Why would a country leave vast petroleum deposits underground when it can drill, sell, export and earn billions of dollars from that resource?
According to Ecuadorian president Rafael Correa, who pitched a pioneering proposal last year for leaving 846 million barrels of crude oil deposits underground, the Yasuni Ishpingo Tambococha Tiputini (ITT) oil field would help to counter climate change by reducing carbon dioxide (CO2) emissions.
Ecuador pitched the proposal at the United Nations, promising that if enough donors would pay the country at least half the value of the petroleum reserves, the government would leave these reserves there indefinitely. The historic agreement was signed with the United Nations Development Program in August 2010.
Half the monetary value of the petroleum reserves—the amount Ecuador is asking to be paid for leaving the reserves intact—is estimated at US$ 3.6 billion. The fund would be administrated by the UNDP but governed by a mixed committee with reps from the state, donors and the NGO community.
In Belize, as the debate ensues on whether the government should allow petroleum exploration inside protected areas, and particularly in the Sarstoon-Temash National Park, where drilling could commence as early as August, there is a call for Belize to see how it could pitch this same type of initiative proposed by Ecuador. The government has said that it wants the petroleum money to pay the billion-dollar super bond.
“I understand we have a super bond. We have to pay that. We have an obligation. I am saying there are options, if we really want to have our cake and eat it — and we can,” said Greg Ch’oc, executive director of the Sarstoon-Temash Institute for Indigenous Management (SATIIM).
“When the president of Ecuador floated the idea to the international community that there is [crude] under the Yasuni National Park... [the Ecuador government said] I will keep it underground provided you pay me for that,” Ch’oc noted.
Ch’oc also declared: “I want an independent audit made of the reserve of oil inside or below Sarstoon-Temash, so that we can say if we float the idea... how much oil is there.”
The initiative, Ecuador argues, would help fight climate change, conserve the most biologically diverse area in the world, preserve the lives of the Tagaeri and Taromenane tribes (two of the last voluntarily isolated tribes in Ecuador), increase clean energy supply, and promote social growth and better living.
The Yasuni National Park, declared by UNESCO as a biosphere reserve, one of the most biologically diverse places on earth, covers 2.4 million acres—more than 500 times the size of the Sarstoon-Temash National Park—and is located in the Upper Napo valley in the Western Amazon region of Ecuador.
Ch’oc noted that while countries, globally, are debating the issue of climate change, debating the future of the planet and reducing our emission of CO2, Ecuador’s plan would mean that 400 million metric tons of CO2 won’t be released into the air. Rising carbon dioxide emissions is blamed for negative climate change. Burning fossil fuels such as petroleum is a leading contributor to the level of CO2 in the atmosphere.
The Government of Belize continues to insist that more oil discoveries would be vital in helping the country meet the billion-dollar debt commitment of the super bond. It is in line with this view that Prime Minister Dean Barrow has said publicly that he would permit drilling inside the Sarstoon-Temash National Park, because of “the large size possibility” of finding exploitable crude deposits there.
Ch’oc said, however, that “50% [of the value of the crude] will generate more income for Belize than what we will get for exploiting the oil in Sarstoon-Temash. I guarantee that.”
The current figures for petroleum receipts indicate that the country gets roughly 20% of total revenues earned from sales.
Whereas Prime Minister Barrow has said the government’s position on drilling in the Sarstoon-Temash National Park “will not change,” Ch’oc said: “I think that it is not a done deal. I think that the Belizean people need to participate in determining the future of how we engage in the oil industry, should we make a decision that we are going to drill inside any of the protected areas....”
According to Ch’oc, 70% of the national park is inundated or waterlogged—wetlands of international classification.
“The very nature of the wetlands would make any oil spill very difficult to contain,” he commented.
Established in the early 1990s, the park’s habitats are vital for the survival of fisheries, as well as for the protection of national lands from erosion, Ch’oc argues. He also notes that the park is home to the endemic “comfrey palm,” used as SATIIM’s logo, as well as to 13 ecosystems, including a broad leaf forest.
