What does a poor government do when it finds an oil treasure in a protected natural park? Does it choose profit, and therefore the pollution and the cultural extinction of indigenous people that goes with it, or does it leave the oil in the ground and wave goodbye to millions of dollars that could be spent fighting poverty?
Ecuador is right in the middle of this dilemma after having discovered oil in the Yasuní National Park in the heart of the Amazon. It is one of the areas with the highest degree of biodiversity on the planet, and there are at least two indigenous groups living in voluntary isolation from the rest of society. But under the rainforest, a reserve of oil is hidden, a reserve that has been calculated to bring Ecuador an income of some 700 million dollars a year for ten years.
Earlier, Latin American governments have not hesitated more than seconds before choosing the oil – and the destruction. But Ecuador’s new president, Rafael Correa, has presented an eye-opening proposal that deserves support: Ecuador will leave the oil in the ground if the world will pay half of the country’s lost income. The logic behind the proposal is that it is in the whole world’s interest to preserve the Yasuní’s untouched rainforest.
Less oil exploration equals less carbon dioxide emissions. It means non-destruction of fragile biodiversity, and it means that indigenous peoples that have chosen to live as their millenary ancestors in the rainforest get to continue living this way in peace.
But the solution is expensive for a country where half of the population lives in poverty and has a foreign debt of 15 billion dollars – a debt that in most cases was created by corrupt governments and military dictatorships.
“Ecuador does not ask for charity. But we do ask the international society to take part in this sacrifice,” Raphael Correa has said about the proposal. This is, in other words, a very concrete example of ‘global public goods’ that the world society has a responsibility for, but costs money to ensure. Ecuador seeks to ensure the life of Yasuní National Park through direct donations from foreign governments, aid agencies, NGOs and individuals – and through debt cancellation. This is not just a poor country trying to blackmail rich countries; over 180 countries have ratified the UN convention on biological diversity (only the US has signed but not ratified it) which states that biological diversity is “a common concern of humankind.”
It is very important that western countries support this proposal, and for instance discuss it in the Paris Club where foreign debt is negotiated. The government of Norway has shown interest in supporting the plan, and a leading American environmental scientist from the University of Maryland has called the proposal “a milestone.” But if Ecuador does not succeed in getting the world’s help, Correa has said there is no other option for the country than to start drilling. Ecuador has given the world a year to decide.
Here is a concrete possibility for governments to let actions follow words and support a progressive global environment policy. The amount of oil in the Yasuní Park amounts to what the world consumes in 12 days. But the value of protecting and preserving the Yasuní Park and all of its biodiversity is irreplaceable.
Read more about the proposal and campaign at www.sosyasuni.org
Rune Geertsen is journalist and information advisor for the Danish NGO IBIS which works in Ecuador supporting indigenous peoples.