13 Sep 2010: Report

Deep in Ecuador’s Rainforest,
A Plan to Forego an Oil Bonanza

Ecuador's Yasuni National Park is one of the most biodiverse places on Earth and is home to remote Indian tribes. It also sits atop a billion barrels of oil. Now, Ecuador and the United Nations are forging an ambitious plan to walk away from drilling in the park in exchange for payments from the international community.

by kelly hearn

Hunched in the back of a pickup truck speeding down an oil road near the western border of Ecuador’s Yasuni National Park, Juan Carlos Acacho — a short, wiry Shuar Indian — says he’s never heard of email or the Internet. But the father of six, who supports his family on a small jungle farm plot, has heard that oil companies want to drill in Yasuni, and that the government has been resisting them — a move he applauds.

“But the oil companies always do what they want,” he said, smiling and shaking his head.

The question facing Ecuador now is: Will the oil industry have its way in Yasuni?

From an airplane, the Yasuni National Park is a sea of jungle green, a 4,000-square-mile rainforest wilderness where the Andes Mountains, the Amazon basin, and the equator meet. Created in 1979, the park overlaps ancestral lands of the Waorani Indians and is inhabited by two groups of natives living in isolation. According to a 2010 study in the journal PLoS One, an average upland hectare in Yasuni contains 655 species of trees (more than the United States and Canada combined) and 100,000 species of insects. One section of the park held at least 200 species of mammals, 247 amphibian and reptile species, and 550 species of birds, making the park one of the most biodiverse places on Earth.

Yasuni
Photo by Kelly Hearn
Yasuni National Park is rich in plant and animal species.
“Yasuni is at the center of the richest zone in the Western Hemisphere,” said Matt Finer, one of the authors of the PLoS One study. “It’s the only area where the diversity of four key groups — amphibians, birds, mammals, and vascular plants — all reach their maximum levels.”

In addition to its remarkable biodiversity, Yasuni sits atop a fortune of oil, making the park an emblem of a development crisis bearing down on the entire western headwaters of the Amazon basin. In addition to oil and gas activity, the region’s forests are being besieged by illegal logging, biofuels agriculture, and an influx of colonists. But the remote northeastern corner of Yasuni near the Peruvian border has attracted the most attention because Ecuador’s largest untapped oil reserves — nearly a billion barrels — lie below it.

In 2007, the Ecuadorian government proposed a way out of the green versus black dilemma: It would forego drilling in the pristine swath of the Amazon in exchange for payments from the international community. For more than two years, the idea seemed to languish. But on Aug. 3, Ecuador and the United Nations Development Program (UNDP) signed an historic trust agreement for managing financial contributions from donors, a hard-won prerequisite for collecting pledges to pay Ecuador for foregoing the revenues it would have received from opening Yasuni to oil drilling.

Many questions remain about whether Ecuador can convince the world to pay it to keep “oil in the soil.” But the August agreement has the potential to become a paradigm for global rainforest conservation programs known as REDD, Reducing Emissions from Deforestation and Forest Degradation.

“Nothing like this has ever been signed before,” said Finer, a biologist with the U.S.-based group Save America’s Forests, who says that any oil drilled in Yasuni would likely be sold on U.S. markets.

Esperanza Martinez, an Ecuadorian activist credited with first envisioning the Yasuni initiative, told Yale Environment 360 that the signing was a “momentous occasion,” adding, “Failure to sign the trust probably would have meant an accelerated invasion of oil in the Yasuní.”

The Yasuni Initiative

Rafael Correa, Ecuador’s president, unveiled the Yasuni initiative three years ago, proposing to forego drilling forever in a region known as ITT — which stands for the oil fields of Ishpingo, Tambococha, and Tiputini — if the international community would pay his country half of what it would otherwise get from drilling: an estimated $3.6 billon over 13 years. Along the way, the UNDP said it would oversee a trust fund for the project in order to calm jittery contributors concerned about future Ecuadorian governments reneging.

