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Challenges to Biodiversity Conservation: What can we learn from the Yasuní-ITT Initiative in Ecuador?

Written by Mónica Páez, SoGES 2013-2014 Sustainability Leadership Fellow, and PhD Candidate in the Department of Biology and Graduate Degree Program in Ecology

Yasuní National Park

The Yasuní National Park, located in Ecuador on the Northwestern edge of the Amazon basin, is one of the most biodiverse places on Earth. It occupies a unique location that intersects the Andes (located less than 100 km from the Andean foothills), the Amazon, and the Equator. Created in 1979, the Park encompasses an area of 9,820 km2 and was declared a UNESCO Biosphere Reserve in 1989. It has more than 1,300 species of vertebrates, more than 100,000 species of insects, and more than 2,500 species of plants. In just one hectare of forest in Yasuní, 664 species of plants can be found, which is more than all the plant species in North America. Yasuní also encompasses part of the ancestral territory of the Waorani (Huaorani) people.

My first encounter with the Yasuní National Park was more than 10 years ago during a class on biological field techniques in which we were taken to the university’s Yasuní Research Station. I did not have to spend very long in the Park to witness the detrimental footprints of human extraction activities. Although, the access to the Park is designed to be limited, the Yasuní Research Station uses a road built by the multinational oil and gas company REPSOL-YPF. Oil extraction in the Park started in the 1950s, before it was declared a National Park. Currently, oil exploitation is listed as the largest threat to the Yasuní National Park: a substantial part of northwestern Yasuní has either been exploited or is targeted for future exploitation. Besides the impact of the oil extraction process itself, oil access roads have led to deforestation, colonization, and overhunting. One of the most striking impacts of oil companies has occurred on the Waorani people. Since oil extraction started in their territory in the 1950s, it has placed them on a conflictive edge between traditional and modern influences. Convergence of these two worlds has led to several issues, including but not limited to illness, division between clans, and conflict. In fact, while some Waorani communities participate in activities like trade, research and tourism with the outside world, some have shown aggressive behavior toward the oil companies that have tried to drill in their lands.

The Yasuní-ITT Initiative

Perhaps the greatest threat that the park faces lies in its easternmost region, the ITT block (Ishpingo-Tambococha-Tiputini). Approximately 20% of Ecuador’s oil reserves lie in this block (846 millions of barrels of oil, currently estimated to be worth $18 billion) along with the presumed territories of the two voluntarily isolated indigenous groups, the Tagaeri and Taromenane. In 2007, Ecuador proposed to maintain the oil under the ITT field for perpetuity in an attempt to conserve Yasuní’s biodiversity, protect the Tagaeri and Taromenane, and to avoid emission of a significant amount of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere. By leaving the oil underground, Ecuador would have avoided the emission of 407 million metric tons of carbon dioxide, which, at the time the Initiative was proposed, represented $7.2 billion on the carbon market. The Yasuní-ITT Initiative proposed an alternative to address global climate change, in which countries collaborate to avoid gas emissions to the atmosphere while protecting biodiverse regions. Ecuador, in a co-responsibility approach, was willing to forego the income obtained by extracting the oil at the ITT field, which was estimated to be $7 billion when the Initiative was first proposed. Ecuador would contribute (forego) half that total income ($3.6 billion) if the world community contributed the other half by 2023, regardless of price changes in the oil market.

But how would a country, with a history of political instability, guarantee that oil would be left underground for perpetuity? And what would happen to the contributions? On August 2010, the Yasuní-ITT Trust Fund, administered by the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) was officially launched. The funds supporting the Yasuní-ITT Initiative would be collected by the Yasuní- ITT Trust Fund and were going be allocated to development strategies for handling the proposed income solution. One part of the funds would go towards investment in strategic renewable energy projects to change Ecuador’s energy matrix from fossil fuel to renewable energy sources, including hydro, geothermal, solar, wind, biomass, and tidal energy projects. The other part would fund a shift from an extractive economy based on oil extraction to a more sustainable model of development. First, these funds would be used for the conservation of protected areas in Ecuador. Ecuador has one of the highest percentages (20%) of protected areas in the world. Secondly, funds would contribute to reforestation, natural regeneration, and management of watersheds and forests. Additional funds would go towards strengthening social development in the Initiative’s zone of influence by investing in health, education, and training programs along with the encouragement of sustainable activities like ecotourism. Lastly, remaining funds would go towards supporting research, science, technology, and innovation projects in Ecuadorian institutions that enhance sustainability. The government would issue Yasuní Guarantee Certificates to donors of more than $50,000. The Certificates would not expire as long as the ITT field remained unexploited.

