Anger and frustration as Ecuador’s Yasuni dreams die

Funding shortfall blamed for collapse, but wider problems cited as landmark initiative hits buffers

The Yasuni ITT initiative was hailed as the ‘future of conservation’ when it was launched in 2007 (Pic: Geoff Gallice/Flickr)

By Ed King

Last Thursday in Quito Ecuador President Rafa Correa confirmed the news that many had feared for some time – the Yasuni initiative was finished.

A pioneering and audacious proposal to persuade rich countries to pay Ecuador to preserve its Amazon rainforests, the project was feted around the world.

In 2007 wealthy countries and donors were asked to stump up US$3.6 billion to keep 846 million barrels of oil worth around US$ 7.2 billion in the ground.

The country’s submission to the UN in 2011 predicted this would avoid over a billion tonnes of carbon dioxide emissions in a 30 year period, but this wasn’t just about preventing global warming.

Yasuni’s pristine jungles cover 10,000 square kilometres, home to velvet worms, crab spiders, narrow-mouth frogs and two tribes living in voluntary isolation.

“The world has failed us,” lamented Correa in a televised address, accusing rich nations of lacking the responsibility to deal with climate change.

And as angry protestors gathered outside the Presidential Palace, jostling a police cordon, pundits were queuing up to apportion blame.

But what seems clear is that for many, the plan to stop oil exploration in the Ishpingo-Tambococha-Tiputini (ITT) regions of Yasuni seemed – and perhaps was – too good to be true.

A Spiny Katydid in Yasuni

The park is home to 2,200 species of tree and more than 100,000 different types of insects per hectare (Pic: Geoff Gallice/Flickr)

Guy Edwards is a Latin American analyst at Brown University and co-founder of the Intercambio Climatico news service.

He says Yasuni was popular with the public, and Correa’s decision has sparked “anger and dismay” among many, but points to a variety of reasons for its collapse.

“Factors contributing to its demise were the financial crisis forced possible donors to reconsider; the confusion about some of the Initiative’s details; and the Ecuadorian government’s hints at the possibility of ‘Plan B’ to drill caused a further decline in interest,” he says.

“Unquestionably, Ecuador’s Yasuni-ITT Initiative was a bold and ambitious attempt to avoid carbon emissions, protect biodiversity, uphold the rights of nature and indigenous peoples and encourage the transition to sustainable development.

“However the primacy of oil for Ecuador’s development reveals the fragility of such policies to economic necessity.”

Financial shortfall

Despite anger directed at Correa, it seems clear his government did not receive the financial assurances they asked for at the Yasuni-ITT launch.

Leading donors included Spain, Germany and Italy, which signed a €35 million debt-swap with Ecuador in 2012. Others included Georgia, China and Colombia, while foundations in USA, Japan, Russia also made contributions.

But together these fell well short. Figures emailed to RTCC by the UN Development Programme, which ran the Yasuni Trust Fund with Ecuador, indicate commitments of US$52,227,852 were made, with US$10,190,820 deposited in the bank.

Ecuador’s plan for an OPEC oil tax to fill the breach apparently met with a cool response from other members of the oil cartel.

And with developed countries still debating how they can raise the US$100 billion by 2020 promised in 2009, the hopes of further cash injections dried up.


Speaking to RTCC in February, Ecuador climate diplomat Daniel Ortega admitted that the global economic crisis had hit the project hard – but others point to a lack of clarity from the government on how the money would be managed.

Ecuador’s government defaulted on a $3.2 billion debt in 2008, and State Department cables exposed during the Wikileaks drama in 2009 revealed US concern over a “lack of clarity on the guarantees that the GOE will provide”.

Collaboration with the UNDP was supposed to assuage these worries, but critics like Bill Twist from the Pachamama Alliance, which works with local tribes, say the plan “lacked integrity” from the start.

“The whole time Ecuador was trying to enroll international support they were also moving forward with plans for oil exploitation of adjacent rainforest lands that were more than 20 times the size of the Yasuni-ITT oil block,” he told RTCC.

“I think the decision is unfortunate and that it is totally disingenuous for Pres. Correa to accuse the international community for being in some way responsible for the failure of the initiative—accusing the international community of hypocrisy for not supporting the plan.”

Economic dip

Other analysts are more sympathetic to Correa, pointing out that Ecuador relies on oil for a third of its national budget. Political analyst Jose Fuentes from Quito’s Flacso University told the Guardian the President had opted “for economic pragmatism” in ditching the plans.

Poverty eradication is one factor. Despite its oil wealth, this is a poor country that has seen public spending triple since Correa took power six years ago.

And in a bitterly ironic twist, the country spends as much each year in subsidies that encourage fossil fuel use as it was trying to raise in the Yasuni ITT Trust fund.

Bloomberg analysts say poor economic growth forecasts have forced the President to try and increase the flow of oil from their current rate of 527,000 barrels of crude a day.

The three untouched blocks of oil in Yasuni now have an estimated value of US$18.3 billion, and reports suggest Chinese-owned PetroOriental and Spain’s Repsol are already circling.


The worst affected, apart from the diverse species that live in Ecuador’s Amazon, are the Huaorani, Tagaeri and Taromenane tribes, who still regard the forests as home.

Bill Twist warns of “significant negative impacts” for local communities in the coming years, calling on the government to work with tribes to develop safeguards restricting the reach of oil companies.

“How much care the government actually puts into the process of consultation will be a key indicator of the degree of social and environmental impact the eventual development process will produce,” he says.

Internationally, this is also a blow for Ecuador’s hard working and engaging team at the UN climate talks. Led by Daniel Ortega, the country has offered a progressive and proactive voice to negotiations.

The Yasuni-ITT Initiative and related “Net Avoided Emissions” proposal were regarded by many as a template for global efforts to promote and fund conservation, and were being followed closely by NGOs and governments alike.

“By terminating the plan, Ecuador has eliminated its most powerful contribution to the UN climate talks which helped legitimize its rhetoric against developed countries’ woefully inadequate response to climate change,” says Guy Edwards.

“As a result, Ecuador’s position at the UN climate talks has been weakened.”

Read more on: Comment | Nature | |