A socialist who came to power with the help of the country’s social and environmental justice groups, Correa gained political points when he announced that Ecuador was prepared to take a financial hit in order to save the Amazon and steer trust money to alternative energy, sustainable development, and health projects, as well as to programs to protect two isolated tribes in Yasuni, the Taromenane and Tagaeri.

Observers say that Correa has put himself in a win-win situation. If the plan works, he earns domestic political credibility because of growing support within Ecuador for protecting Yasuni. Internationally, he can burnish Ecuador’s growing green image. “Ecuador genuinely thinks that it can be a green pioneer by showing the rest of the world how one can build an economy while protecting the environment,” said Remi Moncel of the World Resources Institute (WRI). “In fact, as is the case with the Galapagos Islands, Ecuador may benefit from ecotourism, one of the economic benefits of protecting nature and advertising such protective actions to the rest of the world.”

If the plan fails, Correa gets to drill in the ITT while saying that he tried to save it.

The scheme would not only help shift Ecuador’s economy away from oil, it would keep 470 million tons of carbon dioxide in the ground. Now, all eyes are on “the little country with a big plan,” as Ecuadorian officials travel to the United States, Germany, Holland, Belgium, France, Norway, Spain, Italy, the United Arab Emirates, Qatar, Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, Syria, and Lebanon to seek contributions in the coming months. The immediate goal: to raise $100 million in 18 months.

Isolated Rainforest Tribes

The sprawling Yasuni jungle is made up of moist forests cut by slow, brown rivers; looming trees flanked by buttress roots the size of small cars; giant butterflies; exotic insects; and the ear-popping caws of toucans stirred up by monkeys. Natives who only recently came into contact with the modern world — the Shuar, Waorani, and Kichwa — slip along silent jungle paths with shotguns or bows. Barefoot, they wear western-style clothes as they hunt spider monkeys and rodents in the dense underbrush. Deeper still, hiding in rainforest isolation but increasingly hemmed in by outsiders looking for oil or timber, are the uncontacted Taromenane and Tagaeri, a handful of nomadic family clans living in elongated, windowless huts, ardently rebuffing contact with modernity.

Yasuni
Getty Images
Ecuadorean Waorani natives in Yasuni only recently came into contact with the modern world.
But more and more, the Yasuni is under assault. Several years ago, the Ecuadorian government set out to limit illegal logging and colonization in Yasuni National Park by building a checkpoint on the one-lane ramshackle bridge where the Via Auca oil road crosses the chocolate brown Shiripuno River as it flows through Waorani territory into Yasuni proper. Today, young soldiers can be seen whiling away the hours in a small concrete building listening to soccer matches on the radio and flirting with local girls.

Maria Castro said she knew that the government wanted to keep oil companies out of some places in Yasuni, but that she had never heard of the ITT initiative. “People think the oil companies are the ones that are going to destroy Yasuni,” said Castro, a diminutive Waorani woman in jeans and a bright green halter top. “But it is the loggers and the colonists who do the most damage.” Skeptically, she nodded to the soldiers at the checkpoint. “They say they are stopping them but I don’t believe it.” Castro said that some Waorani natives wanted oil development, but others were frightened of its fallout: pollution, an influx of outsiders, and alcohol problems.

For the bulk of everyday Ecuadorians living in the country’s grindingly impoverished eastern Amazonian lands, the Yasuni-ITT initiative means little. “I know the oil companies fight with the government, but that is it,” said Marco Rodriguez a street vendor in El Coca, a chaotic jungle town in eastern Ecuador where trucks lumber across a bridge over the Napo River carrying illegally harvested timber from Yasuni. “People are too busy trying to live.”

Castro said she doubts the plan will work because the government in Quito, the capital, can’t be trusted to do what it says. “They can’t even stop people from cutting the timber or selling animals from the jungle,” she said. Others agree. Kelly Swing, a researcher at Ecuador’s University of San Francisco in Quito, said that the world lacks confidence in Ecuador, with its history of political instability. “The plan sounds great,” said Swing, “but I think lots of people simply don’t trust that the government will be able to uphold its part of the bargain.”

