On August 15, the Ecuadorian government announced that it would not continue with the Yasuní-ITT project, an initiative which was launched at the United Nations general assembly in 2007 by the Ecuadorian president, Rafael Correa.
The initiative sought to refrain indefinitely from exploiting oil reserves within the Ishpingo-Tambococha-Tiputini (ITT) area of the Yasuní National park, with the Ecuadorian government absorbing half of the opportunity cost linked to the oil extraction.
In this perspective, the Ecuadorian government would give up the envisioned monetary gains from the extraction of 846 million barrels of crude oil, estimated at around 7.2 billion USD in 2007, while asking for the international community to invest half of this amount for the funding of social development programs in Ecuador.
Such funds would be collected in a thirteen-year time span, and are to be managed by the Multi-Donor Trust Fund of the UNDP and could be obtained from public or private contributions.
A moratorium on extraction
The Yasuní Initiative Trust was put in place in January 2008, but in the month of August 2013, the Ecuadorian government decided to put an end to the project.
This was justified by the fact that the total of contribution pledges had only attained 336 million USD by the time of the last analysis, with only 13.3 million USD having actually been delivered.
The Yasuní Trust aimed to reach an equilibrium point at 1000 million USD of funding or pledges of funding, or investments that would guarantee a flux of at least 350 million USD during the time-span of the project funding.
The stop of the project by the Ecuadorian government led to rising opposition. Many argue that the lack of investment into the Yasuní Trust can be linked to problems of misinformation about current exploitation in the area of the Yasuní National Park and doubts about the funding process.
Not showing a clear position on whether there was an expected amount to be obtained in funding per year or not and no concrete guarantees of prolonged non-exploitation have been considered as elements affecting the investment process. Even like this, there was an increase of 50% in contributions to the fund between 2011 and 2012.
Fragile Amazon, Fragile Planet
Opponents to the drilling in the ITT area also look at the imbalance being created by compromising one of the last virgin areas of the Amazon forest in exchange of monetary gains of 600 million USD per year, an amount representing less than 2% of the current governmental budget.
In addition to this, pursuing extractive activities in an area where communities live in voluntary isolation – the Taromenane and the Tagaeri – would be considered, according to the Ecuadorian constitution, as Ethnocide; that is, the destruction of a social culture by means of the destruction of a human group.
There have already been cases of violence towards members of the Taromenane group, which relate to the changes in social structures linked to the oil extraction around the area.
Demanding Popular Consultation
A large part of the population, along with multiple public figures and environmental protection groups, demand a popular consultation of the Ecuadorian population on the subject. A popular consultation is a voting process equivalent to what is known in other countries as a referendum.
In this case, it would be done by means of the following question: “Do you agree on the Ecuadorian Government maintaining the oil in the ITT, known as block 43, indefinitely underground?”
Having a referendum would allow the Ecuadorian population to take part in the decision making process from which they have long been excluded due to the nature of the Yasuní-ITT project.
Since the Ecuadorian government does not directly provide funding for the initiative, the population cannot pressure to finance or stop financing the project.
This leads to a passive position, where Ecuadorians wait for decisions over their land and most importantly, the cultural and biological diversity of their country, to be made without their implication.
A total of 600 000 signatures need to be collected in 180 days to be later sent to the Constitutional Court (CC), who will then make a decision about the call for a popular consultation.
According to multiple polls – look at CEDATOS and Perfiles de Opinion – close to 80% of the population approved of the ITT initiative before it was voided and 50% do not support the drilling in the current situation.
Message Lost to Media
However, only 50% of the population feels like they have an acceptable level of knowledge about the Yasuní-ITT initiative and close to 27% of those not approving the drilling do so because of lack of information.
In order for Ecuadorians to make an informed decision, support needs to be given to diversified media sources that convey information to the general population, to have a basis of well-informed voters.
Of the total Ecuadorian national income, 30% of it comes from the oil industry, an industry that sustains environmental contamination and the depletion of natural resources which account as basic requirements for present and future socio-economic development.
Already six drilling blocks operate in the Yasuní National Park – three of which are operated by the governmental extraction agency Petroamazonas, with two others being operated by Repsol and a last block being run by PetroOriental, the Chinese governmental petroleum extraction agency. Together, these activities account for more than 25% of the national oil production.
Still, the government continues to focus talk on Chevron’s “dirty hands” and talks about envisioned extraction in the ITT area limited to only a thousand part of the total Yasuní reserve, even with the ITT block constituting 20% of the total area of the park.
With the Ministry of Environment calling for citizenship involvement in the overview of the project, access to clear information becomes crucial. Allowing public access to documents defining the concrete envisioned drilling projects would allow Ecuadorians to have a clear perspective of development in the Yasuní-ITT, leading to informed decision-making in the event of a popular consultation.
The same investments needed for the development of oil-extractive measures can be relocated to the development of social support structures and investment in diversified economic sectors that create well-being now and in the future.
During such a decisive breaking point, implication of the Ecuadorian population becomes essential and a popular consultation becomes a clear path in defining the development goals Ecuadorians wish to attain.