Ecuador’s Yasuni Initiative: Down in Flames

Failure of conservation effort raises question about cash-for-land schemes

When it was announced in 2007, Ecuador’s Yasuni ITT-Initiative to protect an area of the Amazonian rainforest from oil drilling was hailed as a historic conservation effort. Ecuadorian President Rafael Correa said he wouldn’t allow oil extraction in parts of Yasuni National Park if international donors agreed to reimburse Ecuador for half of the lost revenues of the estimated 846 million barrels of oil underneath the forest. This is how Earth Island Journal reporter Jean Friedman-Rudovsky explained the importance of the plan in a 2007 story titled ‘Money for Nothing’: “Ecuador’s move is, technically speaking, unprecedented. Though similar to programs that have sold acres of rainforest to avoid deforestation, this kind of nature purchase has never been tried for an area that holds billions of dollars of known oil reserves.”

Unprecedented and, you can now say, unsuccessful.

Tiputini - Yasuniphoto by sara y tzunky, on FlickrThe Yasuni Initiative was riddled with weaknesses from the start.

Last month Correa announced he was abandoning the initiative after failing to come up with the money to cover the monetary losses from not drilling. The Ecuadorian leader originally had sought $3.6 billion in exchange for forgoing oil drilling in the 2.5 million-acre rainforest, which is a UNESCO Biosphere Reserve. Correa didn’t even come close to his target. The original plan called for raising all of the money in the first year – a goal that even supporters called impossible. Then the Ecuadorian government extended the deadline and worked with the UN Development Program to set up a trust to administer donations. But there were few donations to handle. Ecuador was only able to attract $13 million in donations and another $116 million in pledges.

Obviously this is a big disappointment. Drilling and road-building in the Ishpingo, Tambococha, and Tiputini oil fields (hence “ITT Initiative”) will certainly disturb the ecosystems of this biodiversity hotspot – a place that is supposed to have more tree and insect species in a single hectare than in all of the US and Canada combined. And the industrial incursions and habitat disturbance will likely impact two Indigenous tribes, the Tagaeri and the Taromenane, that live in the forest in voluntary isolation.

Unfortunately, the discouraging outcome isn’t much of a surprise. As this analysis over at Mongabay makes clear, the Yasuni Initiative was riddled with weaknesses from the start and seemed a lot like “ecological blackmail.” Raising $3.6 billion to keep oil in the ground was always going to be a tough sell.

In a nationally televised speech announcing the decision to liquidate the Yasuni trust fund and drop the initiative, Correa was quick to point fingers at the international community: “It was not charity that we sought. It was shared responsibility in the fight against climate change. … The proposal was meant to awaken the conscience of the world and to generate a new reality. Sadly, we have to say that the world has failed us.”

Correa has a point. The Yasuni Initiative was a challenge to the international community to put its money where its mouth is on climate change issues – and the international community failed the test. But it’s worth asking whether the idea ever had a chance in hell of succeeding. When billions of dollars of resources are on the line, the conservation strategy of cash-for-land might reach its limit.

Buying parcels of land to protect them from development has a long track record of success. Just look at the accomplishments of The Nature Conservancy, which has protected nearly 120 million acres worldwide; in the United States, TNC holds title to about 15 million acres of land – an area roughly seven times the size of Yellowstone National Park. While many of the acres under TNC protection were donated to the organization or secured through government-backed agreements, many of them were purchased. Another conservation group, the Trust for Public Land, has helped broker billions of dollars worth of preservation deals. And there are hundreds more local and regional land trusts across the United States that raise money to protect areas close to people’s homes and hearts. This is important work worthy of support.

But raising money to buy a $5 million or $10 million (or even $100 million) parcel away from real estate developers or logging companies is one thing; trying to come up with billions of dollars to save the rainforest is something altogether different. The collapse of the Yasuni Initiative shows that environmentalists will never be able to match industrial forces dollar-for-dollar in the fight for conservation. We simply don’t have enough cash. Nor can we always rely on arguments about the value of ecosystem services to win the day. I like the ecosystem services concept well enough – it’s a smart and savvy tactic for enlisting business-minded people into the effort to protect the planet by demonstrating the dollar value of natural systems. But the ecosystems services claims can also be outgunned on financial grounds, especially when billions are at stake. I’m sure Yasuni National Park provides all sorts of important ecosystem services – clean water, clean air, healthy fish populations. I doubt, however, that it’s $7 billion worth of ecosystem services. As long as the price of oil is higher than the price of water, arguments about ecosystem services will lose in a head-to-head contest with the profiteers.

Guayaquil, Sr. Presidente Rafael Correa, en recorrido por Colegio Vicente Presidencia de la República del EcuadorRafael Correa.

Since fighting fire with fire has its limits, what could work as a conservation strategy when big money is on the line? Values-based asymmetrical warfare. That is, making the argument that some things are so precious that we simply cannot put a dollar value on them. There’s not a price tag big enough to convey the worth of a tree or flower or critter that exists nowhere else in the world. There’s no way to calculate the financial value of the language, history, and wisdom embedded in the culture of an isolated tribe facing extinction from industrial incursion. To repeat the classic preservationist argument: We should conserve nonhuman nature not because of its value to us, but because it is, simply, invaluable.

There’s no guarantee that such arguments will win. In fact, they’ll often lose. But values-based asymmetrical warfare at least has the advantage of forcing the oil drillers and the loggers to play on our intellectual and emotional turf.

Since the market-minded method for protecting Yasuni has failed, maybe politics can win. Ecuadorian politician Alberto Acosta – a foe of Correa’s and one of the people responsible for Ecuador’s history-making inclusion of Rights of Nature into the country’s new constitution – has pledged to get enough signatures to place the fate of Yasuni before the citizens in a nationwide referendum. A referendum to protect Yasuni has a good chance of winning; polls show that 80 percent of Ecuadorians were in favor of the Yasuni Initiative. Here’s hoping that the voters in Ecuador will have a stronger commitment to protecting the Yasuni rainforest than did international donors.

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