National Geographic News
Morning mist above the Tiputini River in Yasuni National Park.

Morning mist floats above the Tiputini River in Yasuní National Park, Ecuador.

Photograph by Tim Laman, National Geographic

Scott Wallace

for National Geographic

Published August 19, 2013

The decision by Ecuadorian President Rafael Correa to abandon a plan to spare the species-rich Yasuní rain forest in eastern Ecuador from oil development has dashed hopes for what environmentalists had hailed as a historic approach to weaning industrial society from its dependence on fossil fuels.

(Read more about Yasuní National Park in National Geographic magazine.)

"Ecuador and the world have lost an opportunity to shape a revolutionary initiative," said Alberto Acosta, Ecuador's former minister of energy and mines, and one of the chief architects of the so-called Yasuní-ITT Initiative, which Correa unveiled to the international community in 2007. "It was a giant step on the road toward post-extractivism."

The initiative had called for leaving an estimated 850 million barrels of untapped Amazon crude in the ground in the Ishpingo, Tambococha, and Tiputini oil fields—the ITT Block—located inside Yasuní National Park.

In return for preserving the wilderness and preventing an estimated 410 million tons of carbon emissions from entering the atmosphere, Ecuador had sought from developed countries $3.6 billion in compensation, roughly half the revenues the country would have accrued from exploiting the resource.

The United Nations Development Program had set up a trust to administer the funds.

Scientists regard the Yasuní rain forest as one of the most bio-diverse places on Earth, teeming with an extraordinary abundance of birds, primates, reptiles, and amphibians. The park contains more tree and insect species in a single hectare (2.47 acres) than in all the U.S. and Canada combined.

Yasuní also harbors two groups of highly vulnerable, uncontacted indigenous people who wander the forests as hunter-gatherers in near-total isolation from the outside world. UNESCO designated Yasuní a World Biosphere Reserve in 1989.

The two isolated indigenous groups are factions of Waorani (Huaorani) that refused to accept contact with missionaries in the 1950s and '60s. Waorani leaders fear that continuing oil development in Yasuní poses a grave threat to their uncontacted brethren.

(Read about Waorani indigenous leader Moi Enomenga, who received the 2011 National Geographic Society/Buffet Award for Leadership in Conservation for his efforts to conserve biodiversity in Yasuní.)

 

 Armed with spear, shotgun, and machete, hunters search for animals.
Hunters armed with a spear, shotgun and machete search for animals in Yasuní National Park. (See more photos of Yasuní)

Photograph by Ivan Kashinsky, National Geographic

 

Shared Responsibility Shirked

The initiative was considered one of the most popular programs of Correa's left-leaning government.

Recent polls showed 90 percent of Ecuadorans in favor of leaving the oil in the ITT Block untouched, and supporters around the world saw the plan as a novel approach to reducing the cost of preserving Yasuní's rich biological and cultural diversity while grappling with the vexing issue of climate change.

But support from prospective donor nations was far more restrained. By the time Correa called for the liquidation of the UNDP trust fund last Thursday, Ecuador had managed to collect only $13 million in donations and another $116 million in pledges.

Not nearly enough, he said, for a country that depends on oil production for nearly 50 percent of its export earnings.

"It was not charity that we sought [from the international community]," said a combative Correa in a nationally televised speech from the presidential palace in Quito. "It was shared responsibility in the fight against climate change."

According to Correa, the amount Ecuador sought in compensation constituted "just payment" for environmental services and its proposed role in helping to preserve the "lungs of the world."

"The proposal was meant to awaken the conscience of the world and to generate a new reality," he said. "Sadly, we have to say that the world has failed us."

In authorizing state oil company Petroamazonas to commence operations in the ITT Block, Correa said anticipated revenues from stepped-up production were urgently needed for social programs aimed at alleviating miserable living conditions among Ecuador's most disadvantaged citizens.

