President Rafael Correa stood erect as the Ecuadorian National Anthem played. Every Monday, precisely at 11 a.m., a ceremonial changing of the guards begins in Quito’s Plaza de la Independencia. The president looked down from the balcony of the white, three-storey government palace last month over the large crowd gathered there, which included my wife and me.
At the end of the ceremony, as the hussar-like mounted cavalry rode out past us, I pointed out the security personnel to Eva. They discreetly surveyed the scene from the rooftops of buildings surrounding the plaza like the colonnaded archbishop’s palace. The numerous squads of riot-geared police were harder to miss. They occupied strategic positions around the square and as we would later see at intersections for blocks around it.
Did the energetic young demonstrators immediately in front of the Palacio del Gobierno warrant such attention? Listening carefully to the student chants after the president left I realized that they actually praised Correa. Why the heavy security then? It seems that only days before President Correa had controversially announced the opening of a section of a national park for oil drilling. Later in the day modest bands of protesters would stand in this same plaza denouncing this government action.
The area in question, the Ishpingo-Tambococha-Tiputini (ITT) oilfield lies within the Yasuni National Park in the eastern Amazonian region of Ecuador. This area is undisputedly one of the most biologically diverse regions on earth. One study noted that 655 species of trees had been catalogued on just one hectare of land within the park. This represents more tree species than the combined total in U.S. and Canada.
The Tagaeri and Taromenane indigenous peoples also call the Yasuni-ITT site home. They have tried to maintain their traditional hunting and gathering lifestyle in voluntary isolation from mainstream South American life. In a world hungry for ever more resources, however, this presents an increasing challenge. Grave threats to the region include illegal logging, land-strapped settlers clear-cutting virgin rainforest for crop and pasture land, and encroaching roads plus waterways made navigable from Manta, Ecuador to Manaus, Brazil, heightening access to the area in order to facilitate commodity exports to Asia. Neighbouring oilfields being developed in Peru don’t help either.
President Correa had earlier offered a landmark initiative to protect the Yasuni National Park and its indigenous peoples and simultaneously make a significant commitment to the global environment. He proposed leaving the estimated 900 million barrels of oil in the ground. This would have a real cost though: $3.6 billion over 13 years.
A new multi-donor trust fund administered by the United Nations Development Programme would present the new institutional framework for assisting countries like Ecuador to be stewards of the biological diversity of regions like Yasuni. With international assistance they would, as well, prevent hundreds of millions of tonnes of additional CO2 emissions from aggravating the already perilous rise in greenhouse gasses by not tapping this oil reserve.
A bare trickle of financial contributions from public and private sectors of the international community in support of this initiative signalled a lack of interest in sharing this burden and responsibility with the Ecuadorian people. A multi-billion-dollar debt to the Chinese plus the promise of additional aid dollars from them to upgrade Ecuadorian oil-refining capacity pushed Correa to announce the opening of the Yasuni-ITT to oil drilling.
Some commentators, like Alberto Acosta, an Ecuadorian economist writing earlier this month in The Guardian, believe it may still be possible to save this innovative environmental initiative. “Now a broad movement is preparing the ground for a referendum. Only then will the Ecuadorian people have the last word – to leave the oil in the soil, even without money from abroad. Yasuni-ITT can still be achieved by civil society in Ecuador and around the world. We need other Yasunis too.”
We indeed do need other Yasunis. Will we assume our share of this global burden and responsibility? Can we profoundly change our relationship with nature and become true stewards of creation? We must.
Michael Dougherty is co-chair of the social justice committee of Sacred Heart Cathedral of Whitehorse. Contact firstname.lastname@example.org.