The optimistic times

After the Yasuní-ITT Trust Fund was officially launched in 2010, Ecuadorian citizens, organizations, and the government were all proudly bragging about Ecuador’s historical decision to leave oil reserves underground. According to the United Nations Development Group, 78% of Ecuadorians citizens supported the Initiative. Ecuador was already proud of being the first country to concede rights to nature in its constitution in democratic election in 2008, and the Yasuní-ITT Initiative was a clear gesture in respect of those natural rights and a forward-looking step towards environmental protection. The proposal was also in line with the new development paradigm of Ecuador, known as Sumak Kawsay (from Kichwa, meaning Living Well or Fulfilled Life in English), which strives for improving the population’s quality of life while promoting equality and harmonic coexistence among different ethnic groups and with nature.

During those years, the Yasuní-ITT Initiative was well covered in documentaries, books, and scientific publications in Ecuador and abroad. Ecuadorian scientists, including myself, named newly described species after Yasuní, and even mention the Initiative in the etymology section of those scientific publications. National and international organizations were created, like “Viva Yasuní” created by a group of people in France to support the Initiative and convince governments of western countries to contribute. The National Geographic Magazine, in its special 125-year anniversary issue dedicated to the age of exploration, included an article about Yasuní, the threat of oil exploitation, and the Initiative. The Yasuní National Park and Yasuní-ITT Initiative were continuously mentioned in social, local, and international media. The campaign “Yasunízate” (Yasunize yourself) was launched in Ecuador, and more and more people became “Yasunized”. Ecuador wanted the world to Yasunize.

The end of the Yasuní-ITT Initiative?

On August 15th, 2013, President Rafael Correa announced that after six years of its existence, only $336 million had been pledged and only $13.3 million had been delivered to the Initiative. Due to the indifferent international response, he cancelled the Trust Fund, thus ending the Yasuní-ITT Initiative.

After this announcement, the supporters of the Initiative protested around the globe. Ecuadorian citizens and the international community actively manifested their disagreement. One very significant manifestation of the unrest occurred in Ecuador just a few weeks ago. Women leaders from Amazonian groups walked for days to Quito to debate with government officials about the oil extraction in their territories. In the meantime, the Ecuadorian government initiated a persuasive campaign stating that only 0.001% of the Park will be affected, that the best technology will be used, and that Ecuadorians will greatly benefit from the revenues obtained by the extraction. Unfortunately, even with the public outrage and protests, oil drilling in the ITT block was approved a few weeks ago. Currently, Ecuadorian people against the exploitation of the ITT block are putting pressure on the government, asking for a referendum on the subject.

What can we learn from the Yasuní-ITT Initiative?

The Yasuní-ITT Initiative is a very complex subject with ecological, social, economical, and political implications. However, as an Ecuadorian conservation and evolutionary biologist, I want to address issues that the Initiative brings up from my perspective. I will first focus on the value of biodiversity. Then, since almost all conservation strategies must incorporate the human dimension, I will add some thoughts on this subject from my perspective as a citizen of this megadiverse, and multicultural country.

The value of diversity

First of all, as a biologist, especially one interested in conservation, the intrinsic value of biodiversity is a given. However, for most people, the value of biodiversity is not so obvious. Biodiversity seems to lose value as urbanization increases, and people connect less and less with nature. The disconnection from the natural world happens not only on emotional and intellectual levels, but also in the losing the realization that natural resources sustain our life and that our actions truly impact nature. Urbanization prevents us from witnessing and experiencing our interactions with nature, and this disconnection has an influence on our daily choices. When decision-makers adopt that attitude, they might overlook the importance of conserving nature simply because they do not have the opportunity to experience it. For example, it is not uncommon to hear the false dilemma of development versus conservation. Certainly, a central component of conservation is public education, particularly in urban areas. Conservation education programs, especially when coupled with outdoor activities and field trips, would be one way to enhance experiencing nature.

