Friday, 23 March 2012

Who will be the winner between green and black?

Green treasure vs. black gold in Yasuni National Park, Ecuador.

by Michele Lapini
Photo by Michele Lapini
The environment and indigenous communities vs. the oil business

The Yasuní National Park is located on the eastern edge of Ecuador and is one of the most biodiverse places in the world. It is home to two indigenous populations living in 'voluntary isolation', uncontacted by our civilisation (the Tagaeri and Taromenane), and is also inhabited by other indigenous groups (the Kichwa, Shuar and Waorani). UNESCO declared this area a Global Biosphere Reserve, and the Ecuadorian Government declared a part of the National Park an “untouched area” in the 80s. In one hectare of the Yasuní National Park there are more trees species than in all North America and Canada put together. The area did not freeze over during the last ice age and so provided a refuge for many species - contributing to its current high biodiversity. Many areas are still unexplored by scientists, and for these reasons Yasuní Park will be an important refuge to preserve biodiversity in light of the impacts of climate change. There are 593 species of birds, 80 species of bats, 150 species of amphibians, 120 species of reptiles, 2,274 species of trees and shrubs and more than 4,000 species of vascular plants. Scientists have estimated that the insect population could be as high as 100,000 species. The importance of this area is not only for biodiversity: it is also fundamental to protect the indigenous people that live in a strong relationship with the Amazon rainforest for food, traditions and their cultural life. 

If you observe the Amazonia area on a map, you have the same sensation as when you look at a map of Africa. This territory has been divided in “Blocks” to delimit the drilling areas which are assigned (by the Ecuadorian Government) to the oil companies, such as Petroamazonas (Ecuador), Petrobras (Brazil), Petroriental (China) and Repsol (Spain). 

In 2004, Petrobras, at work in Block 18, discovered a big oil reserve in Block ITT and started to work in Block 31 (inside the Biosphere Reserve). In 2007, the Ecuadorian Government joined the “Yasuní-ITT Initiative”, a civil society proposal that represents an innovative conservation instrument for environmental policies. The purpose of this initiative is to keep untouched the Ishpingo-Tiputini-Tambococha (ITT) oil reserves that are situated very close to the "untouchable area". To reach this goal the government asked the international community for an economic contribution necessary to cover half of the value of this reserves (around 900 million barrels of crude oil) with the collaboration of the United Nations Development Program (UNDP). This "Yasuní-ITT Initiative" was created in order to preserve the important biodiversity, to avoid around 400 million metric tons of CO2 which will be released if the petrol is consumed, and to protect the indigenous communities, with particular attention to the non-contact peoples that live in these areas. In addition it can represent a model that can be adopted elsewhere in order to mitigate climate change as an alternative to the Kyoto Protocol. It is a revolutionary proposal because instead of paying to repair the degradation of the environment, as with the Kyoto Protocol, the international community pays to prevent the environmental damage. This prioritises a sustainable approach to the international politics of development.  

Photo by Michele Lapini
Building an alternative development

Whatever happens with the future of the Yasuní-ITT Initiative, some indigenous communities have already expressed their disagreement with the oil project and intend to refuse the oil company permission to enter, in order to respect their rights and to preserve the environment. Article N.57 of Ecuador’s Constitution and the ILO-Convention No. 169 represent a juridical framework in order to respect and protect the indigenous communities. The local population have the right to be consulted by the government and to express their opinion regarding this kind of development project. As an alternative, these communities propose 'Communitarian Tourism' where these same communities receive tourists instead of oil companies, so they can develop an endogenous process of improving their own livelihoods. In spite of threats, offers of money, corruption and the enormous power of the oil company, the indigenous community assembly have decided to continue their resistance to deny the entry in their land. To have access to their territory, the oil company has offered the communities USD$20 per hectare, an illusory tactic to compensate the destruction of the ecosystem and the displacement of the community. The communities host the tourist in the same house where they live, sharing day-life and activities. There is no intermediary and the assembly decides how to build up the tourism. This kind of project can help indigenous communities to improve their conditions and can represent a valid alternative to the exploitation and the destruction of the unique ecosystem of the Amazonia. 

Photo by Michele Lapini

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