Lisa Ubelaker Andrade,
Huffington Post, Feb 26, 2010
When Ecuador's commission arrived in Copenhagen this fall, it had an audacious environmental proposal for the "developed world": make the conservation of the Amazon as profitable as its exploitation. Ecuador's second term President, Rafael Correa, offered to keep the 900 million barrels of oil that lay deep under the country's Yasuní National Park underground if the developed world would pay 350 million dollars for 10 years, a price comparable to the expected returns for the oil's extraction. The plan offered a model solution: protecting the environment would not be an economic burden for the poorest nations alone. Biological wealth could perhaps become economically profitable. It was idealistic and to many, a long shot. However, to some surprise, it also received abundant international support. By mid-January however, Ecuadorians were left doubting Correa's environmentalism and wondering, what happened? The Ishpingo-Tambococha-Tiputini (ITT) section of Yasuní Park, its ecosystem, and perhaps most importantly, its volunatarily isolated indigenous people, are again in danger of confronting irreversible change.
The ITT oil block lies in the Yasuní National Park in the easternmost region of Ecuador. It is known to environmentalists as one of the most biodiverse places on earth. A recent study conducted by the University of Maryland and the University of San Francisco (Quito) discovered that in a single hectare of Yasuní forest, there are some 100,000 different species of insects, 204 species of mammals, 596 species of birds and 382 species of fish. The forest is also believed to contain the greatest diversity of tree species on the planet.
The ITT sector is also home to humans. The Huaoroni indigenous group has long inhabited the land; so have two separate clans who continue to live in voluntary isolation from the rest of human society. The Tagaeri and Taromenani are two of the last groups on earth known as "un-contacted" peoples: although their longer history is unknown, in recent memory they have succesfully resisted any contact or communication with outside societies.
By preventing oil drilling, the ITT conservation plan would have kept this area protected from the major damage normally caused by such exploits. Drilling creates a contamination of waterways on which species, plants and humans rely. The entrance of oil companies, their colonies and the actual extraction of oil all result in deforestation and the destruction of the habitats. The ITT zone would never be the same. Most grave, the influx of new human diseases would threaten the people living there. Many believe that the Tagaeri and Taromenani lack biological resistance to urban diseases. The arrival of oil personnel would thus not only alter the environment on which these people rely. It would also cause the spread of diseases and, most likely, death.
The ITT plan was intended to avoid these consequences and promote a social agenda. Yolanda Kakbadse, president of the World Wide Fund for Nature (WWF) and a member of the Ecuadorian commission told the New Internationalist a year ago that the funds donated by the developed world would be used "towards objectives which are terribly important for Ecuador and for the planet. The funds would go to ensuring that not just the Yasuní but 40 key conservation areas of Ecuador are protected. And money would go towards addressing poverty at its roots by providing local people with options to benefit economically by using the forest, not by destroying it. So it's a social agenda, a biodiversity agenda and a climate change agenda."
At Copenhagen and beyond the plan was met with success. Germany, Belgium and Spain agreed to support between 972 and 1,232 million dollars and, by January, both France and Sweden were demonstrating interest in the plan.
Before the group could remark on their own success however, Correa, on January 9, called the terms of the agreement "embarrassing." He rejected the donations and further negotiation, unless the northern countries declined any voice in overseeing the use of the funds. Namely, Correa opposed the creation of a joint committee made up of representatives from Ecuador and the donating countries to oversee the donated money's investment. Correa retorted to the donors, "keep your money and in June we will begin to exploit the ITT. We will not give away our sovereignty."
To the Ecuadorian ITT commission the response came as a shock. Kakbadse defended the plan to El Comercio, citing that the concept of a joint committee was created long before because "we wanted to guarantee to the contributors that we were speaking seriously" and that the funds would be used as planned. The commission members restated that the joint committee would enforce the four priorities stated by Ecuador all along: to construct a new energy grid, to conserve and maintain the Amazon environment and the properties and wellbeing of indigenous and afro-Ecuadorian communities, to free Ecuador from fossil fuels by 2020 and finally, to invest in ecotourism and agroforestry projects.
Speculation abounded and rumors circulated, each attempting to explain the 180 degree turn of the government. Was this a move against imperialism, or did Correa simply never foresee the plan working? Were the exploits of oil companies not, too, part of Ecuador's history of imperialism? Hadn't Correa been aware of the ITT plan's for a joint international committee all along? And finally, what of the Amazon's inhabitants, would they have no say in the government's decision?
Head of the commission, environmentalist Roque Silva, announced that "the only failure [of the ITT proposition] was its success." The suggestion reflected a growing doubt: Correa's change in temperament was simply his realization that the idealistic dream might come true. The ITT commission's leaders quit their posts.
Ecuador's foreign minister who had been with Correa since the inception of his political campaign resigned after Correa's comments. He pointed to the oil interests as being at the center of the government's turn-around. "Evidently there are oil interests waiting to drill," he said following resignation.
The debate, the rumors, the raised eyebrows and the sudden lost hope coalesced in a parade of political fallout. The press revealed that preparations for exploitation of the oil were already underway, further questioning the fate of the Amazon region.
As all brace for June--the threatened drill date--Correa has vowed to reinstate a new ITT commission. The commission's new leader, Vice President Lenín Moreno, will travel next month to oil-rich Iran, Dubai and Turkey to seek funds for the ITT initiative.
Meanwhile, the Tagaeri and Taromenani have no notification of the violent disruption looming in the distance. Journalist Milagros Aguirre reported the stressed sentiment growing in the eastern province: "No one knows what to do, we go on without contingency plans, crossing our fingers that here will not come to pass another violent outcome...We are stunned, taking note of the rumors, and the visions, the fears of some and the furies of others. Meanwhile the government takes petals from flowers asking, to exploit? or not? The Tagaeri and Taromenani are circling in the controversies and politics through which their destiny will be decided."