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Another defeat for the environment — and for us

by Gwynne Dyer

“The world has failed us,” said Ecuador’s President Rafael Correa. “I have signed the executive decree for the liquidation of the Yasuni-ITT trust fund and with this, ended the initiative.” What might have been a model for a system that helps poor countries avoid the need to ruin their environment to make ends meet has failed, because the rich countries would not support it.

In 2007, oil drillers found a reservoir of an estimated 846 million barrels of heavy crude in Yasuni National Park, in Ecuador’s part of the Amazon. But the park is home to two indigenous tribes that have so far succeeded in living in voluntary isolation — and it is listed by UNESCO as a world biosphere reserve. A single hectare of Yasuni contains more species of trees than all of North America.

Ecuador, which cannot access finance on international markets, desperately needs money, and the oil meant money: an estimated $7.2 billion over the next decade. Nevertheless, Ecuadorians were horrified by the pollution, deforestation and cultural destruction that the drilling would cause: a large majority of them opposed drilling in the park. And then Energy Minister Alberto Acosta had an idea.

What if Ecuador just left the oil in the ground? In return, Acosta hoped the rest of the world would come up with $3.6 billion (half of the forecast income from oil revenues) over the next decade, to be spent on non-polluting energy generation like hydroelectric and solar power schemes and on social programs to help Ecuador’s poor.

The pay-off for the foreign contributors to this fund would come mainly from the fact that the oil under Yasuni would never be burned, thereby preventing more than 400 million tons of carbon dioxide from going into the atmosphere. Only a drop in the bucket, perhaps, but if the model worked it could be applied widely elsewhere, offering the poor countries an alternative to selling everything they can dig up or cut down.

The idea won the support of the United Nations Development Program, which agreed to administer the Yasuni-ITT trust fund. It was set up in 2009, and the money started to come in. But it didn’t flood in; it just trickled.

Chile, Colombia, Turkey and Georgia donated token amounts. Brazil and Indonesia (which would certainly benefit from the same sort of arrangement) promised donations eventually but didn’t actually put any money up. Among the developed countries, Spain, Belgium and France also promised donations, Italy wrote off $51 million of Ecuadorian debt, and Germany offered $50 million worth of technical assistance to the park.

And that was it. Not a penny from the United States, Britain, Canada, Australia, the Netherlands or Scandinavia. Individuals put in what they could afford (including high-profile donors like Leonardo DiCaprio and Al Gore). But four years later, the pledges only amounted to $116 million. Actual cash deposits were only $13 million. So last week, Correa pulled the plug.

“It was not charity we sought from the international community,” Correa said, “but co-responsibility in the face of climate change.” Maybe Correa could have waited a bit longer, but the idea was always Acosta’s baby, and Acosta ran for president against Correa last February and lost.

It was also Acosta who led the successful drive to make Ecuador the first country to include the “rights of nature” in its new constitution. This is a radical break from traditional environmental regulatory systems, which regard nature as property. Ecuadorian law now recognizes the inalienable rights of ecosystems to exist and flourish. It gives people the right to petition on the behalf of ecosystems, and requires the government to take these rights seriously.

Like the trust fund, this is an idea that may ultimately bear much fruit. For the moment, however, it’s just too great an intellectual and political leap to demote the property rights of actual voters (and campaign contributors) to a status below the right to survive and thrive of mere ecosystems — even though we all depend on these ecosystems to survive ourselves.

So we continue on our merry way to a global meltdown — and this just in from London: Fracking is now more important than wind power!

When the Conservatives came into office three years ago they pledged to be the “greenest government ever”, but they have fallen in love with shale gas, CO2 emissions and all. The British government has announced a new tax regime for fracking described by Finance Minister George Osborne as “the most generous for shale (gas) in the world.”

Not only that, but there will be “no standard minimum separation distance” between a fracking rig and people’s houses. Planners considering drilling applications “should give great weight to the benefits of minerals extraction, including to the economy.” In practice, that means that they can drill wherever they want, including your front garden.

Whereas local people will now have a veto on the construction of any wind turbines in their neighborhood. British Prime Minister David Cameron’s office explained that “it is very important that local voters are taken into account when it comes to wind farms … if people don’t want wind farms in their local areas they will be able to stop them.”

It’s okay to ruin the planet, but God forbid that you should ruin the view.

Gwynne Dyer is an independent journalist.