Charles Darwin would appreciate the irony of Yasuni National Park in the Ecuadorian Amazon. Yasuni, home to one of the highest concentrations of biodiversity in the world, is itself engaged in what Darwin called “the struggle for existence.” A proposed drilling project in Yasuni’s Ishpingo--Tambococha-Tiputini (ITT) oilfields would tap into a reservoir estimated to be worth more than US$10 billion — and permanently destroy this global treasure.
Darwin, who developed his theory of evolution in Ecuador’s famous Galapagos Islands, recognized the importance of the relationships between species. He observed that no species — including humans — can exist in isolation from other living things. Each organism relies on natural processes to survive and contributes to nature’s balance — and ultimately, to the survival of all life on our planet.
Yet in Yasuni, a tragic tradeoff between man and the environment looms.
Amid the richness of the Ecuadorian Amazon, one-third of the country’s population lives below the poverty line. For many Ecuadorians, the economic opportunity beneath Yasuni — equivalent to about one-fifth of Ecuador’s proven oil reserves — raises a painful choice between biodiversity and wealth. Understandably, many would choose to drill. Indeed, in 2007, crude and refined oil products accounted for more than half of Ecuador’s export revenue.
However, extracting the more than 800 million barrels of crude oil under Yasuni and burning the fuels made from that oil would lead to more than 400 million tonnes of carbon dioxide emissions, equal to the annual carbon footprint of Brazil. The resulting deforestation would add another 800 million tonnes to the atmosphere’s carbon burden, an amount equal to what Germany emits each year. And the permanent damage to thousands of species — and to the indigenous Amazonian Tagaeri and Taromenane tribes, which remain isolated from the world — would be too profound to quantify.
The discovery beneath Yasuni has sparked a heated debate, but a majority of Ecuadorians still prefer to leave the oil in the ground and the Yasuni intact, despite the financial sacrifices that this implies. A novel “Plan A,” announced in 2007 by Ecuadorean President Rafael Correa, would prevent oil extraction in Yasuni if money could be raised from the international community to offset some of the economic losses that would result from a drilling ban.
The UN responded to Ecuador’s plan and last year established a special fund for the initiative, the Yasuni ITT Trust Fund. The UN Development Programme (UNDP) administers the fund and an independent steering committee oversees its operations. The fund’s goal now is to raise US$3.6 billion from foreign governments, private companies and individuals over the next 13 years. By urging the international community to provide less than half of the possible revenue, Ecuador and the UNDP are hoping to promote a spirit of global responsibility for Yasuni’s preservation.
A drilling ban in Yasuni would have tremendous benefits for both Ecuador and the world. The funds raised from the initiative would be invested in Ecuador’s alternative-energy industry, with the goal of changing the country’s entire energy matrix. The eventual returns from the new energy systems would then be invested in social and environmental programs.