Others, however, see the UN’s involvement in overseeing the fund as a key to success. And success means achieving three goals, explained Carlos Larrea, a professor at the Andean University Simon Bolivar in Quito and the technical director of the initiative. “We are mitigating global warming, preserving biodiversity in one of the most important hot spots on the planet, and mitigating poverty by creating sustainable employment,” he said.

How would the Yasuni iniatiative work? Contributions to the fund would come from countries, international organizations, businesses, and individuals. Capital investments would be made in renewable energy projects while the interest earned from those projects would underwrite a separate fund dedicated to reforestation and energy efficiency projects, as well as investments in social programs and science and technology. The fund will give contributors Certificates of Guarantee (CGY) ensuring that “the crude stays, in an indefinite manner, below ground.” The CGYs will be returned at full value if the Ecuadorian government ever opens ITT to drilling. The funds generated by the initiatives will be invested throughout Ecuadorian society, though there are no details yet about which organizations would receive the money.

MORE FROM YALE e360

In the Battle to Save Forests,
Activists Target Corporations

In the Battle to Save Forests, Activists Target Corporations
Large corporations, not small-scale farmers, are now the major forces behind the destruction of the world’s tropical forests. From the Amazon to Madagascar, activists have been directing their actions at these companies — so far with limited success.
READ MORE
“This plan has the goal of creating a new model by making the country less dependent on revenues from fossil fuels and protecting Ecuador’s most precious natural assets” said Moncel of WRI. “This is a good example of low-carbon development, where economic growth is pursued hand-in-hand with environmental protection.”

Trust payments from the Yasuni initiative are designed to support reforestation and forest preservation programs even outside the boundaries of the park, potentially involving 5 million hectares across Ecuador — nearly 20 percent of the country. Larrea said that the Yasuni model could be a good one for a host of developing countries — such as Peru, Papua New Guinea, and the Republic of Congo — that have high biological diversity and reserves of fossil fuels in environmentally sensitive areas.

Many Ecuadorians are proud that their government is pushing back against global oil companies. Ecuador is home to what may be the world’s largest environmental lawsuit, one pitting 30,000 Cofan natives against Chevron for environmentally injurious practices committed by its predecessor company, Texaco. Said Pamela Martin, a former Fulbright Scholar and political scientist at Coastal Carolina University in South Carolina who has worked in Yasuni since 2006, “Many involved in the Texaco situation have said ‘nunca mas’ [no more] and have supported the Yasuní initiative because of what they’ve learned in their multiple-decade battle with Texaco and Chevron.”



POSTED ON 13 Sep 2010 IN Business & Innovation Energy Forests Science & Technology Central & South America North America 

COMMENTS


Thank you for your article, part of the succes of these plan will depend on how much of the international community is informed and involved. Although the Ecuador government has all my support on the project, because their initiatives are based on true precepts, we still need global watch to this project. This is NOT only an ecuadorian deal, this a global deal, and everyone should feel part of it, and everyone should have a saying on it. We, as ecuadorians, have the main responsability to make this work, but its up to to you (the world) to make it sustainable, succesful, and as a big startup plan for reporoducing in similar places around the world.
Everyone! be involved! listen to the ecuadorian vicepresident on sept 27th in the UN, and keep using any means to give comments about this.
Posted by Mateo Espinosa on 13 Sep 2010


Kelly Hearn has written a superb and absolutely accurate article.

I made a film ("Dream People of the Amazon") about a group of indigenous people, the Achuar,
who live very near to Yasuní National Park. The Achuar too have oil under their pristine rain forest. But for almost twenty years, they have been able to keep the oil companies out.

"Dream People" reveals how the Achuar have done this.

