in Ecuador

Ecuador plans to drill for oil in the Yasuní National Park

Ecuador has abandoned its plans to leave the oil where it belongs under the Yasuní National Park. Ecuador was asking for US$3.6 billion, or half the market value of the 850 million barrels of oil in the Ishpingo-Tambococha-Tiputini (ITT) oil field below Yasuní. Last week, Ecuador’s president Rafael Correa cancelled the plan and announced that “The world has failed us.”

Announcing his decision on TV, President Correa said, “With great sadness, but absolute responsibility to our people and our history, I had to take one of the most difficult decisions of my administration.”

The Yasuní plan was one of the few anywhere in the world to propose leaving fossil fuels underground. It would have protected 175,000 hectares of some of the world’s most biodiverse rainforest. The forest is home to two uncontacted indigenous groups, the Tagaeri and the Taromenane. Drilling for oil in the Yasuní National Park would be an environmental and social disaster.

Below are several responses to Correa’s decision, from Joan Martinez Alier (Professor of Economics and Economic History and researcher at the Autonomous University of Barcelona), Nnimmo Bassey (Health of Mother Earth Foundation), Patrick Bond (Professor at the University of KwaZulu-Natal) and Pablo Solon (Focus on the Global South). (These reactions were discussion on the Climate Justice Now! e-list and posted here and here.)

There have been several criticisms of the Yasuní Initiative, in particular that it amounted to environmental blackmail, of the “you pay or we drill” variety. Yasuní was discussed on German TV station Deutsche Welle last week in a talk show featuring Jorge Jurado, Ecuador’s Ambassador to Germany. The presenter, Brent Goff asked Jurado whether the Yasuni initiative was no more than environmental blackmail. To which Jurado replied,

“We were very transparent in this situation. In 2007, when we were announcing the world of this initiative, at the same time President Correa told the world, say, ‘If there is some problems for that, that initiative doesn’t go very well, we have to choose another possibility and this will be the drilling of oil’. So there was nothing about under the table. There was a transparency, and we have been waiting and working very hard in the last six years in order to have the financiation and the help from countries, from enterprises, from people and so on.”

In other words, “you pay or we drill”. But Yasuní didn’t have to be this way. For a detailed analysis of the importance of Yasuní, see this report, “Towards a Post-Oil Civilization. Yasunization and other initiatives to leave fossil fuels in the soil”, published earlier this year by environmental justice organisation EJOLT.

Another criticism is that Yasuní makes no sense as a model for keeping fossil fuels underground. There is too much oil below ground. It would simply cost too much. And what happens when Saudi Arabia or the USA starts asking for money to stop drilling? On the other hand, we cannot continue burning fossil fuels if we are going to address runaway climate change.

As Nnimmo Bassey points out in his reaction to President Correa’s decision to drill Yasuní,

[The oil] must be left untapped for the reason of safeguarding the environment of the uncontacted peoples of who live there, to tackle global warming and generally to preserve the rich biodiversity in the area.

During the Deutsche Welle talk show, freelance journalist Nuria Tesón asked Ecuador’s Ambassador Jurado, “What about the tribes who are living there?” Jurado responded:

“Well, that’s not correct, because the drilling that now is going to take place is just, will be affecting one thousandth part of the Yasuni. So they are not being affected people who are living there.”

Which really does not bode well for the uncontacted indigenous peoples living in the Yasuní National Park – especially given the record of the oil industry in Ecuador.

The discussion about drilling for oil in the Yasuní National Park is not a new one. A fascinating 1991 article in Multinational Monitor reports on disputes between US-based NGOs and Ecuadorian NGOs. At the time, Natural Resources Defense Council and Cultural Survival had entered into negotiations with Conoco Oil, which at the time was planning drilling operations in Yasuní. An Ecuadorian environmental organisation CORDAVI had attempted to sue the Ministry of Mines and Agriculture for authorising illegal drilling in a National Park. The court reversed the decision, however, and decided to allow drilling. US NGOs decided drilling was inevitable while Ecuadorian and Latin American NGOs campaigned against oil drilling of Yasuní. That’s a position that Campaña Amazonía por la Vida (and others) still hold, as revealed in their letter to the National Assembly of Ecuador just before President Correa’s decision.

