Charles Darwin would appreciate the irony of Yasuní National Park in the Ecuadorian Amazon. Yasuní, home to one of the highest concentrations of biodiversity in the world, is itself engaged in what Darwin called “the struggle for existence.” A proposed drilling project in Yasuní’s Ishpingo-Tambococha-Tiputini (ITT) oilfields would tap into a reservoir estimated to be worth more than $10 billion – and permanently destroy this global treasure.
Darwin, who developed his theory of evolution in Ecuador’s famous Galapagos Islands, recognized the importance of the relationships between species. He observed that no species – including humans – can exist in isolation from other living things. Each organism relies on natural processes to survive and contributes to nature’s balance – and ultimately, to the survival of all life on our planet.
Yet in Yasuní, a tragic tradeoff between man and his environment looms.
Amid the richness of the Ecuadorian Amazon, one-third of the country’s population lives below the poverty line. For many Ecuadorians, the economic opportunity beneath Yasuní – equivalent to roughly one-fifth of Ecuador’s proven oil reserves – raises a painful choice between biodiversity and wealth. Understandably, many would choose to drill. Indeed, in 2007, crude and refined oil products accounted for more than half of Ecuador’s export revenue.
But extracting the more than 800 million barrels of crude oil under Yasuní, and burning the fuels made from that oil, would lead to more than 400 million metric tons of carbon-dioxide emissions, equal to the annual carbon footprint of Brazil! The resulting deforestation would add another 800 million metric tons to the atmosphere’s carbon burden, an amount equal to what Germany emits each year. And the permanent damage to thousands of species – and to the indigenous Amazonian Tagaeri and Taromenane tribes, which remain isolated from the world – would be too profound to quantify.
The discovery beneath Yasuní has sparked a heated debate, but a majority of Ecuadorians still prefers to leave the oil in the ground and the Yasuní intact, despite the financial sacrifices that this implies. A novel “Plan A,” announced in 2007 by President Rafael Correa, would prevent oil extraction in Yasuní if money could be raised from the international community to offset some of the economic losses that would result from a drilling ban.
The United Nations responded to Ecuador’s plan, and in 2010 established a special fund for the initiative, the Yasuní ITT Trust Fund. The UN Development Program administers the fund, and an independent steering committee oversees its operations. The fund’s goal now is to raise $3.6 billion from foreign governments, private companies, and individuals over the next 13 years. By urging the international community to provide less than half of the possible revenue, Ecuador and the UNDP are hoping to promote a spirit of global responsibility for Yasuní’s preservation.
A drilling ban in Yasuní would have tremendous benefits for both Ecuador and the world. The funds raised from the initiative would be invested in Ecuador’s alternative-energy industry, with the goal of changing the country’s entire energy matrix. The eventual returns from the new energy systems would then be invested in social and environmental programs.
Moreover, contributors to the UNDP-administered Yasuní ITT Trust Fund will be given Yasuní Guarantee Certificates (CGYs), a legally recognized financial instrument that requires Ecuador’s government to repay the face value of the contributions if the fund is not successful. With this plan, Ecuador would emerge as an international model for sustainable energy policy.
The Yasuní ITT Trust Fund seeks $100 million by the end of this year. If this amount is not raised, the call for drilling will be almost unstoppable. The international community must not let this happen.
We need to recognize, as Darwin did, that there are profound interconnections among all living things. Each of us is dependent on a vast array of plants, animals, and microbes and the life-giving services they provide.
Yasuní’s enormous biodiversity will lead to new medicines and medical-research models to treat human diseases and relieve human suffering – but only if it wins its struggle for survival. It will if we recognize that Yasuní does not belong just to Ecuador, but to all of us, and that it is our responsibility to protect it for all time.
Eric Chivian, who shared the 1985 Nobel Peace Prize, is the founder and Director of the Center for Health and the Global Environment at Harvard Medical School. Rigoberta Menchú is a Guatemalan activist for the rights of indigenous people and a winner of the 1992 Nobel Peace Prize.