When Ecuador’s President, Rafael Correa, first made the announcement a couple of years ago, the best he could get from people “in the know” was a patronising smile. And there were those who believed that his idea was the result of a feverish imagination, a loony leftie president having a go at the devilish west.
The whole thing was very simple: Ecuador has vast reserves of oil in the Amazon, and it needs to exploit that oil because it’s a poor country and oil is its main source of income. But oil is a fossil fuel and climate change has become a huge global concern. So, if the world doesn’t want Ecuador to use the oil and increase its emissions of greenhouse gases, give it the income it would have earned if it had gone ahead and extracted the oil.
As I said earlier, they laughed at Correa at the time. But nobody is laughing now. Because that proposal is currently under discussion between the Ecuadorian government and international donors. And Quito expects soon to sign an agreement about it with the UNDP (United Nations Development Programme).
The Yasuní-ITT project, named after the Amazonian national park where the oil in question is located, has received support from NGOs, the German Government and the UNDP.
The Yasuní region is situated in the western Amazon region of Ecuador. Its beauty is breathtaking and it houses a wealth of biodiversity. When I visited the region in 1996, the local indigenous community, the Huaoranis, were struggling to come to terms with the fact that oil companies were there to stay and they had to compromise, without losing their identity. It was not easy. And many Huorani communities wanted nothing at all to do with the white man; they wanted to remain isolated and uncontacted. It was a terrible situation because the issue had divided communities that, in the past, had lived together in relative harmony.
So, when the Ecuadorian government proposes to leave the oil reserves buried underground forever, it plans not only to help conserve the planet and its flora and fauna but also – and this is just as important – to protect those indigenous nations who want to remain as the sentinels of the forest.
Yasuní has reserves of 900 million barrels of heavy crude oil. They have a production potential of 407 million metric tons of CO2. What the Ecuadorian government wants to get from outside the country is at least 50% of the revenue that the oil would have produced. A Guarantee Certificate (GC) will ensure that donors (UN, governments, NGOs, individuals, etc.) know that their money is being invested in forest protection, social development and protection of water resources. And that Ecuador does not have to divert money into these tasks that it urgently needs for national development.
Ecuador’s Foreign Minister, Fender Falconí, got very animated when he told us about the Yasuni-ITT initiative during his talk in the Red Room of the People’s Summit here in Copenhagen. However, as was inevitable, he had to face questions about the practicalities of the scheme.
What if a future government decides that, due to an increase in the price of oil, it wants after all to extract the oil in the Yasuní region, despite the agreement? I asked.
They have it all figured out, these Ecuadorians. The GCs are legally-binding documents. Furthermore, there are other provisions. If a government decides to extract the oil, the state immediately stops receiving the money due to them in the agreement. From the moment such an announcement is made to the moment the first barrel is extracted, five years would have to pass, because of the complexities of the exploration and exploitation process. The government would lose five years-worth of income. A sizeable sum. And one that Ecuador can’t afford to lose.
A Colombian participant stood up to ask the Minister if he could talk to the government in Bogota, please, to do the same. A German Green MP gave a short speech about how exciting it is for her country to support the initiative. And I couldn’t help but think about my own reaction when I read President Correa’s announcement.
It was a strange feeling. When I visited the Yasuní National Park 13 years ago, and I spoke to Huaorani communities, I believed that the oil companies would end up taking over this beautiful region at the expense of their inhabitants. So, when I read President Correa’s proposal, I smiled too.
There is also a political dimension to the proposal. The West keeps banging on about how developing countries have also responsibilities in terms of reducing their own emissions, despite the fact that Ecuador contributes with less than 0.35% to the global emissions of CO2. Well, there you go, say the Ecuadorians, we will prevent more than 400 million metric tons of CO2 from polluting the atmosphere if you also take your share of the responsibility and help finance the scheme.
Today, the proposal has the seal of approval of the UNDP, the support of the German Government and reputable NGOs, and the backing of 85% of Ecuadorians. Not much of a room for self-indulgent scepticism then.
The Minister had said earlier that he had felt the need to leave Bella Centre, where official delegations are negotiating on how not to reach an agreement on climate change, to visit the Red Room in the People’s Summit. “Perhaps you understand now why I felt that”, he said. How right he was.
Listen to Maria Fernanda Espinoza, Ecuador Minister for Patrimony