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The Yasuní National Park is situated in the Ecuadorian Amazon, predominantly in the province of Francisco de Orellana. In 1989 UNESCO declared the park a Bio-reserve and Cultural Heritage site.
Inhabiting the Yasuní are various different indigenous groups including the Waorani, Shuar and Amazonian Kichwa. Some of these peoples - such as the Tagaeri and Taromenane - still voluntarily maintain no contact with the rest of the world. These warrior-like hunter-gatherers have been living in harmony with nature for centuries.
The Yasuní is one of the most bio-diverse places on the planet. It spans nearly a million hectares and is home to the greatest genetic variety of plants and animals on earth.
It is thought to be a zone that did not freeze during the last ice-age, which began 2 million years ago and lasted up to 10,000 years ago. As a result, it became an island of vegetation where flora and fauna took refuge, survived and eventually re-populated the Amazon.
This explains the abundance of recording-breaking natural treasures constantly being discovered in the Yasuní. For example, the forest it accommodates the largest number of species of trees per hectare in the world. Only one hectare of the Yasuní is home to the same amount of native tree species as the whole of North America. There is also an extraordinary amount of unrecorded bio-diversity.
The Ecuadorian national government has declared 700, 000 hectares of the park legally ‘untouchable’ meaning that the area should be protected from any activity which may negatively effect the bio or cultural diversity of the region.
The two main causes of global warming are the burning of fossil fuels and deforestation, exploiting the Yasuní will only aggravate these issues.
The production of oil which would mean releasing 108,900,000 tonnes of carbon into the atmosphere needing a forest almost the size of the whole of England to absorb it. Severe deforestation due to logging and colonisation, Estimates suggest that for every new kilometer of road built in the region, an average of 120 hectares of forest are lost to agriculture. Hence to save the Yasuní is to directly address the two main casues of climate change.
International Human rights laws enshrine peoples’ right to life, and to choose how to live. If the Yasuní is exploited its indigenous people will lose the ability to live how they choose and as has been the case in surrounding areas this will lead in many cases to the loss of lives. They also have the right to be safe especially within their own land and the right to protest which is often repressed Exploiting the Yasuni will also violate international convention concerning indigenous people and Ecuador’s constitution which both state that indigenous people have the right to be part of all decision-making concerning their land.
In May 2006 the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights ordered protective measures on the behalf of the non-contact Taromenani and Tagaeri, to defend their rights and safeguard the lives of these ethnic groups.
In April 2007, President Correa announced the adoption of a governmental policy to protect the lives of non-contact peoples, assuming responsibility for protecting their basic rights and vowing to confront the issues threatening their extermination.
Oil exploitation has often been justified by a need to lift the country out of poverty. However the reality of the situation is that Ecuador’s national debt has only risen since exploitation began and the poorest have only become poorer, losing the little that they had.
When the oil companies arrived in the region 50 years ago indigenous resistance was strong and entering the Oriente was almost impossible. Oil companies began to use alternative methods to enter the region, such as missionaries, anthropologists and funding environmental exploration, which were largely successful.
These days local people continue to fight bravely in spite of threats, arrests and other repressive measures often carried out at the behest of the oil companies. Mostly such resistance is ignored.
Having said that, every now and then there are huge successes. The most famous is the Texaco oil-leak court case. Almost one hundred indigenous communities compromising more than 30,000 people were affected by the spillage of 17 million gallons of crude oil. The court case, which is still in progress, is an important precedent as this is the first time that a South American country has taken a transnational company to court in its own country.
In May 2007 the national government of Ecuador put forward an innovative idea: they would refrain from exploiting the ITT oil block in the Yasuní in exchange for receiving $350 million annually from the international community for the next ten years. The figure is what they estimate to be half the amount of money they would have received from oil revenue. The proposal originally stated that the money should be received by July the following year.
Since the proposal was presented in May there have been some positive advancements. Ecuador has adopted a new constitution with some very advanced environmental and human rights articles which, in theory, should support the preservation of the Yasuní.
The government has also extended the deadline on two occasions giving more time to rally international support.
On the other hand the weak points in the proposal, even though the deadline has been extended twice, have not been addressed or improved upon. Its vagueness and its poor presentation to the world suggests a lack of dedication that has not inspired much confidence. The government have failed to put all the necessary resources and efforts into the proposal in order to make it successful. They began promoting the proposal way too late and opened a bank account after the first deadline had already passed. News on what is happening is unclear and unconfirmed and the official government ITT website is rarely up-dated.
Divisions in the government over the ITT proposal have also emerged and recently the main advocates of the proposal have begun to resign. However it seems that these tensions have been brewing for some time. Original proposals, developed by social movements in Ecuador to keep the oil underground, aimed to assert the concept that no-one can pay for the right to pollute the planet. However, on falling into the hands of neo-classical economists, the proposal has been translated to fit with current free-market ideas of carbon trading and ‘debt-for-nature-swaps’ - ideas that have already proven ineffective in reducing carbon emissions.
Such divisions in the Ecuadorian government explain contradictions in policy which have created mistrust, most notably illustrated by the licence recently given to drill in Block 31, also inside the Yasuní. Also the promotion of the Manta-Manaos corridor which would convert the river Napo into a motorway of trading ships between Brazil and China.
At the same time, on a local level, many things have not changed. Huge oil spills continue to occur with companies refusing to take responsibility. Local communities continue to be repressed, and those speaking out against the multinationals arrested.
Within the government of Ecuador and in local bodies many people have been working hard to support and develop the proposal to preserve the Yasuní.
A survey carried out in Quito and Guayaquil, the two largest cities in Ecuador, showed huge support for the original proposal. However, the message from the people of Ecuador was clear – with or without the money, the Yasuní must not be exploited.
Outside Ecuador countries such as Spain, Norway and Germany have responded positively and International funding bodies like The Clinton Foundation have shown active interest in the proposal.
Organisations and individuals from across the world have stepped oup in support or launched campaigns, such as Yasuni Green Gold, Amazonia por la Vida and Save America’s Forests, to contribute to national efforts to save the Yasuní.
A year after launching the proposal, the president of Ecuador, Rafael Correa, announced that only the Spanish have actually put up any money and warned that time is running out. However, in order to get international support Ecuador’s government needs to be clear, consistent and provide a guarantee for the protection of the Yasuní and the human rights of its peoples. Correa’s government on the other hand appears to be hesitant to make such guarantees without solid international support and hence the process has come to a standstill.
No, not if they are ‘buying’ the preservation of the Yasuní and the lives of its inhabitants. Paying for the Yasuní to remain unexploited undermines the human rights of those that live within the zone and other international environmental laws because the Yasuní is a protected park and the people that live within it have a basic right to life. A price cannot be put on these rights and should not be demanded. This was also recognised by the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights who ordered special protective measures on the behalf of the Taromenane and Tagaeri.
Certainly money should be given to Ecuador to support the development of alternative economic activities and to help the country preserve its forests and escape from its oil dependence. This is not charity; it is something that is beneficial for the whole world in preventing climate change. Certainly, the Yasuní should be protected because of its unique biological, ecological and cultural importance. But these are separate issues. It is wrong to use the preservation of the Yasuní and the lives of people as bargaining chips. This can only lead to schemes, which attempt to put a price on things which are priceless.