A possibly ground-breaking idea has been kept on life support after Ecuador revealed its Yasuni-ITT Initiative had raked in $116 million before the end of the year, breaking the $100 million mark that Ecuador said it needed to keep the program alive. Ecuador is proposing to not drill for an estimated 850 million barrels of oil in the Ishpingo-Tambococha-Tiputinin (ITT) blocs of Yasuni National Park if the international community pledges $3.6 billion to a United Nations Development Fund (UNDF), or about half of what the oil is currently worth. The Yasuni-ITT Initiative would preserve arguably the most biodiverse region on Earth from oil exploitation, safeguard indigenous populations, and keep an estimated 410 million tons of CO2 out of the atmosphere. However, the initiative is not without its detractors, some arguing the program is little more than blackmail; meanwhile proponents say it could prove an effective way to combat climate change, deforestation, and mass extinction.
“Yasuni is an international treasure—perhaps the biologically richest place on Earth. Its loss would be a tragedy for Ecuador and, indeed, peoples worldwide who celebrate the diversity of life,” Hugo Mogollon, executive director of Finding Species, an NGO that works in Ecuador, said this year. “The Yasuni-ITT Initiative is pioneering. It is a serious effort to keep megadiverse forest intact, coming straight from the office of the President of Ecuador. Governments of the region and around the world should really want to support this.”
Gas flare at an oil refinery across the river from Yasuni National Park and near Coca. Photo by Jeremy Hance.
Money was raised from a “crowdfunding” initiative and includes donations from governments, environmentalists, and movie stars. However, the bulk of the money has come from two places: Italy forgave $51 million of debt to Ecuador and Ecuador’s president, Rafael Correa, donated $40 million from a massive lawsuit he won against an opposition newspaper. Other donations were smaller, including: $100,000 from Turkey, Chile, Colombia, and Georgia; $500,000 from Australia; $1.4 from Spain; and $2 million from the Belgium region of Wallonia. Individual contributors included former US Vice President Al Gore and celebrities Leonardo DiCaprio, Bo Derek and Edward Norton. Monies donated to the UNDF fund will be used for nature conservation and renewable energy projects.
While Germany announced earlier in the year that it was backing away from supporting Yasuni-ITT, it did pledge $48 million in technical assistance.
At the time, German Federal Minister Dirk Niebel, wrote that the initiative lacks “a uniform justification context, a clear goal structure, and concrete statements as to how a permanent renunciation on oil extraction could be guaranteed in the Yasuni area. […] It further appears doubtful whether this approach really offers comparative advantages over the numerous alternative solutions currently discussed (e.g. REDD). Moreover, the support of the ITT initiative might set precedence with regards to compensation claims by oil-producing countries in climate negotiations.”
Niebel also wrote at the time that there were no other donors on board, a criticism that can no longer be made.
A recent opinion piece in mongabay.com argued further that the initiative was troubled: “[Ecudaor] is not particularly concerned about compliance with its own laws, because otherwise oil exploitation could not be considered. The area is at the heart of a National Park, and in 1989 became a UNESCO World Biosphere Reserve. Additionally, Ecuadorian legislation gives indigenous peoples the right to reject the exploitation of these lands.”
Still, donors en masse appeared to believe the promises of the unique program outweighed its risks.
Poison dart frog in Yasuni National Park. Photo by Jeremy Hance.
Recent research has found that Yasuni National Park may contain the most biodiverse ecosystem in the world: Yasuni sports the highest number of species in the western hemisphere based on data on birds, mammals, amphibians, and plants. Researchers have also found more tree species (655 to be exact) grow in a single hectare in Yasuni than in all of the US and Canada combined. But bugs may win the day yet: according to entomologist, Dr. Terry Erwin, a single hectare of rainforest in Yasuni may contain as many as 100,000 insect species: an estimate that, if proven true, is the highest per unit area in the world for any taxa, plant or animal.
“[Yasuni-IIT is] a very important message that we Ecuadorians are sending to the world since we are trying to demonstrate that there is an alternative to extractivism,” David Romo Vallejo, professor at the University of San Francisco Quito and co-director of Tiputini research station in Yasuni National Park, recently told mongabay.com.
Given that many scientists believe governments and the public are acting too slowly to effectively counter climate change and biodiversity loss, innovative programs with immediate results (i.e. not drilling in the park) such as Yasuni-ITT may become increasingly attractive.
