Blazing the Trail: The Government of Ecuador Is Making History by Asking the International Community to Create a Billion-Dollar Trust Fund That Will Keep One of the Earth's Most Biodiverse Regions from the Clutches of the Oil Companies

Article excerpt

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In the early light of dawn, the Napo River, running swiftly from its headwaters in the high Andes, swirls powerfully past the bow of the motorised canoe. Suddenly, a dense cloud of green parrots swoops down from the jungle canopy and starts to scoop up tiny beakfuls of mud from the exposed bank to a raucous, cackling soundtrack.

The heavy-mineral-rich clay, the canny birds know, is an antidote to the toxins present in the seeds of the forest that form a major part of their daily diet. Twenty minutes later, as the sun's rays first touch the Napo's swirling waters, they take flight and are gone.

The clay licks of Yasuni National Park in Ecuadorian Amazonia are just one element of the area's extraordinarily rich and varied natural environment. During the Pleistocene era, when most of the Earth was covered in ice, Yasuni, strategically located just south of the equator, remained unfrozen and became an oasis for living organisms.

Today, it's one of the most biodiverse places on Earth, with more plant species in its million hectares of swamps, jungle and marshes than the whole of North America combined. The pygmy marmoset--the world's smallest monkey--sloths and giant otters are among many threatened species found in the park.

Yasuni is also home to an estimated 200 members of one of the last nomadic hunter-gatherer tribes on Earth. The Huaorani fiercely value their independence and have chosen to live in isolation, travelling in small family groups within the vastness of the forest. A brief attempt at contact during the 1950s ended in disaster for five US missionaries, who were promptly speared for their troubles.

But over--or rather beneath--this ecological wonder lies a threat that could destroy its pristine beauty for ever. Three immense oilfields have been discovered that, if tapped, could supply an estimated 846 million barrels of crude oil, about a fifth of Ecuador's proven reserves. Based on current market values, the oil present in the Ishpingo, Tambococha and Tiputini fields--collectively known as ITT--could exceed US$10billion.

SHADY HISTORY

Despite being one of Latin America's more prosperous countries, Ecuador is feeling the effects of the global economic crisis, and the potential wealth of Yasuni would offer considerable support for the cash strapped government's efforts to invest in much-needed infrastructure projects. But oil exploitation in the country has a very dubious legacy. A recent ruling by the Ecuadorian courts imposed fines of more than 11 billion [pounds sterling] on Chevron for the environmental damage caused by Texaco, with which it merged in 2001. During the 1970s and '80s. Texaco dumped more than 68 billion litres of toxic materials into unlined pits and rivers in the area around the Lago Agrio field in northeastern Ecuador.

Faced with this extraordinary dilemma, the Ecuadorians, under their radical president Rafael Correa, have come up with a novel response. By creating the Yasuni ITT Trust Fund, they are asking the world to pay to save the forest with the understanding that if US$3.5billion can be raised over a ten-year period (about half the total estimated value of the crude in the ground when the idea was launched), then Yasuni will be spared. Administered by the UN Development Programme, with board members from major donating countries and organisations, the fund was first launched in 2007 at the UN General Assembly, where it was met with a standing ovation.

In Ecuador's capital, Quito. I speak to Yvonne Baki, the government special envoy who is now in charge of the Yasuni ITT project. Wasn't it strange. I ask, to expect the global community to pay Ecuadorians not to despoil one of their most valuable ecological assets?

'Yasuni and the Amazon are the lungs of the world,' she replies. 'The Yasuni fund will be used to finance reforestation, develop new sources of alternative energy and other strategic sustainable development programmes. …