Blame President Correa
Joan Martinez Alier, from Quito (Flacso), 16th August 2013
As it was expected since February 2013 when president Correa won again the presidency of Ecuador, and even before given his track record since 2009 of internally boycotting the Yasuni ITT initiative, oil drilling has been announced in the ITT fields (Ishpingo, Tambococha, Tiputini) inside the Yasuni National Park in Ecuador. There is already oil extraction in blocks 16, 31 inside the Park already. The ITT is the last one to fall (depending now on the popular reaction in Ecuador and around the world).
Correa on 15th August blamed the rest of the world for not providing funds amounting to 3.6 billion dollars over 12 years (and therefore about one billion for the first three years) since the Trust Fund under UNDP auspices was formed on 3rd August 2010. True, some foreigners (and particularly minister of cooperation Dirk Niebel from Germany) bear a part of the blame. Norway and its Oil Fund (swimming in oil money) refused to help.
The proposal was for Ecuador to renounce to extraction of about 850 million barrels of oil (about 9 days of world extraction), preserve unparalleled biodiversity, preserve the rights of local indigenous peoples, and avoid carbon emissions of about 410 million tons of CO2. Ecuador asked for about half the forgone revenues of over 7 billion USD at present value. Hence the figure of 3.6 billion USD for outside contribution, under principles of co-responsibility. Up to now, the money collected amounts only to tens of million dollars in actual fact, plus formal promises of about 300 million, which is not bad.
Correa now stated solemnly yesterday in Quito, “we have waited long enough”, “the world has failed us”, we need the oil to fight poverty, no damage will be done to the environment, the oil in ITT is worth nearly 20 billion dollars at present value, and a few other lies. He dismissed art. 71 of the 2008 Constitution of Ecuador giving rights to nature. In fact, Correa has failed the world.
It is well known that the president Correa himself never liked the proposal, that came from environmental groups like Acción Ecológica and others in Ecuador and from Alberto Acosta, when he was minister for energy and mines in 2007. True, Correa has sometimes spoken eloquently in favour of the Yasuni ITT Initiative. But in practice in December 2009 he boycotted the signature of the MoU for the Trust Fund with UNDP, he did not go to the COP in Copenhagen himself where this signature was to take place in front of the world press, he then forced the resignation of the competent Ecuadorian team (Roque Sevilla, Yolanda Kakabadse) and his own minister for foreign relations, ecological economist Fander Falconi. Later, in August 2010, when the Trust Fund was finally set up, he did not appear at the signature of the agreement with UNDP in Quito, he sent his vicepresident.
In the meantime since 2010 feeble attempts have been made by a second rate team in Quito to collect some funds from abroad, while preparations in situ for drilling in Tiputini were increasingly obvious for all to see. Now, the only hope that remains is the reaction from the people of Ecuador. The Yasuni ITT has been very popular inside the country. Fander Falconí, who rejoined the government in 2011, has resigned again. It remains to be seen whether there are any other resignations from ministers from Alianza PAIS, Correa’s party.
We know that concentration of CO2 in the world is reaching 401 ppm, that nothing or too little is being done by the world political and economic powers against climate change, that the Amazon is being deforested in all the frontiers in Brazil, Bolivia, Peru, Ecuador, Colombia, Venezuela… The Amazon is one of the worst places in the world to drill for oil. There is danger to the lives of indigenous peoples. The ITT oil is of bad quality, heavy oil, and it will produce terrible pollution locally while, when burnt in the importing countries, it will of course produce CO2.

basseyReaction from Nnimmo Bassey:
The excuse of the president that the world failed Ecuador is weak and lame. He failed the peoples of Ecuador and the world. This act brings to the fore the critical struggle that we must wage around the world to ensure that elected officials do not usurp our sovereignty after being sworn into office. And the protests that greeted the announcement is a sign that the people of Ecuador are clear about the fact that the decision to allow the assault on Yasuni ITT is not with the consent of the people.
Of course the people of Ecuador have not forgotten the tragedy of oil extraction as exemplified by the mess that Texaco (Chevron) left there. How would they forget when Chevron has shrugged off the fines that the court in Ecuador slammed on them for their massive environmental misbehaviour? President Correa is aware of the unwillingness of the oil companies to respect the rights of the peoples and the environment and yet he is set to open up the remaining tracts of the pristine environment in his country.
A basic problem of the Yasuni ITT proposal was that it was hinged on donations of cash in exchange of not extracting the crude. We agree it was the best option for our environmental activist friends to push the idea of leaving the oil in the soil. The climate crisis is intensified by the use of fossil fuels, chief of which is crude oil. A critical step towards fighting global warming requires an urgent transition from dependence on fossil fuels. Rather than take that necessary step, political leaders, oil companies and financial speculators keep pushing for more crude oil fields – whether it is in the Arctic, in fragile ecosystems in Africa or in the Amazon. As oil fields diminish more extreme extraction he race for the bottom of barrel is intensifying and telling capital to respect the environment and the people is like asking Shylock not to demand his pound of flesh.
Oil in Yasuni ITT must be left in the soil, not because monies were not donated in exchange for 50% of the value of the crude, it must be left untapped for the reason of safeguarding the environment of the uncontacted peoples of who live there, to tackle global warming and generally to preserve the rich biodiversity in the area.
Life is more valuable than crude oil. No one can buy the planet and all she has to offer. All who value the planet, no matter where we are located, must defend Yasuni ITT. The Ecuadorian constitution recognizes the right of nature. Let us tell President Correa that opening up Yasuni ITT to the claws of the oil predators is a blatant abuse of nature and her rights.

