The Wheels Come Off the Yasuní Bus (And My Thesis?)

“Yasuní-ITT”—the proposal by the Ecuadorian government to leave 900 million barrels of oil underground in exchange for international compensation (and, not incidentally, also the topic of my thesis)—has evolved into a powerful symbol.  When I first started my research, commentators were already declaring the proposal to be the solution to climate change and the harbinger of a new era of post-petroleum development.  This August, the Ecuadorian government signed the agreement to create the project’s trust fund, and the academic community made this symbolism explicit.  “Yasunízar,” they declared, was a new verb that meant, “to protect a sacred place.”

As I learned this summer, however, Yasuní the symbol doesn’t correspond well with Yasuní the place.  To be “Yasunízado” is supposed to mean “protected,” and yet Yasuní National Park itself is already scarred by logging, hunting, colonization, and, of course, oil extraction.  Yasuní-ITT would confront one threat, in one place, but leave many problems unconfronted.  Rhetoric about the “rights of nature” aside, Ecuador is still—and will be for the foreseeable future—a state that lives by petroleum.  Even were the Yasuní-ITT bloc preserved in pristine state, it would be an isolated victory, not a change in development paradigm.  These realities haven’t seemed to matter, though, because the symbolism of Yasuní—the idea of rich countries paying poor ones to save the world—is appealing to all sorts of actors.

This week, though, the wheels really started to come off.  First, Germany—which had pledged $650 million towards the project—backed out.  Then, a few days later, some disgruntled cops burning tires in Quito hit President Correa with a tear gas canister.  In a Huge-Chavez-esque moment of hyperbole, Correa declared the riots an attempted coup and tweeted that he had almost been assisinated.  While I haven’t read anything about the implications of this event for Yasuní, I fear it will provide other European countries to withdraw their support.  We have, after all, been reminded that the government promising to “indefinitely” leave oil underground represents a polity that has had nineteen constitutions in the last two hundred years and three (real) coups in the last ten.

Cynical as I may sound, I know that the failure of the Yasuní-ITT proposal will have dire ramifications for the people, animals, and plants of the Amazon.  At the moment, though, I’m worrying about my thesis.  If the proposal succeeds, I can both point out its limitations and offer a plethora of suggestions for improvement in other places.  But what’s the point of critiquing something that has already failed?  Is there a more practical lesson to this, other than that Latin American governments are unstable, Western governments are stingy, and fixing climate change is shaping up to be awfully hard?

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