I rarely have to ask more than a handful of questions in my interviews here: as soon as I mention “oil” and “Amazon” in the same sentence, people here can go on for hours. It’s better that way, of course, since it allows me to stick to a few Spanish paragraphs of explanation of my research which I have pretty much down and avoid them realizing that I might not actually understand anything that they are saying (that’s what recordings are for). I was a bit surprised—though I shouldn’t be—when one of my interviewees wanted to know my opinion of Yasuní-ITT. Perhaps more surprisingly, I said I wasn’t sure what to think anymore. Not sure what to think about the “initiative to change history” and “big idea from a small country”? What kind of a cynic have I become?
Many of the biggest problems with Yasuní-ITT can be explained by looking at a map. Yasuní is a UNESCO biosphere reserve; the park is its nucleus. The reserve also includes Huaorani territory and an “intangible zone” for the isolated indigenous groups.
This is only one way to look at the territory. The territory is also overlayed—or maybe, carpeted—in oil concessions (the yellow parts are oil blocs – Yasuní-ITT is the yellow hatch in the corner).
When we are talking about “Saving Yasuní Park” we are actually talking about one corner of the park, which amounts to about 10% of the total area of the reserve. There are some big questions that this raises: if Yasuní is such a natural treature, why only protect 10% of it? And why protect ITT, when the adjacent Bloc 31—recently leased to Petrobras—has a higher level of biodiversity?
One strong argument for Yasuní-ITT is that it protects the ancestral territory of the Tagaeri and Taramonene. Except it doesn’t. The ITT Bloc is inundated most of the year, which unsurprisingly makes permanent settlement hard. It is, at most, territory that these groups pass through while hunting part of the year. To date, though, there is no evidence of isolated pueblos in ITT. All the evidence we have about these groups—hidden houses, footprints, spears, and killings of illegal loggers and colonist families—comes from Armadillo. And Armadillo is outside the park, outside the reserve, outside the Intangible Zone, outside of any sort of protection. In fact, although most of the reserves of Armadillo have long since been exploited, the Ecuadorian government is currently preparing to squeeze a few more drops from the ground. So once again the question comes up: why not Armadillo?
So how did the government select ITT as the corner of the park to protect, if not based on isolated groups or biodiversity? Somewhat paradoxically, for “The World’s First Post-Oil Development Proposal”, the ITT bloc was chosen because that’s where the oil is. The amount of money Ecuador is asking from the world community to protect the park is based on the price of oil—half of its value at market prices. That is to say, if tomorrow the price of oil skyrockets back up to $120 a barrel, by this logic the natural treasure of Yasuní suddenly becomes twice as valuable. Increasingly, I am realizing that “post-development” proposals like Yasuní struggle to achieve credibility precisely because we are still locked into a developmentalist, extractivist mindset. ITT does little to break this way of thinking; it just promotes a new way to use oil as a form of wealth.
All this said, it is important to remember that the choice at ITT is not between this proposal and some sort of anarchist ecological utopia. It’s between this proposal and extraction—and given the history of oil extraction in Ecuador, I’ll take the ITT proposal any day of the week. But, now that other countries like Guatemala and Peru are already talking about replicating ITT on their own territory, it’s time to give some serious thought to how this model can be changed and improved.