The first time I heard about the Yasuní ITT initiative was from President Rafael Correa’s own lips. He was standing at a podium in Chatham House in London, and all I could think as he clicked through a Power Point Presentation on the beauty and biodiversity of Yasuní National Park, was how much he seemed like a salesman more than a president of a country. His pitch was – and still is – basically this: give my government US$3.6 billion and we won’t destroy one of the world’s most biodiverse areas to extract the vasts reserves of oil that sit underneath.
Now, perhaps this is an exaggeration, but that to me seems like extortion. What our dear President is proposing is to get compensation to not destroy his own homeland. And who should protect Ecuador if not Ecuadorians? And why should other countries be made to feel guilty for not stepping in and saving us from…ourselves?
The Yasuní ITT initiative is, above all, an easy sell. All Correa had to do was list some of the numbers: one hectare of land in Yasuní contains approximately 644 species of trees. There are 105 amphibian, 83 reptile, 382 freshwater fish and over 100,000 insect species per hectare. As if this wasn’t enough, the paradise land on the eastern Ecuadorian territory is also home to native tribes that have, so far, managed to live free of contact with the rest of the world. They would like to keep it that way, and if the rest of us have a shred of dignity, surely we can grant them their wish and satisfy our oil addiction elsewhere. Are you sold yet?
The perfect opportunity to fund raise for the conservation of our planet is at the brink of a climate change meeting. Mr Correa was touring Europe in 2009 right before the Copenhagen Summit, and his proposal, though tempting as a conscience-reliever, was ultimately as successful as the Summit itself – that is to say, a big, fat bluff. A Wikileaks document written by the US Embassy in Quito, confirmed the Yasuní ITT initiative was not as welcomed as the Ecuadorian government claimed.
There are two outstanding points in this memo. The first is about Germany’s support, which despite Ecuador’s touting as a most generous contribution of $50 million over 13 years, was in fact only a $300,000 feasibility study allowance. It has taken Germany two years to make up its mind about whether to support the initiative, and recently its Minister of Development, Dirk Niebel, announced they would not be giving any money to a government that represses press freedom. Fair enough, Correa has done all in his power to diminish and intimidate the national press. But that is a whole other story, and though it is highly convenient for Germany to use that as an excuse to pull out its support, the not-so diplomatic reason is about trusting Correa’s government to keep its promise of not drilling in Yasuní.
Which, brings us to the second outstanding point stated in the US Embassy memo:
Ecuador is known as a "serial defaulter" on international obligations, and the Yasuni-ITT initiative appears to suffer from the lack of trust that foreign governments have in the Correa administration and future Ecuadorean governments' ability or willingness to comply with their commitments.
From the time this comment was written in 2009, the lack of trust in Correa’s government has done nothing but grow. Perhaps that’s why this year Mr Correa and his touring cabinet are having difficulty reaching their sales goal, $100 million. The Ecuadorian government announced it would need $100 million by the end of this year in order to keep the so-called plan B – the exploitation of oil in the park – from kicking off. The governments of Chile, Colombia, Peru, Spain, Italy – which was bluntly criticized by Germany for not worrying first about its own chaotic economic situation – and a few private donations have brought the balance up to about $70 million. That leaves $30 million to be raised in a month.
Vice President Lenin Moreno, a strong supporter of the initiative and native of this sacred territory in Ecuador, said today from Vienna, Austria, that his government could wait a bit longer for the pledges to come through in order to preserve Yasuní, but that really, developed countries should not take their time in giving support, “after all, it wasn’t us who created this problem,” Moreno told EFE.
Mr Moreno was of course referring to carbon emissions, for which developed countries are popularly to blame. But the ‘problem’ in Yasuní is at the moment non-existent, and if there were to be a problem there, it would be entirely the blame of the Ecuadorian government. Furthermore, in order to prevent this problem from occurring, all we need is to keep our dirty hands off the land. In other words, inaction. So, here is a common-sense question: why do we need $100 million – or in fact $3.6 billion – to NOT do anything?
Recently the Ecuadorian Minister of Foreign Affairs, Ricardo Patiño, made a tour around Europe to ask for support of Yasuní ITT. In Berlin he said this initiative was a “favor to humanity and not to Ecuador”. Ecuador, he continued, is not asking for charity, it is offering the world the opportunity to protect biodiversity. With all do respect, Mr Patiño, WTF? I concur that Ecuador is not asking for charity, because $3.6 billion is not pocket change, but what we – and I’m ashamed to have to say we – are offering to the world is the opportunity to pay us blackmail money to keep us from shooting ourselves in the foot. How freaking honorable.
In view of the possible “shortage” of money, the government has said they will return contributions larger than $50,000 if they cannot collect the total $100 million and resort to plan B. And just for efficiency’s sake, government officials have already approved permits that will allow drilling in protected areas of Yasuní by 2013. For all the effort in launching, promoting, informing, and discussing this initiative, it seems Correa’s government was always going to keep plan B on table.
Back in 2009 the representatives of the US Embassy who wrote that memo asked Christopher Poole, First Secretary at the UK Embassy, what he thought of Yasuní ITT. He speculated, says the memo, that Correa would give up on asking for money and begin preparations to exploit the oil of the park. An accurate speculation, sadly.
Today the Climate Change Conference 2011 kicked off in Durban. If I could ask anything out of this summit, it would not be for Correa to get $30 million. I don’t believe in blackmail. I would ask for the world to slap Ecuador upside the head and tell us to get real: it’s our land, our treasure, and our responsibility.