Ecuador agrees to keep Amazon biodiversity treasure free of oil drilling

In a deal signed in Quito Aug. 3, the government of Ecuador and the UN Development Programme agreed to establish a trust fund to protect Yasuni National Park from oil development in exchange for payments in compensation for foregone revenue. Proponents say the accord will prevent the discharge into the atmosphere of more than 400 million tons of carbon dioxide that would have resulted from burning oil from the Ishpingo-Tambococha-Tiputini (ITT) fields in the area.

Said Rebecca Grynspan, UNDP associate administrator and a signatory to the agreement: “We are witnessing the inauguration of new instruments of cooperation which will act as a basis for supporting other national and international efforts directed towards the search for economies that are in harmony with society, nature and the planet.”

Ecuador’s President Rafael Correa launched the Yasuni-ITT initiative in 2007, seeking international financial contributions equaling about half of the country’s forgone revenues if the government left Yasuni’s oil reserve untouched. The agreement seeks to strike a balance between protecting the park and its indigenous inhabitants, while generating revenue for Ecuador, which depends on oil for 60% of its exports.

Ecuador will now seek contributions from governments to protect the ITT fields from drilling, and stressed that the agreement will not become a reality until the funds are collected. The UNDP will administer the trust fund. Initial donor countries include Germany, Spain, France, Sweden and Switzerland. They have collectively committed an estimated $1.5 billion of the $3.6 billon that the Ecuadorian government seeks to replace of the estimated $7 billion that oil exploitation would have brought.

Some of Ecuador’s indigenous groups are concerned by the Correa administration’s announcement this week that it will open up areas of Ecuador’s roadless southeastern Amazon region, as well as again offering older oil blocks that were stalled due to indigenous resistance.

“We hope that the success of the Yasuni proposal doesn’t mean a defeat for the forests and people of the southern rainforests,” said German Freire, president of the Achuar indigenous people who have land title to almost two million acres of intact rainforest, all of which would be opened to new drilling. “We don’t want Correa to offset his lost income from leaving the ITT oil in the ground by opening up other areas of equally pristine indigenous lands.”

Yasuni National Park covers 982,000 hectares (2.5 million acres), and is a globally significant biodiversity zone. In just 2.5 acres, it has as many tree species as in all of the United States and Canada combined. “Yasuni is at the center of a small zone where South America’s amphibians, birds, mammals, and vascular plants all reach maximum diversity,” said Dr. Clinton Jenkins of the University of Maryland. “We dubbed this area the ‘quadruple richness center.'”

Yasuni contains 28 endangered vertebrates on the IUCN Red List, including threatened large primates such as the white-bellied spider monkey and Poeppig’s woolly monkey; aquatic mammals such as the giant otter and Amazonian manatee; and hundreds of regional endemic species found nowhere else on Earth.

“What makes Yasuni especially important is its potential to sustain this extraordinary biodiversity in the long term,” said co-author Dr. Matt Finer of Save America’s Forests. “For example, the Yasuni region is predicted to maintain wet, rainforest conditions as climate change-induced drought intensifies in the eastern Amazon.”

Yasuni is the ancestral territory of the Huaorani people, as well as two other indigenous tribes living in voluntary isolation, the Tagaeri and the Taromenane. The Huaorani advocated strongly for protection of the par, and barring extractive industries from areas where the uncontacted peoples are present.

“We welcome this long sought after final step to protect an important part of Yasuni National Park,” said Kevin Koenig, Ecuador coordinator for Amazon Watch. “This is a big win for Ecuador, and the world. Now we need more countries to contribute, and for President Correa to keep his word.”

Political turmoil marked the three years of negotiations leading up to the signing, with three different foreign ministers and three distinct negotiating teams involved. Meanwhile the government continued to allow drilling and expanded mining concessions throughout the Amazon. President Correa’s public rebuke of his negotiating team after the Copenhagen Climate Summit, where the trust fund was originally scheduled to be signed, led to the resignation of the entire team as well as Foreign Minister Fander Falconi. But Ecuador’s environmental groups, as well as the Huaorani people, kept the proposal alive by pressuring the government. Acción Ecológica with its “Amazon For Life” campaign collected tens of thousands of signatures in support of the initiative. (Environment News Service, Aug. 4)

See our last posts on Ecuador, the struggle for the Amazon and the global climate crisis.

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