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ECUADOR: Environmental Inspection in Yasuni Park

Gonzalo Ortiz

QUITO, Apr 9 2010 (IPS) - Representatives of Ecuador’s ombudsman’s office and environmental groups are visiting the Yasuni National Park on Saturday, home to some of the world’s last indigenous people still living in voluntary isolation, in order to verify reports of illegal activity by oil companies.

Ecuador’s new constitution bans oil drilling in the “untouchable zone” declared by the government in the southern part of the park to ensure the survival of the Tagaeri and Taromenane indigenous communities, who have shunned contact with society and are highly vulnerable to introduced diseases.

The untouchable zone, where no logging companies or other extractive industries can operate, was declared in 1999, although the boundaries were not fully defined until 2006.

But despite the ban on activities in the area, construction of an oil pipeline that would connect currently operating oilfields with possible deposits in the park has continued, Esperanza Martínez, head of the Amazonia por la Vida – Salvemos al Yasuní campaign carried out by Acción Ecológica, a local environmental group, told IPS.

Meanwhile, Minister of Non-Renewable Natural Resources Germánico Pinto said Tuesday that President Rafael Correa had approved the terms of a trust fund to finance the decision to leave the oil underground in the Yasuni park.

Under the innovative plan, the government will issue bonds in exchange for a commitment to forego drilling in Yasuni, where there are an estimated 850 million barrels of crude, and to preserve the park’s rainforest, while preventing the release of some 400 million tons of emissions of carbon dioxide, the main greenhouse gas.

The trust fund would be financed by national and international donors, and would partially compensate Ecuador for the forgone oil revenue.

The initiative, which the left-leaning Correa officially proposed in 2007, is aimed at establishing a fund of 3.5 billion dollars – around half of what Ecuador could obtain for the oil in the park.

The initiative is known as the Yasuni-ITT project because it involves the Ishpingo, Tambococha and Tiputini oilfields, which partly overlap with the untouchable zone in the southern part of the park, one of the most species-rich areas in the world.

The megadiverse Yasuni park, the largest national park in this South American country, was declared a world biosphere reserve by UNESCO (the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organisation) in 1989.

Pinto added that the trust fund would be negotiated again with the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP), which the government hopes will administer the project. The aim is to sign the agreement “on Apr. 22, at the World People’s Conference on Climate Change and the Rights of Mother Earth,” in Cochabamba, Bolivia, the minister said.

But a few days ago, Environment Minister Marcela Aguinaga acknowledged that the application for an environmental permit for the Armadillo oilfield, on the national park’s border, was being studied.

“Granting a permit for the Armadillo field would pose a real threat to the isolated native groups who, as is known by painful incidents like the case of Los Reyes, are in the area,” Martínez said.

She was referring to the August 2009 murders of three members of the Duche Zabala family – a mother and her two children – by spears used by the tribes that live in voluntary isolation. Their husband and father, who was part of a team working to bring roads and electricity to the area, complained about pressure on the tribes’ territory by oil companies.

Yasuni, declared a national park in 1979, is in the heart of Ecuador’s Amazon rainforest, in the eastern provinces of Orellana and Pastaza. More than 1,760 species of trees and bushes have been identified on its 982,000 hectares, but Acción Ecológica estimates that there could be nearly 2,250 species in the park, which has the largest number of species of trees per hectare in the world.

The park is also one of the areas in the world with the greatest variety of bird species, and nearly 40 percent of all species of mammals that inhabit the Amazon jungle can be found in the park.

Martínez applauded Correa’s plan to sign the agreement for the trust fund in Cochabamba.

The ombudsman’s office and environmentalists will check to see if construction of the pipeline has crossed the border into the park. “The crude that used to go to the Edén-Yuturi plant is now being transported along a route in the north of Yasuni,” the environmentalist maintained.

She said that is because any heavy crude extracted from the ITT fields would have to be mixed with the light crude from another oilfield, Pañacocha, in order to transport it.

From the start, the Correa administration has said that if the initiative does not pan out, it has an alternative strategy. On Tuesday, the president reiterated that he still has a “plan B” to exploit the oil in case the Yasuni-ITT project did not prosper.

In December, eight European countries were ready to sign a commitment at the Copenhagen climate summit to contribute 1.7 billion dollars to a UNDP-administered fund.

But Correa called off the arrangement, and a few days later described the conditions set by the foreign donors as unacceptable and an “embarrassing” affront to Ecuador’s national sovereignty.

The president’s reaction led to the resignation in January of then Foreign Minister Fander Falconí and two other high-level members of the government’s negotiating team for the Yasuni-ITT initiative.

The drastic turn of events drew expressions of concern from the parliament of Germany – one of the donor countries – and from other nations, as well as from public opinion in Ecuador.

The government named a new negotiating team – the fourth of its kind – headed by Vice President Lenin Moreno and former ambassador to the United States Ivonne Baki.

Former Oil Minister Alberto Acosta, the president of the constituent assembly that rewrote the constitution, who distanced himself from the government because of differences over environmental policy, says the Yasuni-ITT project “is only moving forward on its own ground, while Plan B is making faster progress.”

But Martínez is optimistic, because she believes the situation has changed a great deal in the three years since Correa took office.

“We have a new constitution, the majority of the members of the constituent assembly were publicly in favour of leaving the oil in the ground, and many people believe the priority is to preserve Yasuni park,” she said before heading off to the jungle.

The final decision is up to Congress, and could even be put to voters in a referendum, as provided for by the constitution.

The original idea for the trust fund was to use the interest generated for environmental projects, the preservation of the country’s 41 national parks, the reforestation of one million hectares, and the generation of clean energy sources like hydroelectricity, solar, geothermal and wind power.

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