 

 Men from the community of Rumipamba clean up the remnants of a 1976 oil spill.
Men from the community of Rumipamba clean up the remnants of a 1976 oil spill.

Photograph by Karla Gachet, National Geographic

 

History Not Made

The decision to scrap the Yasuní-ITT Initiative has stirred fierce opposition from environmentalists and indigenous rights groups.

"This is a decision of transcendental importance, not only for Ecuadorans, but for all of humanity," said Humberto Cholango, president of the Confederation of Indigenous Nationalities of Ecuador.

Scoffing at Correa's assertion that the international community was to blame for the plan's collapse, he added: "This is a failure of the government of President Rafael Correa."

Critics charge Correa for appearing to hold Yasuní hostage, which they say undermined the confidence of potential donors.

Over the life of the initiative, Correa repeatedly threatened to drill in the ITT Block if wealthy nations failed to ante up.

"It came off as a kind of blackmail," Acosta, the former energy minister, told the Guayaquil newspaper El Universo. "The government failed to transform this powerful initiative into a credible proposal."

Despite Yasuní's status as a national park, the oil frontier has steadily advanced within its boundaries over the past two decades, as economic imperatives have trumped calls for conservation. At least five active concessions already blanket the northern half of the park.

Last year while on assignment for National Geographic, I witnessed Petroamazonas workers laying a brand-new oil road into the park in Block 31, adjacent to the ITT Block.

At the time, detractors said the 45 million barrels of known reserves inside Block 31 were too small to justify the massive investment in the concession.

The real reason, they feared, was to lay the infrastructure for an eventual move into the ITT Block next door. Those suspicions seemed to be borne out by Correa's announcement last week.

Correa and his advisers described the decision to abandon the initiative as one of the most difficult of his government.

"All of us, including the president, are very sad to have to make this decision," wrote Ivonne Baki, who has been heading Correa's development team for the Yasuní-ITT Initiative, in an email to National Geographic News.

"The concept of net avoided carbon emissions was not accepted by the developed countries because of its avant-garde nature and because it was ahead of its time," said Baki, who was entertained by the National Geographic Society on a visit to Washington last year.

Scott Wallace is a frequent contributor to National Geographic and author of The Unconquered: In Search of the Amazon's Last Uncontacted Tribes.

36 comments
Ellen Báthory
Ellen Báthory

Feliz Dia da Terra gente sem coração, q esse dia sirva pra lembrarmos q nosso lar não é feito de tijolos e telhados! 

#EarthDay ‪

Denise Keever
Denise Keever

This is sad, and even more tragic for the indigenous people living  in the "Rain Forest". Yet, historically, it is always, the same, to hell with the environment, the people and the world resources. Follow the money, Leadership, historically, has always been about the money. Our environment, people, and the tribes of people living on the planet, have always been sold out. Apparently, humans are not capable of learning anything from their past. Leadership is only concerned about the money, and mistakes to groups or tribes of people continue to rob them of their birthright, heritage and way of life.  In the end, the true reflection, is on the society, who still, does not appreciate mother earth, all her vast resources and respect and honor all the different types of people,native to the planet. Indeed, maybe it is time to change, our entire society and its leadership. 

Alexander Ganduglia
Alexander Ganduglia

The idea that there is a "safe" and Environmentally friendly way to extract resources from the bowels of the earth is a silly notion that is perpetuated by big energy companies in order to lull the public into allowing access to the most precious areas of our planet. BP employed "Safe" practices in the gulf of mexico and still ended up dumping thousands of gallons of oil into the ocean. Fracking in North America is already poisoning water supplies to its citizens. If we wont even enforce safer practices as a first world nation for our own people, how can we expect to hold the energy company in Ecuador accountable for their practices in the wild jungle? I feel that I can only hope that future generations will look back kindly on us.

William G.
William G.

Yasuni is NOT going to get trashed... There is going to be drilling in the border of the reserve.. 99.99% of the reserve will remain as is.