Biodiversity also has a utilitarian value, providing humans with goods, services, and information. Estimating the utilitarian value of biodiversity has increased in interest as a less controversial and more pragmatic approach than focusing on the intrinsic value of biodiversity. Following this justification, ecology and economics have been brought together to help make conservation decisions. There are several techniques that can be used to estimate both the intrinsic and the utilitarian value of diversity in monetary terms, for example, a cost-benefit analysis. This approach has proven to be useful in many instances, though there is debate over a strict focus on the utilitarian and economic value of diversity.

A major flaw of this utilitarian approach is that economic appraisals will always underestimate the real monetary value of biodiversity. For example, most analyses on the economic value of an extractive activity such as oil drilling ignore the costs of the social impact (e.g. health issues related to activity, displacement of people where the activity will be carried out) or the environmental impact (e.g. remediation costs, loss of biodiversity). In most places, including Latin America, the cost-benefit analysis is far from complete. Eduardo Gudynas, an expert on development, economics, and ecology from Uruguay, maintains that if the assessment of the environmental impacts of extractive activities were more extensive and considered all of the repercussions of drilling, most projects would not be approved. Moreover, by monetizing the value of biodiversity, we are ignoring indigenous groups, particularly the ones who rely on the land, not money, to sustain their lives.

In addition, recognizing the intrinsic value of biodiversity “has a dramatic effect upon the framework of environmental debate and decision-making” (Fox, 1993). If biodiversity is considered to have an intrinsic value, then sufficient justification has to be provided to put biodiverse areas at risk. Whereas, if biodiversity is only considered to have utilitarian value, then sufficient justification has to be provided to conserve it. If we focus only on the utilitarian value, biodiversity will always lose. Therefore, it is essential that we bring not only the economic but also the cultural, traditional, anthropological, and ecological values of biodiversity to the environmental debate and decision-making. Increasing focus on the utilitarian value and economic assessment of biodiversity could potentially be shifting the attention of conservation biologists away from other strategies that focus on the intrinsic value of nature. As cautioned by Soulé (2013), known as the father of conservation biology, conservationism based only on utilitarian values is drifting away from true conservationism.

Human dimensions

An important step in the task of conserving biodiversity is recognizing that, in order to implement adequate conservation strategies, we need to add a human dimension. It is one of the biggest challenges and requires substantial collaboration between ecological and social disciplines. We desperately need to consider indigenous groups, to develop strategies together that are actually applicable and in line with their culture. In these cases, it is even more pressing to expand our utilitarian logic as mentioned earlier and incorporate the cultural, social and ecological values of these people. Ignoring this in the past, has led to conflicts within indigenous groups and with extractive activities in every South American country (except Uruguay, which is the only country in the region that does not have indigenous groups).

Furthermore, the importance of local and indigenous knowledge in conservation decisions has been overlooked in the past. If we want to find sustainable alternatives for the use of our natural resources, indigenous knowledge is an invaluable resource that has to be taken into account. Examples of indigenous agricultural systems in Bolivia, Mexico, and New Guinea, among other places, show that they are highly sophisticated and productive; however, these systems have been at risk of disappearing in the face of modern management. Recently, the Intergovernmental Platform on Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services (IPBES) has been trying to come up with methodology that puts indigenous knowledge at the same level of importance as scientific knowledge when making land management decisions.

In countries like Ecuador, the economy has mainly based on the extraction of minerals, oil and gas that are destined for international markets, which is commonly referred as extractivism. The pressure to develop threatens natural resources and biodiversity, but new paradigms of development could alleviate that pressure. The National Plan based on the Sumak Kawsay, which acknowledges the importance of a harmonic coexistence between different ethnic groups and nature, is a first step. However, that acknowledgement has to be translated into actions. The Yasuní-ITT might have been a first attempt, and even if the Initiative fails and the ITT is exploited, the debate is open now. It is the perfect time to collaborate and propose new initiatives that would translate into a truly progressive, post-extractivism economy.

Recognizing the value of biodiversity, expanding the human dimension in conservation by incorporating indigenous knowledge, and proposing alternative paradigms of development are some actions that would enable biodiversity conservation while allowing people to attain what they consider fulfillment. That fulfillment could mean the Sumak Kawsay for the Ecuadorian people, or remaining in isolation to the Tagaeri and Taromenane in the heart of perhaps the most biodiverse place on Earth.


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