Momentum Building Towards Referendum On Fate of Ecuador’s Yasuní National Park

The government of Ecuador’s decision to abandon its commitment to leave untouched one of the world’s most bio-diverse reserves has stirred censure from conservationists, donors, and indigenous groups. Faced with staunch opposition and a likely citizen-led referendum, President Rafael Correa has responded, “let them get the signatures, and we’ll go to a popular vote.”

A coalition of indigenous, student, and environmental activists is set to bring before Ecuador’s Constitutional Court proposed questions for a referendum to prevent oil drilling in the Yasuni National Park, designated as a “Man and Biosphere Reserve” by UNESCO in 1989. Their proposal centers on Article 407 of the country’s Constitution, which prohibits the extraction of non-renewable resources in protected zones.

The article gives an exception for the presidency and a prior declaration of national interest by the National Assembly (AN), but a referendum can override both. The groups have, therefore, begun organizing in earnest to collect the necessary 584,116 signatures (5 percent of the electorate) to trigger the popular vote.

Last week in a nationally televised Cadena, Correa said that with sole discretion, “I have signed the executive decree for the liquidation of the Yasuni-ITT Trust Fund [the agreement to leave the region untouched] and through it, end the initiative.” He laid the blame squarely on “the great hypocrisy” of the nations who add the most to the effects of global warming and said this had been one of the most difficult decisions in his administration.

“The world has failed us,” Correa insisted. There is only US$13.3 million in available funds in the Yasuni-ITT trust. With existing pledges, that makes an initiative total of up to US$116 million, he said. “It was not charity that we were asking for, but co-responsibility in the fight against climate change,” Correa complained over the substantial shortfall from the US$3.6 billion goal.

Ecuador pioneered the initiative to not drill oil under the Ishpingo-Tambococha-Tiputini (ITT) fields within the country’s Yasuni National Park in exchange for global support to finance sustainable development. In 2007 — the same year that Ecuador, after a 15-year hiatus, rejoined the Organization of the Petroleum Exporting Countries (OPEC) — Correa asked foreigners to contribute 50 percent of the income the country would forgo through the Yasuni-ITT initiative and choosing conservation.

Germany, on Tuesday, said the Yasuni-ITT’s failure belonged to Correa’s Administration. Sebastian Lesch, a spokesman for the German Ministry for Economic Cooperation and Development, said his country had to rethink the agreement for US$46.1 million for environmental and conservation programs for the Yasuni National Park.

Correa told Germany, “Gentlemen, keep your money. We reject the agreement unilaterally” and commanded “every penny” received in the pact be returned.

“Sadness” surrounds this decision by the government, according to Ivonne Baki, who had been heading the Yasuní-ITT’s Fund Resource Mobilization Issues. She promised to hold firm in the protection of the Yasuni National Park at an event in Quito today that thanked the initiative’s team. The Yasuni trust had worked with a budget of US$7.3 million since 2010 and had achieved contributions 50 times greater than the original investment for Ecuador’s “flagship” initiative, she said.

Outcries — among a public that in recent polls show over 80 percent support for the Yasuni-ITT initiative — have abounded in defense of the proposal that placed this small corner of the Amazon on a worldwide map. Regarding the referendum prospect, Correa said that he would respect the outcome, and that never would his Administration fear the will of the Ecuadorians.

Earlier in the week, though, the president became defensive and warned via twitter that he might push for a referendum that all newspapers be digital, “to save paper and avoid so much indiscriminate cutting of trees.”

Ecuador’s Confederación de Nacionalidades Indígenas de la Amazonía Ecuatoriana (CONFENIAE) declared that the government had never really been committed to the conservation of nature. Alluding to the presidential elections earlier this year, CONFENIAE President Franco Viteri Gualinga said the announcement to end the Yasuni-ITT initiative revealed the inconsistent discourse of Correa’s Administration which “became green” to ratify his power base.

Campaña Amazonía por la Vida, a Quito-based collective of conservation NGOs, has written an open letter to the National Assembly, referencing Article 407 and two occasions when the legislature opposed “the exploitation of oil in ITT” — March 14, 2008, and December 8, 2009. They advocate for continued protection of both the nature in the region and the people in voluntary isolation.

“[I]f there is any doubt what lies in the national interest, [we] should conduct a referendum on the issue . . . 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.”

Correa said, “the Yasuni will keep living,” according to a presidential release Saturday. Poverty and subsistence farming destroy nature faster than the oil industry, he noted.

“The real dilemma is this: Do we protect 100 percent of the Yasuni and have no resources to meet the urgent needs of our people, or do we save 99 percent of it and have US$18 million to defeat poverty,” he said. Presidential Decree 84, which replaces article 5 of Decree 74, clarified that in the event that the AN “authorizes the extractive activity this cannot be developed in an area of more than one part in a thousand of the territory of the Yasuni National Park.”

ELLA’s 2012 study titled, “Ecuador’s Yasuní–Itt: Rethinking the Conservation Vs. Extraction Dilemma,” explained the initiative as an alternative strategy where Ecuador would indefinitely refrain from drilling the more than 840 million barrels of crude under the ITT fields. That would avert an estimated 407 million metric tons of carbon dioxide emissions into the atmosphere. In exchange, the international community, through a trust, would provide half of the projected income that Ecuador was forgoing from utilizing this oil — about 20 percent of the country’s national reserves.

Funds received through the Yasuni-ITT Trust Fund, established in 2010, went to the Multi-Partner Trust Fund Office of the United Nations Development Program (UNDP). Capital, from contributions, was then for renewable energy projects to ease consumption away from fossil fuels, and the interest earned was under the management of Ecuador through its National Development Plan. The claimed benefits were the preservation of a unique ecosystem — protecting tribes in voluntary isolation, over 800 animal species, 100,000 insect species, and more than 1,100 tree species — and the mitigation of global warming, according to the knowledge sharing and learning platform, Evidence and Lessons from Latin America (ELLA).

Alberto Acosta, a former oil minister, who ran against Correa in February’s presidential election, warned during the campaign that Correa’s environmental policies were shaky. “If Correa wins, the ITT initiative will be dropped. The infrastructure is already in place to exploit the oil. . . . He’s preparing to blame rich nations for not giving enough to make it work.”

Last year, ELLA sat down with Acosta for an interview. The Yasuni-ITT initiative — or the idea of a “shared but distinct responsibility to protect the environment” — had its roots in the book he co-authored, Ecuador Post Petrolero. For the initiative to work, he said in the video, Ecuador must be seen to be trustworthy. The country must establish a balance between sovereignty and the decisions it makes with the funds to generate confidence.

The US Energy Information Administration (EIA) October 2012 report puts Ecuador’s proven reserves at 7.2 billion barrels of oil. Production averaged around 500,000 bpd with limited output a consequence of natural decline, the lack of new project development, and operating difficulties at existing oil fields. Of the Yasuni-ITT initiative, the EIA wrote that “questions persist about the credibility of a commitment by this or future Ecuadorean governments not to develop the resource in the future after accepting payments in the present.”

Chile, Colombia, Georgia, Italy, Spain, and Turkey are among the countries listed as contributors by the Yasuni-ITT Trust at the end of 2012. The United States, Japan, and China are noticeably absent.

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