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Re-thinking oil: compensation for non-production in Yasuní National Park challenging sumak kawsay and degrowth


The Yasuní-ITT Initiative was an innovative development proposal based on the non-production of oil in Yasuní National Park in Ecuador, in exchange for international compensation, eitherin the form of direct payment or payment for environmental services. My aim is to investigate how the different actors understand this compensation for non-production of oil in Ecuador, an oil dependent country. Using a chronological review of the Initiative and forty in-depth interviews with key players, I critically engage the ‘environmental narrative’ around the Initiative inspired by sumak kawsay -a philosophy of life based on non-mercantilist values, known as “well living” in English or “buen vivir” in Spanish- and degrowth. In this article I argue that understanding the Initiative as an environmental matter and not as a problem of oil rent dependency exemplifies the limits of sumak kawsay and degrowth as proposals for an alternative to development. Results from Yasuní show that the Initiative ended up reproducing the fictions of nature valuation instead of de-linking nature from the valuation process. By drawing on a critical political economic framework, this paper shows that categories such as “dependency” and “rent” are fundamental in understanding the challenges of moving away from extraction-based development in developing countries. In summary, failing to differentiate between payment for the non-production of oil and compensation from the environmental services, Yasuní was a ´lost ‘opportunity for a bottom-up debate on what to produce and what not.

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  1. 1.

    Ishpingo-Tambococha-Tiputini are located in Yasuní National Park.

  2. 2.

    The Tagaeri and Taromenane are two indigenous communities who live in voluntary and highly vulnerable isolation due to the expansion of the oil frontier and the illegal felling of trees, amongst other historical and cultural factors that influence patterns of violence.

  3. 3.

    Workshops of the Degrowth Conference held in Barcelona in 2010, Istanbul 2011 and Lille 2013.

  4. 4.

    Workshop of the 9th International Conference of European Society for Ecological Economies 2011.

  5. 5.

    Meeting with President Rafael Correa, María Isabel Salvador -Minister of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs in December 2007.

  6. 6.

    “Emphasizes that various approaches, including opportunities for using markets, to enhance the cost-effectiveness of, and to promote, mitigation actions, bearing in mind different circumstances of developed and developing countries, must meet standards that deliver real, permanent, additional and verified mitigation outcomes, avoid double counting of effort, and achieve a net decrease and/or avoidance of GHG emissions”.

  7. 7.

    At least three different schools of thought are influencing the development of the sumak kawsay concept in the political sphere. It is therefore difficult to conclude which of them best represents collective aspirations. However, the National Development Plan for Good Living 2009–2013 is ambiguous in itself. While nature is recognized as a subject of rights, public policy is driving the energy and the production transition with more extractivism and not without it. This strategy of development erodes the possibility of implementing sumak kawsay as a transformative concept that confronts capitalist organization.


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I want to mention deep thanks to Louis Lemkow for his supervision and constructive comments. I wish to acknowledge Giorgos Kallis, Bob Thompson, Diego Andrucci, Fikret Adaman, Melissa García Lamarca, Panagiota Kotsila, Beatriz Rodríguez-Labajos, Dídac Jordà Capdevila. My gratitude to David Chávez for his theoretical support in spite of his doubts about sumak kawsay and degrowth as emancipatory narratives. I appreciate the time and the ideas of people who were interviewed. Research for this paper was supported by the Secretaría de Educación Superior, Ciencia, Tecnología e Innovación (SENECYT).

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Correspondence to Lucía Gallardo Fierro.

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Handled by Viviana Asara, Institut de Ciència i Tecnologia Ambientals, Universitat Autònoma de Barcelona, Spain and Research & Degrowth, Spain.

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Fierro, L.G. Re-thinking oil: compensation for non-production in Yasuní National Park challenging sumak kawsay and degrowth. Sustain Sci 12, 263–274 (2017). https://doi.org/10.1007/s11625-016-0389-x

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  • Sumak kawsay
  • Degrowth
  • Yasuní
  • Nature
  • Rent
  • Dependency non-production of oil