bondReaction from Patrick Bond:
There are plenty of enemies of the progressive Yasuni initiative.
Everyone has a different political spin on this, but mine is that there should be appropriate “climate debt” payments from excessive greenhouse gas emitters to both

  • those suffering climate loss&damage (“polluters pay” – preferably via an arrangement such as the Basic Income Grant in those geographic areas affected so that the funding doesn’t go to elite politicians, multinational corporations and dubious aid agencies/NGOs as is currently on track in the Green Climate Fund), and

  • Southern countries’ governments and directly-affected peoples (e.g. Niger Delta residents) to “leave the oil under the soil, coal in the hole, tarsand in the land, fracking shale gas under the grass,” etc.

Both those kinds of payments are central to climate justice, in my view, and with a Namibian Basic Income Grant pilot and Yasuni-as-ecodebt-downpayment, it seemed to me that the stage was set for a coming battle on how the promised $100 bn/year for the GCF might be better allocated. The film “The Bill” sets the German challenge nicely:

… please have a look to see how a narrative can emerge that moves from guilt to solidarity.
Now meet the Arschloch – Dirk Niebel, the German minister for cooperation – whose fingerprints are clearest on the Yasuni corpse, for the reason, he insists, that “Germany will not contribute to a fund that is based on the philosophy of ‘payment for non-action’.” Responding to intense pressure to assist in Yasuni, he did trickle down some euro (24 million is nothing to sneeze at), but instead of being part of a project to leave the oil under the soil, he’s only interested in market-oriented projects like REDD.

solonSome thoughts about the Yasuni/ITT
By Pablo Solón
The preservation of nature and the rights of Mother Earth cannot be based on the expectation that the capitalist world will pay for it based on their environmental debt or that the payment will come without conditions and strings attached. Yes, it is the right and just thing to demand as they have historical responsibility and the polluter needs to pay. The reality though is that we will never be able to make the capitalists pay until we defeat and replace the capitalist system. The idea that the “developed” countries and some corporations were going to voluntarily donate money in order to preserve the YasuniTT was a one in a million possibility. There was the off chance that they would do it to greenwash their images but that would have been a one off gimmick. It was always an illusion to think that the proposal of polluters paying for the preservation of YasuniTT would be made the rule in the current capitalist system.
If we are to make polluters pay, we need to change the balance of forces, or else, as with the tragic example of YasuniTT, everything happens only on their terms. The defense and preservation of Nature and its rights needs to be based not on any expectations from the capitalists, but rather it needs to be based on our own commitment and will.
The defense of the rights of nature can be likened to the defense of human rights. You would never imagine someone threatening to bring back slavery if he or she does not get paid. Defending the rights of nature cannot be based on the promise of compensation. Nature, in the first place, is not a bargaining chip. Nature is not only our home, we belong to nature.

