- A recent study proposes a new methodology to map parts of the Ecuadoran Amazon where fossil fuel reserves must be kept untapped to meet global climate goals, and says it can be replicated and scaled for the entire Amazon Rainforest.
- This includes reviving the Yasuní-ITT Initiative proposed in 2003, and later abandoned by the Ecuadoran government, to stop oil exploitation in Yasuní National Park.
- Since the initiative was shelved, oil exploration has resumed inside the park, advancing toward areas where isolated Indigenous people live and driving swaths of deforestation in the dense forest.
- Campaigners have successfully pushed for the revival of the Yasuní-ITT Initiative to be put to a referendum this month.
In 2007, Ecuador’s then-president, Rafael Correa, announced an ambitious plan to prevent oil drilling in Yasuní National Park, one of the world’s most biodiverse areas and home to the Indigenous Waorani people, 4,000 plant species, and 300 mammal species, several of them threatened. Correa called on other countries to help Ecuador keep the area intact, in what was called the Yasuní-ITT Initiative, which would have left nearly 1 billion barrels of oil underground. (ITT stands for the Ishpingo-Tambococha-Tiputini oil block that overlaps with the protected area.)
In exchange for not allowing oil drilling to take place, Ecuador was seeking $3.6 billion from the international community. The money would then be invested in the country’s transition to renewable energy, cutting its greenhouse gas emissions, and protecting its Indigenous peoples. The plan was put into action in 2010, but abandoned in 2013, largely due to a lack of committed foreign funding.
Now, researchers from the University of Padua in Italy have brought the plan into the spotlight once again, as part of an assessment of how feasible it would be for Ecuador to revive its energy transition plans and leave its oil underground — not just in Yasuní National Park, but across the Ecuadoran Amazon.
The new study, published in the journal Environmental Research Letters, evaluates different sociocultural, environmental, geographic, infrastructure and geospatial variables to identify what the researchers call unburnable carbon areas throughout the Ecuadoran Amazon. They define these areas as land free of fossil fuel extraction, which should be protected for their social and environmental importance. The methodology used in the study can be replicated and scaled across the entire Amazon Rainforest to identify areas where fossil fuel reserves should be left underground, such as protected areas and Indigenous territories that are threatened by, among other activities, encroaching oil and gas drilling activity. The study authors say preserving these areas would go a long way toward achieving the Paris Agreement goal of capping global warming at 1.5° Celsius (2.7° Fahrenheit) above the pre-industrial average.
Ecuador, its Amazon region (EAR) and the spatial distribution of oil blocks: according to the study, only blocks in the northern region could continue with fossil production, but it requires best practices to minimize environmental impacts and respect human rights. Image courtesy of Codato et al.
A special report published in 2018 by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) calculates that limiting carbon dioxide emissions to less than 420 million metric tons would give us a 67% chance of meeting the Paris Agreement target. To do that, however, calls for keeping more than 85% of coal, 59% of gas and 58% of oil reserves untapped by 2050, according to a 2015 study in the journal Nature. But according to the University of Padua researchers, there are currently no standard protocols to help identify which areas should be off-limits to exploitation.
“We, as geographers, are trying to highlight the necessity of defining the ‘where’ and not only the ‘how much’ of oil should be left underground,” study lead author and geographer Daniele Codato told Mongabay in an email. “Our study is a proposal that tries to rationalize and make more transparent decision-making processes. We believe that complex climate justice decisions require the inclusion of all territorial stakeholders in the whole process, from the criteria definition to the final decisions.”
The Yasuní-ITT Initiative lacked data transparency, with no agreement on how to allocate the money raised, which was one of the factors for the government shelving the project, according to Carmen Josse, executive director of the EcoCiencia Foundation, an Ecuadoran NGO. Since it was abandoned, oil exploration has resumed in the park, with Petroecuador, the state-owned oil company, managing several platforms, and private operators granted other concessions.
Codato said initiatives similar to Yasuní-ITT “can contribute to reducing or stopping fossil fuels exploration and production only if there is the political and social willingness to do it.” Josse, who is also part of Amazon Network of Georeferenced Socio-Environmental Information (RAISG), agreed, saying there’s no eagerness from the current government of Guillermo Lasso, Ecuador’s first right-wing president in decades, to renew the Yasuní-ITT Initiative. “Lasso seems to want to exploit everything to the last drop,” she told Mongabay by video call.
