Yasuní, an example to the world

Fander Falconí

In spite of the grave economic and financial crisis worldwide, France has refused to allow the extraction of shale gas through fracking (a process involving injection of water and other materials), due to the environmental risks and landscape destruction entailed. At the same time, in the United States, President Barack Obama has decided to postpone, at least until after the 2012 election, the construction of the oil pipeline that was to be brought all the way to Texas from Alberta, Canada (where oil is extracted from bituminous sands, at great energetic cost and with high environmental impact).

On the other hand, in Colombia, there is consideration of a law to prevent coal extraction in marsh lands since this would endanger the ecology and the role of these marshes as a water reservoir, in Ecuador.  Instead, they have decided to keep the oil from the Ishpingo, Tambococha and Tiputini (ITT) oil block in the soil beneath the vast Yasuní National Park (Spanish acronym: PNY), which is nearly a million hectares (over two million acres).

In September 2008, Ecuador passed the “greenest” Constitution worldwide, which regards Nature as an individual subject of the law with rights that cannot be overlooked. That is to say, in Ecuador, Nature has a right to have its existence respected and its vital cycles, structure, functions and evolutionary processes maintained and regenerated. The adoption of this Constitution has allowed the country to sustain environmental proposals of global reach, such as the Daly-Correa tax or the Yasuní-ITT Initiative.

In the article “Sustainable Development and OPEC,”[1] H. Daly, the well-known ecological economist, proposed the application of an environmental tax of 3% on the price of the oil barrel, which could be administered by the members of the Organization of Petroleum Exporting Countries (OPEC). This eco-tax should also be applied to other exported fuels, in proportion to their impact on the environment. The proposal was submitted to OPEC by Ecuadorian president Rafael Correa and is, therefore, known as the Daly-Correa tax.

As for the Yasuní ITT Initiative, it advocates the non-extraction of approximately 850 million heavy crude oil barrels from the ITT oil block reserves, found in PNY subsoil. This represents substantial wealth for a country that requires investment in human capacity building and capital accumulation. This decision prevents the emission of 410 million metric tons of carbon into the atmosphere –which would otherwise be produced through burning these fossil fuels and deforestation. Moreover, this measure would also preserve the extraordinary biodiversity of PNY, respect the indigenous peoples and tribes living in voluntary isolation (Taromenane and Tagaeri), and promote an energy-related transition.

In exchange, Ecuador requests international co-responsibility of, at least, half of the future net revenue that would result from oil extraction. In August 2010, the government of Ecuador signed an agreement with the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) that will open an international trust fund to receive international and local financial contributions. The State, the Ecuadorian civil society, and representatives of the tax-payers participate in this trust fund.

It is worth pointing out that industrial economies depend on non-renewable resources. Worldwide, about 85 million oil barrels are burned on a daily basis. But what was burned yesterday is not usable today. It is an unsustainable system, as we draw near the oil peak and increase the concentration of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere. This is why the success of this initiative directly depends on international co-responsibility.

The Initiative has received domestic and foreign support, including from all multilateral institutions. The Ecuadorian National Assembly gave their endorsement, which was seconded by the United Nations, OAS, CAN (Andean Community of Nations), CAF (Development Bank of Latin America), the European Union, UNASUR (Union of South American Nations), the Non-Aligned Movement, the Rio Group, ALBA (Bolivarian Alliance for the Americas), OPEC and the Amazon Cooperation Treaty Organization. It has also been supported by Belgium, France, Germany and Spain. Even The Economist, which was initially sceptical, has acknowledged the uniqueness and wisdom of this initiative.

Nevertheless, some potential foreign donors, such as Germany’s head of the ministry for international economic cooperation, liberal Dirk Niebel, have become one of the major opponents to the Ecuadorian proposal.  He claims that keeping the oil in the ground in ITT and giving Ecuador half of the opportunity cost (external compensation for the foregone revenues) will lead other countries to try and do the same. Well… that is precisely what this is all about! It is clear that, for the sake of mankind and other species, the extraction and burning of coal, gas and oil must be halved if increases in CO2 concentration in the atmosphere are to be prevented.

Both the inhabitants and the rich biodiversity of Yasuní Park are now in the spotlight of local and international decisions. If the Galapagos Islands have synthesized the living history of our planet since the time of Charles Darwin, the Yasuní-ITT Initiative holds the key to the Earth’s sustainable future.

[1] Published in Edward Elgar, Ecological Economics and Sustainable Development: Selected Essays of Herman Daly. Cheltenham, United Kingdom, 2007.

4 Responses to “Yasuní, an example to the world”

  1. I totally sympathise with the idea to keep that oil in the ground. I think there are a number of objections one can have to this “solution”. Some are moral: it amounts to extortion that you get paid for NOT doing something. It amounts to exploitation that the rich countries can buy their rights to continue with business as usual, while poor countries should limit their consumption and their use of nature resources.

    My main concern is, however, also why it may work. To assign prices on environmental services, or not destroying them like in this case is perhaps efficient within the currrent paradigm. But it also means a further commoditisation of everything and ultimately also a privatization. Sooner or later these nature resources and services will be taken over by so called “market forces” which essentially mean “rich people” and they will extract further wealth from them. While poor people’s nature will no longer be “theirs”….

  2. Bartosz B. says:

    The Yasuní-ITT initiative is a great example of how to attach economic value to ecosystems, as I have emphasized here. It is indeed a highly valuable piece of Nature, and preserving it is imperative – along with further benefits such as climate and human rights protection. Therefore, it is hardly understandable why the German minister Dirk Niebel is still opposing the idea (while many members of the reigning coalition take the opposite stand and support the initiative) – especially since, as I tried to show elsewhere, his arguments are rather weak.

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