Ecuador opens Yasuni reserve to oil interests

Ecuador's President Rafael Correa announced Aug. 15 that he is abandoning plans for an ambitious internationally funded conservation program at Yasuni National Park, which called for international donors to compensate his government for keeping oil interests out of the reserve. "The world has failed us," Correa said in a televised address. "I have signed the executive decree for the liquidation of the Yasuni-ITT trust fund and with this, ended the initiative." Correa said the program had received only $13 million, a fraction of the $3.6 billion goal. He said he would immediately seek approval from the country's Legislative Assembly, where his alliance holds a majority, for opening the Ishpingo Tambocoha Titutini (ITT) bloc within the park to oil companies. Yasuni park is recognized as a UNESCO biosphere reserve.

The announcement was met with rival demonstrations in Quito's Plaza Grande, as environmentalists and supporters of indigenous rights filled one side of the square to protest the decision, and followers of Correa's Alianza País filled the other side to support the president's move. A tense stand-off ensued. Opponents of oil exploitation in the reserve carried banners with the Twitter tag #NoToquenElYasuní (Hands off Yasuni).

The Yasuni initiative was launched in 2007 after explorations revelaed some 800 million barrels of crude under the ITT bloc, in an area of the Amazon that is said to contain more species in just one hectare than all the combined biodiversity of North America. The proposal called for leaving the oil in the ground—thereby averting the release of more than 400 million tons of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere—if half the $7.2 billion value of the reserve could be raised by 2023. "It was not charity that we sought from the international community, but co-responsibility in the face of climate change," Correa said in announcing the program's termination.

Italy wrote off $51 million of Ecuador's debt as a contribution, while several other governments pledged lesser sums. Celebrities also made donations, including Bo Derek, Leonardo DiCaprio, Edward Norton and Al Gore. But oil companies have been meanwhile anticipating the demise of the initiative. PetroEcuador has pushed ahead with development of Bloc 31, which lies partially within the 10,000-square kilometer park, and is situated on the edge of the ITT.  

Alberto Acosta, the former energy minister who launched the Yasuni initiative in 2007 and chalenged Correa in this February's presidential election, warned on the campaign trail: "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." (The Guardian via Amazon Watch, BBC News, EFE, Aug. 16; El Comercio, Quito, Aug. 15; SOS Yasuni)

The end of the Yasuni initiative coincided with startling evidence of the still uncharted biodiversity of the tropical forests of the Andean nations. Also on Aug. 15, Kristofer Helgen, curator of mammals at the Smithsonian National Museum of Natural History, held a press conference in Washington DC to announce discovery of a new species of tree-dwelling carnivore in the cloud forests of Ecuador and Colombia. Thousands of the creatures, dubbed olinguitos—formally, the Bassaricyon neblina—are thought to inhabit the cloud forests, which are the transition zone between the Andean highlands and the Amazon basin. They are smaller than the related olingo, which is in turn related to the coati. Helgen said the find, verified by anatomical and DNA evidence, constitutes the first discovery of a new carnivorous mammal species in the Americas in 35 years. The last such find, the Colombian weasel, was in 1978. (Smithsonian, Aug. 15)

There has also been recent harsh evidence of the oil threat to this rich biodiversity. In early June, PetroEcuador announced that an estimated 11,480 barrels of oil had leaked from a damaged pipeline into the Río Coca, and also contaminated the Río Napo of which it is a tributary. The oil reached Loreto region of northern Peru, and impacted some 30 indigenous communities. The spill was caused when a landslide on May 31 damaged the Trans-Ecuador Oil Pipeline (SOTES), causing a release of some 420,000 gallons. President Correa offered an apology to Peru "for the problems we have caused." PetroEcuador has contracted a US firm, Clean Caribbean & Americas, to begin clean-up operations. (Kaos en la Red, Aug. 10; BBC News, June 9)

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  1. Illegal road to Yasuni oil bloc?
    Indigenous organization ECUARUNARI issued a statement Sept. 13 announcing that an investigative team sent to the area of Yasuni discovered that a road has been built into the reserve’s Bloc 31 to facilitate oil exploration—despite repeated denials from the government of President Rafael Correa. (Ecuador Inmediato, Sept. 13)

    Before an audience of mostly indigenous supporters at a rally in Riobamba, Correa responded by bitterly attacking ECUARUNARI, charging that its leadership is “not indigenous.” (AFP, Aug. 29)