The Ishpingo-Tiputini-Tambococha (ITT) oil fields are situated in the Yasuní national park, a biosphere reserve in the Ecuadorian Amazon – arguably the most biologically diverse region on the planet. The land is also home to the indigenous Huaorani tribes: the Tagaeri and the Taromenane, who live in voluntary isolation. 

In 2007, the government of pugnacious leftist Rafael Correa proposed the Yasuní-ITT Initiative, an economic experiment that would have seen nearly a billion barrels of oil remain beneath the park rather than being drilled in order to leave the pristine forest undisturbed – in return for internationally-accrued compensation. 

However, despite it being one of the most forward-thinking initiatives ever attempted, it was announced in 2013 that it had failed, and drilling began in 2016. But can this type of initiative be more than just a pipe dream as the world begins to wake up to environmental challenges and the need to move beyond high-emission growth? 

Grassroot beginnings

The concept for remunerated non-exploitation in the Yasuní was born in the 1990s, with several grass-roots organisations campaigning for the government to ‘keep the oil in the soil’ in the Yasuní national park . 

The ideas of these groups aligned with those of the so-called ‘pink tide’ that swept through Latin America towards the beginning of the millennium, with many socialist governments emerging. One of the countries in which the wave of left-leaning governments found a foothold was Ecuador, whose PAIS Alliance democratic socialist party entered office in 2007 with the inauguration of Rafael Correa.  

The Yasuní national park is one of the most biodiverse places on earth. Photo credit: Wikipedia Commons.

Positioning himself as a progressive leader, Correa adopted the idea of an ‘oil moratorium’, and he viewed the protection of Yasuní not only as a national interest but also as an opportunity to reposition Ecuador as a ‘post-oil economy’. Decades of oil dependency had taken their toll both environmentally and economically.

The Yasuní-ITT proposal

Correa formally launched the Yasuní-ITT Initiative at the UN General Assembly on 24 September 2007. He proposed that in order to preserve the park, a multilateral commitment not to drill for the 846 million barrels of oil locked beneath the park would keep around 410 million metric tons of carbon dioxide out of the atmosphere.

This would also reduce other significant environmental impacts, the destruction of indigenous hunting areas, deforestation for the building of roads, and the contamination of waterways. 

He announced that Ecuador was willing to sacrifice half of its potential oil revenues if it received the other half through international donations, appealing to governments from a position of common but differentiated responsibilities between developed and developing countries to combat climate change. 

It was a bold move, given that in 2007 Ecuador depended on the oil industry for over half of total export earnings and for over one-third of the annual federal budget. Ecuador hoped to generate between US$600 and 700 million annually for 10 years, which would equate to the the potential revenue of the resource. 

In exchange, the countries that had donated would be given a Yasuní Guarantee Certificate. These would be placed in the EU’s carbon credits market, the world’s largest scheme for trading greenhouse gas emissions allowances, and permitted the emission of one tonne of carbon dioxide, which member states would be able to purchase and trade with.

Rafael Correa has been painted as a villain in the wake of the Yasuní-ITT Initiative’s failure. Photo credit: Wikipedia Commons/César Muñoz.

The income from the sale of certificates was to be placed in a UNDP Trust Fund, and its interest would go towards sustainable development projects in Ecuador.  

This was the first time in history a country proposed to keep oil in the ground and avoid carbon emissions in exchange for international monetary support and engagement.

Constitutional protection

However, the initiative really started to gain traction after the country voted for constitutional change in 2008. This was the first in the world to grant legally-binding ‘Rights of Nature’, and also focused heavily on the rights of indigenous communities, stating that they have the right ‘to keep and develop their own forms of peaceful coexistence and social organisation and of creating and exercising authority’.

At first, the provisions of the 2008 Constitution convinced the international community that Ecuador was serious about the initiative. It had the full support of the UN at the 2009 Climate Change Summit in Copenhagen, and the UNDP Trust Fund was created on 3 August 2010.

Correa makes a u-turn

In spite of this, by 2013, the initiative had only received $13m, a tiny fraction of the US$3.6bn goal, and just 0.37% of the target was pledged by international donors

Correa held a conference on 16 August 2013 and announced that “the world has failed us… It was not charity that we sought [from the international community]. It was shared responsibility in the fight against climate change.”

With the failure of the initiative, drilling began in the national park in September 2013. Photo credit: Wikipedia Commons.

He also revealed that drilling of the ITT fields would have to go ahead, as it would not be economically feasible for Ecuador to forego almost 100 percent of its potential oil revenue. This sparked national outrage, as polls at the time showed that between 78% and 90% of Ecuadoreans were opposed to drilling in the region, and called into question Correa’s credibility and authenticity as to whether concerns for the Yasuní Park were genuine.  

Despite the petitions and public demonstrations which followed, the rights to drill were given to oil company Petroamazonas, and extraction commenced in September 2016. 

Global economics strikes a blow

The reasons as to why the initiative failed are still widely contested, with some blaming the start of the financial crisis in 2008 as being a vital factor in the ultimate lack of significant international contributions. Likewise, with such an unfamiliar and unique scheme which was the first of its kind, it was likely to have made many governments reluctant and hesitant. 

However, many blame Correa himself for not being convincing enough in his belief in the initiative, as he had made it clear throughout that there was potentially always a Plan B to allow the park to be exploited if his acclaimed Plan A did not work out.

Economist and conservation specialist Dafna Bitran Dirven detailed in her analysis of the initiative how “the spectre of ‘Option two’ [drilling] was always present, haunting the realization of ‘Option One’ [keeping the oil in the ground]”. Furthermore, Correa’s suggestion that countries give money for Ecuador not to do something seemed to some more like ransom than collaboration. 

What next for the Yasuní? 

Correa has now stepped down after three terms of ‘21st century socialism’, with current president and former vice-president Lenín Moreno taking office in April 2017. Despite being a close ally of Correa’s for many years, he has now attempted to distance himself from the former president politically and personally, accusing him of authoritarianism and corruption during his presidency. 

Rafael Correa has regularly taken to Twitter to berate his successor, branding him as a ‘traitor’ and ‘sell-out’.

This has caused ongoing hostility between the two, with Correa countering Moreno’s claims by branding him a “wolf in sheep’s clothing” who cheated him for 10 years, and was in fact siding with the opposition. 

With Ecuador’s ‘pink politics’ rapidly becoming a thing of the past, is it beginning to look as if the preservation of the Yasuní National Park is perhaps nothing more than a fantasy? 

To revive or not to revive?

There is no doubt that there are failures and limitations of the Yasuní-ITT initiative that can be reflected on and criticised.

But what ought to be taken away from the whole episode is how close Ecuador came to putting right the wrongs that the developed world continues to make with regard to resource extraction. It tried to instil a new and alternative vision for the future which could have liberated many countries from fossil fuel dependency, whilst also contributing massively to the fight against climate change. 

Does this failure therefore point to the fact that we are inextricably locked into an ingrained addiction to fossil fuels that is immune to even the most inspired ideas? Is it unrealistic to capture the developed world’s imagination again after such a perceived failure?

Yes, the initiative fell short of achieving its goals first time around. But with the serious and urgent effects of climate change now pushed into the spotlight, global leaders need to enforce dramatic change, and fast.

However, five years since the demise of the Yasuní-ITT Initiative, today’s conditions are arguably more favourable for re-examining such a revolutionary and necessary initiative. Perhaps the next generation of leaders can carry on where Ecuador stumbled and build on the lessons learned.


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