30 November 2007

Saving Yasuní National Park

Alejandro Nadal

The Yasuní national park, found in Ecuador at the intersection of the High Amazons and the Andean mountain range, is one of the places with a high index of bio-diversity on the planet: more species of trees are found in each hectare than in all of the United States and Canada. Most importantly, its two million hectares are inhabited by the Huaorani, Tagaeri and the Taramenane, descendants of the original people of America and owners of a millennial culture of life in tropical ecosystems.

Yasuní is probably one of the last and most important battlefields in overcoming the pillage of the extractive industries remaining in the humid tropical forests of the High Amazons. Perhaps it is also the crossroads for our civilisation. But Yasuní also has petroleum and one of the most important fields is Ishpingo-Tambococha-Tiputini (ITT) with proven reserves of 920 million barrels of petroleum.

President Rafael Correa has proposed not exploiting the ITT reserves so as to preserve the cultural heritage of the native people who inhabit the park and conserve the extraordinary bio-diversity of Yasuní. This is compatible with the objective of contributing to stabilising greenhouse gases in the atmosphere for two reasons. First, unburned crude represents some 115 million tons of carbon that would not be injected into the atmosphere. Second, not opening the Yasuní fields to exploitation will avoid deforestation, which is one of the most important generators of greenhouse gases.

The Ecuadorian economy depends strongly on petroleum: export of crude provides around 45% of the financial income. As such, not exploiting the ITT field is a pricey contribution by Ecuador to international efforts at mitigating climatic heating. In exchange for this, Ecuador asks for an annual compensation of $350 million for the future revenue sacrifices. The calculation is something like this: for each barrel of petroleum extracted in Yasuní, the government will receive between $10 and $15 (the crude in this field is heavy and the extraction costs are high) but Ecuador is only asking for $5 a barrel left untouched in the subsoil. This total is really modest if the current international market price is considered.

The ITT- Yasuní reserves could become a fund of $4.6 billion and the returns from the said fund would serve to lead towards a model of development that does not rest on the destruction of the atmosphere and cultural diversity. The funds would be set aside for programmes around the principles of social and environmental sustainability. The proposal complements the setting up of a trust fund with international guarantees to ensure that the contributions will be returned if the project does not succeed.

The pressures against this proposal are formidable. For a start, Ecuador is one of the prime recipients of Chinese investment and one of the most important objectives, among other activities close to the base of natural resources, is precisely to be found in the extraction of petroleum. On the other hand, the Brazilian state enterprise, Petrobras, has been very active and currently holds an exploration and exploitation concession in the park. Last October, the Ecuadorian government steeply increased the taxes on foreign petroleum companies to adjust for their profits derived from the extraordinary rise in the price of crude. But the suits in U.S. tribunals against the measure did not wait. This is not the first time for this type of discord to be aired in the U.S. courts, only that this time the attack is all-round.

Crude exports have been Ecuador’s economic touchstone for three decades but the gains have been few and poorly distributed. In contrast, the costs are massive. For the people of Yasuní, the infiltration of petroleum involves the contamination of water bodies and of surface water, degradation of the soil, deforestation and unsustainable commercial exploitation, as much as the displacement of communities in the region where they have live for seven hundred years. The exploitation of petroleum is literally a mortal danger as those people lack in defences against the savage colonisation brings. The people of Yasuní, especially the Huaorani, critically depend on the resources of the tropical forest for which the exploitation of the ITT field will very probably be the end of their culture.

Claude Levi-Strauss, the celebrated French anthropologist, wrote in his Sad Tropics that to someone of the original people of the Amazons the real riches lie not in the accumulation of tangible objects as products of the activities by hand but in his heraldry and choreography. Something to reflect on in these times, in which well-being is measured by material and energy consumption… Ecuador’s proposal should be analysed with the attention it deserves.
Published in La Jornada, Mexico City, on November 28, 2007. Link:

No comments: