The Yasuní-ITT Initiative, or The Complex Construction of Utopia

Alberto Acosta

“The reasonable man adapts himself to the world; the unreasonable one persists in trying to adapt the world to himself. Therefore, all progress depends on the unreasonable man.”
– George Bernard Shaw

Breaking myths will always be a complex task. So-called realism thwarts change. Whoever enjoys privileges that could be affected by such changes puts up resistance. That is why the idea to leave the oil in the Amazon region in the ground was criticized from the beginning. We knew that it would be difficult to cut a swath through the national and international oil interests and that people would do everything they could to weaken the innovative potential of this revolutionary approach.

Indeed, doubts have been raised ever since the Yasuní-ITT initiative was put on the agenda. (ITT is the abbreviation of the oil fields Ishpingo, Tambococha and Tiputini.) People were baffled by the proposal not to drill for the 850 million barrels of heavy oil in the Yasuní National Park provided there would be an internationally financed compensation payment. Leaving 20 percent of a country’s oil reserves untouched seemed completely crazy in an economy addicted to oil. But as crazy as the idea seemed, it attracted support and grew stronger.

The Yasuní ITT initiative has four key goals: 1) To preserve biodiversity unique to the planet – the Yasuní National Park is home to the greatest biodiversity per square kilometer registered by scientists to date, with as many species of trees and shrubs as in all of North America; 2) To protect the land and the lives of the indigenous peoples who live in voluntary isolation (the Tagaeri, the Taromenane and presumably also the Oñamenane); 3) To protect the climate in the interest of all of humanity; and 4) To take a first step toward a post-fossil-fuel era in Ecuador.

And the fifth goal, one might assume, could be the possibility that we – as humanity – may find concrete and institutional solutions to the global problems that are resulting from climate change.

The feasibility studies that assessed the potential of this proposal – in comparison to producing the oil – came to encouraging conclusions. Even if one were to set aside the enormous ecological and social consequences of oil production, the option of leaving the oil in the ground would be more attractive than extracting it. In addition, this option would open up a scenario that would benefit everyone – Ecuador as well as the international community.

A proposal born of resistance

The initiative to abandon oil production was not inspired by any particular individual. It has no “owner,” but was developed step by step in civil society. People who had suffered from the devastations caused by oil production in the Amazon region developed the proposal even before Rafael Correa became a candidate for President of Ecuador in 2006. Yet the fact that Correa accepted the initiative and the government then supported it was decisive. Correa took on the responsibility for turning the idea not to develop the ITT oil fields into actual policy.

At the turn of the millennium, resistance increased in the communities of the Amazon region and turned into a legal dispute of international significance. The so-called “trial of the century” litigated by the indigenous communities and those communities affected by Chevron-Texaco’s oil production became widely known.1 The resistance of the Sarayaku Kichwa community in Pastaza province succeeded in preventing drilling by the Compañía General de Combustibles (CGC) in Block 23, even though the company was backed by the state and its armed forces. This community, which could rely on active international solidarity, obtained a pioneering decision by the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights in July 2004. The Commission argued for numerous measures benefiting the Sarayaku. In 2007, the Ecuadorian government finally accepted the resolution of the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights.

Supported by the categorical opposition of the people affected, a moratorium on extracting oil in the south-central Ecuadorian Amazon region gradually developed. Already formulated in various forums, the demand was taken up in the book El Ecuador Post-Petrolero (Post-Petroleum Ecuador) in 2000 (Acosta 2000). The following year, a group concerned with foreign debt discussed whether this proposal might bring with it the opportunity of a historic agreement with inter­national creditors. Ecuador could suspend payments on foreign loans and preserve the Amazon in exchange. All the demands were compiled, and this formed the basis for developing the proposal not to exploit the Yasuní oil as part of a broader oil moratorium. The idea was finally laid out in a position paper by Oil Watch2 in June 2005, and was forcefully brought into the national political debate. The Yasuní ITT initiative was included in the government program 2007-2011 of the Movimiento País (today: Alianza País)3 that was prepared during Rafael Correa’s 2006 presidential campaign.

The character of a revolutionary initiative

Yasuní ITT would prevent 410 million tons of CO2 emissions. In return, Ecuador expects a financial contribution from the international community. Individual countries, especially the more prosperous societies, can take on their part of the responsibility, depending on their share of the environmental destruc­tion for which they are responsible on this planet.

The initiative proposes that all peoples of the world change their relationship to nature profoundly by contributing to the establishment of a new global legal institution according to the principles of global environmental justice and joint responsibility for the global commons. This institution would not represent the interests of particular nations or private interests; instead, it would be a custodian for what is owned jointly by all of humanity: the atmosphere and biological diversity. This goes far beyond the logic of international cooperation, considered to be “development aid.”

