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Balancing rainforest conservation and resource exploitation: a complex debate around the Yasuní National Park

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By Michelle Arellano-Meza

· 6 min read

Natural resource exploitation brings up a debate about the positive and negative impacts it might have on the environment and the communities that inhabit these rich places, e.g. the rainforest. The upcoming national elections in Ecuador will not only choose the next president and national parliament but will also decide on the fate of the oil production in the block 43 fields, inside the Yasuní National Park.

The Yasuní National Park is a biosphere reserve home to about 2,000 tree species, 610 bird species, 204 mammal species, 150 amphibians and more than 120 reptile species, according to the University of San Francisco in Quito. In addition to being among the most biodiverse areas on Earth, the one-million-hectare park is home to the Waorani community and two of the last uncontacted indigenous communities, the Tagaeri and Taromenane, who still practice a hunter-gatherer-horticulturalist mode of subsistence.

Two sides of the same coin

When I visited the park for the first time, 15 years ago, what shocked me the most was not the richness and natural beauty of its flora and fauna, but the high contrast in the amenities that the oil companies had versus what the communities outside the wells received. The caps had cable television, games rooms, swimming pools and sports facilities, whilst, in contrast, the communities did not have running water and barely had access to electricity through diesel generators. Having said that, the local school, the local healthcare centre and the powerlines were built and paid for by the oil companies. These historically neglected communities had some glimmer of hope in the hands of the foreign oil companies, as their vulnerable position was already exacerbated by the challenges they were facing. 

Thus, addressing the exploitation of Yasuni ITT requires a nuanced approach, as simply shutting down operations is not a straightforward solution. These communities have been marginalized for far too long and lack basic services such as education and healthcare. And here, the oil companies, driven by the need to maintain their operating licenses, invest in infrastructure in these communities. This is the reason why there are differing perspectives among the indigenous communities themselves. For some, oil extraction brings revenues that compensate for the absence of government services, providing access to education and healthcare.

The next time I went there, I was working for an oil service company, and I witnessed another, more subtle dark side, which included violence against women and limited opportunities for the local population. Formal jobs in the wells were held mainly by the men in the community, while the women were relegated to becoming carers with no access to an income of their own, pushing them even further into poverty. But they were still grateful to have the oil companies in town, it meant that there was more consumption coming to local businesses and, to some extent, supporting livelihoods.

While there were these nuggets of support for local communities, it is crucial to understand that the exploitation of oil blocks primarily benefits the central government rather than the local communities. The structural problem lies in the unequal distribution of wealth and the lack of investment in the periphery. Consequently, asking these communities to sacrifice even more and compromise their autonomy for unjust exploitation is unfair. Although oil companies may provide limited amenities for the community, these are insufficient. True justice entails changing the entire concept of exploitation, focusing on job creation and technical education within the communities. It is essential to involve the local population and enable them to understand and participate in these projects, rather than merely witnessing the negative impacts such as spills and contaminated water sources.

Beyond limited amenities: pursuing true justice by empowering communities and amplifying Tteir voices

The last time I visited the park was during the time of the last campaign of the Yasuní-ITT initiative. This proposal sought to keep over a billion barrels of oil underground for financial compensation from the international community, through a trust, which would have funded sustainable development projects. While poverty was still very much present, there was something else going on. New generations were raising their voices against the greenwashing of oil operations who were using their limited local contributions to continue producing oil. 

Unfortunately, the old and the new ways of allocating the oil contracts were still leaving the communities outside of the decision-making process. A truly informed and free consultation is lacking, and corrupt practices within communities further compound the issue. The complex problems involve infrastructure, corruption, and centralized decision-making. True consultation and participation should be with the rightful landowners and not with external entities. Progress should be about levelling up the playing field for the local communities and amplifying their voices, rather than assuming we have all the answers. They possess valuable knowledge and can contribute to protecting their own territories while benefiting from environmental services and avoiding deforestation and illegal mining.

Rethinking the future – nature's rights and environmental services

Recognising the agency, autonomy and rights of these communities to determine their own future and manage their resources is important, but it is also imperative to acknowledge the abundant flora and fauna in the area. Declared a biosphere reserve by UNESCO in 1989, Yasuní National Park is one of the most biodiverse areas in the world. It is not difficult to imagine the threat that oil exploitation poses to their ecosystem.

Air, water and soil contamination is one of the main environmental damages. The water by-product of the oil extraction is re-injected into the ground without proper treatment that has polluted rivers and clean water fountains, oil spills are causing digestive issues and skin conditions in the communities and the animals, and the flares constantly burning gas that pollutes the air and emits millions of tonnes of CO2 into the atmosphere, are the daily bread of the life in the park.

Nature's rights are guaranteed by the Ecuadorean constitution, one of the most advance in the world on this matter. However, so far drilling for oil has been the prerogative of the governments at the expense of nature, biodiversity, and ecosystems, and the application of both, the constitution and the current environmental and protected areas laws are struggling to ensure that the stipulated rights are fully complied with.

But with the referendum, there is an opportunity to rethink the future and consider other options that balance the communities’ well-being and environmental protection. Alternative solutions to oil exploitation should be explored, such as taxing production and discussing trade-offs to maximize opportunities and distribute benefits evenly. But until a well-informed debate takes place and guarantees are in place to ensure equitable benefits for all, keeping the oil underground is a justifiable position. 

Let's engage in a comprehensive debate that considers all aspects and strives to do things right, where business and growth align with sustainability. It's time to move away from business as usual and explore alternative paths to ensure a more equitable and environmentally conscious future.

illuminem Voices is a democratic space presenting the thoughts and opinions of leading Sustainability & Energy writers, their opinions do not necessarily represent those of illuminem.

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About the author

Michelle Arellano is an international affairs professional, with over 15 years of experience in the field. Her expertise lies in energy sustainability and climate change, bringing a multidisciplinary perspective that includes socio-economic insights to an often technocratic sector. She is currently leading the Future Energy Leaders programme at the World Energy Council, where she promotes clean and just energy transitions for a healthier, more inclusive future for all.

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