Ecuador is abandoning an innovative plan that would have protected the Amazon rainforest from oil drilling due to lack of support from other nations and pressure to fulfill its international debts. The move not only comes as a blow to the environmentalists and indigenous groups that were fighting to protect an ecological treasure, but to those hoping it would serve as a model for providing developing countries the economic incentive to leave fossil fuel reserves untapped.
President Rafael Correa made the announcement in a televised address on Thursday, saying, “With deep sadness but also with absolute responsibility to our people and history, I have had to take one of the hardest decisions of my government.”
Six years ago, Correa made the international community an offer: come up with half of the $7.2 billion value of a 4,000 square mile section of the Amazon jungle and Ecuador would refrain from drilling for oil. Essentially, pay us to keep our oil in the ground. Despite support from celebrities such as Leonardo DiCaprio and Bo Derek and the backing of the United Nations, government response was weaker than anticipated and the Yasuni-ITT initiative only collected $13 million of the $3.6 billion target.
Not only was the plan groundbreaking in its approach but designed to protect a critical habitat and slow the onslaught of climate change. This particular section of the Amazon, Yasuni national park, contains more tree species in a single hectare than in all of North America and is home to multiple indigenous tribes living in voluntary isolation. And leaving the reserves in the ground would prevent the release of an estimated 400 million tons of carbon pollution into the atmosphere.
“I believe that the initiative was ahead of our time and could not, or would not, be understood by those who are responsible for climate change,” said Correa.
Correa’s announcement drew hundreds of protesters to the presidential palace in Quito. According to Amazon Watch, “a recent poll cited 90% of the population favored leaving the ITT oil fields untapped.”
The Guardian reported that preparations for the reversal have been underway for quite some time and exploration could begin in a matter of weeks. “Oil companies have been quietly preparing for the abandonment of the initiative. PetroEcuador has pushed ahead with development of extraction block 31, which sits on the edge of the ITT. Roads are also under construction close to the ITT project in an area that is famous for jaguar sightings.”
Internationally, Ecuador is regarded for its progressive view of the environment. In 2008, the country became the first in the world to codify the rights of nature into its constitution. Specifically, it recognizes the inalienable rights of ecosystems to exist and flourish, gives people the authority to petition on the behalf of ecosystems, and requires the government to remedy violations of these rights.
And the country certainly knows the lasting devastation that can come from the oil industry’s presence. Last year, Ecuador won a major battle with Chevron in which the company was ordered to pay $18.2 billion after it polluted Amazonian rivers with 16 billion gallons of oil sludge from 1964–1990. The Ecuadorian court found that Chevron had dumped toxic waste into Amazon waterways used by indigenous groups for drinking water and caused massive harm to the rainforest. Chevron is still fighting the ruling, claiming it was a victim of conspiracy and a U.S. court recently backed the oil giant’s request to subpoena vast amounts of activists’ internet data.
In a weekly address on Saturday, Correa referred to Chevron as “that enemy of our country.”
Correa may be feeling the pressure of his country’s mounting debt, particularly to China. In March, The Guardian reported that Ecudaor planned to auction off 3 million hecatres of pristine Amazon rainforest to Chinese oil companies, a decision that drew sharp rebuke from environmentalists and indigenous groups. “Ecuador owed China more than £4.6bn ($7bn) as of last summer, more than a tenth of its GDP. China began loaning billions of dollars to Ecuador in 2009 in exchange for oil shipments. More recently China helped fund two of its biggest hydroelectric infrastructure projects. Ecuador may soon build a $12.5bn oil refinery with Chinese financing.”