The world community did not support an innovative plan so Ecuador would not have to drill.  NOW... Ecuador is going to extract resources with the highest environmental technology and security. 

Ecuador will not commit the sins of GREEDY CORPORATE PILLAGERS like Texaco (Chevron), who used the lowest technology and practices to maximize profit and leave behind a toxic mess.  Even now with a LEGAL JUDGEMENT they do not want to take responsibility and help clean-up the mess to better the environment.

Ecuador's Citizens Revolution has wisely used Ecuador's petrodollars to better the lives of the PEOPLE and enhance the ENVIRONMENT.

- 8 Hydroelectric Dams to provide clean energy for the entire country by 2016
- A much needed Metro for Quito... Light Rail for Cuenca
- Sewage and waste water treatment plants so the cities no longer POLLUTE the water systems of the coast or Amazon... etc

This and much more needs RESOURCES... which will be responsibly extracted to enhance the lives of the PEOPLE and ENVIRONMENT of Ecuador!

Michael A.
Michael A.

“The Earth is all powerful, it was not made here only for us human beings, although we are part of it.

But we don’t have to be here, because the Earth has got its own process.

And if it comes to the point were we finally manage to destroy all life and ourselves, and cease to exist as humans on this Earth. The Earth is not going to dissappear. So it is not going to be an end of the world you are talking about. No, it will be the end of us as a human race. And the Earth will not care – at all, whether we are here or not.

And no matter what damage we think we have done to it. The Earth, in time will regenerate, regreen and redo everything that was here at one time, except there will not be any humans. Because the Earth has got all the time in the world.”

Text inspired from the speech by Oren B Lyons, Faithkeeper

Ian C.
Ian C.

This is a disaster,.... wow,...

Meg Halley
Meg Halley

This was an interesting approach; however, I think their fault was in requesting that other countries to foot the bill. Rather, they should consider encouraging investment from corporations that would benefit from continuation of the rainforest, like those in the pharmaceutical or bottled water industries. It is to their direct financial advantage to invest in the rainforest now to ensure that future potential innovations and present clean water are not destroyed in the process of drilling for oil.

Alfredo Soto
Alfredo Soto

We will all learn to one day use another form of energy to supply our demand without causing so much damage to the very planet we live on.

Richard Veloso
Richard Veloso

I read a story a few years back that I knew it would lead to no good. Before George H. Bush left office he sent one his daughters to Ecuador on behalf of one of his oil companies to purchase water and mineral rights for large tracks of land from the "Government" I believe the company's name is Panther Petroleum. American companies are starting to do what they did in agricultural business at the turn of the century, but now instead fruit and sugar it's for minerals and water. Here we go again, but this time are wiping out the environment in the process which is the bases of all live on this planet.

Alec Sevins
Alec Sevins

Greed wins another round, as usual. The U.S. burns 850 million barrels (or 0.85 billion barrels) of oil in about 43 days. This is a pittance.

Keep that in mind when people claim that 1 billion barrels is some sort of huge find these days. The world's truly giant fields have long been discovered and many are past peak.

Peace Seeker
Peace Seeker

Ecuadorians now have genuine reason to believe that the rigid structures of the past are no longer acceptable and that they have a voice. From the Yasuni Initiative, by which the country would no longer rely upon the exploitation of its natural oil resources, to the analyzing of the IMF debt structure, hear from Correa and other Ecuadorean leaders as they present alternatives regarding their political, ecological and economic status in the global marketplace and how they will put their people and the planet before profits. 

http://www.cultureunplugged.com/documentary/watch-online/play/13029/Ecuador

Xira Arien
Xira Arien

So our "do as we say not as we do" shtick did not work? We were asked to put our money where our mouth was and we failed?

Asking for a bit of money to help save the planet from countries that have no problem feeding their elites a trillion dollars a year is not excessive.

