Crunch Time for Ecuador's Biological Treasure Trove

  • by Gonzalo Ortiz (quito)
  • Wednesday, April 21, 2010
  • Inter Press Service

Final efforts are under way on a text agreeing to a trust fund of 3.5 billion dollars, in exchange for leaving the crude untouched, to be signed Thursday Apr. 22 at the World People's Summit on Climate Change and the Rights of Mother Earth taking place in the Bolivian city of Cochabamba.

But Ecuadorean President Rafael Correa stunned environmentalists by saying there is 'a great deal of exaggeration' about the impact of drilling for oil on the Yasuní park, located in the northeast of the country, in the course of describing his 'Plan B' in the event that the trust fund, under negotiation since 2007, does not pan out.

Correa said the park has 'an area of 200,000 hectares, of which only 20 would be exploited,' but these figures are much smaller than the real ones.

'Those of us who are defending the Yasuní reserve are filled with fear and perplexity by the remarks being made about oil extraction,' Acción Ecológica, a local environmental group, said in a communiqué, which added that in at least three instances, the president's words 'are inexact.'

'Concern forYasuní is not exaggerated in the least. It is the most fragile and marvellous area of Ecuador, and it is threatened by one of the most polluting industries in the world,' said Acción Ecológica.

The organisation also said that Yasuní, declared a World Biosphere Reserve by the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organisation (UNESCO), 'covers nearly one million hectares.' The area of 200,000 hectares mentioned by Correa 'is that of an oil block,' and the area affected will be much larger than 20 hectares, as Plan B foresees drilling 130 oil wells.

According to Esperanza Martínez, the head of the 'Salvemos al Yasuní' campaign to preserve the area, 'unfortunately part of the reserve has already been taken over.'

Martínez told IPS that environmentalists and delegates from the ombudsman's office, who visited the area Apr. 9, found exploratory wells inside the park, and also inside the 'untouchable zone' within its boundaries, where extractive activities are forbidden and indigenous tribes of hunter-gatherers live in voluntary isolation.

Oil extraction activity was also found in the Armadillo bloc, connected by pipeline to the 'untouchable zone'.

The Yasuní is 'an enormous mass of mature forest, which could guarantee the preservation of biodiversity, climate equilibrium, the rainfall cycle, and the lives of the area's native peoples,' says Acción Ecológica.

In Ecuador, 'the remnants of Amazonian native groups, formerly more populous, who live in remote and virtually inaccessible jungle areas and never came into contact with the Spanish conquistadors' or any other outside civilisation, are regarded as living in voluntary isolation, said Miguel Ángel Cabodevilla, an expert on uncontacted tribes.

In 2006, the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights imposed precautionary measures that oblige the state to protect these peoples.

Furthermore, article 57 of the constitution in force since 2008 stipulates that the territories of peoples in voluntary isolation are ancestral possessions, 'irreducible and untouchable, where all kinds of extractive activities are banned,' said environmentalist Natalia Bonilla.

Correa said the new terms of reference of the trust fund are more respectful of Ecuador's sovereignty and dignity than the previous version, which he prevented from being signed in December 2009.

In the earlier version, he said, 'international bureaucracy and donor countries called the shots, when the largest donor was actually Ecuador.' He also complained that the funds would have to be channelled through NGOs, 'in other words, the usual cliques.'

In January, the president criticised his own negotiating team and explained why he had prevented the signing of the trust fund terms of reference a month earlier at the Copenhagen summit on climate change.

Foreign Minister Fander Falconi promptly resigned along with the entire team of negotiators that had worked on the trust fund proposal, which is intended to compensate Ecuador for leaving the Yasuní oil reserves in the ground, along with half the revenues it would have made from exploiting them.

Correa said the new trust fund terms have a 'central goal', which he did not specify but is assumed to be environmental conservation and fighting poverty, and that the money could not be used for other purposes.

But now, 'we will select the projects, we will have the deciding vote, because that is Ecuador's money, it is public money that belongs to the Ecuadorean people,' he said.

The intention is that the trust fund will be managed by the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP), and every effort is being made to have the documents ready for signature by Thursday in Cochabamba.

'They (donor countries) are not doing us a favour with the Yasuní-ITT (trust fund) initiative, it is Ecuador that is doing the world a favour,' said Correa. But he added, with an ambivalence remarked on by environmentalists, that 'in economic terms, what would serve the country best is pumping the oil and using the income from its sale to build schools, airports and highways.'

If the trust fund commitments are not signed, therefore, 'we could adopt Plan B, which is to extract the oil taking the greatest care of the environment,' he said.

'We stand firm on the conviction that Yasuní cannot be exploited, even if there are no payments in compensation. We hope there will be, because they will help to fulfil the ideal of a transition to a post-oil era Ecuador,' Acción Ecológica said in its communiqué.

Yasuní represents only 0.6 percent of the Amazon basin, but its biodiversity is staggering. It is home to 144 varieties of frogs and toads, and in the space of one hectare can harbour 100,000 different insects and more tree species than in Canada and the United States together.

© Inter Press Service (2010) — All Rights ReservedOriginal source: Inter Press Service

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