Yasuní – A Model for the Future?

How much is a pristine ecosystem worth to us? And a stable climate? These are questions that are very controversial among many environmentalists, as I recently discussed. However, economic valuation of Nature and its “services” is not just a theoretical possibility, it is a fact. A particularly interesting example of an (implicit) valuation of an ecosystem is the Ecuadorian Yasuní-ITT Initiative.

September 24, 2007 was a special day in the history of humanity’s concern about the natural environment. On this day, the Ecuadorian president Rafael Correa made an unprecedented proposal to the UN General Assembly – he offered to let huge amounts of petroleum underground if the international community were to pay half the estimated value of this petroleum as compensation. Correa’s unusual proposal was an important part of the so-called Yasuní-ITT Initiative whose goal is to protect one of the most biodiverse places on Earth while not compromising a small developing country’s still daunting development needs.

Yasuní is a rainforest on the Western edge of the Amazon basin, at the feet of the Andes. It is considered one of the most biodiverse places on Earth and is home to two of the last still uncontacted indigenous peoples of the Amazon. According to a recent review, Yasuní’s biodiversity levels are among the highest in the world across taxonomic groups. In the 9820 sq km of the Yasuní National Park (that is part of a UNESCO Man and the Biosphere Reserve) there are, among others, at least 121 reptilian species, 150 amphibian species, almost 600 bird species, 169 mammal species and 382 fish species. The corresponding numbers for Germany (some 350 000 sq km and a number of different biotopes) are: 13, 21, 314, 91, 259. This biodiversity is valuable to us for a number of reasons: it is both source of inspiration and a potential source of medical substances, an important gene pool and not least the home for indigenous peoples.

Yasuní is home of the Huaorani, Tagaeri and Taromenane tribes – the former were peacefully contacted for the first time in 1958, the latter two are still living in voluntary isolation. All three indigenous groups are still crucially dependent of an intact forest that provides them with food, ornament and likely also spiritual integrity. While the Huaorani’s contacts with the modern world have also downsides (e.g. higher pressures on the Yasuní ecosystem due to shotgun use and population growth), it is clear that a recognition of rights of indigenous peoples must include preservation of their territories.

So, where does the problem lie? Ecuador is a rather poor country, ridden by high inequality levels. It is also blessed (or cursed) with significant amounts of petroleum – indeed, it is its main export product. A lot of this petroleum lies under Yasuní – the three fields covered by the Yasuní-ITT Initiative (Ishpingo, Tambococha, Tiputini) are estimated to contain 20% of the country’s reserves (or around 850 million barrels). The Ecuadorian government and its people are faced by a hard choice: if they preserve the pristine Yasuní rainforest, they also lose a significant amount of resources needed for Ecuador’s economic and social development. This choice may appear easy for a rich country, but it is a really hard one for Ecuador.

And there the Yasuní-ITT Initiative comes to existence: both the preservation of biodiversity and the livelihood of indigenous peoples, as well as avoided greenhouse gas emissions that would be caused by both petroleum burning and deforestation are valuable not only to the Ecuadorian people, but to all humanity. Therefore, it is a logical step to ask the international community for a contribution. And, indeed, the international community responded positively. However, then the global recession came and cooled off the enthusiasm for the Initiative, as well as did the assignment of Dirk Niebel for German minister of development. So far, most of the financial commitments made by rich countries for the Yasuní ITT Trust Fund are cancelled debt liabilities, and Correa becomes nervous (and threatens to issue licenses for petroleum extraction in ITT).

The Yasuní rainforest is an important opportunity for the global community to show that it is able to act and to protect the environment we all depend on. It would be a great failure if the drilling would begin there.

Further reading:

  • Acosta, A., Gudynas, E., Martínez, E., Vogel, J., 2009. Leaving Oil in the Ground: A Political, Economic and Ecological Initiative in the Ecuadorian Amazon. Americas Program Special Report. Washington, DC: Center for International Policy. Available at: http://dspace.cigilibrary.org/jspui/handle/123456789/26343
  • Bass, M., Finer, M., Jenkins, C., Kreft, H., Cisneros-Heredia, D., McCracken, S., Pitman, N., English, P., Swing, K., Villa, G., Di Fiore, A., Voigt, C., Kunz, T., 2010. Global Conservation Significance of Ecuador’s Yasuní National Park. PLoS ONE 5(1). Available at: http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC2808245/
  • Finer, M., Vijay, V., Ponce, F., Jenkins, C., Kahn, T., 2009. Ecuador’s Yasuní Biosphere Reserve: a brief modern history and conservation challenges. Environmental Research Letters 4. Available at: http://iopscience.iop.org/1748-9326/4/3/034005/
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