Audacity: a difficult course

This proposal has taken a convoluted path since becoming a topic of official political discussions. There were steps forward and back, successes and contra­dictions, approval and controversies. What is interesting, and actually surprising, is that this idea has taken root even though some people considered it extremely far-fetched. Briefly after its official launch, the encouraging voices soon multiplied, more so abroad than in Ecuador. The opportunity that something previously unthinkable would emerge came to the fore in the societal debate, in parliaments and in some governments.

Germany’s early support must be mentioned here. Representatives of all parliamentary groups expressed their support for the ITT initiative in June 2008, and asked the German government for support. That is why the rejection of the proposal made by Dirk Niebel, the German Minister for Economic Cooperation and Development, in September 2010,4 was a slap in the face. Niebel’s rebuff German reduced the chances for more support, as many potential contributors had taken Germany’s solid commitment for granted. The decision apparently reflected a small-minded mentality, not one of a statesman with a broad vision.

Things were difficult in Ecuador as well. The proposal formulated by the then-Minister for Energy and Mining5 at the beginning of Correa’s presidency collided with the desire of Petroecuador’s CEO to produce the oil as quickly as possible. The CEO even signed agreements with foreign companies behind the minister’s back – and the minister was a member of Petroecuador’s board. The confrontation was settled after President Correa intervened; on March 31, 2007, in an unusual procedure, he heard the various arguments presented by Petroecuador’s board.On that day, the option to leave the oil in the ground was mentioned in very concrete terms as the first option, provided that the international community would contribute at least half the monies that would be generated in the event of exploitation. Option B – exploiting the oil – was sketched out in case that initiative were to fail. Since then, the conflict between the two options has been simmering with different degrees of intensity.

Later, the initiative’s prospects veered back and forth between great hope and growing doubts. President Correa was applauded at the United Nations, OPEC, the World Social Forum and numerous international summits when he presented this way of protecting the Amazon and preventing major negative impacts on the global environment. But it was the same president who made it all too clear that it was a yes-or-no situation – in other words, that the oil would be exploited if there were no international financing. A scent of blackmail was in the air, and it fueled doubts.

In 2010, the Ecuadorian government defined how the revenues raised by the model would be spent. The funds would be controlled by the UN6 and be spent on the transformation of the Ecuadorian energy supply model by developing the potential of alternative energy sources; reforestation and care of protected areas; sustainable social development, especially in the Amazon regions; and finally, investments in technological research.

A profound discussion in civil society quickly ensued, both domestically and internationally. Thanks to this debate, the original proposal, which used terms such as “compensation” and “international donations,” was superseded by a different framing – joint contributions as the fundamental principle of global environmental justice. It became clear that one cannot be compensated for an obligation that one must perform in any case, namely global environmental protection. Debate about the Yasuní ITT initiative also made clear that there could be many financing options, and that emissions trading cannot solve all problems, as even the Ecuadorian delegation had assumed at times.

As the project made distinct progress, it also stimulated hostile responses. Even President Correa dealt it a serious blow. As the only head of government in the world who had an avant-garde proposal to combat global warming, he needlessly risked a confrontation at the United Nations climate summit in Copenhagen in December 2009. After signing the documents establishing the International Trust Fund, he changed his mind at the last minute. His declaration, which was also directed against potential contributors to the fund, shattered the Yasuní ITT negotiating delegation, and the foreign minister handed in his resignation. Again, there were suspicions that oil interests had played a very important role.

Paradoxically, many people in Ecuador found out about the initiative only through these declarations made by the president, and through the ensuing situation.

The project at a turning point

We need clear signals for the Yasuní ITT initiative to become a reality. We need coherent and consistent government action. It is up to President Correa to overcome the problems that he himself helped cause and to prove his renewed and strengthened support for the initiative. He should commit himself to the position that ITT will not be touched, at least as long as he is in office.7 The activities linked to oil exploration and exploitation at the edges of ITT should not be permitted, either. And the government could put a stop to other threats to the Yasuní (deforestation, illegal logging, settling, illegal tourism) and prohibit the road from Manta to Manaos as a part of IIRSA.8 It would also be important to explore whether Peru would be able to implement a similar procedure in neighboring oil fields. The areas are in direct proximity to ITT and hold only about one third as much oil as the reserves under Ecuadorian territory. Such an expansion of the initiative could ensure that a much larger area with similar mega-biodiversity would be protected. This area is also home to peoples who have had no contact to the outside world as yet.

