Global (In)Governance: The Yasuni ITT Failure

Global (In)Governance: The Yasuni ITT Failure

Alejandra Palacios Jaramillo
Yasuni ITT Initiative Logo. Source: Hidden Node Problem

Global governance is a relatively new concept that came about as an attempt to offer responses to new and emerging issues in international affairs that cannot be solved by unitary actors or by states alone. At its core, global governance encourages the inclusion and participation of non-state actors in coming up with solutions to global issues such as public health, crime, and cyber security, among many others. Climate change and sustainable development are without any doubt issues that require a global governance approach, as, by their nature, these are matters for which one state’s actions could not be sufficient. The Yasuni-ITT initiative championed by the Ecuadorian government in 2007 was a failed attempt at implementing a global governance approach that aimed at promoting the idea that environmental protection is an internationally shared responsibility.

The Yasuni Park is one of the largest biodiverse zones on Earth, often referred to as a lung for the world. The park is home to the highest concentration of tree species on the planet, the highest documented number of reptiles and amphibians, and numerous endangered species — particularly the white-bellied spider monkey and the giant otter. In addition, the park is also home to two Indigenous groups in voluntary isolation, the Tagaeri and Taromenane groups. All these particularities make this area of the planet worth preserving, which is why it was named a Biosphere Reserve By UNESCO in 1989. However, this mission is in direct conflict with the economic benefits that could come from exploiting the area. As a matter of fact, Yasuni, and particularly its Ishpingo-Tambococha-Tiputini (ITT) block, could produce more than 90 million barrels of oil, creating billions in revenue for Ecuador, whose economy depends heavily on oil exports. 

Yasuni Map. Source: Patagonia

This dilemma is what birthed the idea of the Yasuni-ITT initiative. At its core, this initiative argued for the preservation of the ITT block to be a responsibility shared by all actors in the international system. Thus, in exchange for not exploiting the block, Ecuador was asking all members of the international community for economic compensation that would amount to half of the potential revenues to be acquired if the country were to exploit Yasuni. Thus, Ecuador sought to raise $350 million per year for ten years. These resources were to be administered through a UNDP fund and were supposed to be spent on social and economic development programs, with a special focus on transitioning Ecuador’s extraction-based economy into a sustainable one.

Although the idea had initially been conceived by grassroots organizations and scientists, the Ecuadorian government, and specifically former Ecuadorian president Rafael Correa, took it over and launched it as an official government plan in 2007. This program was perceived as an alternative to include some of the areas whose protection had not been considered in the Kyoto Protocol and it was coherent with Ecuador’s innovative decision to include nature as a subject of rights in its 2008 Constitution.

In practical terms, the Yasuni ITT initiative aimed at leaving oil underground, while compensating Ecuador for its economic loss. As the initiative took off, donors were encouraged to “buy a barrel-in-the-ground” and cover the costs of CO2 emissions to avoid them. Despite the innovative character of this project, the initiative failed as only $13 million was donated by international donors. Thus, in August 2013, President Correa announced the beginning of plans to exploit the ITT block. This failure is a reflection of multiple factors, among which is the poor application of the global governance approach. 

While global governance sets an emphasis on inclusion and cooperation among actors beyond the state, this was not a reality for this initiative. Despite the initial idea being conceived by non-state actors, many scientists and civil society organizations lost their voice and their vote in the process right after the government took over the initiative. Consequently, the proposal lost a certain level of legitimacy in the eyes of potential donors that disagreed, in other areas, with the government. Furthermore, although state and non-state actors were thought of as potential donors and encouraged to participate, much of the campaigning for the initiative was focused on getting other states to donate, as a means of taking co-responsibility for the preservation of the environment.

Another big critique of the initiative falls on the somewhat incongruent approach taken by Correa’s government. As donations were being pursued as plan A, simultaneously, an extraction plan was being designed as plan B in case the donations did not reach the threshold. It is important to note that plan B was never a secret, nor was it conceived as a response to the lack of donations. On the contrary, plan B was publicly explained and explicitly communicated at the same time as plan A. Thus, the mere existence of this backup alternative served as a deterrent for some donors as it could have been interpreted as a lack of commitment to the cause.  

President Correa during his “The world has failed us” speech as he announces the end of the Yasuni ITT Initiative. Source: La Republica

Global governance is an approach that can and should be applied to more and more issues every day as the problems in the world are, to a degree, no longer viable to be solved through unilateral state action. Climate change and environmental preservation could not be topics more appropriate for the global governance approach. Thus, the conservation of the ITT block in Yasuni Park was a missed opportunity for the application of an innovative approach to expanding the umbrella of intervention and interveners. Instead, it resulted in the decrease of the legitimacy of the Ecuadorian government, loss of biodiversity, and irreparable damage to a vital green-space of the world. Today, almost a decade after extraction plans were announced, Yasuni-ITT’s failure has taken its toll on environmental as well as social issues, such as the rights of the Tagaeri and Taromenane groups in voluntary isolation.

  • Would the initiative be successful if it had been championed by grassroots organizations?
  • Is economic compensation in exchange for non-extraction a fair request?
  • Can state and non-state actors ever collaborate at the same level?

Suggested Readings

Finkelstein, L. S. (1995). What Is Global Governance? Global Governance, 1(3), 367–372.

Martin, P. L., & Scholz, I. (2014). Policy Debate | Ecuador’s Yasuní-ITT Initiative: What Can We Learn from its Failure? Revue Internationale de Politique de Développement5(5.2).

Martine, G., & Alves, J. E. (2019). Disarray in Global Governance and Climate Change Chaos. Revista Brasileira de Estudos de População36, 1–30.

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Global (In)Governance: Th…

by Alejandra Palacios Jaramillo time to read: 4 min