On Aug. 15, Ecuadorean President Rafael Correa announced that he was abandoning the initiative by which Ecuador would commit to leave 846 million barrels of oil in the ground under Yasuni National Park, in the Amazon, if the international community donated $3.6 billion to the country to compensate for the foregone revenue. The announcement sparked protests and a movement backing a national referendum on the issue, but Correa was quick to consolidate political support for his decision. Last week, Ecuador’s Congress approved Correa’s plan to drill in the park, even as the Constitutional Court approved a request by environmentalists for a national referendum on the issue. Meanwhile, analysts warned that the government’s growing dependence on oil revenues is setting the stage for a crisis when the country exhausts its reserves.
Environmentalists had lauded Correa’s 2007 offer to leave the Ishpingo, Tambococha and Tiputini (ITT) oil fields untapped, under what became known as the Yasuni-ITT initiative, in order to protect Yasuni National Park’s extraordinary biodiversity and uncontacted Taromenane Indians. The scheme would have avoided releasing 400 million tons of carbon into the atmosphere. However, though the strategy was in line with recommendations of the U.N. Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, major donors were skeptical. Correa blamed the international community for the initiative’s failure, noting that it had raised less than 1 percent of its $3.6 billion goal in six years. However, environmentalists observed that potential donors grew wary after Ecuador defaulted on its foreign debt in 2008 and when the state oil company Petroamazonas began working in block 31, another concession inside Yasuni National Park, just west of the ITT block.
Although Ecuador’s 2008 constitution prohibits oil drilling in protected areas, it allows for exceptions in cases of “national interest.” Petroamazonas has been working in block 31 for two years under a permit that predates the constitution, and is nearly ready to begin extraction there. Correa asked the congress, which is dominated by his Alianza PAIS party, to produce a resolution of national interest for exploiting the oil in blocks 31 and ITT, which holds 20 percent of Ecuador’s known oil reserves. After weeks of debate, the Congress approved that document on Thursday by a vote of 108 in favor and 25 against.