Rufescent tiger heron (Tigrisoma lineatum) in Yasuni National Park in the Ecuadorian Amazon. Photo by: Jeremy Hance.
In what is a major victory for environmentalists, campaigners with United for Yasuni have collected 727,947 signatures triggering a national referendum on whether or not oil drilling should proceed in three blocs of Yasuni National Park in Ecuador. The effort started last year after Ecuador’s President, Rafael Correa, announced he was killing the Yasuni-ITT initiative, which called on the international community to pay into a trust fund to keep the most remote portions of the park free from oil exploitation. Currently, Yasuni National Park is considered the likeliest candidate for the most biodiverse place on the planet and is home to several indigenous tribes who have chosen voluntary isolation.
“Not only did we mobilize to get the needed signatures for the popular referendum, but we mobilized civil society for a greater call for a new development model that keeps oil in the ground and addresses the needs of its people,” said Esperanza Martinez, President of Acción Ecologica. “We proved that defending Yasuní is not just about monetary contributions, or political statements, but a mobilized civil society.”
Activists needed to gather half a million signatures, but collected over 100,000 more to make sure the results wouldn’t be invalidated. But several hurdles remain for activists: signatures need to be verified by Ecuador’s National Electoral Council and then the referendum needs to be deemed constitutional by the Constitutional Court. If the referendum passes these two tests, the question of whether or not oil drilling should go ahead in the Yasuni’s ITT (Ishpingo-Tambococha-Tiputini) blocs will go to the Ecuadorian public. Yet, victory isn’t assured. Although opinion polls show a hefty support in Ecuador for keeping the ITT blocs unexploited, debate will likely be fierce given Correa’s popularity and his pro-oil stance.
Top biodiversity for species groups. Yasuni sits in the small red region, which has peak biodiversity for four groups. Map by Matt Finer, Clinton Jenkins, and Holger Kreft.
Energy companies have been drilling in Yasuni National Park since the 1970s—despite its protected status—although the most remote portions have been left untouched. Yet, for Ecuador’s government and oil companies the ITT blocs remain the biggest fossil fuel prize: according to estimates this portion of the park contains about 20 percent of Ecuador’s oil reserves. The ITT Initiative would have kept these blocs untouched if international donors paid half the expected revenue of the oil—$3.6 billion—into a trust fund set up by the United Nations Development Program. The international community pledged around $330 million, though only deposited $13 million, before Correa ended the initiative.
President Correa has said drilling in the park would only impact 0.1 percent of Yasuni National Park, but conservationists say this figure doesn’t include the considerable infrastructure—including roads, pipelines, and buildings—that will be built to bring the oil to a global market. But Correa says the money garnered from oil drilling would be used to benefit Ecuador’s poor including those in the Amazon.
“We need these financial resources in order to alleviate poverty, in order to give public services to our people,” Correa told the Courtroom News Service.
However, Alicia Kawiya, vice president of the Waorani Indigenous Federation, told the Wall Street Journal: “More than 40 years of the oil industry has not benefited us. We do not need revenues from oil, we do not need oil activity. We have everything to live in our land.”
Ecuador’s Amazonian indigenous communities have proven staunch critics of Correa’s efforts to increase drilling in the park and open up more of the Amazon to fossil fuel extraction.
“The development vs. environment discourse of President Correa is the same, tired business-as-usual argument that every president here has used since oil was first discovered,” noted Esperanza Martinez, president of local NGO Acción Ecologica. “There is nothing ‘revolutionary’ about Ecuador trying to drill its way to prosperity. We’ve been doing that for half a century to no avail.”
(04/02/2014) A group of celebrities, including recent Academy Award winner Jared Leto, Law and Order‘s Benjamin Bratt, and Kill Bill‘s Daryl Hannah, have lent their voices to a new Public Service Announcement to raise signatures to protect Ecuador’s Yasuni National Park from oil drilling.
(03/20/2014) A new multimedia feature story by Brazilian environmental news group, ((o))eco, highlights the ongoing debate over Yasuni National Park in Ecuador, arguably the most biodiverse place on the planet.
(01/14/2014) Often touted as low-impact, remote oil roads in the Amazon are, in fact, having a large impact on frogs living in flowers in the upper canopy, according to a new paper published in PLOS ONE. In Ecuador’s Yasuni National Park, massive bromeliads grow on tall tropical trees high in the canopy and may contain up to four liters of standing water. Lounging inside this micro-pools, researchers find a wide diversity of life, including various species of frogs. However, despite these frogs living as high as 50 meters above the forest floor, a new study finds that proximity to oil roads actually decreases the populations of high-living frogs.
(12/10/2013) Last Wednesday, the government of Ecuador shutdown the indigenous rights NGO, Fundación Pachamama, in Quito over the group’s opposition to oil drilling in indigenous areas. More than a dozen government officials showed up at Pachamama’s office with a resolution by the Ministry of Environment that officially dissolved the organization, the first such moved by the government which in June passed an Executive Decree that tightened governmental oversight of the country’s NGOs.
(11/13/2013) The plan from Ecuador’s government was simple: Pay us and we won’t destroy the planet’s most extraordinary ecosystem. Dubbed the Yasuni-ITT initiative, the plan called upon developed nations to pay for protecting Ecuador’s Yasuni National Park from oil companies. Now, a recent study claims the plan was fraught with flaws as basic as drawing lines on a map.
(11/12/2013) In August 2012, professional photographers Ivan Kashinsky and Karla Gachet were on assignment for National Geographic in Yasuní National Park, home to arguably the most biodiverse rainforest in the world. While there, they happened to take an aerial shoot above an area known as Block 31 (see Map), a controversial oil concession located in the heart of the park, at the precise moment that the national oil company, Petroamazonas, was secretly building a new oil access road.
(11/07/2013) Even ten years ago it would have been impossible to imagine: clear-as-day footage of a jaguar plodding through the impenetrable Amazon, or a bicolored-spined porcupine balancing on a branch, or a troop of spider monkeys feeding at a clay lick, or a band of little coatis racing one-by-one from the dense foliage. These are things that even researchers who have spent a lifetime in the Amazon may never see. Now anyone can: scientists at the Tiputini Biodiversity Station in Ecuador’s Yasuní National Park have recently begun using camera trap videos to take movies of animals few will ever view in their lifetimes. The videos—following years of photo camera trapping—provide an intimate view of a world increasingly threatened by the oil industry.
(10/03/2013) Over 100 scientists have issued a statement to the Ecuadorian Congress warning that proposed oil development and accompanying roads in Yasuni National Park will degrade its “extraordinary biodiversity.” The statement by a group dubbed the Scientists Concerned for Yasuni outlines in detail how the park is not only likely the most biodiverse ecosystems in the western hemisphere, but in the entire world. Despite this, the Ecuadorian government has recently given the go-ahead to plans to drill for oil in Yasuni’s Ishpingo-Tambococha-Tiputini (ITT) blocs, one of most remote areas in the Amazon rainforest.
(09/16/2013) Ecuador’s President Rafael Correa recently announced to the world that he was ending the 6-year initiative aimed at avoiding oil drilling in a critical piece of the Amazon, the ITT Block of Yasuní National Park. In the speech, and the accompanying Decree, the President emphasized that the exploitation will affect less than 1% of the park. In subsequent remarks, President Correa indicated that the impacted area would be less than 0.001%. Thus, the new government pitch: minimum impact, maximum reward. Here, we counter that impacts related to biodiversity, indigenous people in voluntary isolation, and climate change may be severe.