Yasuni – Our Future in Their Hands?

Article 24 Oct 2007 admin

This report was first published in Platform’s Carbon Web newsletter, issue 8.

Ecuador proposes to claim compensation in exchange for leaving crude oil in the ground. Esperanza Martinez examines what this means for resource sovereignty.

Oil, for countries that possess it, is often centre stage when it comes to issues of sovereignty. Invasions have been launched to access it and military and political interventions pushed through to control it, leaving the door wide open for corruption.

On a local level, exploration and extraction impacts on the sovereignty of the communities which live on and around oil fields. This is an aspect of sovereignty that frequently goes unrecognised. Also, the issues of oil consumption and extraction have an effect on a global concept of sovereignty.

Ecuador’s proposal to claim compensation in exchange for leaving crude oil in the ground beneath the Yasuní National Park touches a nerve over the concept and practice of sovereignty. This is happening in a global context where oil consumption is increasing at the rate of 3% per annum worldwide, and in which oil exploration is being extended to ever more remote and vulnerable places.

If Ecuador manages to secure the compensation it is petitioning for, it will receive the same income as it could expect to earn if oil beneath the Yasuni national park were extracted. By not extracting this oil, approximately 440 million tonnes of C02 will be kept out of the global atmosphere.

Ecuador has chosen a strategic location for the proposal, the Yasuní National Park, located in the Ecuadorian Amazon. The park is considered to be the most biologically diverse region in the world. It is a recognised Worldwide Biosphere Reserve, forming part of UNESCO’s Man and the Biosphere Programme (MAB). Within just one hectare of Yasuní, 644 different species of tree have been found – this is almost equal to the entire indigenous tree population of North America – currently estimated at 680 species.

The land is home to the Huaorani peoples. This fact in itself is accepted as an argument for leaving the land and biodiversity unexploited. Indigenous organisations oppose the exploitation of this land because of the impact it would have on their lives and culture, and believe that oil exploitation should not be contingent on whether or not compensatory measures are approved.

The proposal to leave crude oil in the ground in exchange for compensation was presented by the Ecuadorian President, Rafael Correa, during the 62nd UN General Assembly, at “The Future in our Hands” event on climate change. The President emphasised that “the issue of climate change has shifted from being the concern of experts, to becoming of real concern at the level of high politics” and demanded “a serious reassessment of the current model of development”.

The UN Framework Convention on Climate Change proposes ‘common but different responsibilities’, yet action to face these responsibilities is obstructed by the energy industry and responsibilities can be evaded under the Kyoto Protocol’s ‘flexible mechanisms’: carbon-trading, absorption and sequestration projects, as well as so-called ‘clean technology’.

These mechanisms can function as neo-colonialist models in which those responsible for pollution acquire rights over forests and other territory where they invest, in spite of their failure to protect these areas. So what are the concessions and conditions which drive the Ecuadorian government’s proposal?

Various critical issues that could hold up or shape the proposal remain unresolved, mainly due to the fact that there has not yet been a declaration at state level in which the government has made its position clear. This ambiguity ends up favouring those with vested interests in the energy industry.

Some conservation organizations in Ecuador consider themselves to be the only ones to supervise the proposal. These self-appointed organisations draw on a new environmental lexicon which results in them assuming responsibility for the land, making decisions on the conventions relating to it, deciding which activities should be undertaken, and defining conservation policies. Within these organizations there are those who believe environmental policies can coexist with the market and sale of environmental services.

This framework emboldens those actors who believe that it is possible to accommodate the proposal within the sale of environmental services. Another doubt is whether the government will actually use the issue of compensation to avoid environmental damage in the future.

For some, the proposal is equivalent to blackmail and those who perceive the policy this way believe that Ecuador should face its policy changes without the support of the international community. Certainly the proposal has stimulated long overdue debate on ‘common but differentiated responsibilities’.

Climate change is being confronted worldwide, yet with numerous exceptions. One being through the exportation of emissions from industries and business in the global North to countries in the global South through the carbon trading market. Carbon trading has also meant that some of the big Northern NGOs in favour of the scheme end up taking control of conservation policy in the global south. This needs to be recognised as a new form of colonisation by the North towards the South.

This colonisation of both political space and environmental policy threatens not just the sovereignty of the ecosystems and cultures of the inhabitants of the global south, but the concept of a shared responsibility for reclaiming the sovereignty of the planet. Sovereignty as a concept and practice, both in terms of the ecosystems and cultures of indigenous people, cannot be turned into a commodity to be sold on the market of political policies or quick-fix carbon-shifting ‘solutions’. Sovereignty is at the root of resistance to the commodification of land and life. Who can lay claim to it, and practice it, promises to be an ongoing struggle.*

*This article was translated by Cara Levey and edited by Carbonweb

Esperanza Martinez is an oil expert and founder of environmental action organsiation Oil Watch, based in Ecuador.

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