World Rainforest Movement

Ecuador: Defending the Yasuní initiative, to conserve biodiversity

The ITT oil exploration block, located within the borders of Ecuador’s Yasuní National Park, is an area of extraordinary biological diversity. The Ecuadorian proposal to leave the estimated 850 million barrels of oil reserves in this block untouched, in perpetuity (see WRM Bulletin Nº 157), marked a change of course in the right direction towards biodiversity conservation. Ecuador, whose economy is largely dependent on oil exports, would thereby prevent the emission of some 410 million tons of carbon dioxide, in exchange for international financial compensation equivalent to at least 50 percent of the profits it could earn by exploiting the reserves, in the framework of the industrialized nations’ environmental debt to the countries of the South – the suppliers of the raw materials on which the North’s wealth was built.

The initiative would serve to protect not only the rich biodiversity of this tropical rainforest area, but also the indigenous peoples who inhabit it and depend on it for their survival. It would also contribute to the need to halt the further exacerbation of the climate crisis, by preventing deforestation and the contamination produced by oil drilling. But there is even more at stake in this initiative: the principles of responsibility and solidarity, which are frequently spoken about but seldom practised, and are becoming increasingly crucial to rescue us from the road to destruction on which we are headed. It constitutes a step towards a post-oil society and economy.

In this sense, the Ecuadorian initiative is unique because it falls outside of the framework of the carbon market and thus cannot be used to offset emissions created elsewhere: it is not a case of paying Paul in order to rob Peter. But in order to work, it requires support – financial support which, at the same time, would serve historical justice. To begin with, Ecuador needs to receive 100 million dollars this year, a sum that represents one half of the revenues it is giving up by leaving the oil in the ground. And the time has come for the countries that have historically prospered from an unjust model of development, which has led to a disaster that everyone must now pay for, to accept their responsibility and assume serious commitments.

In 2008, the German parliament declared its willingness to support the Ecuadorian proposal, a position that was adopted by the government and signified international recognition for the Yasuní-ITT initiative. It was a decision that received broad support and commitment from large sectors of German society.

However, following a change in government, in mid-September the new German Minister of Economic Cooperation and Development Dirk Niebel – who has declared himself in favour of abolishing development aid – expressed his reticence with regard to financing the Yasuní-ITT initiative.

He raised doubts about how it would be possible to guarantee in the long term that the oil reserves in question remain untouched, and stated that there are “numerous other alternatives” being discussed for the conservation of Ecuador’s rainforests. He mentioned among these the REDD (Reducing Emissions from Deforestation and Forest Degradation) mechanism and the “Socio Bosque” (“Forest Partner”) programme – an approach that has been criticized because it is aimed at marketing water, biodiversity and carbon capture as “environmental services” and because it would not prevent destructive activities like mining or oil drilling from being carried out in areas covered by the programme.

The news was like a bucket of cold water for the Yasuní initiative’s supporters. But civil society reacted immediately. The Oilwatch international network sent an open letter to the German parliamentarians, noting that Niebel’s statements had sparked a crisis which could nonetheless serve as an opportunity to discuss certain underlying issues: “How will we confront the climate crisis? What are the responsibilities of the North and South with regard to the crisis? How can new forms of plunder be prevented? How will we confront the accelerated production of oil and its decline?”

Oilwatch stressed: “In international discussions of the climate crisis, the polluters, banks and companies responsible for creating the crisis have invested time and money into transforming the real problems of destruction of ecosystems, pollution, diseases and climate disasters into virtual discussions of carbon molecules and financing that almost no one is able to understand. In this way, they have distracted attention from the search for solutions and replaced them with a series of evasive measures that are often not only unviable or absurd but also perverse.”

In contrast, “the strength of the Yasuní-ITT initiative has always resided in maintaining it as a proposal outside the carbon market and REDD, fully distanced from negotiations pursued under the Kyoto Protocol. Linking the Yasuní proposal to REDD would not contribute to the success of the proposal. On the contrary, such an approach raises concerns, because REDD – and its probable national version, Socio Bosque – neither fulfil the expectations of indigenous organizations nor provide a real solution to the climate problem. Critics also point out that this could lead to the loss of collective rights for the communities involved and violates the spirit and the letter of the Ecuadorian Constitution, which recognizes nature as having rights of its own (Art. 10 and 71) and that as a result, ‘environmental services will not be subject to appropriation’ (Art. 74).”

Meanwhile, in Germany, Rettet den Regenwald quickly gathered more than 9,000 signatures on a petition addressed to Minister Niebel ( demanding that Germany follow through with financial support for the Ecuadorian initiative.

This mobilization was crucial. On an official visit to Berlin in support of the proposal, Ecuadorian Heritage Minister María Fernanda Espinosa met with members of the German parliament and received a commitment from five political parties represented in parliament for continued backing of the initiative. Although the administration has yet to confirm its position, the minister said she was confident of regaining German government support for the ITT-Yasuní initiative.

Otherwise, as declared by Ecuadorian economist Alberto Acosta, former minister of Energy and Mines and former president of the Constituent Assembly of Ecuador, “We will have to forcefully promote Plan C: to leave the oil in the ground, even without an international contribution.”

This article is based on the “Open letter from the Oilwatch network to German parliamentarians”, September 20, 2010, Oilwatch; the article “Alberto Acosta rechaza posible incumplimiento de Alemania [Yasuní ITT]”, in Ecuatoriano Noticias,; and information provided by Guadalupe Rodríguez, Salva la Selva,,