Ecuador Opens Up a World Treasure to Oil Exploration

In 2007, Ecuador’s President Rafael Correa put forth a unique, and arguably generous, proposal that would benefit the entire planet.

Because the nation, in harboring part of the Amazon Rainforest, contains some of the richest biodiversity on earth – so rich it is not just Ecuador’s great treasure, but one of the great treasures of the world – then the international community ought to take part in its preservation. Particularly since Ecuador’s portion of Amazon also happens to rest on top of crude oil estimated to be worth billions of dollars.

Creative Thinking isn’t Enough to Save a Biodiverse Treasure

Now the plans to preserve this special Amazon treasure, the Yasuní-ITT that is also home to indigenous nations that have lived there for generations, have been scrapped, and a portion of area will be opened up for oil exploration.

The Yasuní-ITT lies north of the area where Ecuador is currently auctioning off 14 to 16 blocks of rainforest for oil exploration in its XI Oil Round that The Pachamama Alliance has been working diligently with indigenous nations in Ecuador to bring international attention to.

By Correa’s thinking, if the international community wanted the oil underneath Yasuní-ITT to remain in the soil, it needed to help keep it there by offsetting the revenue Ecuador would give up to leave it untapped.

In return, the international community would not only have preserved an area crucial to helping fight climate change and keeping the world’s ecosystems in balance, it would have gotten a 50% discount. The Yasuní-ITT is believed to sit on top of an estimated US $7 billion in crude, and Correa asked the governments and carbon markets for just half that amount. More, the arrangement allowed for the amount to be paid incrementally to a trust managed by the United Nations Development Programme.

A Good Idea Before its Time Results in an Inept International Response

Correa’s proposal made sense. Other nation’s governments have mined, felled, plucked, and plowed the resource richness that lies within their boundaries (as well as the resources that rest in other nation’s boundaries, if they can) to help meet their country’s myriad needs. Why should Ecuador bear the burden of leaving its resources untouched for the sake of the planet, while others get to plunder what lies within their borders? How is this developing nation supposed to meet the needs of its citizens if it’s not allowed to develop what it has access to?

Correa has stated, “We weren’t asking for charity, we were asking for co-responsibility in the fight against climate change.”

Plans went awry when the international community demonstrated what, at best, could be considered a tepid response, and and worst, a dismissive one. Developed nations, guilty of some of the worst greenhouse gas emission in the world, didn’t pay into the trust at all. Jim Wyss of the Miami Herald America writes, “Since its launch in 2007, only about $336 million has been raised, mostly from European and developing nations. The United States, China and Japan — the world’s three largest gas guzzlers — did not contribute to the project.”

In a nationally televized speech, Correa stated, “The world has failed us,” and spoke of the great hypocrisy of the world’s worst greenhouse gas emitters.

No Matter How You Frame it, Oil Exploration Causes Environmental Destruction

As it stands, Correa’s new plan is to open up three blocks of the Yasuní-ITT, the Ishpingo-Tambococha-Tiputini (ITT) field, to oil exploration. This area is said to amount to less than 1% of the Yasuní’s 3,600 square miles.

While some might consider this good news, the international community ought to be concerned, nevertheless.

Studies demonstrate that oil exploration, with its requisite development such as roads, brings with it environmental degradation. And then there is concern that the situation could turn into a “slippery slope.”  Less than 1% of the Yasuní is being opened up now, but this could easily lead to more of the rainforest being opened up later, particularly if the international community continues to turn a deaf ear to Ecuador’s cry that preservation of the Amazon is a responsibility that should be held, not by one nation, but the greater world collective.

Matt Finer, a scientist at the US-based Center for International Environmental Law, states, “It is deeply disappointing that this alternative model for dealing with oil and gas reserves in mega-diverse rainforests did not work. 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.”

A ‘Reverse Progress Narrative’ for Ecuador on Various Fronts

And though Correa has demonstrated desire to keep the Yasuní pristine, the AP in Quito writes, “Despite championing the project, Correa is not perceived domestically as much of an environmentalist. He has also upset indigenous groups with plans to develop mining projects. Indigenous and environmental groups in Ecuador have said that any decision on the fate of Yasuni should be made in a national referendum.”

Correa has also faced enormous criticism for his XI Oil Round that threatens some 8-10 million acres of pristine Amazon rainforest south of Yasuní that is home to several indigenous nations, and for recently implementing policies restricting freedom of the press, and allowing for greater government jurisdiction over non-governmental organizations.

Learn more about the biodiversity of the Yasuní