We can afford 3.6 billion EVERY YEAR to Egypt to keep the Sinai Canal open, but we can't afford 2 billion over perhaps 20 years to save the planet?

Does our hypocrisy and arrogance know no bounds?

http://llltexas.com <- my blog

Carol Music
Carol Music

@Steve Ardire: I entirely agree with your comments. My thoughts are this <. . .Correa said anticipated revenues from stepped-up production were urgently needed for social programs aimed at alleviating miserable living conditions among Ecuador's most disadvantaged citizens.> 

One wonders how much of the anticipated oil being raped from what may be the last pristine land in our world will actually go to helping the most needy in the country. That comment comes from the government and in my experience, the members of the government somehow fair far better than any group of desperate people. 


Correa goes on to say 'the world has failed him'. With all that he ''required' the rest of the world to give to him, one must wonder how much Equador's cash was being put into that pot? 


It truly sickens me to know that not only are a huge amount of vegetation and living creatures at risk for survival, but two groups of HUMAN BEINGS - just like ALL of us - may lose their long held way of life. Reading articles like this make me think that the two isolated indigenous groups, factions of Waorani (Huaorani), are the wisest people in all the world.

rick valanti
rick valanti

Big oil will destroy the rainforest and any other areas it is allowed to drill. Ironically, the CEO's and executives; and their families, of these companies obviously won't need clean air or water. Hopefully they will die first

Roger Bird
Roger Bird

Ecuador caved because liberals were not forth coming with money to compensate Ecuador for their non-drilling for oil.  Liberals claim to care about others and the environment until such time as they have to make real sacrifices.

Florence Baldwin
Florence Baldwin

If you ever cared about anything in the world ..please raise your voice against this destruction...This rainforest is quite possibly the most vital of all ecosystems on earth . Please share this article,  tweet , post to Facebook, Petition against this reckless destruction. Degradation of our ecosystems effects us all. 

Eric Paul
Eric Paul

It's hard for the US to convince other countries of being environmentally conscious when our own government has no issue giving big business the key to America's precious ecosystems at the drop of a dime (pun intended).

Steve Ardire
Steve Ardire

>Scientists regard the Yasuní rain forest as one of the most bio-diverse places on Earth, teeming with an extraordinary abundance of birds, primates, reptiles, and amphibians. The park contains more tree and insect species in a single hectare (2.47 acres) than in all the U.S. and Canada combined.

>Recent polls showed 90 percent of Ecuadorans in favor of leaving the oil in the ITT Block untouched

sad that one of most pristine areas succumbs to #BigOil and #greed

Daniel Hicks
Daniel Hicks

@William G.

I sincerely hope that things in El Oriente change soon then. Personally working in and around Yasuni National Park it is all too plain to see that the same sins ARE being commited on a regular basis.

Is was only in May this year that the northern half of the Napo river that borders Yasuni was black with crude. Clean up crews did not appear until a month later when the spill had reached Peru and Brazil was on alert! Booms were put in place(oil was no longer floating on the river!) however only close to any road or large community( the only places that tv film crews get to) A show for the media in other words!

Ecuador’s Ministry of the Environment reports that between 2000 and 2010 there were almost 50 spills per year, and in 2011, 60 oil spills were reported. This adds up to more than one oil spill per week for 2011.

 The Ministry of the Environment reports that only 1.5% of the spills that occurred between 2000 and 2010 were the result of natural causes. The rest were due to pipeline corrosion (28%), mechanical failure (17%), and ‘attacks’ (26%).

- See more at: http://www.pachamama.org/news/ecuadors-challenges-with-oil-development#sthash.v8m3mOqB.dpuf

If this is what Presidente Correa considers the highest environmental technology and security, he has some work to do before he should even think about allowing further drilling within the National Park!!

Christopher Murray
Christopher Murray

@William G. "Despite Yasuní's status as a national park, the oil frontier has steadily advanced within its boundaries over the past two decades, as economic imperatives have trumped calls for conservation. At least five active concessions already blanket the northern half of the park."

