Yasuní ITT? Get real, Ecuador

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.



  1. This article misses the point. The simplest way to get a hold of what is really going on is to answer the question: why do we need $100 million – or in fact $3.6 billion – to NOT do anything?

    That money is necessary, and appropriate, because although there is a huge intrinsic value in land as biologically rich as Yasuni, there is zero possibility of this value being weighed favourably against ways of extracting economic wealth from that land. The principal way in which wealth is guaranteed to be extracted from the Yasuni province, absent any intervention such as the one established by Correa, is — of course — drilling for oil.

    The damage this will cause to flora and fauna (more tree species, so they say, than across the whole North American continent) will be irreparable; as will the damage to the Wuorani and others who live there. And to top it off, the production and use of this petroleum will help aggravate the current problems of climate change, which has a direct impact on countries the world over.

    So it is abundantly clear that the benefits of keeping the oil locked away are relevant far outside of Ecuador’s borders.

    You say that ‘it’s our land, our treasure, and our responsibility.’ which is a noble sentiment, except that it is not backed up by anything more than sentimentality. Whomsoever you trust to keep their promises about protecting the Yasuni today, you cannot trust tomorrow, unless you know that there is something at stake.

    This is precisely what the initiative aims at: Future governments will be beholden to maintain the moratorium on drilling, less they forfeit the sponsorhip given to the project.

    If you think about it: we do precisely the same kind of thing in our own lives: we say things like, “I’ll only eat this chocolate cake if I go for a run later” around people who will remind us that we are breaking our promise if we fail to honour our word. Or think of Theseus, who made his men tie him to the ship’s mast as they sailed by the island of the Sirens, because he knew in advance that he would be tempted to steer the ship to them.

    The most vital aspect of the initiative is an attempt to tie future Ecuadorian governments to the mast. You might have some quibbles about the details of its execution, but you should see the value in the thrust of what it proposes. If you care about your country, and the treasures it contains, you should seriously rethink your position on the ITT.

    • Thank you for your comment. I’m afraid we’re going to have to agree to disagree. When I want to lose weight, I don’t eat chocolate and then go for a run, and certainly don’t expect the person sitting next to me to be in charge of giving me a guilt trip if I skip out on the run and indulge on the chocolate. If I want to loose weight, I simply stay away from chocolate.
      In the same way, if the Ecuadorian government doesn’t want to destroy Yasuní, they can simply keep their dirty hands off it. And what are other countries going to do if we drill a few years after the agreement? Make us pay loads of money? Oh, you mean like the external debt that Ecuador owes to the IMF and that Correa has publicly refused to pay? The sad truth is that the Ecuadorian government is campaigning for the initiative while at the same time getting ready to drill. The issue is money, the game is politics, and the lure is Yasuní Park.

      • Thought-provoking stuff. I can’t say I have the answer, but the fundamental point for me is that to discard the ITT initiative, without substituting it with any other policy, will guarantee that the oil will be drilled.

        It is to allow environmental sadism to be inflicted on a country that has already seen some of the worst devastation from on-land oil spillages, thanks to Chevron-Texaco, Petro-Ecuador, and the OCP: the same actors who would (among others) no doubt benefit from opening up the Yasuni for drilling.

        So back to why I agree with the proposal. At the risk of repetition, Odysseus (not Theseus, in fact) knew that the Sirens would certainly cause him to lose all restraint and dash the ship against the rocks of their island. So, he plugged his men’s ears with beeswax so that they would be deaf to the Siren’s dulcet tunes, made them tie him to the mast and told them to keep him there.

        There’s no way Odysseus could have willed to keep his dirty hands off their lithe, overpoweringly tempting, bodies by sheer force of self-discipline. I don’t think there’s any more chance of asking a government to resist the call of money or credibility over the long term, given the kinds of pressures that are brought to bear in these cases.

        So common is the Odysseus-type strategy for forcing yourself to avoid doing something bad that part of you really wants to do that there are websites like stickk.com.

        People will pay money and agree that if they fail to live up to their commitments, they forfeit that money to a charity that they hate (an ‘anti-charity’).

        On a smaller scale, I’ve just put a packet of crisps on the other side of my desk at work so that if I want more crisps, I will have have to make an effort. Of course I can’t speak for you, but if you say that you can’t relate to any of these ‘self-limiting’ kinds of behaviours, then all I can say is that you must be made of stronger stuff that the rest of us!

        That might have been a bit rambling, but you see the point: the Ecuadorian government will need some kind of ‘self-limiting’ restrainer in order to prevent opening up the Yasuni and protect the province over the long term. A penalty of having to pay back the money in addition to public anger might do that job quite well (bear in mind that a majority of Ecuadorians are supportive of the ITT), whereas I doubt that the latter alone would be sufficient.

        You raise some doubts over whether the government would in fact honour any such agreement, citing “the external debt that Ecuador owes to the IMF and that Correa has publicly refused to pay”. The concept of odious debt, that is, debt incurred by governments via corruption that was of no benefit to the citizenry, is valid under international law. The question is whether it was applied correctly in this instance. Some sources suggest maybe not (papers.ssrn.com/sol3/papers.cfm?abstract_id=1560722) but I would need to know more about the circumstances. Clearly, the markets have accepted the default enough for Ecuador’s credit rating to have remained where it was since the default.

        In any case, the funding given to the ITT would be indisputably bona fide and I do not think there is any chance of future Ecuadorian governments shirking their responsabilities (at least their financial ones) unless they want to face international isolation.

        So while I think you are correct to be sceptical of the government’s agenda, you should bear in mind the alternative: doing nothing but wait for irreplaceable rainforest to be lit up by flares, people’s homeland to be wreaked under their feet, and the global climate to edge towards tipping point. It would be a shame if your misgivings about president Correa stopped you from caring about how to avoid that bleak outcome.

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