Here's a link to the film: http://www.larrylansburgh.com/index.php?id=16


Posted by Larry Lansburgh on 13 Sep 2010


Thanks, Kelly, for covering this extremely important story. I've been going to the Ecuadorian Amazon for the past five years, living with the Waorani in Yasuni Man Biosphere Reserve. I'm currently raising financing to complete a documentary film, "Yasuni Man," which will explore the issue in depth.

Check us out at: http://www.kickstarter.com/projects/2065152563
/yasuni-man-the-film

Folks can see some of my previous films here:
http://vimeo.com/user4719903

Posted by Ryan Killackey on 13 Sep 2010


This is a very important article by Kelly. I hope this will function as eye opener for those who are being invaded by oil companies for making millions of dollars. If we can succeed in keeping away the oil companies we may succeed in delaying the adverse impacts of climate change globally. I wish all the best to Kelly and hope others especially in the western world would be encouraged to under take similar steps.



Posted by Junaid Choudhury MF Yale 1982 on 16 Sep 2010


Ecuador ROCKS!

Posted by Illiana Roesso on 27 Oct 2011


Comments have been closed on this feature.
kelly hearnABOUT THE AUTHOR
Kelly Hearn has written on national security and diplomacy as a staff writer for The Washington Times. His investigative reporting has been funded by The Pulitzer Center on Crisis Reporting, The Nation Institute, and the North American Congress on Latin America. His articles have appeared in The Washington Post, The Nation, National Geographic News, The Christian Science Monitor and The Virginia Quarterly Review. He received research support for reporting this article from The Nation Institute and the Puffin Foundation Investigative Fund.

 
 

RELATED ARTICLES


With Climate Change, a Terrifying
New Normal for Western Firefighters

In the last two decades, officials in Colorado have watched as massive, months-long wildfires have become a regular occurrence in their state. A Yale Environment 360 video goes onto the front lines with Colorado firefighters who describe what it’s like to continuously confront deadly blazes fueled by a hotter, drier climate.
READ MORE

The High Environmental Cost
Of Illicit Marijuana Cultivation

Marijuana growers are ravaging forests in northern California to produce their lucrative crop. In a Yale Environment 360 interview, biologist Mary Power talks about the massive ecological footprint of marijuana growing and why nationwide legalization could help alleviate it.
READ MORE

A Grassroots Effort to Save
Africa’s Most Endangered Ape

The Cross River gorilla population in equatorial Africa has been pushed to the brink of extinction. In a Yale Environment 360 interview, a Nigerian scientist working to save the gorillas describes how local villagers are vital to protecting these apes.
READ MORE

What Lies Behind the Recent
Surge of Amazon Deforestation

After declining by more than 70 percent in recent years, deforestation in the Amazon is soaring. In an interview with Yale Environment 360, scientist Philip Fearnside explains what’s driving the clearing of the Amazon and what needs to be done to once again bring deforestation under control.
READ MORE

In Kenya’s Mountain Forests,
A New Path to Conservation

Kenya’s high-elevation forests are the source for most of the water on which the drought-plagued nation depends. Now, after decades of government-abetted abuse of these regions, a new conservation strategy of working with local communities is showing signs of success.
READ MORE

 

MORE IN Reports


Natura 2000: EU Reserves Are
Facing Development Pressures

by christian schwagerl
An astonishing 18 percent of the European Union’s land area is protected under a network of preserves known as Natura 2000. Now, at the urging of business interests and farmers, the EU is examining whether regulations on development in these areas should be loosened.
READ MORE

As Ocean Waters Heat Up,
A Quest to Create ‘Super Corals’

by nicola jones
With the world’s coral reefs increasingly threatened by warmer and more acidic seas, scientists are selectively breeding corals to create species with the best chance to survive in the coming century and beyond. Are genetically modified corals next?
READ MORE

A Clash of Green and Brown:
Germany Struggles to End Coal

by christian schwagerl
A recent battle over imposing a “climate fee” on coal-fired power plants highlights Germany’s continuing paradox: Even as the nation aspires to be a renewable energy leader, it is exploiting its vast reserves of dirty brown coal.
READ MORE

