Despite protests at home and abroad, Ecuador’s President Rafael Correa has moved quickly to consolidate support for his decision to drill oil wells in Yasuni National Park, in that country’s portion of the Amazon Basin.
Correa announced on August 15 that he was abandoning the Yasuni-ITT Initiative, which asked developed nations to donate $3.6 billion over the course of 12 years to compensate Ecuador for leaving more than 800 million barrels of oil in the ground under Yasuni National Park’s northeast corner. He noted that the initiative had raised less than one percent of its goal in the six years since he launched it.
The Ishpingo, Tambococha and Tiputini (ITT) oil fields, which were discovered in the 1970s, hold about 20 percent of Ecuador’s known oil reserves. They’ve remained untapped for decades because of their remote location, near Ecuador’s border with Peru, and the creation of Yasuni National Park in 1979. Although Ecuador’s constitution prohibits petroleum or mineral extraction in protected areas, it allows for exceptions in cases of “national interest.”
The Ecuadorian government gets about half of its revenue from the petroleum industry, and Correa has increasingly funneled those funds into infrastructure and social programs. Correa has asked Ecuador’s congress to produce a declaration of national interest for drilling in both the ITT Block and Block 31, which is also inside Yasuni National Park, just west of ITT. The state oil company Petroamazonas has been working in Block 31 for two years under a permit that predates the 2008 constitution, and should begin extracting oil there soon. The country’s congress began debating the issue on Friday, but given that three-fourths of its members belong to Correa’s Alianza PAIS party, approval is expected in early October.
Correa has blamed the international community for the initiative’s failure, but several people who supported it placed much of the blame on the president. They noted that while the initiative was and lauded internationally, major donors became wary after Ecuador defaulted on its foreign debt in 2008, and when Petroamazonas began work in Block 31. Several people observed that the ITT reserves hold heavy crude, which will require mixing with light crude, which is found in Block 31, before it can be pumped through the pipeline over the Andes to the ports and refineries on Ecuador’s Pacific coast.
Correa’s decision to drill in ITT sparked demonstrations in several Ecuadorian cities and there have since been weekly marches in Quito, the capital. Leaders of the country’s Amazonian Native organizations signed a letter rejecting the president’s decision on the grounds that it threatens the environment and the nomadic Taromenane people, who live in voluntary isolation in Yasuni. Activists in Quito created a movement called Yasunidos that has petitioned the country’s Constitutional Court to mandate a national referendum on the issue.
Esperanza Martinez, president of the environmental group Accion Ecologica, lamented the government’s growing dependence on oil extraction, despite Correa’s early promises to diversify the economy and respect the “rights of nature.” She noted that the Correa administration has doubled the area of the Ecuadorian Amazon slated for oil exploitation, and borrowed billions of dollars from China, much of which is prepayment for oil deliveries.
“It is as if the government were an alcoholic father that has been selling the family’s belongings to support his habit, and now wants to sell the house,” she said.
The government has been regularly airing television and radio spots to ensure Ecuadorians that money earned from the ITT oil will be used to build schools and hospitals, and finance programs that benefit all citizens. Correa has claimed that Petroamazonas will use the latest technology to exploit the ITT reserves, that instead of roads, the company will build “ecological trails,” a mere 10 meters (30 feet) wide, and that the operation will impact just one tenth of a percent of the concession.
Biologist Kelly Swing, a professor at the Universidad San Francisco de Quito who has spent two decades studying Yasuni’s extraordinary biological diversity, expressed doubts about such claims. Swing has evaluated the environmental impacts of various oil operations in Ecuador, and he cited cases in which oil companies planned to damage no more than two percent of their concessions, but because loggers and settlers used oil roads to enter the area, as much as 20, 30 or 50 percent of the forest was damaged or destroyed.
“When the President says ‘We’re going to impact just one tenth of one percent,’ we have to have doubts about where that might lead,” said Swing. He added that Petroamazonas’ recent work in Block 31, immediately to the west of the ITT Block, doesn’t bode well for the promised environmentally friendly drilling.
Many people in the Amazon region support Correa, who was reelected last February with 57 percent of the national vote, and whose government has improved infrastructure and social services in the region. Whereas most Amazonian Native leaders oppose drilling in ITT, Correa is negotiating with the Waorani (a.k.a. Huaorani), whose ancestral territory includes the ITT block and the rest of Yasuni National Park. The likely Waorani approval of drilling in ITT could weaken the campaign to halt it.
Franco Viteri, president of the Government of the Original Nations of the Ecuadorian Amazon (GONOAE – formerly CONFENIAE), which represents the region’s seven tribes, said that while most Native leaders oppose drilling in the ITT block, GONOAE will respect the Waorani decision. He explained that whereas the Waorani and other tribes in northeastern Ecuador, where the oil industry has been active for decades, are focused on getting compensation for damages and use of their land, indigenous leaders in the central and southern Amazon are struggling to keep the oil companies out of their territory.
“We want to leave our children an inheritance of a healthy environment and clean water,” Viteri said.