Deep in the Ecuadorian Amazon lies one of the most biodiverse areas in the world. In one hectare of the Yasuní national park there are more tree species than in the whole of the USA and Canada combined. Primatologist Andrés Link says “you could spend your entire life here and be surprised by something every day”. It is also the home of various communities that have had virtually no other human contact, such as the Tagaeri and Taromenane. We all know that the Amazon, “the lungs of the world”, is important, and that it is being irreparably damaged by deforestation. However, the Yasuní national park is even more important than the rest of the Amazon, and it is being destroyed.
This is not hyperbole. Oil drilling has been happening in the Yasuní park since the 1970s, but now Ecuador has just signed oil drilling permits for the 700,000 hectare Yasuní-ITT area, which had been previously declared “untouchable” by the government. Drilling could begin as early as 2016. The first step will be constructing roads and camps. The state subsidiary that has been awarded the contract, Petroamazonas, has a bad track record on oil spills, and any oil spillage in the rainforest will cause unspeakable damage to the biodiversity.
Apart from the potential threat of oil spills, the production of oil in the Yasuní-ITT will need a forest the size of England to absorb all the carbon produced. It will also violate the human rights of the indigenous communities that live there, going against a promise made by President Correa in April 2007 to protect the lives of non-contact peoples, as well as the 2008 Ecuadorian Constitution which guarantees the rights of the indigenous.
The decision to allow drilling came after the hopes of a national Ecuadorian referendum on whether Yasuní should be exploited or not were dashed, as the government declared that a petition for a referendum did not meet the required signature count. The petition had collected 850,000 signatures, well over the quota of 583,323 needed for a referendum, but only a portion of those collected were deemed valid. This has outraged the group YASunidos who were collecting the signatures, as they believe the government has unfairly called the petition fraudulent.
Whilst it seems like the Ecuadorian government is the big bad wolf in this story, they are not the only villains. In 2007 the government made a proposal to the international community, they would not drill the oil if they received $350 million per year for ten years. This figure was said to be half the revenue the government would receive from oil exploitation. To put this in perspective, the country that receives the most aid in the world, Afghanistan, were given $6710.9 million in 2011 by the international community. Ecuador asked for this small amount in order to be able to fund poverty alleviation in the nation whilst preserving this globally important area. The international community has not come forth, prompting the decision to drill.
The issue of the Yasuní draws attention to a wider problem that middle-income countries are facing. In 2011, the same year that Afghanistan received $6710.9 million in aid, Ecuador received $162.6 million. Since July 2011 Ecuador has been classified by the World Bank as an upper middle-income country, meaning the average per capita income is between $3,976-12,275. The average income in 2012 was $5,425. This reclassification comes with a reduction in development aid. By 2012, a year after reclassification, there was a $10 million reduction in foreign aid to Ecuador. USAID is withdrawing altogether, and Ecuador has been considered for “graduation” from EU aid, joining countries such as Brazil, Chile and Argentina that no longer qualify for EU bilateral aid.
Whilst it makes sense to focus limited resources on countries lower on the income scale, this statistic belies the real state of affairs in the country, such as the 1.5 million people who still live in extreme poverty and an underemployment figure of over 40 percent. Ecuador cannot be compared to countries such as India, who have been criticised for having their own space programme whilst much of the population lives in poverty. Ecuador still requires assistance as it attempts to extend and consolidate its tax base, address issues of infrastructure and support and resettle the masses of refugees from Colombia.
Withdrawal of aid from middle-income countries makes the exploitation of natural resources irresistible. As the fracking debate in the UK highlights, even higher income countries cannot resist the allure of resource revenue. In the case of Yasuní, the lack of acceptance of co-responsibility for this valuable natural resource is an additional incentive to put the nation’s interests before those of the environment. The plight of the middle-income country will be seen much more in the years to come.