Reviving the Yasuní Initiative
Oil drilling in Ecuador began in the 1960s, but critics say it hasn’t brought prosperity to the country. Ecuador’s Human Development Index (HDI), a gauge of its citizens’ life span, education and income, is below the regional average, with a quarter of the population living below the poverty line. In Yasuní National Park, oil exploration began in 1979 and has been criticized for prioritizing the interests of foreign investors, mainly Chinese companies recently, over those of local communities.
Forty-five percent of the country’s territory is covered by the Amazon Rainforest, helping make this small Latin American country one of the 17 most biodiverse in the world. Yasuní National Park is one of the symbols of this abundance. Since the restart of oil exploitation in 2016, roads have cut through the dense forest, getting dangerously close to the so-called intangible zone, an area of the highest conservation value nationally, established to protect the Tagaeri and Taromenane Indigenous peoples, relatives of the Waorani who live in voluntary isolation.
While the government may have abandoned the Yasuní-ITT Initiative in 2013, civil society groups have never given it up, and have successfully campaigned for a referendum on reviving it, in a movement knows as “Yasunidos.” The poll, to be held this month, would let the Ecuadoran people choose whether Petroecuador should continue the oil exploration that, in the past eight years, has driven deforestation in the national park and left the isolated Indigenous peoples more vulnerable. According to a report from the Monitoring of the Andean Project (MAAP) from January 2022, the new oil platforms are located near the buffer area surrounding the intangible zone.
Satellite images from MAAP show that the closest road is now only 300 meters (less than 1,000 feet) from the intangible zone. In a map published two years earlier, MAAP identified it as an access road in the ITT block, located in the northern sector of Yasuní National Park. The most recent stretch connects the various oil platforms in the Ishpingo area, where satellite imagery shows swaths of deforestation, stretching south into the park.
The new oil wells proposed by the Lasso administration would sit even deeper inside this area, as the map below reveals. The Ishpingo B platform is only 300 m from most of Yasuní’s conservation area, where the isolated Indigenous people live.
Base Map. Location of Yasuni National Park, ITT Block, and Zona Intangible in the Ecuadorian Amazon. Image courtesy of MAAP.
The Yasunidos campaign garnered more than 750,000 signatures in an effort to get the initiative on the ballot. But an audit that was later revealed to be fraudulent claimed the signatures were invalid. The Supreme Court ruled in favor of the petitioners, reversing the outcome of the audit and setting the stage for the referendum to take place in February 2023.
According to Codato, it’s possible to scale up the methodology used in his team’s recent study to apply to a wider region — if all stakeholders are involved and if there is free, open access, reliable spatial data and information.
“These are crucial elements to perform an inclusive and transparent spatial multicriteria analysis … especially in relation to data about oil exploitation and production,” he said.
Only this data would make it possible, Codato said, to implement the methodology to good effect in other countries. “We think this study could be replicable and scalable in other countries if these conditions are respected,” he said.
In Ecuador’s case, Codato said the study could be timely, now that the possibility of reviving the Yasuní-ITT Initiative comes to a vote. “It could be replicated as a real decision-making process if there is the political (at national and international levels) willingness to do it,” he said.
Oil exploration isn’t the only threat to biodiversity in Ecuador; mining also abounds throughout the Ecuadoran Amazon, according to Josse.
“The map of the Ecuadoran Amazon is now completely gridlocked,” she said, adding it’s as if the rainforest is seen by planners only in terms of how it can be exploited. “There has been an explosion of mining and illegal mining in Ecuador, which brings, besides deforestation, complex social problems, because of its association with drug trafficking that corrupts everything.”
Codato, D., Pappalardo, S. E., Facchinelli, F., Murmis, M. R., Larrea, C., & Marchi, M. D. (2023). Where to leave fossil fuels underground? A multi-criteria analysis to identify unburnable carbon areas in the Ecuadorian Amazon region. Environmental Research Letters, 18(1), 014009. doi:10.1088/1748-9326/aca77d
McGlade, C., & Ekins, P. (2015). The geographical distribution of fossil fuels unused when limiting global warming to 2°C. Nature, 517(7533), 187-190. doi:10.1038/nature14016
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