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The Proposal and its Complexity

- a history of change and challenges

The formation of the proposal to save Yasuní ITT emerged from demands of scientists to protect the Yasuní area due to its unique biodiversity and the need to protect the territories of the Tagaeri and Taromenane people still living in voluntary isolation however the core principal has always remained the same: to leave the detected oil under the ground

Proposal from civil society based on the experience of oil extraction

The proposal was initially based on experiences surrounding the devastating consequences of oil extraction and lessons learned from the previous campaigns surrounding the Chevron Texaco case which claimed that the company had destroyed the ecology of the northern Amazonian province, bequeathing grave social and health problems including a high cancer rate1. "In response to this case and others, in the Southern Amazon, activists, researchers, and scholars began calling for a moratorium on oil drilling in this region [already] in the mid 1990s"1. In their book ‘El Ecuador Post-Petrolero’ Alberto Acosta and Acción Ecologica called for a memorandum on oil extraction in the Amazon and a move towards alternative energy sources. The proposal included a proposal to support regions in the developing world, that were not included in the Kyoto Protocol, to fight climate change. Moreover it was constructed to protect the rainforest and the uncontacted peoples living in it.2 Rival2 states that "before becoming an official government proposal, the Yasuní-ITT Initiative started as a grassroots campaign, which asked people around the world to use their cars less and support the Yasuní National Park by buying a ‘barrel-in-the-ground’"3.

Proposal adopted into the political agenda

In 2007, when the Correa government was elected, civil society actors from the anti-oil extraction movement were incorporated within the administration. Alberto Acosta became the minister of Energy and Mines, and Maria Fernanda Espinosa Garcés (formerly part of International Union for Conservation of Nature) was appointed the Minister of Foreign Affairs. In June, 2007 President Correa officially announced his support for the Yasuní ITT initiative on the premise that the international community compensated Ecuador for the sacrifice of 20 per cent of the reserves. Correa also announced Plan B: the extraction of oil. This would come into being if the international community did not provide the amount of compensation demanded and seen as crucial for Ecuador’s development. In the following weeks the initiative became well known and Amazon Watch sponsored a high publicity trip by Hollywood celebrities to the area. As a result of effective campaigning, countries like Spain and Germany promised their support1. The proposal was seen as a revolutionary and holistic approach for the preservation of biodiversity, climate and indigenous people living in the reserve. It was seen to be building on the concept of ‘buen vivir’ that comes from Ecuador's indigenous culture and means ‘a life in harmony with nature’. The proposal was in line with the new Ecuadorian constitution which incorporated the subjective right of 'Pachmama' - or rights of nature. The Yasuní proposal was part of a new, radical and different pathway towards an environmentally just planet.

Institutionalisation and the financial mechanism

As the initiative was publicised at several international events President Correa asked for a study on revenue substitution, such as the use of carbon trading and debt cancellation, to be conducted1. Initially the proposal asked the international community to compensate Ecuador with US$ 350 million per year for 10 consecutive years - this amounted to 50 per cent of the unexploited potential oil revenues. Later, the amount of compensation became connected to carbon emissions. "The government proposed the sale of Certificates of Guarantee Yasuní (CGY), not at the price of oil, but at the price of non-emitted carbon. Thus, the concept of leaving oil underground, while still central to the proposal, had been transformed into the environmental benefit of avoided carbon"1. Larrea and Warnars argue that the Yasuní Guarantee Certificates (CGYs) for avoided emissions should not be added to the total valid emission permits, but form a part of them. In this way these certificates would not increase the total amount of emissions allowed (cap)4. After negotiations it was agreed that the fund be located with the UNDP and the money should be invested in "social development, nature conservation and implementing the use of renewable energy sources, as part of a strategy aimed at consolidating a new model of sustainable human development in the country"4.

Manifold benefits at the local and global level:

  • "an innovative option for combating global warming, by avoiding the production of fossil fuels in areas which are highly biologically and culturally sensitive in developing countries;
  • protecting the biodiversity of Ecuador and supporting the voluntary isolation of uncontacted indigenous cultures living in the Yasuní Park (the Tagaeri and Taromenane);
  • social development, nature conservation and implementing the use of renewable energy sources, as part of a strategy aimed at consolidating a new model of sustainable human development in the country"4.

The government’s decision to extract

On August 15, 2013 the Ecuadorian government decided to opt for plan B with the argument that the international community did not fulfil its obligation and that it needed the revenue for Ecuador’s economic development. The decision was met with great protest from civil society. Opinion at street level throughout Ecuador seemed to show a major disagreement with the president and organisations such as Acción Ecologica do not want to give up on saving Yasuní. Internationally, Plan B received a great deal of criticism and organisations and scientists continue to put their voices and actions towards promoting non-extraction. Although the government did change its campaign arguing that only one per cent of the block in question would be affected, local actors suspect that this will have major impacts. 

With the failure to raise the necessary funds countries such as Germany withdrew their pledges, in part due to changes in the German Federal Ministry of Economic Cooperation and Development. There was strong criticism from German civil society against the agenda change and the withdrawal of the support and many in Ecuador did not agree with the option of going for Plan B.  

Pricing of nature the initiatives pitfall?

