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License to Drill

Oil companies are preparing to start drilling under the Ecuadorean Yasuní Rainforest – and it’s your fault. A fund designed to raise money in compensation for leaving the oil untapped failed to garner needed donations. “The global community has failed us”, Ecuadorean president Rafael Correa stated when announcing the liquidation of the fund earlier this year. But are we really to blame?

The so-called Yasuní fund was set up in 2007, the year Correa took office, and was meant to raise 3,6 billion dollars – half of the projected oil profits. The UNDP set up and administered the fund, and Ecuador set up a group to lead fundraising operations. One of the members was Ivana Abaki.

On an interview with NPR’s Planet Money group, Abaki alleged that she was not an environmentalist – and certainly couldn’t name the names of the animals or plants unique to the park. She could, however, feel the difference. According to her, Yasuní provides “the best natural orchestra you have ever heard”. We’ll take her word for it, but maybe we should also send for an ornithologist to actually decipher the desperate cry for help echoing around the forest.

It’s not just animals that should be worried about their habitats being destroyed. Hundreds of indigenous groups that have lived there for centuries are also in danger of being forced out. As a whole, the people of Ecuador strongly object to drilling in the forest; 90% are in favour of leaving the oil untapped. The country has even claimed its environmentalist mentality in the constitution, where special rights are given to nature and its defence. So why did Correa change his mind?

One obvious reason is the steadily rising price of oil. While the projected gains from the Yasuní oil measured around 7 billion dollars in 2007, the current projected worth has shot up to 20 billion dollars. Even if the fund did reach the goal of 3,6 billion dollars, it would still be significantly less – and increasingly so – than what the country could gain by drilling for the oil.

Furthermore, although money poured in when the fund was first opened for donations in 2010, it soon leveled off and did not garner sustained support. The trajectory of possible future donations looks fairly grim, and makes it markedly more difficult to remain optimistic. So maybe the international community really left him no other choice – but can you blame us?

After the fund was launched, many nations questioned the salience in rewarding inaction. Germany, for example, stated initially that it would not pay money into this fund because they did not want to reward inaction, and that active efforts to preserve the rainforest had to be involved if they wanted to get money. Others voiced this concern as well, stating the difficulty in justifying the spending of money if no tangible active results could be measures in exchange.

The fact that Ecuador experienced a military coup back in 2010 – and the president was almost assassinated  – probably also doesn’t bestow much confidence into the nation. Can countries really trust that the Ecuadorean government will follow through with their plans to abandon the drilling if a new government brutally takes force? While another coup is fairly unlikely – in part because the surrounding countries all pledged their support to Correa following the uprising – 3,6 billion dollars is certainly a sizable amount of money, and might prompt more in the future.

Lastly, it can be argued that the way in which the fund and conservation issue was advertised and circulated was pretty meek. First of all, the woman who was put in charge of travelling around and getting money for it was – as noted above – not really an environmentalist and understood little about the sensitivities of the real issue at hand. Granted, she was in a tricky position because she had to find a balance between being realistic and upfront about needing the money and not being too pushy or demanding. Her biggest fault, however, may lie in having targeted only the top people in government. Is this really the best way?

Countries inherently have to act – to some extent – in their own best interest. And if the issue doesn’t directly affect them, it can be difficult to push for a humanitarian effort like preserving the rainforest. The past has shown, however, that politicians do and have to respond to public pressures. So instead of spending all of her time in boardrooms talking to important political people, she should have circulated a more global call for action to a broader population.

Looking back at issues like the Kony Campaign in the US, which ended up raising the money and action the people demanded, the fund may have raised more money if people actually knew about it and prompted their governments to care.

Then again, maybe this is not what Correa wanted. Maybe, all along, Correa was just waiting for the opportunity to blame the failure of the fund on the global community – therein suggesting he had no chance in the matter, and the people who failed to support the fund made it so that he had to drill. In his speech he stated, “It was not charity that we sought [from the international community]…it was shared responsibility in the fight against climate change“.  But was it charity? Or was what they sought an excuse to drill?

The fact that Correa liquidated the fund without telling anybody, and that oil companies were already starting to pave roads in the Yasuní forest as he was making the announcement, adds some weight to this allegation. It also suggests that, really, the fund was merely a way of playing hard to get for the oil companies vying for drilling rights. If at all we are at fault, it’s because we didn’t call the Correa government out on it, and are not holding him responsible for the promises he made to his people.

– Valerie Weber

photo credit – AttributionNoncommercialShare Alike Some rights reserved by colonos 


About Valerie Weber

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