(12/07/2011) As the 17th Conference of the Parties to the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) is taking place in Durban, Ecuador has embarked on the development of a project presented as highly innovative. This project targets Yasuni National Park, which has been protected since 1979. Yasuni is home to several indigenous peoples and is a biodiversity hotspot. But it so happens that the park also sits atop a vast oil field of 846 million barrels, representing about 20 percent of the country’s oil reserves. The acronym Yasuni ITT stands for Ishpingo-Tambococha-Tiputinin, which are the names of three potential zones for oil extraction.
(09/22/2011) A new map highlights the importance of conserving Yasuni National Park as the most biodiverse ecosystem in the Western Hemisphere, and maybe even on Earth. Scientists released the map to coincide with the United National General Assembly in support of a first-of-its-kind initiative to save the park from oil exploration through international donations to offset revenue loss. Known as the Yasuni-ITT Initiative, the plan, if successful, would protect a 200,000 hectare bloc in Yasuni National Park from oil drilling in return for a trust fund of over $3 billion.
(06/13/2011) Germany has backed out of a pledge to commit $50 million a year to Ecuador’s Yasuni ITT Initiative, reports Science Insider. The move by Germany potentially upsets an innovative program hailed by environmentalists and scientists alike. This one-of-a-kind initiative would protect a 200,000 hectare bloc in Yasuni National Park from oil drilling in return for a trust fund of $3.6 billion, or about half the market value of the nearly billion barrels of oil lying underneath the area. The plan is meant to mitigate climate change, protect biodiversity, and safeguard the rights of indigenous people.
(05/20/2011) One of the best words to describe Amazon wildlife, including large mammals and birds, is cryptic. A person can spend a day trekking through the dense green and brown foliage of the Amazon and see nothing more than a few insects, maybe a frog here and there if they have good eyes. In fact, researchers have spent years in the jungle and never seen a jaguar, let alone a tapir. Some species like the bushdog and the giant armadillo are even more cryptic. Almost never encountered by people, in some parts of the Amazon they have taken on a mythic status, more rumor around the fire than reality. However, camera traps—automated cameras that take a flash photo whenever an animal triggers an infrared sensor—in the Amazon have begun to reveal long-sought information about the presence and abundance of species, providing new data on range and territories. And even at times giving glimpses into the private lives of species that remain largely shrouded in mystery.
(03/31/2011) The discovery of a new plant species is not uncommon, especially in places of remarkable biodiversity such as the Amazon rainforest. However, discovering a new plant genus, a taxonomic rank above species, is, according to Henk van der Werff fromt the Missouri Botanical Garden (MBG), “a matter of luck and perseverance”. Researchers with the Missouri Botanical Garden have been blessed with both as they have announced two new species of Amazonian plants, one from Ecuador and one from Peru, that comprise a completely new genus: named, Yasunia, since the plant was originally discovered in Ecuador’s vast Yasuni National Park.
(11/23/2010) Ecuador’s big idea—potentially Earth-rattling—goes something like this: the international community pays the small South American nation not to drill for nearly a billion barrels of oil in a massive block of Yasuni National Park. While Ecuador receives hundred of millions in an UN-backed fund, what does the international community receive? Arguably the world’s most biodiverse rainforest is saved from oil extraction, two indigenous tribes’ requests to be left uncontacted are respected, and some 400 million metric tons of CO2 is not emitted from burning the oil. In other words, the international community is being asked to put money where its mouth is on climate change, indigenous rights, and biodiversity loss. David Romo Vallejo, professor at the University of San Francisco Quito and co-director of Tiputini research station in Yasuni, recently told mongabay.com in an interview that this is “the best proposal so far made to ensure the protection of this incredible site.”
(09/13/2010) Ecuador’s pioneering initiative to voluntarily leave nearly a billion barrels of oil under Yasuní National Park, an Amazonian reserve that is arguably the most biodiverse spot on Earth, took a major step forward in early August when the government signed an accord with the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) for the long-awaited establishment of a trust fund. The signing event generated a wave of international media attention, but there has been very little scrutiny of what was actually signed. Here we present an initial analysis of the signed agreement, along with a brief discussion of some of the potential caveats. Due to the precedent-setting nature of this agreement, attention to the details is now of the utmost importance.