Ch’oc notes that he is not against petroleum exploration, per se, but there are areas outside the national park that the government can explore.
In Toledo, we pointed out, as well as in other parts of the country, Government may still run into challenges when drilling time comes, due to ancestral land rights being asserted by the Maya of Southern Belize—a right that has been upheld by the Supreme Court. Lands used for key agricultural industries such as citrus and sugar may also be targeted, since they are included inside the concession blocks.
Ch’oc appeals: “We need to sit down and have a sober discussion on how we can develop an economic structure, a financial mechanism that will ensure the Belizean people could benefit directly from the exploitation of oil should there be a decision to do so by the Belizean people. I ask a lot of people out on the street, are you benefiting from oil; the answer is ‘No.’”
Whereas two indigenous tribes remain resident in Yasuni National Park in Ecuador, the Maya and Garinagu have had their access to these southern protected areas limited by law. Ch’oc told us that SATIIM has received legal advice that permitting petroleum exploration in the park would be ultra vires (contrary to) the laws governing protected areas.
He also believes that these locals should have a say in what happens with the petroleum industry—a type of consultation that has not happened in Belize to date. All except one contract was awarded secretly.
“Because the communities have been denied access, livelihoods were cut short because of the designation of these protected areas [and these people] have to be factored into the equation... the government has an obligation to do so,” Ch’oc asserts.
He is not optimistic that Government is able to properly police petroleum exploration and extraction, especially in light of the budget limitations of overseeing departments.
According to Ch’oc, “We submitted violations of the Environmental Compliance Plans during the seismic phase [inside the Sarstoon-Temash National Park] to the Department of the Environment, in fact, including the [Geology and] Petroleum Department, and they did nothing, and exploitation is going to be at a larger scale.”
Ecuador’s locals know that while petroleum can mean big money, it can also leave behind lasting repercussions. They have been embroiled in an extended suit against an international corporate giant over petroleum-related pollution.
Ecuador, once a member of OPEC (the Organization of Petroleum Exporting Countries), is in the international news today, as reports indicate that a national court ruled just this Monday, February 14, in a 17-year trial, that the US-based petroleum giant, Chevron, must pay $8 billion plus costs in an environmental pollution suit led by indigenous nationals of the Amazonian regions of that state.
Whereas the Government of Belize continues to hold its stance on the Sarstoon-Temash National Park, Prime Minister Barrow confirmed last week that the government has decided to set aside Bladen Nature Reserve as restricted from petroleum exploration.
Geovanni Brackett, vice president of COLA, said his organization has been consistent in saying there is a need for zoning, to exclude certain areas from petroleum exploration. Barrow said this is being explored, but Cabinet would make a final decision.
“We are not saying no to oil exploration on the whole,” said Brackett.
Ch’oc said that US Capital, the company contracted to explore for oil inside the national park, could use other technologies, such as horizontal drilling, which would mean they would not have to enter the park, in the event that Government continues to insist on drilling.
Ch’oc also offered this food for thought: “Will [exploiting petroleum reserves] make the life of the Belizean people better? If we get a billion dollars right now, will the people on Southside and rural areas Belize—will [their] life [be] better?
“I think the super bond itself speaks [to] what is wrong in this country. We have a super bond—a billion dollars—yet we do not see the development. So if we give this government another billion dollars, what is going to change? What guarantee do we have, if we do not change the system that has caused the wealth that has been generated to remain within the elite of this country?”
He said that unless and until Belize radically changes the way wealth is distributed, unless Belize renegotiates the production sharing agreements between Government and petroleum companies, the vast majority of Belizeans will not truly benefit.
“There are ways we can redistribute the economic gain we get from oil,” he offered.
Ch’oc informed us that a summit is being planned to further ventilate these and other related issues this March.
(This story is based on the Tuesday, February 15, 2011, edition of The Adele Ramos Show, airing weekly on KREM Radio and KREM TV.) Amandala