Photos by Max Riché, Video by Nicolas Beaumont
Ecuador, Going Against the Flow
Dr. Ivonne Baki, former Ecuadorian Secretary of State, is a caring international environmentalist, and a UNESCO Goodwill Ambassador. She led the Yasuní-ITT Initiative, in conjunction with the UNDP, in what was a first attempt at a new form of conservation, in order protect one of the most biodiverse areas in the world in the Amazon from oil drilling, deforestation, and the release of devastating amounts of CO2.
With oil accounting for 14% of Ecuador’s GDP and 58% of national exports, it is easy to attach a $7.2 billion (US) price tag to the 846 million barrels of oil beneath the Yasuni National Park. It is not so easy to put a price on the 150 species of amphibians, 596 species of birds, 200 species of mammals, and 10,000 species of insects that inhabit the Yasuni, which is made up of 4000 square miles of the Amazon rainforest.
Appointed in 2007 as Secretary of State for the Yasuni-ITT Initiative, a government project to forego oil extraction in return for foreign aid, diplomat, politician, humanist, and artist Ivonne Baki was assigned the task of raising $3.6 billion from the international community by 2023 to protect Yasuni’s Ishpingo Tambococha Tiputini (ITT) oil fields, in a proposed new form of conservation mechanism. As calculated by President Rafael Correa $3.6 billion is half of the income Ecuador would be forfeiting by pursuing alternative, and more sustainable, development. But, if the ITT oil fields were exploited, the resulting deforestation and burning of fossil fuels would release 407 million metric tons of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere.
The Yasuni-ITT initiative attempted to set precedence for a new model for co-responsibility in protecting natural ecosystems: international fundraising that would prevent climate change at source and put an economic value to the social returns of conservation. This would replace retroactive carbon taxes, provide alternative forms of revenue for developing countries, and incentivize research and development in alternative energy technologies with higher upfront costs.
In 2011, four years after its announcement, the government announced that it would proceed with preserving the Yasuni, having reached a goal of collecting $116 million in pledges by the year’s end. In August 2013, however, this optimistic tone faltered, when Correa announced that with only $13 million in actual donations in addition to the $116 million in pledges, Ecuador would abandon its plan to not drill for oil.
Baki adds retrospectively today, “Sadly to say, Yasuni is going to be partially exploited. This is going to be done with the newest technology that will, supposedly, have the least harmful impact on the environment… The world failed us.”
The decision to suspend the Yasuni project was met with significant controversy. Political analyst Jose Fuentes expressed concern over the prevalence of “economic pragmatism” in political decision-making. Environmental groups throughout Ecuador campaigned for national referenda that would take public opinion into account. According to the Yasuni-ITT Trust Fund, nearly 80% of Ecuadorians oppose oil drilling in the national park, which would also pose a threat to the survival of the Tagaeri and Taromenane communities living in voluntary isolation.
“Many countries, companies, and private citizens gave generous contributions,” Baki says, “but the success was mainly among the people – individuals from all over the world who felt that Yasuni was part of them and needed to be protected.” In the future, “I would have definitely worked more closely with those people, focused my attention on civil society, the private sector, schools, universities, NGOs, the media, etc. And I probably should not have so naïvely trusted those governments which for the most part had a different agenda and compromised money interests.”
Although Yasuni-ITT did not succeed by its original standards, Baki is hopeful for future projects that follow the Ecuadorian model of calculating the economic costs of not pursuing oil exploration. She explains, “We were the pioneers, the first to present such an innovative idea to the world and the world was not yet ready for it. Now, I see more awareness and it gives me a lot of hope for the future. China and the US, for instance, agreed during the APEC meeting to reduce emissions. President Obama recently offered $3 billion to the UN for climate change. So we are moving in the right direction, especially when we see the main players actually doing something for a change and not just talking.”
The project also succeeded in stirring public consciousness about the beauty and vulnerability of the Amazon rainforest, much of which was due to Baki’s travel around the world giving presentations and educating government leaders on the need for conservation. “The Yasuni-ITT Initiative created awareness in Ecuador and the world that we need to be more responsible for our planet and preserve the few precious biodiverse ecosystems we still have left,” says Baki. “It moved me to see how the young generations got so actively and emotionally involved in this transcendental project.”
Conversely, the project’s failure raises unsettling questions: Can governments feel deeply attached to a wilderness area outside of their geographic boundaries? Is it ethical for Ecuador to give up on its commitment in the absence of international support? Did Correa frame the Yasuni as “ecological blackmail” by putting the health and safety of indigenous cultures and endangered animals at stake? Founding Director of the Tiputini Biodiversity Station Kelly Swing claims that 90 percent of species near areas affected by oil drilling lose their lives, no matter how “environmentally friendly” the methods used for oil extraction.
Moving forward, Baki emphasizes the importance of continuing the dialogue about working collectively toward peace and sustainability: “We, as Ecuadorians, will be very vigilant [to cause the least environmental harm possible]. We are sad that it has come to this. We cannot fail Yasuni…”
Deforestation globally is responsible for up to 20% of global greenhouse gas emissions. If you would like to get involved in saving the Yasuni National Park, you can follow or donate UNDP’s Ecuador Yasuni ITT Trust Fund, which not only saves the emissions released from deforestation, will also help “avoid the emission of 407 million metric tons of carbon dioxide by forgoing extraction and burning of fossil fuels.