14 August 2013
The fate of the Yasuni-ITT initiative supported by 90 per cent of the Ecuadorian population now rests with the National Assembly and what it decides to do or not to do.
The Assembly has already made one decision by omission when it failed to denounce the environmental license granted to PetroAmazonas for Block 31 – even though the license legally requires the Assembly’s authorization. This omission allowed the so-called Yasuni Plan B to advance.
Pursuant to Article 407, and in consideration of the fact that that it has already pronounced on two occasions against the exploitation of oil in ITT (14 March 2008 and 8 December 2009), the National Assembly should now act to protect nature and peoples in voluntary isolation, and if there is any doubt what lies in the national interest, should conduct a referendum on the issue.
The National Assembly has an obligation toward society as a whole and is not an appendage of the executive. It is a forum for public deliberation that must reflect the country’s social and political diversity. If there is any national issue on which political actors and social advocates have expressed clear opinions, it is Yasuni, whose relevance is both domestic and international. Every Ecuadorian, whether living at home or abroad, has felt pride in being part of Yasuni. In different ways, children, youth and adults have all made their views known on more than one occasion.
To exploit oil in Yasuni means renouncing what has been considered the government’s most important single initiative. If the Yasuni initiative failed to generate the expected finance, and no coherent solution emerged other than to resort to Plan B, that is the government’s own fault. None of this can justify the extraction of crude oil from Yasuni National Park.
It is not that the world did not understand the Yasuni initiative. It is rather that the government was an ineffective advocate for it, lacking conviction and unable to provide guarantees.
If the president petitions to exploit oil in Yasuni, it is the Assembly which must apply for a permit and which should, as an act of good faith, arrange for a referendum.
In order for there to be a fully informed consultation, we Ecuadorians need to understand several things:
Who will exploit the Yasuni oil?
Recent events indicate excessive interest on the part of Chinese business in Yasuni’s oil. Chinese business has formulated an exploitation plan. Chinese interests are already present in Block 14, which connects older exploitation zones with ITT; have joined Repsol in a consortium bent on exploitation of Block 16; and are exploring in Block 31
How is damage to the environment and nature to be avoided?
Both transnational and national corporations have a record of doing grave damage to the environment even though both have claimed that they were using clean technology. In the case of Chevron-Texaco alone, more than $19 billion is due in reparations. Who will assume the environmental costs of the exploitation of Yasuni?
Who will defend the country’s interests?
In the Chevron-Texaco case, evidence has been presented that oil companies not only cause environmental and social damage, but also, in order to be able to act with impunity, rely on different ways of attacking, defaming and pressuring the state.
How will the lives of peoples in voluntary isolation be guaranteed?
Noisy and intrusive oil operations, together with the presence of third parties, have already led to violence and death in the territories of peoples in voluntary isolation. The only way of guaranteeing the lives of isolated peoples, in accordance with international regulations, is not to intervene in their territories. These peoples count on special guarantees of protection.
What will happen to the contributions already received under the Yasuni-ITT initiative?
Many people, children included, have made contributions to the cause of the non-exploitation of Yasuni oil. Advertisements have been launched, ethical commitments made, investments put into research, public monies expended … how will these accounts be closed? Who will assume responsibility for satisfying donors that the right thing has been done?
False claims of “responsible exploitation”, “use of the latest technology”, “reliance on horizontal drilling” and “adequate waste management” habitually made by the oil industry are bound to be repeated with regard to Yasuni. But beware of a new fallacy as well: that Yasuni can somehow be conserved in the face of oil exploitation through REDD projects, which are actually unconstitutional.
The only dignified, democratic and just way out is not to exploit ITT, and if there are any doubts, to conduct a national referendum.
Campaña Amazonía por la Vida


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  1. Letter from Oilwatch International to President Correa:

    Oilwatch International

    6 September 2013

    Rafael Correa


    Republic of Ecuador

    Dear Mr. President

    Protect the Planet, Keep oil companies out of Yasuni-ITT

    We are shocked by the announcement you made on 15 August 2013 that you would permit crude oil extraction in the Yasuni-ITT. We strongly believe that the original decision to leave the oil in this pristine territory in the ground was the right decision and that the decision should not be revised or changed for any reason. We hereby declare our support for the original initiative to refrain from exploitation of the heavy crude oil of Yasuni-ITT.

    Ecuador has shown leadership in many ways, including by recognizing the rights of nature (in your 2008 constitution), the Yasuni-ITT initiative and in generally broadening the space for freedom and democracy in the world today. This is the way the most of the world sees Ecuador.

    The single step of opening up Yasuni-ITT to national or international oil companies erases the positive image that your dear country has built with a single stroke. By allowing oil extraction in Yasuni-ITT you would be negating the rights of the indigenous people in the territory who have elected to live in voluntary isolation. Secondly you would be closing the democratic space and declining to listen to the voice of millions of Ecuadorians who have bravely voiced their dissent to your unpopular move. Thirdly, opening up Yasuni-ITT will counter your constitutionally declared rights of nature. Crude oil extraction is by no means a benign activity and the deep scars left by Texaco (Chevron) in the oil fields of Ecuador are a stark reminder that steps must be taken to heal the earth and not to inflict more harm on her.

