My way or the ‘trail’

Climate & Natural resources21 Nov 2013Scott Odell

There is no easy answer to the question of the fate of Ecuador’s Yasuní-ITT region, but a few key steps can maximize the areas of agreement of the many vested interests.

Beneath a remote corner of Ecuador’s Yasuní National Park lies one-fifth of the OPEC country’s proven oil reserves. Above ground flourishes one of the most biologically diverse regions on earth, an area closely tied to indigenous communities living in voluntary isolation. The multitude of interests at play in this coveted area, known as the Ishpingo-Tambococha-Tiputini (ITT) region, make the question of its future a complex one, with little chance for a solution that will please everyone.

A glimmer of hope appeared in 2007 when the Ecuadorian government revealed an innovative plan to harmonize debates between oil-driven economic development and environmental and cultural preservation: it would leave the area untouched if the international community would pay it half the estimated worth of the oil, or US$ 3.6 billion. However, initial enthusiasm by donor countries and organizations for the project ultimately gave way in the face of factors including the global economic crisis and skepticism over the scheme’s viability. By August 2013, donors had contributed only US$ 13 million.

In response, President Rafael Correa declared that “the international community has failed” Ecuador, and that the government, deeply indebted to China, could no longer afford not to exploit the oil. And so began the predictable battle, only slightly delayed by Ecuador’s novel idea: Correa launched an ad campaign to convince the public that extraction is necessary to fund vital social programs, and indigenous groups and environmental activists took to the streets to protest the government’s decision.

The revenue acquired through oil extraction in Yasuní-ITT would, indeed, be of great social benefit to Ecuador, including in reducing its high levels of poverty. But although Correa argues that the drilling will affect less than 0.1 percent of land in Yasuní National Park, history suggests that environmental and cultural impacts will not be small.

Between 2000 and 2010, an average of nearly 50 oil spills occurred in the country each year. In May, more than 11,000 barrels of oil spilled into the Coca River from a pipeline near Yasuní National Park, contaminating drinking water of the Coca community of 80,000 people.

Impacts on indigenous groups living in voluntary isolation in or near Yasuní-ITT may be even greater than on the environment. While the government claims that these groups do not inhabit the area in question, anthropologists have criticized its evidence as scientifically dubious. And prior to making the decision to drill, the government itself used the presence of isolated groups in Yasuní National Park to encourage donations to the ITT preservation programme.

The greatest danger to uncontacted groups in or near the area will be the methods used to access the drilling sites. Petroamazonas, which will lead the extraction process, has been careful to clarify that “there will be no roads leading to the field, only trails.” Thirty kilometers of such “trails” will be built, with a width of between three and four meters. As the Guardian notes, while “trails” may sound more eco-friendly than roads, at least some similar impacts from their construction are likely. Thus creating access to previously isolated areas poses dire risks to uncontacted groups, including conflict and competition over resources with illegal loggers and exposure to deadly diseases to which they have not developed immunity.

I have written previously on the pressing question of how the debate over extraction in Yasuní-ITT is most likely to play out. But a critical question remains: who should be the winners and losers in this and similar situations across the globe, and how should the decision be made? Ecuador is deeply divided on the subject.

The Correa Administration argues that harm to a few due to extraction is worth the health and educational benefits to many from increased government revenues. And while they have been careful to consult with communities affected by extraction, in accordance with national and international requirements, they clearly believe that the government should ultimately decide the fate of Yasuní-ITT. Given Correa’s 84 percent approval rating, they likely will.

But despite being the underdog, the civic group Yasunídos is working to raise enough signatures to bring the issue up for a national referendum, relying on the idea that the public should be able to vote on issues with such far-reaching national significance. They assert that a 1.5 percent tax increase on the wealthy would provide the same government revenue as the proposed extraction, but without the negative consequences for the environment and uncontacted indigenous groups.

For their part, a large body of the Huaorani people, an indigenous group whose territory meshes with that of the groups living in isolation, have given their support to Correa’s plan of extraction, in return for a promise that the revenues will be used to improve services in their communities. But Moi Enomenga, president of the Huaorani Nationality of Ecuador (NAWE) has also argued that the Ecuadorian people should not try to speak for them: “It is our territory, our people, our problem.”

Ironically, the uncontacted indigenous groups who would be most affected by extraction have no voice at all in the decision, other than their implicit request to remain isolated from outside society. The decision will be made for them and without them.

These disparate arguments over who should win or lose – and who should decide – demonstrate that no easy answer exists to the question of the fate of Ecuador’s Yasuní-ITT region. But a few key steps can and should be taken to maximize the areas of agreement of the many different vested interests.

At the international level, donor countries and organizations should consider approaching Correa with renewed interest in the original effort to preserve Yasuní-ITT. While their concerns over the viability of the programme are compelling, so is Correa’s argument that Ecuador cannot afford to both leave the oil untouched and continue to reduce poverty. This month’s climate talks in Warsaw brought the unequal burden of climate change faced by developing countries to the forefront of public discussion. Policymakers should build on this momentum to give the Yasuní-ITT initiative a second chance.

At the national level, the government should respond to anthropologists’ criticisms of research by Ecuador’s Ministry of Justice on the location of the uncontacted indigenous groups by launching a new, comprehensive study with input and review from outside experts. As these isolated groups cannot directly express their opinion on extraction in the area, such a study is one of the few options available to at least ensure that their implicit request, and the constitutional mandate, for preservation of their lands be respected. If the new findings conflict with those that previously concluded that uncontacted groups do not inhabit the extraction zone, Correa will be better armed to also give the original Yasuní-ITT Initiative another shot.

Finally, at the subnational level, those on both sides of the Yasuní debate must continue to peacefully make their voices heard. As popular protests across the region and the world have shown in recent years, many small voices can have major impacts, most notably in preventing special interests from dominating issues that affect everyone.

At all levels of the Yasuní-ITT debate and the many similar scenarios playing out across the globe, competing actors must carefully weigh all reasonable arguments, be open to compromise, and avoid the tendency to declare that it’s my way or the ‘trail.’

Want to read more on the Yasuní-ITT initiative? Read the article by Murat Arsel and Lorenzo Pellegrini and the blog post by Ivonne Yánez in The Broker’s Power Dynamics and Natural Resources dossier.