The Yasuní-ITT Failure

The Yasuní-ITT Initative was a project I have felt deeply connected with. I wrote my quite successful master’s thesis about this Ecuadorian rainforest. I still find the underlying idea of integrating environmental protection, (implicit) biodiversity valuation, development aid and support of indigenous poples great. Alas, the international community wasn’t convinced, obviously. Ecuador’s unique biodiversity hotspot and home to still uncontacted indigenous tribes has lost another battle against disinterest, parochialism, the economic crises of the present and short-sightedness on the side of developed-world decision makers (particularly the German minister for development cooperation, Dirk Niebel).

A short reminder: in 2007 Ecuador’s president Rafael Correa, not quite an environmentalist himself, asked the international community (=the UN General Assembly) to pay $3.6 bn over a time span of 10 years for his geovernment not to develop the oil fields Ishpingo, Tiputini and Tambococha (ITT), which contain petroleum estimated to be worth at least double the amount asked. Why should the international community have embraced his proposal? (which it did not – 6 years after Correa’s pledge only some $130 mn came together, most of it as a pledge only) Because the Yasuní rainforest is one of the most unique, biodiverse ecosystems in the world, home to some of the last uncontacted indigenous tribes around. Also, Yasuní is an important carbon sink – as long as it is intact and the oil under its surface remains there. Conversely, Ecuador is a still underdeveloped country with high levels of poverty and inequality, so it cannot just leave the oil underground without any compensation, for it needs it to finance public goods projects. Thus, the Yasuní-ITT Initiative was a pathbreaking model for the integration of ecosystem protection, climate change mitigation, development aid and support of the rights of indigenous peoples.

Last week, however, Rafael Correa announced that, given lack of support, his government is going to allow drilling in the ITT-fields. The international community has failed, again, to live up to all the rhetoric about green economy, sustainable development and its will to preserve the ecologic foundations of our prosperity for future generations.

Yasuní-ITT was not the most important failure of the recent past, certainly not. But it is one symptomatic failure in a seemingly not ending chain of initiatives aiming at global sustainability that have got under the wheels of financial and the Euro crises, the North-South race-to-the-bottom competition (particularly, U.S.-China competition), the weakness of the environmentalist movement to mobilize broader strata of the society and, more generally, short-sightedness, parochialism and fear of changes in lifestyle. Just think of the highly symbolic failure of the Rio+20 conference on sustainable development to achieve more than hollow words, or the de facto failure of the Kyoto process. We are continuously losing ground under our feet, but nobody seems to really bother. Of course, the participants mostly hide behind “technicalities” that allegedly hinder them to reach agreement. Dirk Niebel didn’t like the Yasuní-ITT Initiative, saying that he prefers the REDD+ programme by the UNEP. China and the U.S. are always talking about burden-sharing issues and the right to development, and comparative advantage. Europeans hide behind the argument that since China, the U.S. or India keep emitting large amounts of greenhouse gases or since Africans keep hunting the rhinos or since Brazil keeps destroying the Amazon, we are not obliged to do much to tackle climate change or preserve biodiversity. While these arguments are worth a debate, in the end their main purpose is to transfer responsibility for the future of our planet onto others shoulders. We just are not willing to sacrifice our “standard of living” for the common good.

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