BOGOTÁ, Colombia — Ecuador is killing a conservation program proposed by the president and intended to leave more than 800 million barrels of oil beneath a pristine swath of the Amazon Basin. But on Friday it was clear that the Yasuni-ITT Initiative, as it’s known, won’t die easily.
A coalition of environmental and indigenous groups is vowing to keep the government and oil companies out of the area, which is rich in animal species and home to isolated tribes.
“The government doesn’t have the right to dissolve the Yasuni-ITT Initiative, because this doesn’t belong to them,” said Esperanza Martinez, the president of the Acción Ecológica environmental group, which is part of the coalition. “The initiative was a proposal that came from civil society.”
The groups are planning a series of marches, protests and legislative actions to rescue the project. Humberto Cholango, president of the powerful Confederation of Indigenous Nationalities of Ecuador, or CONAIE, said his group would do “whatever is necessary” to block oil exploration in the area.
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The CONAIE is asking the National Assembly to call a referendum on drilling the ITT. But if the body, which is controlled by the ruling party, refuses, Cholango said his group will collect enough signatures to trigger a plebiscite.
The Yasuni-ITT Initiative, proposed by Ecuador’s president, Rafael Correa, was supposed to work like this: Ecuador would leave more than 840 million barrels of oil in the ground in perpetuity, keeping more than 400 million tons of climate-changing carbon dioxide out of the atmosphere. In exchange, wealthy donors from the international community would provide $3.6 billion, or about half the market value of the crude when the program was designed in 2007.
The problem? Those wealthy donors never materialized. Spain chipped in a couple of million. So did the Andean Development Bank and the Inter-American Development Bank. The United Nations and other private individuals raised funds. But in the end, contributions came to only $13 million, a far cry from the $3.6 billion Correa had sought.
To complicate matters, the crude is sitting beneath Yasuni National Park, a U.N. biosphere reserve
that is one of the most biodiverse spots on the planet, thriving with unknown animal species and at least one tribe, the Tagaeri-Taromenane, living in voluntary isolation.
On Thursday, Correa said the world had turned its back on the initiative, forcing him to pull the plug in what he said was “the most difficult decision of my entire government.”
Although the effort was a financial failure, it was one of the administration’s most popular programs. The initiative put Yasuni National Park on the map, and recent polls show that more than 80 percent of the population supports the project.
Hedging against a backlash, Correa accused critics and conservationists of being naive in their defense of the environment. Poverty, he said, destroys nature faster than the oil industry — as subsistence farmers extend the agricultural frontier and villages without sewage treatment contaminate rivers.
On Thursday, Correa said drilling the ITT oil block would affect less than 1 percent of Yasuni National Park, and that the oil could be worth $18.3 billion.
“The real dilemma is this: Do we protect 100 percent of the Yasuni and have no resources to meet the urgent needs of our people, or do we save 99 percent of it and have 18 billion to defeat poverty,” he said.
On Friday, Correa corrected himself, saying that less than one-thousandth of Yasuni would be affected by exploration.
Ending the program could create other pressures for the government.
The Huaorani indigenous group lives in and around the park. On Friday, Moi Enomenga, a Huaorani leader, said that if the government is going to exploit oil in the region, the country’s approximately 3,000 Huaorani needed to be compensated.
“We supported the Yasuni project, but now the government says it doesn’t work,” he said. “If the government is going to pull money out of our region, then — dead or alive — we need money for our people.”
Correa laid blame for the project’s failure at the doorstep of the developed world, which preached conservation but failed to act, he said.
The United States, China and Japan, the world’s three largest oil consumers, never backed the project, although a variety of European and developing nations — Turkey and Indonesia among them — did.
But critics say the government mishandled the process by sending mixed messages and relying too much on large international donors to support the project.
Under the rules of the United Nations trust fund set up for Yasuni, the country will have to return donations larger than $50,000. Ivonne Baki, the head of the government office that promotes the project, plans to hold a news conference Monday to discuss what happens next.
Material from The Washington Post is included in this report.