On an Unspoiled Caribbean Isle,
Grand Plans for Big Tourist Port

by fred pearce
East Caicos is a tropical jewel – the largest uninhabitated island in the Caribbean and home to rare birds and pristine turtle-nesting beaches. But plans for a giant port for cruise and cargo ships could change it forever.
READ MORE

A Little Fish with Big Impact
In Trouble on U.S. West Coast

by elizabeth grossman
Scientists are concerned that officials waited too long to order a ban on U.S. Pacific sardine fishing that goes into effect July 1. The dire state of the sardine population is a cautionary tale about overharvesting these and other forage fish that are a critical part of the marine food web.
READ MORE

Despite Hurdles, Solar Power in
Australia Is Too Robust to Kill

by jo chandler
No nation has as high a penetration of residential solar as Australia, with one in five homes now powered by the sun. And while the government has slashed incentives, solar energy continues to grow, thanks to a steep drop in the cost of PV panels and the country’s abundant sunshine.
READ MORE

Genetically Modified Mosquito
Sparks a Controversy in Florida

by lisa palmer
Officials in the Florida Keys are seeking to use a GM mosquito that could help prevent a recurrence of dengue fever there. But fears among some residents — which scientists say are unfounded — are slowing the release of mosquitoes whose offspring are genetically programmed to die.
READ MORE

Oasis at Risk: Oman’s Ancient
Water Channels Are Drying Up

by fred pearce
Since pre-Islamic times, Oman’s water systems known as aflaj have brought water from the mountains and made the desert bloom. But now, unregulated pumping of groundwater is depleting aquifers and causing the long-reliable channels to run dry.
READ MORE

Surge in Renewables Remakes
California’s Energy Landscape

by cheryl katz
Thanks to favorable geography, innovative government policies, and businesses that see the benefits of clean energy investments, California is closing in on its goal of generating a third of its electricity from renewables by 2020.
READ MORE

As Andes Warm, Deciphering
The Future for Tropical Birds

by daniel grossman
Scientists have theorized that tropical birds in mountainous regions will move uphill as the climate warms. But new research in the Peruvian Andes suggests that the birds will stay put and face a new threat — predator snakes that will climb into their territory to escape the heat.
READ MORE


e360 digest
Yale
Yale Environment 360 is
a publication of the
Yale School of Forestry
& Environmental Studies
.

SEARCH e360



Donate to Yale Environment 360
Yale Environment 360 Newsletter

CONNECT


ABOUT

About e360
Contact
Submission Guidelines
Reprints

E360 en Español

Universia partnership
Yale Environment 360 articles are now available in Spanish and Portuguese on Universia, the online educational network.
Visit the site.


DEPARTMENTS

Opinion
Reports
Analysis
Interviews
Forums
e360 Digest
Podcasts
Video Reports

TOPICS

Biodiversity
Business & Innovation
Climate
Energy
Forests
Oceans
Policy & Politics
Pollution & Health
Science & Technology
Sustainability
Urbanization
Water

REGIONS

Antarctica and the Arctic
Africa
Asia
Australia
Central & South America
Europe
Middle East
North America

e360 PHOTO GALLERY

“Cuba
Photographer Robert Wintner documents the exquisite beauty and biodiversity of Cuba’s unspoiled coral reefs.
View the gallery.

e360 MOBILE

Mobile
The latest
from Yale
Environment 360
is now available for mobile devices at e360.yale.edu/mobile.

e360 VIDEO

Warriors of Qiugang
The Warriors of Qiugang, a Yale Environment 360 video, chronicles a Chinese village’s fight against a polluting chemical plant. It was nominated for a 2011 Academy Award for Best Documentary Short.
Watch the video.


header image
Top Image: aerial view of Iceland. © Google & TerraMetrics.

e360 SPECIAL REPORT

“Tainted
A three-part series Tainted Harvest looks at the soil pollution crisis in China, the threat it poses to the food supply, and the complexity of any cleanup.
Read the series.

OF INTEREST



Yale