Roger Bird
Roger Bird

@Alfredo Soto   Yes we will, Alfredo, and that form of energy already has a name:  LENR.  I have been a student of LENR for the past 22 months, and it is real and progressing towards commercialization.  It will eliminate all fossil fuel and nuclear energy sources.  It is cheaper, completely clean, decentralized, and just about everything that one could hope for.

Gustavo Morejon
Gustavo Morejon

@Alec Sevins Hi Alec, Can you give me a source for the ammount of oil barrels consumed by the US in 43 days ?  It is really interesting.

Scott Wallace
Scott Wallace

@Xira ArienAs the author of the story, I'm inclined to agree. Here's what Ecuador-based biologist Kelly Swing has to say about it: "Yasuni represents an opportunity to save as much as 10% of the species on the entire planet. How can we possibly pass this up? Even if it might cost a few billion dollars, that's got to be the bargain of the century."

Scott Wallace
Scott Wallace

@Carol Music  Hi, Carol. I'm the author of the story. Actually, as Pres. Correa pointed out, Ecuador under the plan would have foregone half the revenues it otherwise would have realized from exploiting the oil. So Ecuador would have been the principal contributor. I cannot speak to how effective the Correa government's social programs are, though it is clear that he has tried to turn things around for the country's desperately poor.

Alec Sevins
Alec Sevins

@rick valanti: My biggest fear (provincially, as an American) is that Utah & Colorado kerogen shale will be pursued at the expense of ancient desert landscapes and scarce water supplies in the mindless quest for "energy independence," regardless of environmental (and monetary) costs. The math just doesn't work in any context.

The U.S. oil that remains is in increasingly tighter formations, with kerogen being the worst in terms of EROEI. Peak Oil deniers refuse to understand the difference between hypothetical reserves and realistic flow-rates at affordable costs.

Alec Sevins
Alec Sevins

@Roger Bird You echo what's wrong with modern GOP "values," i.e. that money itself is more important than anything else possibly could be. That same bogus reasoning is used to dismiss long-term AGW concerns for short term industry profits. It's just greed as usual.

Do you understand what money really is? Most of it is generated out of thin air from debt in the modern banking system. Money is not a tangible resource, just an artificial human construct that does a poor job of valuing priceless physical resources when soulless people are setting costs.

You've probably seen that old saying about people "who know the price of everything and the value of nothing."



Gustavo Morejon
Gustavo Morejon

@Scott Wallace @Carol Music As an Ecuadorian citizen and conservation biologist (I study soil biodiversity in the ecuadorian Amazon), I can say that the country social conditions changed drastically over the last 7 years.  Education, health and infrastructure are visibly better.  The funds from the Yasuni Initiative were going to be used for 5 concrete actions (besides rainforest conservation), and one of the actions was to change the energy matrix of the country and invest on the preservation of additional 1 million hectares currently under eminent danger.

Roger Bird
Roger Bird

If money is so meaningless, how come you didn't contribute some of it to Ecuador's plight.  I am fully aware what money is.  Liberals didn't want to give it to anyone but are happy to condemn others for valuing money.  And they are so keen on living in a natural environment but to hell with the Ecuadorian people most of whom live in poverty.

Share

Feed the World

  • How to Feed Our Growing Planet

    How to Feed Our Growing Planet

    National Geographic explores how we can feed the growing population without overwhelming the planet in our food series.

See blogs, stories, photos, and news »

Latest Photo Galleries

See more photos »

Shop Our Space Collection

  • Be the First to Own <i>Cosmos: A Spacetime Odyssey</i>

    Be the First to Own Cosmos: A Spacetime Odyssey

    The updated companion book to Carl Sagan's Cosmos, featuring a new forward by Neil deGrasse Tyson is now available. Proceeds support our mission programs, which protect species, habitats, and cultures.

Shop Now »