Who is Responsible for Conserving Protected Areas?

According to the Global Atlas of Environmental Conflicts, 86 percent of socio-environmental conflicts caused by the exploration and extraction of natural resources occur in the Global South, especially in Africa and Latin America. Many of the extractive projects in the region are in areas of high bio-diversity and environmental value, protected by national and international regulation. This is the case of the Yasuni National Park in Ecuador, that was declared an Biosphere Reserve in 1989 and the Oxapampa–Asháninka–Yánesh Reserve in the central part of the Peruvian Amazon. There are similar cases in the countries of Central Africa, especially in the area of the Niger Delta where there is a high rate of mineral extraction.

The prevalence of socio-environmental conflicts highlights the tension between economic imperatives and the need to conserve areas of great biological and cultural value for humanity. It raises questions about how to balance these two interests in developing countries where economic growth requires the exploitation of natural resources.

The Yasuní ITT Initiative was a creative and promising proposal, initially conceived by Ecuadorian civil society and later welcomed by their government. The initiative sought to create  a global fund administered by the UN in Ecuador in exchange for not extracting petroleum in various parts of the park known as Ispingo-Tiputini-Timbochacha (ITT). The Ecuadorean government would commit to not pump out 856 million barrels of petroleum in the Yasuni Ecological Reserve and the international community, in particular the industrialized countries, would commit to paying 3.6 billion dollars over a period of 13 years. This amount corresponded to half of the income the country would otherwise receive from the exploitation of petroleum. The money would be used for sustainable development projects and social programs in Ecuador.

However, in August of 2013, the Ecuadorean government decided to allow the exploitation the ITT block of Yasuni due to the international community´s lukewarm response to paying this compensation. While the initiative’s failure in Ecuador is largely related to its government´s indecision, which diminished the credibility of the project, this does not reflect the soundness of the initiative itself.  Rather, it raises questions about the responsibility of the international community, and especially that of industrialized countries, to the conserve areas that benefit and are of importance to all of humanity.

To understand the Yasuni Initiative one must understand the clear asymmetry in the costs and benefits of global warming between rich and poor countries. The developed world (the Global North), which has produced the vast majority of the CO2 which is causing climate change, should provide compensation for at least half the income the countries would otherwise receive. This would promote the concept of shared responsibility in caring for areas of great environmental value for humanity and protect the indigenous communities who inhabit them.

The Yasuni model offers reciprocity and recognition of the ecological debt of industrialized countries by asking the international community pay for the reduction of carbon emissions, the protection of bio-diversity and possibly mitigating grave consequences. This initiative could be considered an ecological justice mechanism which could be replicated in other developing countires with important petroleum resoves in ares of high biological and cultural diversity.

While it is true that the conservation of natural reserves greatly benefit the countries who possess them, and are thus an important responsibility for these countries, the global benefits justify the idea of global responsibility for these areas today. Unfortunately, the international community’s tepid response toward the Yasuni Initiative may have a negative effect on the possibility of replicating these types of initiatives.


* Ana Margarita González is a Researcher at Dejusticia (The Center for Law, Justice, and Society

Photo credit: Sara y Tzunki