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ENVIRONMENT-ECUADOR: Plenty of Promises but Little Cash for Leaving Oil Untapped

Gonzalo Ortiz

QUITO, Nov 11 2010 (IPS) - The Spanish government is “analysing mechanisms to contribute” one million euros (1.3 million dollars) to the Yasuni-ITT initiative, one of the few definite contributions received by Ecuador for a scheme to leave oil reserves untouched in a highly biodiverse area of the Amazon jungle.

The offer was announced Wednesday by Spain’s Minister of Foreign Affairs and Cooperation, Trinidad Jiménez, during a visit to Ecuadorean President Rafael Correa.

So far, few financial resources have been donated to the project: the only country to have delivered in cash is Chile, which gave 100,000 dollars out of a promised one million dollars. Private donations amounting to 12,000 dollars have also been deposited in an account opened by the Ecuadorean government.

The Yasuni-ITT initiative is a plan to leave untapped proven reserves of 847 million barrels of oil in the Ishpingo, Tambococha and Tiputini (ITT) fields under the Yasuni National Park, in the valley of the upper Napo river, a tributary of the Amazon river.

The crude in the 982,000 hectare park, which makes up 20 percent of the country’s oil reserves, will not be extracted if the trust fund, administered since Aug. 3 by the United Nations Development Programme (UNPD), receives 3.6 billion dollars, equivalent to half of what Ecuador would obtain from extracting the oil.

The plan, conceived by environmental organisations in the late 1990s, was officially proposed by President Correa at the United Nations General Assembly in September 2007.

“We are working on how we can contribute to the trust fund and raise international support so that President Correa’s project can be achieved,” said Foreign Minister Jiménez.

But some countries that had made financial commitments to the fund have actually withdrawn their offers.

Germany is a case in point. Federal Minister for Economic Cooperation and Development Dirk Niebel retracted the German government’s earlier pledge, made months ago, to contribute 60 million dollars a year for 13 years, totalling 780 million dollars, to the Yasuni-ITT trust fund.

The decision came out in mid-September, when lawmaker Ute Koczy, the Green Party development policy spokeswoman, urged the government to start disbursing payments to the trust fund, and received a letter from Niebel with the retraction.

Ecuador’s Minister of Heritage, María Fernanda Espinosa, visited Germany in late September and won the support of the five parliamentary parties, but the official government position remains unknown.

The change of heart drew harsh criticism from Alberto Acosta, a prominent economist and environmentalist, and former president of the Constituent Assembly that rewrote Ecuador’s constitution.

Acosta told IPS that if Germany persisted in its refusal to support the Yasuni-ITT initiative “it would be a very heavy blow, a kind of stab in the back.” He used that very phrase, stab in the back, in several articles criticising Niebel’s attitude, published in German newspapers and web sites.

“There was confidence in Germany’s support. The German parliament, with its initial endorsement of the initiative in June 2008, became one of the international pillars for bringing about this project to protect life in the Yasuni and in the world,” said Acosta, a professor at the Latin American Faculty of Social Sciences (FLACSO).

“That position, which was repeated on several occasions and then taken up by the German government itself, served to overcome a series of complex situations, even within Ecuador. And wide sectors of German society were content with, and committed to, the decision,” Acosta said.

The arguments in Niebel’s letter to lawmaker Koczy “are completely baseless,” according to Acosta. “To compare the Yasuni-ITT initiative with the REDD programme (the U.N. Collaborative Initiative on Reducing Emissions from Deforestation and Forest Degradation in developing countries) shows an enormous lack of knowledge of both projects.”

Niebel, who had previously stated the view that all development aid to the countries of the South should be discontinued, said he distrusted guarantees from the Ecuadorean government to use the trust fund only for environmental projects and for the development of poor communities.

That is why, he said, he would prefer to support conservation in Ecuador through the Environment Ministry’s Forest Partners (Socio Bosque) Programme, and through REDD, which is part of the U.N. process of climate change and biodiversity negotiations.

“The Yasuni-ITT initiative simultaneously addresses biodiversity conservation, climate change and the rights of native peoples,” Juan Pablo Molina, head of the Zoological Foundation of Ecuador, told IPS. “It protects the Tagaeri and Taromenane ethnic groups, who have shown they want no contact with what we call civilisation.”

Acosta added, “the European Union claims to lead initiatives against climate change. This must be shown in more than words. European countries not only have very large social and historical debts, they are also in debt for climate change, since their industrialisation was based on fossil fuels. In this context, their support for the Yasuni-ITT initiative has great significance.”

The offer of funding from the Spanish foreign minister was expected by minister Espinosa, although she did not know the amount, following her international tour in October to promote the Yasuni-ITT initiative and give details about the trust fund and how it would operate.

Espinosa reported definite promises from Portugal, Italy and Canada, and a positive climate was also apparent at the latest summit of the Organisation of Petroleum Exporting Countries (OPEC), according to Minister for Non-Renewable Natural Resources Wilson Pástor.

But these pledges have yet to be fulfilled, and the Correa administration is therefore keeping open its “Plan B”, which is to extract oil in the Yasuní park, an area of pristine Amazon rainforest.

“Saving the Yasuni is to save a unique, megadiverse place, which contains the highest concentration of biodiversity on the planet,” Molina said. “There can be no Plan B.”

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