by Kintto Lucas
QUITO, Aug 23 (IPS) – The innovative offer by the government of Ecuador to refrain from exploiting its largest oil reserve, in exchange for international compensation for nature conservation, is attracting increasing support.
While oil prices are soaring, Quito is adopting the civil society initiative calling for the Ishpingo-Tiputini-Tambococha (ITT) oil reserve, the country’s largest, to remain untapped. The ITT reserve is located in Yasuní National Park, one of the most biodiverse areas in the world, in the Amazon region provinces of Pastaza and Napo.
The slogans “Yasuní Belongs to Everyone” and “Yes to Life, No to ITT”, painted on the walls in Quito and other Ecuadorean cities in the last few days, are a sign that something new is happening in this country.
The idea was set forth by local environmental organisations like Acción Ecológica, has been promoted by former minister of mines and energy Alberto Acosta, and was taken up by left-wing President Rafael Correa.
Quito has suspended oil drilling at ITT for one year, and has approached several foreign governments, international bodies and non-governmental organisations with the proposal that Ecuador be paid an indemnity in return for leaving the oil undisturbed, on the grounds that this would prevent environmental damages that would affect humanity as a whole.
Correa told IPS that society is being encouraged, nationally and internationally, to contribute to the Ecuadorean state in order to keep the crude underground.
The hope is to raise some 350 million dollars a year, equivalent to 50 percent of what the state would earn from the extraction of the ITT crude.
The envisaged procedure is that the state would issue bonds for the crude that is to remain untapped, on the undertaking that it will never be extracted, and that the Yasuní National Park, declared a Biosphere Reserve by the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organisation (UNESCO) in 1989, will be protected.
Ecuador is basing its proposal on four key arguments: the need to combat climate change, curb the destruction of biodiversity, protect the Huaorani, Tagaeri and Taromenane indigenous people, and transform the country’s economy by adopting a new development model.
“The 350 million dollar contribution would be for 10 years, after which it would drop steadily, because an alternative source of income for the state would be developed, that could yield dividends indefinitely,” said environmental activist Esperanza Martínez, an expert on oil issues.
So far there have been over 100 expressions of interest in supporting Ecuador’s proposal, from governments, international organisations and individuals.
Among them is British musician Sting, whose wife, Trudie Styler, is active on behalf of those affected by pollution caused by the U.S. oil company Texaco in other areas of the Ecuadorean Amazon. Another is the government of Norway, one of the first to join the “great green crusade,” as some environmentalists are calling it.
Norwegian Deputy Foreign Minister Raymond Johansen promised his country’s support on a visit to Ecuador in April.
For its part, Spain has committed four million dollars to researching sustainable management of the Yasuní National Park, and said it would be the first to contribute to the compensation fund if it was found that not exploiting the crude was a viable option.
The U.S. environmental organisation The Pachamama Alliance also expressed interest in providing economic support.
Former minister Acosta suggested swapping Ecuadorean foreign debt against the country’s commitment to protect its Amazon region, to be negotiated with the Paris Club, an informal forum of 19 creditor nations.
Acosta was involved in negotiations for this exchange while he was a government minister, from January to June 2007, and said he believed it was feasible.
“Ecuador’s foreign creditors could reduce our payments or cancel debt, in exchange for the oil not being extracted,” Acosta told IPS.
“We must beware of irresponsible exploitation of oil resources. To continue the policy of extracting crude in the Amazon, as has been the case until now, would be really irresponsible,” he said.
The non-governmental Acción Ecologica has invited international cooperation with the campaign, by “buying” the underground oil.
The proposal would ban commercial extraction of oil in the ITT in perpetuity, and explicitly recognise the right of traditional usage by indigenous people, particularly groups like the Tagaeri and Taromenane who live in voluntary isolation.
“The extraction and burning of oil, gas and coal worldwide cannot continue unabated, because carbon dioxide emissions are already double what the oceans, soils and new vegetation can absorb, and therefore atmospheric concentrations continue to rise,” said Martínez, with regard to factors causing climate change.
Studies by the state oil company Petroecuador indicate that the ITT block contains reserves of close to one billion barrels of heavy crude, with a ratio of 80 barrels of toxic water to 20 barrels of oil.
The Brazilian oil company Petrobras is already operating in the Yasuní National Park, in block 31, while the Spanish-Argentine firm Repsol-YPF and Canada’s EnCana have concessions for two other reserves in blocks 17 and 18, respectively, which are located near the limits of the park, and impinge on it.
The Huaorani people live in an area of the Yasuní park close to the ITT. “We know what oil is. It does not benefit us, it has only brought pollution,” said Huaorani leader Juan Enomenga.
Sources at the medical centre in Coca, the capital of the Amazonian province of Orellana, report that after oil drilling began in the area the Huaorani people began to fall sick with gastrointestinal, respiratory and skin diseases.
In May 2006, the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights granted precautionary measures in favour of the Taromenane and Tagaeri peoples, to protect the rights and survival of these groups.
The Yasuní National Park was created in 1979 with the aim of protecting its biodiversity. It has an area of 982,000 hectares, and more than 500 species of birds, 173 species of mammals, 100 amphibian species, 43 tree frog species and 100 reptile species, including 62 species of snakes, have been identified there.