    Finally, we call on you, Mr President to ignore the fact that the world did not rush in with the cash you demanded in exchange for keeping the oil untapped. Accept from us that your move had inspired many peoples around the world to demand an end to expansion of fossil fuels extraction, especially into fragile eco-systems. Today, Yasunisation has come to mean the preservation of the integrity of Mother Earth from the ravages of insatiable oil companies and governments by leaving fossils underground.

    Money cannot pay for the gains that the Yasuni-ITT position has given Ecuador and the world. We affirm that the rights of the people of Yasuni and the rights of nature deserve to be respected and defended and that the oil in Yasuni-ITT should be left untapped. And we urge you and the Assembly of Ecuador to do likewise.

    Moreover, Mr. President, we urge you to order a halt to the repression of young people who are standing in support of life and Yasuni!


    Oilwatch International

    Noble Wadzah – Ghana (Oilwatch Africa)

    Siziwe Khanyile – South Africa (Oilwatch Africa)

    Ivonne Yanez – Oilwatch America Latina

    Clemente Bautista– Philippines (Oilwatch South East Asia)

    Faikham Harnnarong – Thailand (Oilwatch South East Asia)

    Tom Goldtooth – USA (Indigenous Environmental Network)

    Winnie Overbeek – Uruguay (World Rainforest Movement)

    Nnimmo Bassey – Nigeria (Health of Mother Earth Foundation/Oilwatch International)

  2. An interesting development reported by Deutsche Welle – apparently Ecuador has cancelled a €34.5 million German REDD project:

    [Gudrun] Kopp [Parliamentary State Secretary to the Federal Minister for Economic Cooperation and Development, BMZ] added that, Germany and Ecuador had agreed on a 34.5 million euro program that had just kicked off this year – a program that includes managing the forest protection area, the UN’s Reducing Emissions from Deforestation and Forest Degradation (REDD) program as well as protecting biodiversity and indigenous people.

    That, however, was canceled by Correa who was furious about German “arrogance” in criticizing Ecuador’s drilling plans. He said Ecuador would pay back every cent of aid that has been paid by Germany so far.

    “We were completely astonished about this new development [Correa’s announcement], because we thought with all our efforts to [protect] the environment and to support the country that we had found a wonderful solution and an agreement that was really being applauded to,” Kopp said.

  3. Very good article by Marc Becker on

    The Confederación de Nacionalidades Indígenas de la Amazonía Ecuatoriana (CONFENIAE, Confederation of Indigenous Nationalities of the Ecuadorian Amazon) released a statement on August 20 that denounced the government’s plans to terminate the Yasuní-ITT initiative. CONFENIAE groups 21 organizations and federations from 11 Indigenous nationalities in the Amazon.

    “The deepening of the extractive policies of the current regime, which exceeds that of former neoliberal governments,” the statement reads, “has led to systematic violations of our fundamental rights and has generated a number of socio-environmental conflicts in Indigenous communities throughout the Amazon region.”

    CONFENIAE points to a historical pattern of the extermination of Indigenous groups due to petroleum exploration, including the Tetete in northeastern Ecuador 40 years earlier. “History repeats itself,” the federation proclaimed. “We are on the verge of a new ethnocide.”

    The current abuses occur, CONFENIAE complains, even as the country projects an image as “possessing one of the world’s most advanced constitutions, which recognizes the collective rights of Indigenous peoples, especially their right to free, prior and informed consent, the rights of nature, the Sumak Kawsay, among others.”

    Nevertheless, “when the interests of large capital become involved, the rulers through their control of the judicial system, demonstrate that they have no qualms with reforming laws to legalize theft, looting, and human rights violations.” CONFENIAE believes that Correa’s announcement to suspend the Yasuní initiative “has been only one more example of the neoliberal , pro-imperialist, and traitorous character of the current regime.

    From CONFENIAE’s perspective, Correa’s actions confirmed what they had long understood: “the government was never really committed to the conservation of nature, beyond an advertising and media campaign to project an opposite image to the world.” The government always had a double standard, and plans to drill in the Yasuní was always the ace that they held up their sleave.