French region funds ‘no drilling’ campaign in Amazon

A regional government is taking the lead in France to protect part of the Ecuadorian Amazon from oil drilling, but the unique environmental project falls far short of its funding goal.


In eastern France, local authorities have taken a strange gamble: help 846 million barrels of crude oil remain beneath Ecuador’s eastern Amazon jungle.

The Meurthe-et-Moselle department in France recently gave 40,000 euros to a special United Nations trust fund to protect the Yasuni National Park in Ecuador from oil drilling. In doing so, it became one of the latest donors to get behind a plan the UN has called a model for the world, but that is still far from meeting its goal.

The plan calls on rich countries to donate 3.7 billion euros over the next 12 years toward development and renewable energy projects in Ecuador, in exchange for the government’s promise to keep Yasuni’s oil underground – thereby avoiding harm to the areas biodiversity and the indigenous groups living there.

The reserves are valued at over 7 billion euros if extracted, but the UN Development Programme estimates that if the oil were to be drilled out and used, 400 million tons of carbon would be discharged into the earth’s atmosphere.

Championed by Ecuadorian President Rafael Correa for the past four years, the Yasuni-ITT Initiative was given a privileged showing at the UN last Friday. On the sidelines of the General Assembly, UN chief Ban Ki-moon presented the plan alongside Correa and hailed it as an innovative financial mechanism in the fight against global warming.

Appearing with the Secretary General was Denis Vallance, head of services for the Meurthe-et-Moselle department, home to around 800,000 people on France’s northeast border. At Correa’s insistence, Vallance travelled to New York to show support for what the French official calls an investment that tackles climate change on two fronts.

“The funds are guaranteed to finance renewable energy programmes as well as reforestation efforts. There is a double benefit. First we don’t extract the oil, and with the investment we replant trees that capture carbon emissions. We positively impact the climate twice,” Vallance told FRANCE 24 on his return home.

Rallying support

Vallance first learned about the Yasuni project during a visit to Ecuador in April 2010. Known for its expanses of forests, the Meurthe-et-Moselle department he represents has taken an interest in forestry preservation projects abroad. As part of a four-man team, Vallance was initially supposed to inquire about funding reforestation efforts in Ecuador, but he returned to France with a much more ambitious proposal.

Last November, the department councilmen invited filmmaker Laétitia Moreau - accompanied by the Ecuadorian’s ambassador - to present her film “A Simple and Revolutionary Idea”. “At the end of the screening, around 100 people, which included councilmen, were thrilled with the force of this Ecuadorian project,” Vallance remembered.

In June 2011, Meurthe-et-Moselle councilmen voted to give the Yasuni initiative 40,000 euros. Thus becoming the second local French government to contribute to the fund. Vallance admits the sum is considerable for a regional government, and represents almost a quarter of the total annual budget set aside for international cooperation initiatives. But he fully supports the council’s decision.

“We have to stop saying we are all citizens of the earth and then never take action…Our department is taking action. It says we are also citizens of the planet and we are committing ourselves to the Ecuadorian people, who are putting words into practice.”

For Ecuador the project represents a new approach to bolstering the state’s coffers, but is also a risk. Oil has accounted for almost half of all export revenues for the small Latin American country in recent years, and leaving Yasuni untouched means forfeiting 20 percent of its known reserves.

Chile, Spain, Colombia and Italy are among a handful of countries that have given money to the Yasuni initiative. But the trust fund now stands at around 53 million dollars, only half of the 100 million dollars Ecuador is looking to find before the end of the year and a fraction of the total amount it eventually hopes to secure.

Negotiations with Germany are reportedly ongoing. The French government has received Ecuadorian delegates to discuss the subject, but no answer has yet been given.

While President Correa continues to fish for new donors in New York, Vallance has brought his enthusiasm for the Yasuni back to France. Another French department, Rhone-Alpes, decided to add 150,000 euros this fall to the fund. Vallance says he will push for more regions to join his cause at a meeting in Paris before the end of the year.

“We feel that if the regional governments commit to this project, the state will have to ask itself some questions,” Vallance said.

Daily newsletterReceive essential international news every morning

Take international news everywhere with you! Download the France 24 app