September 23, 2011 · New School · New York

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The president of Ecuador, Rafael Correa, gave a public lecture at the New School for Public Engagement on Friday, September 23, 2011 titled, “A Concrete Alternative From Ecuador in the Midst of Climate Rhetoric: Yasuní-ITT.” The Yasuní National Forest is located in the eastern most region of Ecuador’s biodiversity-rich Amazon Rainforest and is also a known reservoir for about 20 per cent, or 840 million barrels, of Ecuador’s oil, valued at over USD$6 billion. The Yasuní-ITT initiative (Yasuní Ishpingo-Tambococha-Tiputini) aims to collect USD$100 million from the global community by the end of December 2011 and USD$3.6 billion over a 13 year period in order to forego drilling for oil indefinitely. President Correa’s call to action for promoting the Yasuní-ITT initiative was met by overwhelming interest by overflowing audiences both in the Kellen auditorium where he spoke, and in the second auditorium where a live-stream of his talk was shown.  The event was organized by the Observatory on Latin America (OLA) in the Graduate Program for International Affairs at the New School for Public Engagement in New York City.

Correa, a President Specialized in Economics

Charismatic and eloquent, President Correa began his talk elucidating the difference between academia and politics. Transparency and truth, he said, are the assumed basis of academia whereas the art of telling lies is too frequently a characteristic of politics. He said he was eager to have returned to an academic environment. Mr. Correa seemed at home in academia, not surprising considering he earned his Master of Arts in Economics at the Université Catholique de Louvain in Belgium and his PhD in Economics at the University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign, and taught at universities in Ecuador for many years.

Thus, Mr. Correa explained that for his one hour talk, he would try and make some academic arguments regarding the Yasuní National Forest. As promised, he began with a discussion of the biodiversity in Ecuador. According to Correa, “a single hectare of the park has more species of trees than throughout all of Latin America. It is estimated that in total there are approximately 2,244 species of trees and bushes.” The park also contains the largest number of vertebrates in the world and holds the third largest number of amphibians. Additionally, it has the world’s fifth largest amount of butterflies and 18% of the world’s orchids. The biodiversity present in the park is staggering and Mr. Correa spoke proudly of these birds and butterflies, roses and orchids, which make his country unique. 

Each statistic was accompanied by a statistic that explained that the species were under threat of extinction. The enumeration of biodiversity and natural resources was presented in earnest in order to make the argument that they should be protected.

Correa noted that the area under the park is rich as well.  The ground underneath the park holds a reservoir of oil that is equivalent to approximately 840 million barrels, valued at more than USD$6 billion. This amount of oil proposes a complicated challenge for the environmental value present in the park, especially through the eyes of environmentalists.

The Yasuní-ITT proposal aims to prevent deforestation, specifically in 44 protected areas of the National Park. This, explained the President, will allow for two major communities who choose to live isolated from society, the Taromenane Tagaeri, to continue to live within their preferred conditions.

That is why the Yasuní-ITT proposal (Ishpingo Yasuní-Tambococha-Tiputini), described Correa, has the objective of pursuing economic compensation for stakeholders that are directly affected by this measure. For this, President Correa hopes to raise USD$100 million from the global community by late December 2011 and USD$ 3.6 billion over a 13 year period. President Correa clarified that Ecuador would be the main contributor to the cause, giving USD$14 billion to the project. 

Mr. Correa appealed to the sense of collective action. A substantial percentage of the Earth’s biodiversity, he explained, exists in Ecuador. As a result, it is not just Ecuador’s responsibility, but that of countries all over the world and populations across the globe to protect the biodiversity that exists. He spoke ardently of the many indigenous populations, the many languages that are spoken exclusively in the region, and their unique cultures that exist and have existed for centuries in the Yasuní National Forest. Drawing on his expertise in economics, he spoke of the role of incentives in economics and natural resource management that influence damaging and nonreversible behaviors. The Yasuní-ITT Initiative was established in order to correct the incentives and present to the world an alternative model for the sustainable management of natural resources.

Drawing on the international negotiations on climate change, including the Kyoto Protocol, Mr. Correa argued that the Yasuní-ITT initiative was legitimate and at once setting a precedence for how the natural resource-rich suppliers of the Global South could cooperate with the markets and demands of the Global North to create the right incentives for the protection of the Earth’s natural resources so that future generations could partake in the same wealth of biodiversity as populations of today.  The Initiative is supported by the United Nations Development Program which has established a trust fund to collect donations to prevent drilling. Up until September 2011, the trust fund had been accepting donations from countries but has opened the door to individual and private contributions. The goal is to raise $100 million by December of 2011. The funds raised would be primarily channeled towards developing an alternative energy system for Ecuador, a country where oil contributes to the majority of revenues from exports. Through the Yasuní ITT Initiative, Mr. Correa also hopes to encourage other developing countries to revolutionize their energy policies by seeking alternative policy options with regard to sustaining the Earth’s natural resources.

Plan B

Even though the Yasuní-ITT Initiative received great interest from the public, the proposal also spurred an interesting debate amongst audience members. Questions concerning alternatives to the project were brought up, as a means of preparing for “an eventual failure.”

Given this concern, Correa admitted he did have a “Plan B.” There has been consideration for horizontal drilling to extract the oil from underneath the Park, however President Correa did not delve into great detail as he is confident the Yasuní-ITT project will succeed.

President of the New School University, David Van Zandt, introduced President Correa, mentioning that September 2011 marked the 10th anniversary of the Graduate Program in International Affairs.  He described the New School as being very active in Latin America, explaining his recent trip to Buenos Aires in which the winners of the competitive President Néstor Kirchner Fellowship were announced, including an Ecuador national, Erika Paredes Sanchez.

In introducing the event, Director of OLA and the Graduate Program in International Affairs at the New School, Michael Cohen, explained that the OLA has brought many heads of state and policymakers of the Latin American region, including former President Nestor Kirchner, President Ollanta Humala, President Cristina Fernández de Kirchner, and Executive Director of the UN Economic Commission on Latin America and the Caribbean Alicia Bárcena, amongst others, to New York.

More About Correa

Correa has been the President of Ecuador since 2007. He was democratically re-elected in 2009, being the first President in 30 years that was elected in the first round of voting. A US-trained economist (he holds a PhD in Economics from University of Illinois), Mr. Correa came to power without being a traditional politician.

During his campaign, he proposed a constituent assembly to rewrite Ecuador’s constitution and called for reform of the oil industry, including an increase in the percentage of oil revenues for the Ecuadorian poor.

In 2008, he declared Ecuador’s national debt illegitimate, based on the argument that it had been contracted illegally by previous administrations. He then pledged to fight creditors in international courts, and succeeded in reducing the price of the debt letters and continued to repay all the debt.

Correa, an observant Roman Catholic, describes himself as a humanist, a Christian of the left, and a proponent of socialism of the 21st century.



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