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Another Defeat for the Environment (and for us)

21 August 2013

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 in order 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 programmes to help Ecuador’s many 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 tonnes 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 Programme, 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 the Chancellor, 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 neighbourhood. 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.


To shorten to 725 words, omit paragraphs 10 and 11. (“It was…ourselves”)

War in South America?

3 March 2008

War in South America?

 By Gwynne Dyer

Something strange happens to the roads in eastern Colombia. As you near the Venezuelan border, you suddenly come across long, dead-straight stretches that are about eight lanes wide. They are, of course, emergency air-strips for the Colombian air force to use in the event of a war with Venezuela, and they date back to a period long before the current crisis between the two countries. But they are still there, and the topic is on the table again.

It’s hard to know how seriously to take Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez’s threats of war with Colombia, because he often talks like that. Speaking on his weekly television show, Chavez denounced last weekend’s

Colombian military incursion into Ecuador. “This could be the start of a war in South America,” he warned, addressing Colombian president Alvaro Uribe. “If it occurs to you to do this in Venezuela, President Uribe, I’ll send some Sukhois” (Russian warplanes recently bought by Venezuela).

Then, intoxicated by his own rhetoric, Chavez upped the ante: “Mr. Defense Minister, move 10 battalions to the border with Colombia for me, immediately — tank battalions. Deploy the air force. We don’t want war, but we aren’t going to permit the Empire (his term for the United States)… to divide and weaken us.” All very exciting stuff, but can he be serious? There hasn’t been a war between South American countries in over eighty years.

The trigger for this crisis was a Colombian raid early Saturday that killed Raul Reyes, the second-in-command of the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC), and sixteen of his companions. It was an important success in Alvaro Uribe’s long war against the Marxist guerilla army, but there was one little problem: it all happened on the far side of Colombia’s border with Ecuador.

Colombia initially apologised, explaining that its troops had come under fire from the FARC band, but it later became clear that Reyes and his men had been betrayed by a spy and killed in their sleep. The border violation was deliberate and premeditated. Two friendly governments might still have smoothed the matter over — after all, if Ecuador was policing its border properly there should not have been any FARC troops on its territory, and besides no Ecuadorians were hurt in the operation — but these are not friendly governments.

Ecuador’s President Rafael Correa, like Venezuela’s Chavez, is one of the “new left” leaders of South America, whereas Alvaro Uribe is a conservative leader with close US ties. Both Correa, whose country borders Colombia on the south, and Chavez, whose country borders it on the east, essentially see FARC as a legitimate contender for power in Colombia. Chavez even eulogised Raul Reyes as a “good revolutionary” and condemned his “cowardly murder” by the Colombian army.

Uribe (whose father was killed by FARC in a bungled kidnap attempt) has gradually been winning his war against the guerilla organisation: numbers of commanders have been killed or captured, and there is now a steady flow of defectors. Nothing could be better for Colombia than an end to this crippling five-decade insurgency whose leaders still spout the antique Marxist rhetoric of the 1960s. But both Chavez and Correa see FARC as a friendly force.

The Colombians have long suspected that Chavez allows FARC units to rest and re-train on Venezuelan soil. Correa has only been in power for little over a year, but the Colombian army claims to have found a letter from Reyes to the FARC high command in the dead man’s hard drive in which he recounts his discussions with the Ecuadorian security minister about establishing a permanent link with Correa’s government.

So the Colombian government suspects both its neighbours of aiding and abetting FARC, and it may well be right. Venezuela and Ecuador fear that the recent Colombian incursion into the latter’s territory to kill FARC fighters may be only the first of many, and they also worry that the United States is encouraging such attacks as a way to destabilise these two leftist governments. They, too, may be right.

Given these concerns and calculations, the apparent over-reaction of Chavez and Correa — Ecuador has also dispatched troops to the Colombian border, and both countries have expelled their Colombian ambassadors — may be quite rational. They may be trying to overstretch the Colombian army and give it a two-front problem, in order to protect their FARC friends and deter any further cross-border operations by the Colombians.

But they’d never actually go to war, would they? It still seems very unlikely, in particular because the far more experienced Colombian army would dismantle any forces the Ecuadorians sent against it in a matter of days. Venezuela and Colombia are more evenly matched, and for that very reason it would not be in either government’s interest to have a war: neither side would win.

So that’s settled, then. Except that I keep remembering those emergency airstrips on the roads. Even long before Uribe and Chavez came to power, somebody thought that a war between Colombia and Venezuela was likely enough that they spent all that money on preparing for it.


To shorten to 725 words, omit paragraphs 5 and 8. (“Colombia…governments”; and “The Colombians …government”)