The Project, Part II: Yasuní

In my last post, I explained why I think the local politics of climate change are an underconsidered factor in the success or failure of efforts to limite greenhouse gas emissions.  Finding an appropriate site to study this topic, though, is not straightforward.  Climate change remains an issue of marginal importance for many, especially in the developing world where poverty alleviation and more proximate concernsof environmental quality—like clean water—take precedence.  And some communities really are just victims of climate change, with low emissions and little capacity to influence them.  As I’ll try to argue in this post, though, I see Yasuní National Park in the Ecuadorian Amazon – the site I have chosen for my fieldwork – as just the kind of place where a diverse array of forces have converged to make climate change a potentially salient issue at the local level.  (I should add that most of the information in this post is identical to that in a recent article from Pamela Martin and Matt Finer, which is probably much better written.)

Global polling data has shown an inverse relationship between vulnerability to and awareness of climate change.  There are reasons to believe, though, that Ecuador might buck this trend.  Andean countries like Ecuador and Bolivia are extremely vulnerable to climate change, because many cities depend on glaciers for their water supply.  These same countries have been some of the most vocal advocates for “climate justice” internationally, with Bolivia even hosting a “People’s Alternative” to Copenhagen in Cochabamba.  The rhetorical environmental commitments of Ecuador’s leftist President Rafael Correa are given some added weight by the new Ecuadorian constitution, which—in a first for any country—grants formal rights to “nature” as part of a national policy of “buen vivir” (“the good life”).

All this exists rather uncomfortably, however, with Ecuador’s heavy reliance on petroleum.  Crude makes up 15% of Ecuador’s GDP and provides 33% of government revenue.  Ecuador’s panoply of regimes over the last four decades – democratic and authoritarian, military and civilian, leftist and conservative – have all shared in a common commitment to maximizing production.   Correa’s government depends on rising oil revenues to fund promised social services and poverty alleviation.  At the same time, though, it’s safe to say, though, that oil exploration in Ecuador has been an unmitigated social and environmental disaster, exemplified by an ongoing $27 billion lawsuit against Chevron on behalf of 30,000 indigenous people for damages from accumulated oil spills substantially larger than Exxon-Valdez.

These two contradictory imperatives of exploitation and preservation come into direct conflict at Yasuní National Park.  Yasuní is undisputedly one of the most biodiverse places in the world: they found a single hectare in the park with more species of trees than exist in all of Canada and the U.S. combined.  Moreover, it is one of the least deforested and unfragmented tracts of Amazonia left.  While many Amazonian ecosystems are expected to collapse due to changing rainfall patterns from climate change, Yasuní will remain wet.  Yasuní’s diversity is not just biological, but also cultural: the park is home to bands of Tagaeri indigenous peoples that have resisted any contact with the outside world, occasionally violently.

As in any good Disney movie about the jungle, paradise is never safe.  Despite its nominally protected status, Yasuní’s borders have been continuously shifted and the park’s protections fudged to allow for oil exploration.  The “ITT Bloc” on the eastern edge of the park holds the country’s second-largest remaining reserve, some 1.4 billion barrels.  By 2007, all the signs suggested that drilling in ITT was going to go forward, with all the ecological and cultural catasrophes that would entail.

Then—in a rather amazing reversal of institutional and political momentum—the Ecuadorian government offered an alternative.  They would leave the oil in the ground indefinitely, but only if international donors contributed half the value of the oil to a UN trust fund to be used for sustainable developed.  In essence, Ecuador was offering to give up $3.5 billion in oil revenue in order to keep the park intact.  Perhaps most exciting for many commentators is the proposal’s impact on climate change: leaving the oil underground hypothetically averts 407 million tons of CO(2) from entering the atmosphere.

Despite the general support of the international conservation community, countries like Germany and Spain, the Ecuadorian government, and—it appears—much of the Ecuadorian population, though, three years later, the outcome in Yasuní is unknown (recently, it seems likely to move forward—must be Angelina Jolie’s support).  Indeed, the government has continued to prepare a “Plan B” for Yasuní, that would involve drilling.  With Yasuní-ITT already being talked about as the new post-Kyoto model for combining the fight against climate change with social justice, the situation leaves a lot of questions unanswered.

Next up, Part III: some hard details on what I’m actually trying to do.

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