Saturday, August 24, 2013

Yasuni National Park Setback to Environment

Ecuadorean president Rafael Correa ended the Yasuni Ishpingo-Tiputini-Tambococha (Yasuni-ITT) initiative, a pioneering conservation plan to protect the Yasuni National Park in the Ecuadorean Amazons. His executive order on August 15 ended the plan which had been active for six years.

The Yasuni National Park in Eastern Ecuador covers an area of 9800 square kilometers. It is one of the world’s richest areas in biodiversity. It is home to many amphibians, reptiles and other flora and fauna. It is also home to the Ishpingo-Tiputini-Tambococha (ITT) oil fields which are estimated to have 800 million barrels of crude oil, one fifths of the total estimated reserves in Ecuador.

Location of the Yasuni National Park (Wikimedia Commons)
The Yasuni-ITT initiative was designed by the then Energy minister Alberto Acosta and was inaugurated in June 2007. Ecuador intended to leave the park undisturbed in exchange for compensation from the international community. In addition to the preservation of the park, it was estimated that the initiative would prevent 400 million metric tons of carbon dioxide from entering the atmosphere. The government hoped to generate funds of at least 50% of the profits that it would receive were it to utilize the oil reserves. In total it hoped that $3.6 billion would be raised over 12 years.

However, the Ecuadorean president was disappointed at the response. While some private contributors including former U.S. vice president Al Gore donated funds, it had little support from governments. Therefore, Correa lamented that "the world has failed us." Furthermore, he called the world's richest countries hypocrites who emit most of the world's greenhouse gases while expecting nations like his to sacrifice economic progress for the environment. "It was not charity that we sought from the international community, but co-responsibility in the face of climate change," Correa also said. Through his executive order, he liquidated the Yasuni-ITT trust fund formally ending the initiative. Correa added that only $336 million had been pledged, and of that only $13.3 million had actually been delivered.

Although it was hailed as an idealistic project, the Yamani-ITT initiative had several problems. Critics accused Correa of environmental extortion. Others were skeptical about what would happen to donations if the program collapsed.

The president assured that the oil drilling would affect only one percent of the area of the park, which may not reassure anyone. Some argue that building roads and other constructions in the area will inevitably lead to a much bigger environmental damage. However, whether Correa’s assessment is correct or not is immaterial. The fact that a popular leftist president chose development over environment has far reaching implications.

Under Rafael Correa, Ecuador was known for her progressive environmentalist measures. It is the first country which recognized the rights of nature by its constitution. However, some of his former allies predicted the coming change in Correa’s policies. Acosta, who was the architect of the Yamani-ITT initiative and was also instrumental in drafting the 2008 constitution, ran against him in the presidential election last February. Acosta lamented that Correa was almost his brother but had later deviated from the basic principles of revolution. He predicted that Correa was going to scrap the Yasuni-ITT initiative. “The infrastructure is already in place to exploit the oil," Acosta warned during the election campaign. "Correa takes credit for the ITT initiative outside of Ecuador. But in reality he doesn't feel comfortable with it. He's preparing to blame rich nations for not giving enough to make it work."

More than half of Ecuador’s current crude oil output is exported to the United States despite the political differences between the two countries. Meanwhile, Ecuador has also been a key recipient of Chinese investment and aid. China, an energy hungry giant, is seeking other sources of energy because of the volatile political situation in Western Asia. Therefore, China may have had a big hand in forcing Rafael Correa to backtrack on Yasuni.

After his presidential election victory in February, where he received 57 percent of the vote and after the death of Hugo Chavez a few days later, Rafael Correa was mentioned as a possible leader of the Latin American left. However his latest move has damaged his credibility as a populist leader considerably. Around 80 percent Ecuadorians oppose drilling in Yasuni National Park despite their president’s decision.

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