Before the government opted for plan B, many had already argued that connecting the protection of Yasuní through monetary mechanisms and conditions was dangerous2. An editor of Orella asked its readers “So what will happen if the international community fails to compensate us with the US $ 350 million outlined in the Proposal? […] Why should we believe these tales of oil and development? They do not make sense to us who are living the chaos, illness and destruction wrought by oil in our province. The only dignified thing to do is to leave the oil in the ground. This in no way will make us poorer. The country generates sufficient revenues today for us to start organising things differently, and realize our dreams"2. Some saw it as putting a price tag on something that is immeasurable in monetary terms and that by pricing it, it became vulnerable if the willingness to pay did not materialise. Many argue that extraction goes against the constitutional rights of nature. Since the initiative was part of the government's agenda some saw the initiative heading in the wrong direction5. Arsel and Angel see the institutionalisation of the initiative as the beginning of the end for the initiative: On drafting the proposal, Civil society organizations and scientists lost their say over it5. The connection to CGY was critiqued by several organizations and scientists who argued that this approach immediately opened it to the risks inherent in the commodification of nature and it linked too closely to offsetting of emissions from the North. Rival2 and Acosta et al6 describes this dilemma in detail.

Sacrificing the right of nature for social development?

The reasons behind the failure of the official initiative are complex. Several issues have played a role. At the same time as the government promised the right of nature it also promised the population a strong social state. In recent years, and especially since Correa’s re-election in 2012, it has become evident that the right of nature was sacrificed to allow the initiation of huge extractive programmes or large-scale hydropower projects in the hope of raising revenues for social programs5. The argument has been that only through these means can development take place. Several institutions report that people who have protested against extractivism have been criminalized and are not heard7,8. People and institutions seeing themselves as advocates of the rights of nature have less and less space to express their concerns. The agenda of the re-elected government is based on extractivism and is critiqued by many for suppressing alternative, and especially, ecological opinions9,10,11.

Ecuador’s dependency on China’s financial support and its consequent debt to China, to be paid for in the form of future oil delivery, is a principal reason behind the current political climate. When president Correa took power in 2007 his administration declared several debts to a number of financial institutions as illegitimate, refusing to cancel them. Subsequently Ecuador does not have many institutions from which to borrow money and is highly dependent on China12.

Additionally there is a strong interest and lobbying from the oil industry that has weakened the initiative since its institutionalisation. This lobby was already visible at the climate summit in Copenhagen and sent warning signs to the outside world and remarks by President Correa cost the initiative some international credibility that was never completely restored. In addition to strengthening plan B this might have also have negatively influenced financial support from outside10.

April 2014: Enough signatures for a referendum: Ecuador faces vote on Yasuní park oil drilling in Amazon

For more information and research on the proposal, its history and the political situation in Ecuador please see here.



[1] Martin, P.L. (2011), "Global Governance from the Amazon: Leaving Oil Underground in Yasuní National Park, Ecuador", Global Environmental Politics, Vol. 11, No. 4: 22–42, Abstract available at: http://www.mitpressjournals.org/doi/abs/10.1162/GLEP_a_00082?journalCode=glep#.ViK4VCuDV_k (see a different version of this paper here)

[2] Rival, L. (2010), "Ecuador's Yasuní-ITT Initiative: The old and new values of petroleum", Ecological Economics, Vol. 70, Issue 2: 358–365.

[3] Rival, L. (2009), "The Yasuní-ITT Initiative: Oil Development and Alternative Forms of Wealth Making in the Ecuadorian Amazon", QEH Working Papers 180.

[4] Larrea, C. and Warnars, L. (2009), "Ecuador's Yasuni-ITT Initiative: Avoiding emissions by keeping petroleum underground", Energy for Sustainable Development, Vol. 13, Issue 3: 219–223, Abstract available at: http://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S0973082609000581; (plain text also available here)

[5] Arsel, M. and Angel, N.A. (2012), "Stating" Nature's Role in Ecuadorian Development: Civil Society and the Yasuni-ITT Initiative", Journal of Developing Societies, Vol. 28, No. 2: 203–227.

[6] Acosta, A. et al (2009), "Dejar el crudo en tierra o la búsqueda del paraíso perdido: Elementos para una propuesta política y económica para la Iniciativa de no explotación del crudo del ITT", Polis - Revista de la Universidad Bolivariana, Vol. 8, No. 23, 429452.

[7] Acción Ecologica (2011), "Ecuador: Integrantes de Acción Ecológica nuevamente sufren hostigamientos y persecución".

[8] CEDHU (2012), "Graves Violaciones a Derechos Humanos en 2012".

[9] Martinez-Alier, J. (2013), "President Rafael Correa against the environmentalists".

[10] Martinez-Alier, J.; Bassey, N. and Bond, P. (2013), "Yasuni ITT is dead. Blame President Correa".

[11] The Blue Planet Project (2012), "UPDATE: Correa criticizes anti-mining activists in Ecuador".

[12] Válquez-Ger, E. (2013), "Créditos chinos: ¿A quién benefician?: El país sudamericano se encuentra casi fuera de los mercados internacionales y China lo financia a cambio de hipotecar sus reservas petroleras", El Pais, Opinión, 13 September 2013.