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Global Ideas

Ecuador treads fine line in preserving Amazon reserve

Ecuador's plan to refrain from drilling for oil in its rainforests in return for money remains controversial. Critics have questioned the tangible benefits of the project for the forest and its residents.

An aerial view of rainforest land 
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Yasuni Nationlpark in northeaster Ecuador is nearly 9,800 square meters

In 2007, Ecudaor's President Rafael Correa first took his radical proposal to the United Nations. He said his country would refrain from drilling for oil in a pristine rainforest in return for payments from rich countries. The proposal jumpstarted a new debate on developmental policies. The project was meant to protect a part of the rich Yasuni reserve in northeastern Ecuador by leaving untapped the vast oil reserves there.

As compensation, the international community, private groups and foundations were to pay funds into a special trust. The Ecuadorian government pledged not to drill for oil in a part of the Yasuni National Park, known as Yasuni ITT, and to actively protect the area.

The oilfields beneath Yasuni hold an estimated 846 million barrels of crude, 20 percent of Ecuador's reserves. They're currently worth around 5.4 billion euros. The money from the trust, which is to be administered by the United Nations, is meant to promote eco-tourism and build new schools for the indigenous tribes in the region.

Dogged by controversy

The proposal may sound good on paper. But critics such as Mascha Kauka from the Amazonica Foundation in Munich are skeptical that financial compensation by rich nations will actually improve the lives of the indigenous population in Ecuador.

She fears that the opposite might be true. “The Yasuni National Park has long been handed over to international companies for oil drilling,” Kauka points out. It's only a matter of time, she says, before the oil in the Yasuni ITT area too is extracted in light of the rising prices of oil worldwide and the pressure exerted by international oil companies on the Ecuadorian government.

Kauka lays much of the blame at the door of Ecuador's government, saying the Yasuni ITT project has been a farce from the beginning. According to her, three million hectares of forest have been destroyed in the entire Amazon area of Ecuador in the direct vicinity of Yasuni ITT –that's an area 16 times larger than Yasuni ITT.

 A large butterfly rests on a branch 
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Yasuni boasts the largest array of insect species in the world


Critical voices are also being raised in official circles. The German development ministry as well as the environment ministry have together paid 34.5 million euros to protect the Yasuni reserve within the framework of a bilateral development cooperation agreement.

Sebastian Lesch from the development ministry told DW that the German government does share the Yasuni ITT initiative's goals of protecting the forest, biodiversity and the indigenous population, but “not the proposed instrument of compensation to refrain from oil drilling.” Rather, Germany supports the approach that countries that demonstrably cut carbon emissions through better protection of forests could receive financial compensation.

German funds, for instance, are helping to finance the “Sociobosque” project. The national forest protection program is meant to stop deforestation and support local groups by creating alternative sources of livelihood for the indigenous population and avoiding illegal felling.

Where's the money to come from?

German member of parliament for the opposition Green Party, Ute Koczy, is in favor of the Yasuni ITT initiative. She visited the site with a delegation and was convinced of its benefits. But she's also had her criticism for the project.

In a newspaper interview, she questioned whether Yasuni ITT was worth preserving. She claimed that during the UN climate conference in Doha at the end of 2012, Ecuador began negotiations over new oil contracts.

The government representative for Yasuni TT, Ivonne Baki, insists that no new contracts were awarded. But reports in the Ecuadorian capital Quito claim that negotiations over new oil contracts have indeed begun. No one wants to be officially quoted over the issue.

An indigenous community
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Forty percent of Ecuador’s population is made up of indigenous peoples


Another major stumbling block has emerged over the last months: only a few nations are willing to pay into the compensation trust. According to Ivonne Baki, 250 million euros have already been pledged by countries such as Italy and Spain. But at least 2.7 billion euros are needed to leave the oil reserves untapped in the Yasuni ITT area. Baki also doubles up as a lobbyist for the project and tries to drum up money from private companies.

Finally, the Yasuni project is dogged by an ideological debate. Many countries including Germany are reluctant to pay into the compensation trust. Critics fear it's a slippery slope that would open the door to all kinds of demands by different countries to get paid to protect their national parks and resources.

Besides, who can guarantee that if oil prices rose further, the increasingly lucrative raw materials in the Yasuni reserve would not one day be extracted?

Mind-boggling biodiversity

What's clear is that the Yasuni reserve is home to an astonishing diversity of species. There are more types of trees found on a single hectare of forest land here than in the whole of North America. The region is home to 2,274 different types of trees and bushes.

A few years ago, scientists from all over the world documented 653 bird types, 268 fish and 111 amphibian species in a research project. Heavy precipitation, consistent temperatures and different kinds of soil are believed to be the reason for the rich biodiversity.

It remains to be seen how the Yasuni reserve, a real biodiversity hotspot, can be further protected. Oil drilling has already cut large swathes of destruction through the reserve. With roads soon being built, deforestation, rubbish and a massive change in the lifestyles of the indigenous population with its accompanying social changes are bound to follow.

The Yasuni IIT in the northeast of the reserve may still be untouched. But the question is for how long.
 

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