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Paying Ecuador to save Yasuni was an idea ahead of its time

Yasuni’s frogs are unimpressed with your lack of conviction. Geoff Gallice

When the Ecuadorian Congress this month voted overwhelmingly to allow drilling for oil underneath the Yasuni National Park, it signalled the failure of a novel conservation proposal unlike any the world had seen before.

Launched in 2007 the Yasuni-ITT initiative was a bold proposal that asked the international community to pay Ecuador US$3.6 billion over a 13 year period to compensate for leaving around 860m barrels of oil in the Ishpingo-Tambococha-Tiputini (or ITT) oil field where it lies, beneath the national park.

Declared an ecological reserve by UNESCO in 1989, Yasuni, in the eastern Amazon, is the most biodiverse region in the Western hemisphere. It is home to more native tree species in one hectare than are present in all of North America. Significantly for indigenous rights activists, within Yasuni’s nearly one million hectares lie the ancestral homelands of many indigenous communities, two of which live in voluntary isolation.

The rationale behind the initiative was that leaving the oil underground would prevent the emission of a billion tonnes of carbon dioxide, a benefit to the planet as a whole. In exchange, the developed world’s payments into a UNDP-monitored trust fund would provide finance for much-needed social and environmental programmes.

In August, Ecuador’s president Rafael Correa decided it was time to drill, an announcement deemed inevitable by those who’d watched the progress of Chinese company PetroOriental as it built, from as early as last year, an extraction corridor to service the site. The Ecuadorian administration was adamant from the start that drilling would go ahead if the international community did not pay sufficient funds. Despite generous pledges from Germany, Belgium, Spain and Italy, the fund was hundreds of millions of dollars short of the 2012 target of US$291 million. A typically fiery Correa announced: “We have no choice but to drill. The world powers’ hypocritical capitalism has not assumed responsibility.”

Some observers have argued that the initiative collapsed because the government invoked the possibility of drilling frequently enough to lead investors to either doubt its commitment to conservation, or to feel unnecessarily blackmailed.

Others have argued it was doomed from the start with Ecuador’s hands essentially tied by its reliance on Chinese investment. Throughout the region, China has rapidly replaced the IMF as the major loan provider. Governments are increasingly accused of docility in the face of Chinese investors - many Ecuadorians believe the oil had been sold long before the initiative’s end.

In truth, it was highly unlikely to succeed. Ecuador is at the forefront of a global movement that recognises the inherent rights of ecosystems (in 2008 it became the first country in the world to grant constitutional rights to nature). But the Yasuni-ITT proposal sat uneasily between rights-based and market-based approaches to conservation. The two are not necessarily mutually exclusive, but this ambiguity left the government committed to the contradictory position that Yasuni’s natural rights (as constitutionally enshrined) would be violated if they were not adequately paid for, or indeed whenever they stood in the way of “the national interest”.

Despite statements at Rio+20 and elsewhere that the initiative would protect the rights of nature, the drilling is going ahead on the grounds that the developed world has failed to pay what it owes for the protection of those rights.

It is true that, as Correa said, the west has failed and continues to fail in their “climate debt” to Ecuador, and to the developing world more broadly. The west has yet to recognise their “common but differentiated responsibilities” for climate change. Equally, as a global community we have only just begun to think creatively about how legal instruments can protect environmental rights, how economic mechanisms can ensure robust valuations of ecosystem services, and how these can work together.

Perhaps the most important lesson from Yasuni is that the really difficult work of building a post-petroleum economy involves imagining how broadly, under what conditions, in which forums, and at what scales citizens should try to redefine their national interest. As Ecuador’s opposition movement has pointed out, in a citizen’s revolution surely it is all of Ecuador who should decide whether drilling is or is not in the national interest. It is toward this end that the growing movement known as Yasunidos has begun the work of collecting the required 680,000 signatures (5% of the national electorate) that would allow them to hold a public referendum on the matter.

Recall that Yasuni’s biodiversity is a direct result of the region’s unique climatic stability over many millions of years. Even by optimistic predictions, the oil drilled for beneath it will run out in just 13 years. Given that comparison, who gets to determine what is in the national interest, and over what time scales?

The Yasuni-ITT initiative was simply an idea ahead of its time, one that has demonstrated – yet again – the developed world’s lack of commitment to addressing climate change. Nevertheless, the discussion of democratic decision-making around non-negotiable rights and ecosystem services it has provoked is one that may prove of global significance in the years to come.

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