Yasuni battle continues
A source of news and analysis on energy and environmental issues in Latin America
By Carmelo Ruiz-Marrero
Issue 3, September 6 2010
Yasuni: the battle's not over yet
After years of intense local and international campaigning and lobbying by environmentalists and indigenous peoples, the Ecuador government finally signed on to the Yasuni-ITT Initiative (link) on August 2. Thus for the first time in history a nation state accepts a binding agreement to leave fossil fuels underground.
The Initiative pretends to keep underground for perpetuity the estimated 850 million barrels of oil in the ITT block, which occupies almost 200,000 hectares of rainforest inside the Yasuní National Park. This protected area of 982,000 hectares was created in 1979, and in 1989 UNESCO declared it a biosphere reserve. The Yasuní-ITT Initiative will keep over 400 million tons of CO2 from being released to the atmosphere.
In exchange for its commitment, the government of Ecuador seeks $350 million a year for ten years from governments as well as private donors over the next ten years, which is approximately half of what it would have made if it had allowed oil drilling in the Yasuní (in the previous Monitor issue we erroneously stated that it was $350 million over ten years, our apologies). So far the governments of Germany, Belgium, France, Spain and England have expressed interest in donating. The funds are to be administered by a trust fund set up by the United Nations Development Program. The fund will be controlled by five directors, two of whom will be appointed by the country's president. The money will be used in social investment, renewable energy, reforestation and energy efficiency.
This arrangement is consistent with the pre-Columbian concept of Sumak Kawsai, or "right livelihood", which is gaining widespread acceptance in Latin American progressive politics and environmental activism. According to Ecuadorian economist Pablo Dávalos, Sumak Kawsai is "the possibility of linking man with nature from a vision of respect, because it is the opportunity to return ethics to human coexistence, because we need a new social contract in which unity can coexist with diversity, because it is the opportunity to oppose the violence of the system."
According to the World Rainforest Movement, the Yasuní agreement "constitutes a national option to obtain funds without further destroying the Amazon, it's a way of genuinely putting a brake on climate change, and could open the door to the construction of a post-petroleum, post-extractivist economy."
However, the battle is not won yet. The government of Ecuador can call the deal off if the funding doesn't come through. Ecuadorian president Rafael Correa is calling for the first $100 million in the following 18 months, so as of now the Initiative's supporters are literally running against the clock. If $100 million cannot be raised in an 18-month period, it is even less likely that $350 million could be raised every year. According to an article published by the environmental group FOBOMADE, there is a real danger: "the global (economic) crisis calls the project's feasibility into question. There is fear that the Ecuadorian government could sabotage the Initiative if the negotiating commission cannot obtain the necessary funding."
It must be pointed out that the process that led to the signing of the Yasuní-ITT agreement was not a smooth ride- it was a rocky road, at times filled with acrimony and verbal clashes among stakeholders. President Correa did not always go along, and on occasion even threatened to abandon the negotiations and authorize drilling in the Yasuní.
Observers agree that the Initiative would not have stood a chance had it not been for the extraordinary revolutionary democratic process that Ecuador has been experiencing in recent years. In 2006 an indigenous uprising led to the ousting of the government and to new elections, which were won by the Alianza PAIS party. The new president, leftist economics professor Rafael Correa, organized a constituent assembly which rewrote the country's constitution in 2008.
The constituent assembly was chaired by Energy and Mining minister Alberto Acosta, an economist with a long affiliation with the left and the environmental movement. Acosta, one of the founders and main ideologues of Alianza PAIS, co-wrote books with Esperanza Martínez, leader of the local environmental group Acción Ecológica. He also has participated in conferences and workshops of the Instituto de Estudios Ecologistas, an educational outfit founded by Acción Ecológica in 1995. Martínez was an advisor to Acosta during the 2008 constituent assembly.
The resulting constitution is one of the most progressive in Latin America. It establishes water as a human right, a public good, and a national patrimony; acknowledges that nature has rights of its own; and also declares food sovereignty and Sumak Kawsai to be official government policy.
But the ink in the new constitution had barely dried when cracks began to form in the new political order. Acción Ecológica and other groups decried the new mining and water laws, which the group considered contrary to the spirit and letter of the new constitution. In 2009 President Correa responded by closing the organization down, an action he reversed after an intense and effective international campaign of solidarity with Acción Ecológica.
In January 2010 Correa launched a tirade in his weekly radio address, threatening to withdraw his government's support for the Yasuní Initiative and authorize oil drilling in the area if he was not given direct control over the trust fund to be created by the Initiative. He ranted against "infantile environmentalists", the "infantile left" and indigenous leaders, and claimed that they were worse enemies than his political right-wing opponents. In response, chancellor Fander Falconí resigned in protest. Correa did not stop there- he went on for days about how Falconí, Acosta and Esperanza Martínez were plotting to undermine his government.
The loss of Falconí and Acosta- who had already broken with the government- were no small loss to the Correa government. The ex-chancellor had been, along with Acosta, among Alianza PAIS's founders. There is indeed a great friendship between both men, comments Catalan economist and world-renowned ecologist Joan Martínez-Alier: "Both of them represent a new Latin American current against developmentalist extractivism, both call for a transition towards sustainable economies. Whereas Acosta appeals most of all to the social movements of 'people's ecologismo' and to indigenous peoples' movements, Falconí is more of an advocate of state-led economic planning, but both of these are shades of opinion within a common post-extractivist position in economic policy."
The worst seems to be over. Now that the Yasuní-ITT agreement has been signed, the main challenge is to secure funding on time. But Acosta warns that there are more challenges ahead:
"This Initiative cannot serve as a pretext for Correa's government to beat its chest and say that we already do a lot for nature and the life of uncontacted peoples, while simultaneously pushing forth the petroleum frontier into the Amazon's center-south and supporting large-scale strip mining for metals... (the government) should not tolerate oil activities in the margins of the ITT, which includes unrestricted respect for peoples who live in voluntary isolation in any place in the Amazon."
Acosta also says that the government should stop "the other threats that loom over the Yasuní, like deforestation, illegal logging, uncontrolled colonization, illegal tourism... It will also have to control activities that are being deployed in adjoining oil blocks and the roads being built to nearby oil projects."
Alberto Acosta interview by Franck Gaudichaud. August 6 2010. http://rebelion.org/noticia.php?id=110813
FOBOMADE (Foro Boliviano de Medio Ambiente y Desarrollo) "La Iniciativa Yasuní-ITT tiene 18 meses de plazo para recaudar sus $100 millones" 1 de septiembre 2010. http://fobomade.org.bo/bsena/?p=902
Martínez-Alier, Joan. "La Iniciativa Yasuní se encamina al triunfo". August 4 2010. http://www.biodiversidadla.org/Principal/Contenido/Documentos/En_Ecuador_la_Iniciativa_Yasuni_ITT_se_encamina_al_triunfo
World Rainforest Movement. "Primeros pasos para dejar el petróleo bajo tierra en el Yasuní" Bulletin #157, August 2010.
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Carmelo Ruiz-Marrero is an independent environmental journalist and an environmental analyst for the CIP Americas Program (www.cipamericas.org), a Fellow of the Oakland Institute and a Senior Fellow of the Environmental Leadership Program. In addition, he is founder and director of the Puerto Rico Biosafety Project (bioseguridad.blogspot.com). His bilingual web page (carmeloruiz.blogspot.com) is dedicated to global environmental and development concerns. He can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org