Even though it is not yet a reality, Yasuní ITT has produced many satisfactory results. The topic with its many facets has been positioned in the national and international debates. And there are people in Ecuador who are using hard-hitting arguments to advocate for the position that it is appropriate to leave oil in the ground even without international financial involvement. This Option C could be implemented via strict adherence to the constitution. After all, oil production in this area could take place only upon application by the president of the republic, and only on the basis of a “declaration of national interest” by the national assembly, which can call a referendum if it considers it appropriate. Then, the Ecuadorian people would have the last word.

The true guarantor for the success of the Yasuní ITT initiative is dedication on the part of civil society in Ecuador and around the world. Only civil society can take up this project of life. Not extracting an amount of oil that humanity would use up in just nine days would provide a new way of viewing humankind’s encounter with nature. It would break open the narrow horizon of selfish, short-term perspectives and encourage similar initiatives around the world. We need two, three, many Yasunís!


  • Acosta, Alberto. 2000. El Ecuador Post-Petrolero. Acción Ecológica.

Editors’ note:

Yasuní-ITT had started out with the goal of establishing a US$350 million fund. Over the next five years, the targets were adjusted downwards, and the cutoff date was postponed time and again. By now, Ecuador’s strategy for contributions has taken an important turn. The goal is not only to obtain contributions from the international community, but also from the Ecuadorian people and from private companies as well as public institutions. In 2011, the campaign Yasunízate was initiated (roughly, “Yasunify yourself!”), and it tried out a large variety of fundraising methods – one dollar per person, campaigns in educational institutions and many others. By January 2012, governments had pledged about US$69 million to the fund and Germany promised US$47 million in bitlateral technical assistance. President Correa renewed his commitment to the project and is seeking US$291 million annually in contributions in 2012 and 2013, with an ultimate goal of raising US$3.6 billion over twelve years. For now, no drilling has occurred in the preserve.

  • 1. Editors’ note: Legal proceedings against the oil company began in 1993, first against Texaco, then against Chevron after it had acquired Texaco. US courts said they had “no jurisdiction.” Then, proceedings continued in Ecuador. Indigenous women sued the corporation for discharging into the Amazon region’s rivers fluids tainted with crude oil and lead from oil production during its operations in Ecuador between 1971 and 1991. According to the plaintiffs, these effluents and numerous pipeline leaks resulted in people developing illnesses. The court handed down its decision in February 2011: The corporation was liable for the consequences of Texaco’s oil production and must pay 6 billion euros in damages. Chevron assumed that the verdict would not be enforceable in the US. But an appeals court in New York ruled in September 2011 that the company would have to pay the fine. At the editorial deadline for this book, it was not known whether Chevron would appeal that decision.
  • 2. Editors' note: Oil Watch is an international network that observes and analyzes the effects of oil production, especially on tropical ecosystems.
  • 3. Movimiento PAÍS (also known as Acuerdo PAÍS; PAÍS is the abbreviation of Patria Altiva y Soberana, or “Honest and Sovereign Fatherland”) is a political movement and party in Ecuador that encompasses eight political organizations, including the Alianza PAÍS founded by Rafael Correa. It had an absolute majority (approximately 70 percent of the vote) in Ecuador’s constitutional assembly in 2007/08 as well as in the new parliament up until the elections in 2009. Rafael Correa, Vice President Lenín Moreno and the author of this contribution are members of its leadership.
  • 4. Editors’ note: Dirk Niebel (FDP), the German Federal Minister for Economic Cooperation and Development from 2007 to 2012, fears that the Yasuní ITT initiative might become a “negative precedent” (!). When the Budget Committee convened for its final meeting on this issue in November 2011, he justified his disapproval in the form of a personal letter in the ministry’s newsletter. “Good intentions don’t necessarily mean that something will work well.” Niebel argued that Yasuní ITT would not work well, and that other policy tools are required: “It rewards refraining from producing oil, instead of actively protecting the forest or the indigenous population, for example.”
  • 5. Editors’ note: This refers to the author, Alberto Acosta.
  • 6. The Yasuní trust fund is managed by the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP). The goal was for a body independent of national interests to be responsible for managing the fund. Both the government and civil society are represented in the fund’s steering committee. The agreement was signed on August 3, 2010.
  • 7. Editors’ note: In other words, at least until 2013; however, Correa can run for another four-term.
  • 8. On The Initiative for the Integration of the Regional Infrastructure of South America, IIRSA, see also the conversation with Gustavo Soto Santiesteban in Part 3.