In 2007, Ecuador pledged to refrain from oil drilling in the Amazon’s Yasuni National Park in exchange for financial compensation from several foreign governments. The so-called Yasuni-ITT initiative, named for the park’s Ishpingo, Tambococha and Tiputini oil fields, which together contain some 846 million barrels of heavy crude, sought to reduce carbon dioxide emissions, prevent deforestation and protect one of the world’s most biodiverse areas. To offset the renounced revenue, then estimated at over $7 billion, Ecuador requested $3.6 billion to be paid over a period of 13 years by some of the world’s richest nations. It was the first time a country had proposed keeping such a large reserve permanently in the ground.
The initiative, managed through a trust fund administered by the United Nations Development Program, was popular in Ecuador. But in 2013, with only $13 million in cash raised, President Rafael Correa pulled the plug. Last month, the same week Mr. Correa condemned Chevron for its toxic legacy in Ecuador’s northern Amazon, the Environment Ministry approved plans for drilling in Yasuni by Petroamazonas, a subsidiary of state-run Petroecuador. The first crude could flow by early 2016.
The green light to drill in one of the world’s most biologically significant areas will come at an incalculable cost to Yasuni’s biodiversity and harm the indigenous groups that live in the park. The International Energy Agency says no more than a third of the world’s proven fossil fuel reserves can be consumed before 2050 if we are to prevent catastrophic climate change. Keeping Yasuni crude in the ground would prevent the emission of 400 million metric tons of heat-trapping CO2, and preserve CO2-absorbing forest cover.
Yasuni was designated as a world biosphere reserve by Unesco in 1989. Scientists in 2010 counted 2,700 plant species, and more tree species than are native to all of North America. Yasuni has a record 271 amphibian and reptile species, a projected 100,000 insect species, and one of the world’s largest concentrations of jaguars.
Yasuni is also home to two nomadic clans of the Waorani indigenous people, the Tagaeri and Taromenane, which are among the last groups in the world living in voluntary isolation. In 1972, when Texaco (later purchased by Chevron) began exporting Ecuadorian oil, a ceremonial barrel was blessed by the Roman Catholic Archdiocese and people touched it for luck during a celebration in the streets of Quito. Since then, a host of foreign and state-run companies have encroached upon the lands just north of Yasuni. Increased rates of cancer, respiratory and skin ailments and miscarriages have been documented there.
Last year, members of the Taromenane clan killed two Waorani elders whom they erroneously blamed for the felling of trees and the construction of an oil platform near Yasuni; in revenge, some 20 Taromenane were killed. In an official communiqué, the Waorani concluded that if the encroachment by oil companies did not exist, “these violent encounters would be reduced.”
Two-thirds of Ecuador’s Amazon is currently zoned for oil concessions, but there has yet to be an example of responsible drilling there. Petroecuador has caused hundreds of spills since 1992, when it inherited Chevron’s vast network of rusty pipelines. Its drilling-related activities are similarly destructive: Satellite photos published last year point to the illegal construction by Petroamazonas of an access road in an area adjacent to the ITT fields.
Today oil accounts for half of Ecuador’s export earnings, and the country is caught in a cycle of dependence. The government now claims that ITT revenue is needed to lift Ecuador out of poverty: “We’re going to use oil to get off oil,” Mr. Correa said last year, apparently without irony. But other options are available. Quito provides over $3 billion annually in subsidies for gasoline, diesel and cooking fuel; decreasing these payments could generate enough funds to revive the Yasuni-ITT initiative. Ecuador’s 110 largest companies are taxed at 2.9 percent; raising this rate by just 1.5 percent would yield at least $20 billion.
Responding to protests following the reversal of Yasuni-ITT, Mr. Correa promised a referendum if petition signatures equaling 5 percent of the electorate could be obtained; in April, an advocacy group called Yasunidos delivered almost 200,000 more than needed. Last month, the National Election Committee invalidated thousands of signatures, and no vote was held. Alleging fraud, Yasunidos has appealed the decision.
Though the government should be held to account, the stillbirth of Yasuni-ITT is a shared failure. Mr. Correa promises to transition from fossil fuels — after the oil is gone. But that may be too late for an area as ecologically fragile and culturally sensitive as Yasuni.
Kevin M. Koenig is Ecuador program director at Amazon Watch.