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  • Writer's picture Paul Boëffard


Updated: Apr 5


Synneva Geithus Laastad holds a PhD in human geography from the University of Oslo. She is currently working with performance auditing and evaluation in the Oslo city government.

Her scholarly contribution is exemplified in her paper titled "Leaving Oil in the Ground: Ecuador's Yasuní-ITT Initiative and Spatial Strategies for Supply-Side Climate Solutions," which was published in Environment and Planning A: Economy and Space. This publication offers a novel analysis of the Yasuní-ITT Initiative, departing from the conventional 'against all odds' narrative to propose an understanding of the initiative as a state strategy to reconcile conflicts of interests within the state.wor

Laastad's work highlights evolving power relations between environmental interests and entrenched oil interests and transformative dynamics within national political administrations.


Your literature review underscores two key findings. Firstly, previous research has pinpointed the 'entrenched' institutions and 'enduring' structures of the petro-state as primary contributors to the failure of the initiative. Secondly, it illuminates the emergence of multiple tensions: between state actors, between the state and civil society, and across different geographical scales.

LEAVIT: Could you explain why a geographical-political-economy perspective is important to fully understand the Initiative? And what new insights has it provided?

Synneva Geithus Laastad: In my article I utilize a geographical-political-economy perspective to understand the Yasuní-ITT Initiative. I present a re-interpretation of the case: not as a surprise development occurring against all odds and which failed as a result of external factors, but rather as a resource policy shaped by the co-existence of environmentalist and oil interests within the state apparatus during Rafael Correa’s first government.

I argue that this specific attempt to leave the oil in the ground for international compensation was the petro-state's least risky spatial strategy of the for adopting non-extraction as state policy: towards an international strategy where the financial costs are shared rather than towards more local-scale decision-making, which could potentially result in non-extraction without compensation.

I furthermore argue that the attempted internationalization of the Yasuní oil could be understood as a state strategy to ensure continued income from oil, either in the form of compensation or by legitimizing its continued existence as a petro-state and for business as usual if the attempt failed.

Supply-side climate policy measures thereby do not necessarily constitute a rupture from oil dependency, they can actually represent a continuation of it.

The Ecuadorian government sought to enhance the initiative's international legitimacy by attempting to link it with carbon emission trading, but these efforts proved unsuccessful. National civil society expressed dissatisfaction with this attempt to commercialize the benefits of preserving the oil reserves underground. At the time, international carbon markets were still in their infancy and were perceived by environmental groups, who initially proposed the initiative, as mechanisms allowing polluters to continue polluting by simply paying a fee. The initial proposal to refrain from extracting the oil aimed to safeguard less quantifiable values, such as the survival of indigenous communities and the preservation of biodiversity.

LEAVIT: Do you believe the initiative could have been more robust if it had prioritized less quantifiable nature values, such as the well-being of indigenous communities and biodiversity, instead of broadening its focus to include quantifiable carbon impact?

Synneva Geithus Laastad: It is hard to say. It is not something that I go into in my research and I’m hesitant to attempt a contra-factual analysis. I rather try to explain why it was made conditioned upon international compensation and therefore how it can be understood as a continuation of a dependency on oil incomes.

I can understand why the government actors that at the time worked towards ensuring international compensation tried linking it to carbon emission trading schemes. Fitting it into a pre-existing international framework might have given the initiative more legitimacy for potential donors. In this regard I think the Yasuní-ITT Initiative was premature unfortunately, supply-side climate solution were not part of the discussion internationally as they are increasingly now.

I do not think the main reason for the initiative unsuccessfulness was due to the attempts to link it to carbon markets. I think the reasons for its failure was a combination of domestic political developments leading to uncertainties regarding the initiative’s sustainability and the premature timing internationally.


LEAVIT has begun examining the situation in Timor Leste highly illustrative of the need for supply-side initiatives (oil dependency, vulnerable economy, historical field running out, political will to at the international scene to wean-off oil, etc.)

LEAVIT: If Timor-Leste were to embark on a similar initiative to what Ecuador attempted in Yasuni, what do you see as the primary pitfalls that should be avoided?

Synneva Geithus Laastad: I think any similar initiative would need to be solidly embedded in national political administration and national civil society, so that it does not fall prey to changing struggles of interests and political alignments. I think it is important to communicate that it would not be disregarded or changed if fossil fuel prices rose sharply, i.e. that there is no Plan B as was the case for Yasuní-ITT.

LEAVIT: Do you envision a future where Norway might invest abroad to encourage Global South producing countries to forego oil development? More broadly, could Norway be prepared to relinquish oil development within its own jurisdiction?

Synneva Geithus Laastad: It seems like it would be difficult for an oil-producing country like Norway to pay for another country to leave its reserves undeveloped. This is a domestic political issue more than an international issue – it would be difficult for the Norwegian government to justify financing another country’s non-extraction while continuing with extraction in its own contentious oilfields. I think this is one reason for why Norway’s main focus in international environmental climate finance has been the preservation of forest through REDD+ schemes.

There are ongoing processes in Norwegian courts regarding the legality of fossil fuel extraction in specific sites. There is furthermore an oil moratorium in the Lofoten-Vesterålen-Senja archipelagos, sites known for their natural beauty and cod stock.


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