It was touted as the start of a new era of development: Ecuador joined OPEC and borrowed massively. In the first years, oil built hospitals, schools and roads, but 45 years later, Ecuador only has half of its reserves left — 4.5 billion barrels — 20 percent of which lie below Yasuni.
Albert Acosta was the Ecuadorian minister for oil and mines when the Yasuni find was made. Today, he is a radical ecologist and will stand as a presidential candidate for a group of left-wing parties in next month’s election.
“The reality is that oil has not brought development,” the charismatic academic told me when we met in his office at Flacso University, Quito. “It has helped our infrastructure, but it has brought us immense contamination and environmental destruction. Oil has not solved the problems of Ecuador.”
While most politicians would have immediately sent for the drillers, Acosta hesitated. He knew that the find presented the country with perhaps its last chance to develop in the traditional way, but he also knew it would push the oil frontier deeper into the Amazon, release 400 million tonnes of climate-changing gases and make the destruction of a vast and pristine area inevitable. To extract oil from Yasuni would need wells, ports, pipelines, roads and villages.
“And because this is a particularly heavy crude oil, vast amounts of water will have to be injected back into the earth, inevitably leading to pollution,” Acosta added. “I knew the oil industry; I used to work in it. I could see the monster from the inside. I began to think we were poor because of our resources — I called it the curse of abundance.”
Working with NGOs and academics, Acosta prepared two options: “Plan A,” as it became known, was a revolutionary scheme to leave the oil in the ground in perpetuity in return for half of its value (about US$3.6 billion). Plan B was to send in a Chinese company. For the first time in history, a nation seriously considered not exploiting oil.
“We should be an intelligent country,” Acosta said. “Oil is unsustainable. We must see it in the long term. Climate change is a limit and we can’t continue to keep burning oil. Perhaps we must change our model of life. We cannot live without nature, but nature can live without us.”
Plan A has received overwhelming support, with polls showing 95 percent of Ecuadorans want Yasuni preserved as a jewel of nature, like the Galapagos. In 2010, Ecuadoran President Rafael Correa guaranteed not to extract its oil if the world gave Ecuador US$3.6 billion over 13 years.
The UN has now set up the Yasuni Fund and, led by a US$50 million donation from Germany, more than US$300 million has been offered or received from national, regional and local governments; individuals; and companies and institutions in Europe, Japan and the US. This alternative “aid” money is not touched by the Ecuadoran government, but is administered by a trust to develop renewable energy projects and conservation — and it seems to be working.