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Oil Discovery in Ecuador Prompts Plan to Protect Indigenous Territories

Ecuador’s Yasuní National Park is one of the richest places on earth, with a wealth of flora and fauna—some found nowhere else on the planet—in its forests, and an estimated 850 million barrels of petroleum beneath them.

It is also home to the Tagaeri and Taromenane, tribes that continued to shun contact with the outside world, even after the Waorani, to whom they are related, yielded to the advance of settlers, missionaries, loggers and oil companies some 50 years ago.

Now the Tagaeri and Taromenane are at the mercy of outsiders again. This time, though, there is the possibility of a novel solution in which the world’s wealthy countries could band together with Ecuador to protect their territory.

The proposal seems straightforward: Instead of drilling in a sensitive place, where international groups decry likely environmental and social impacts, Ecuador is offering to leave the oil in the ground—averting an estimated 400 million tons of greenhouse gas emissions—as long as the world’s wealthiest countries, which consume the most fossil fuels, compensate it for the loss of revenue.

Ecuadorean President Rafael Correa has challenged the world’s industrialized countries—the ones that produce the most greenhouse gases responsible for global warming—to pay $3.6 billion in donations by 2024. That is half the estimated value of the $7.2 billion worth of oil that could be extracted from the Ishpingo-Tambococha-Tiputini (ITT) oil field, which overlaps the Yasuní National Park and biosphere reserve and the territory inhabited by the Tagaeri and Taromenane.

Leaving the oil in the ground would be costly—Ecuador receives about half its export earnings and one third of its tax revenues from oil, according to the U.S. Energy Information Administration. But the plan is “new, innovative and revolutionary,” according to economist Alberto Acosta, a former government minister in Ecuador. “All the countries on the planet must assume environmental challenges,” he argues, “and the wealthiest countries, which cause the greatest environmental damage, must shoulder a greater share of that responsibility.”

A ban on drilling in the Yasuní-ITT oil field would only partly satisfy environmentalists and defenders of indigenous rights. Another oil lease near that field also overlaps territory used by the semi-nomadic Tagaeri and Taromenane, and the government plans to auction off a dozen more leases in the central and southern Amazon, affecting as many as seven other communities of Indigenous Peoples.

Correa’s critics say it is contradictory to offer to save the Yasuní-ITT area while moving ahead with oil exploration elsewhere in the Amazon. They also say the president is undermining the Yasuní-ITT initiative’s credibility by threatening to go ahead with plans for drilling in that area if Ecuador does not collect $100 million by this December.

In early October, Ivonne Baki, head of the Ecuadorean government’s Yasuní-ITT Commission, said contributions so far amounted to about $60 million. The money, to be deposited in a trust fund managed by the U.N. Development Programme (UNDP), is earmarked for the development of energy alternatives, such as geothermal, solar, wind, biomass, tidal and hydropower, according to a UNDP paper outlining the fund. So far, however, there are no firm plans for such projects.

U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon praised the project in late September, when Correa traveled to New York with a delegation to drum up support. At about the same time, however, Germany, which had been one of the project’s key backers, backpedaled on its offer of funds. Dirk Niebel, Germany’s minister of economic development and cooperation, told the Ecuadorean government that his country did not want to set a precedent, did not want to pay a country for not taking an action, and preferred carbon-credit projects based on compensation for avoided deforestation, such as Ecuador’s Socio Bosque program.

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Some analysts suggested that the German decision also reflected Europe’s financial problems and concerns over press freedom in Ecuador, stemming from a controversial lawsuit filed by Correa against an opposition newspaper, which resulted in a $40 million damage award. Correa has said he will donate the money to the Yasuní fund, if the ruling is upheld on appeal.

Industrialized countries “don’t necessarily want to donate to a project like this when they can seek similar projects and receive [carbon] offsets or some type of compensation,” says Kevin Koenig, Ecuador program coordinator for Amazon Watch. “Northern countries have not…recognized what’s at stake here, not only in the park, but the greater climate issue. If we want a country like Ecuador, that is so heavily dependent on oil, to have a major change in their energy matrix there needs to be incentives and assistance.”

Acosta says supporters of the Yasuní initiative hope other oil-producing countries will adopt the idea. “The ideal thing would have been to work jointly with Peru to expand the protected territory to the Peruvian side” of the countries’ shared border, he says.

If the funds are not raised and the Correa administration makes good on its threat to allow drilling, even using an alternative plan of horizontal perforation from platforms outside the park boundary, there is no guarantee that the lives of Yasuní’s isolated groups will be protected, according to Acosta.

A 1.7 million-acre area of Yasuní National Park, which scientists say has some of the highest biological diversity on earth, was placed off limits to oil drilling, logging and other development to protect the Tagaeri and Taromenane, but Waorani leaders and indigenous rights activists say the groups are known to cross those boundaries.

There have been violent confrontations between members of those tribes and outsiders in the past, and Waorani leader Manuela Ima worries that oil operations in the area could lead to clashes between the groups and oil workers. An added risk for the isolated groups is death from diseases to which they have no resistance. “We want to safeguard our forest. We want them to respect our nationality, our territory and our forest,” says Ima, who is president of the Association of Waorani Women of the Ecuadorean Amazon. “It would be best if the oil stayed in the ground.”

The Tagaeri and Taromenane opted for isolation decades ago, after confrontations with loggers in the area, according to César Nihua, president of the Waorani Organization of Orellana. “We want to look out for them, so they can live peacefully, without disease,” he said.

Even if the Yasuní initiative succeeds, however, the Tagaeri and Taromenane may not be safe. The Ecuadorean government is also going ahead with plans for a waterway and highway system from the Pacific port of Manta, in Ecuador, to the Brazilian city of Manaus. The route follows the Napo River, which borders Yasuní National Park.

If more oil fields are opened outside the park, pipeline construction could also bring settlers, loggers and other outsiders to Ecuador’s south-central Amazon region and areas along the border in Peru that are inhabited by isolated tribes. “The whole border region is so remote, and access is so hard, you understand why these [isolated] groups have fled there,” Koenig says. “You open it up for a pipeline, and it’s the same as putting a road in.”

If the government does not collect the necessary funds and decides to open the Yasuní-ITT field to drilling, Acosta says opponents will consider going to court or pressuring the legislature to call a public referendum.

Nevertheless, he adds, failure of the initiative would mean “humanity has lost a great opportunity to begin to build a different way of relating with the planet and with nature.”