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Pioneering alternative development program at risk
Luis Ángel Saavedra*
1/28/2010
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Preservation of country´s largest national park threatened by push for petrodollars.

President Rafael Correa´s double about-face on an intrepid plan to preserve one of the most biodiverse corners of the Amazon rain forest has put the initiative at risk.

Correa had invited the international community for donations of US$3.50 billion over 10 years if Ecuador did not drill in the oil-rich fields located in the Yasuní National Park, the country´s largest.

The Ishpingo Tiputini Tambococha, or ITT fields, sit within the park, which is also home to a number of indigenous communities, and hold 856 million barrels of crude, which could generate US$7 billion for the cash-strapped government.

The diversity of plant and animal life in Yasuní is one of the most dramatic in the world, and the park is constitutionally protected from extractive industry.

Correa´s broad social programs, including universal health care and education, as outlined in the country´s new constitution, requires a constant injection of cash, which the ITT fields could provide.

But in April 2009, nearly two years after the proposal was first announced, Correa formally asked the international community for $3.5 billion, half the amount he said the government could earn if it drilled in the ITT.

Ecuador planned to sign an agreement with a group of donor countries, including France, Germany, the Netherlands and Hungary, represented by the United Nations Development Fund, during the UN Climate Change conference in Copenhagen in December, but Correa refused, calling it an interference in Ecuador´s sovereignty.

Correa backpedals
Correa´s administration complained that the government would have lost control of ITT fields if under the agreement conditions the donations would be managed by the United Nations Development Program, according to Alexis Mera, Correa´s legal secretary.

Then the agreement broke off.

“If that´s how it is, keep your money and in June we´ll start exploiting the ITT,” Correa said. “We´re not going to jeopardize our sovereignty. Understand that the ones making the greatest sacrifice are the citizens of Ecuador. In any other part of the world they would have drilled the oil.”

Foreign Minister Fander Falconí, a longtime confident of Correa´s, who both thought up the initiative and led the Ecuadorian´s negotiating team, quit over the incident, arguing that he had long fought for socially and environmentally conscious development for Ecuador and that the failed talks for ITT´s preservation distanced him from the president.

“The Yasuní ITT initiative deserves a much more explicit commitment than setting a six-month deadline to compile the required financial resources as its transcendence marks a different political project, which in essence proposes a change in lifestyle,” Falconí said in a press conference. “A change (that is) perfectly supported by the constitution.”

“He didn´t only lose a foreign minister,” said Alberto Acosta, Correa´s former energy minister and founder of his Alianza País movement. “Correa lost one of the best advocates for the movement´s ideology.”

Other government officials followed suit, such as Francisco Carrión, the former ambassador to the United Nations.

Floundering to regain course
Correa tried to calm the situation by assuring the public that he will continue with the ITT initiative, claiming that leaving the oil under the ground is a priority of his government. On Jan. 14, he started a new negotiating team headed by former Foreign Minister María Fernanda Espinoza and Vice President Lenin Moreno.

“We´re going to fight for this cause with much more vigor,” said Moreno, who said it is a personal issue for him since he is from the Yasuní area.

But the political damage had already been done and now Correa faces an uphill battle to regain the confidence of international governments willing to pay and of environmentalists who championed the initiative.

For now, only Hungary has signed on.

Correa has faced strong criticism from environmentalists, some of whom suggest he may be two-faced with the proposal, because if it fails, oil exploitation would generate billions of dollars for Ecuador.

“Now I see clearly what has happened,” Correa said during his weekly radio address. “We haven´t been negotiating with the supposed donors, but instead, with infantile environmentalism. Now those are appearing who are managing the process and they are the ones who wanted to put inadmissible conditions on the country.”
—Latinamerica Press.


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Yasuní National Park is one of the world´s greatest centers of biodiversity. (Photo: Luis Ángel Saavedra)
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