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Should the world bribe Ecuador to protect that country's rain forests?

Posted: February 8, 2012 - 12:04am

The following editorial appeared in the Chicago Tribune:

“The Yasuni plan would be a first for global environmental policy: recognition that the international community has a financial responsibility to help developing nations preserve nature. ... Of course, from another perspective, the Yasuni initiative might look like environmental blackmail: Pay us or the forest gets it.” — Bryan Walsh, Time

One-fifth of the world’s proven reserves of oil lie in South America, much of it underneath or near the vast Amazon basin. At the rim of that basin, in remotest eastern Ecuador, perhaps a billion barrels of recoverable crude lurk below Yasuni National Park. Here the Amazon, the Andes Mountains and the equator combine to create a lush climate ideal for plants and wildlife. Few if any locations on Earth are as pristine and biodiverse: The continent of North America has fewer tree species than you’ll find in a patch of Yasuni the size of three football fields.

Ecuador, though, is a poor country. Pumping the oil would bring it considerable wealth. But exploration, extraction and shipment of the crude also would inject industrial roads, heavy machinery and, most menacing of all, humans to untouched rain forests that for eons have parlayed their isolation into self-protection.

Ecuador’s president, Rafael Correa, offers a trade: If those in the developed world who understand the importance of rain forests give Ecuador enough money, he pledges that his nation will leave Yasuni essentially as is. Oil drilling begone.

Correa’s plan, the Yasuni ITT Initiative, seeks some $3.6 billion over 13 years. That’s about half the estimated value of the oil. If the rest of the world complies, the United Nations Development Programme would devote it to renewable energy projects, rain forest preservation and assistance to settlements in and near the park. So far, a few governments and individuals have met an initial, Dec. 31 deadline for promising more than $100 million.

Viewed uncharitably, this is extortion: Ecuador demands protection money no less brazenly than Outfit mobsters and other violent gangs have demanded protection money on the streets of Chicago.

Or is Correa, viewed unemotionally, offering the rest of the world something of obvious value, and — like all of us who expect to be paid for the goods or services we provide — forthrightly asking for compensation in return? “We’re renouncing an immense sum of money (for the crude),” he told Time. “For us, the most financially lucrative option is to extract the gasoline.”

That’s blunt. It’s also accurate. Ecuador is a veteran oil exporter that knows how to exploit the Yasuni deposits. Yet the nation also bears vivid environmental scars from prior oil exportation. It’s in everyone’s interest to have Ecuador focus its future extraction on using new methods to better drain its existing oil fields. If the nation pursues that strategy, Yasuni ITT director Dr. Ivonne Baki told Forbes magazine last fall, “the additional environmental impact is relatively low, and profits can compete with those from new blocks that could thereby remain untouched — hence promoting the conservation of the most sensitive areas, such as Yasuni National Park.”

For Americans, the essence of Ecuador’s proposal should strike familiar chords: Metropolitan Chicago, for example, has Morton Arboretum in Lisle because a salt company magnate thought enough of its natural amenities to make it a sanctuary. The analogy is inexact, but Joy Morton put potential profit where his heart was: He might just as easily have sold the land for development.

This would be just the sort of financial commitment that, in normal times, governments like those of the U.S. and Europe might easily make. Environmentalists worldwide would applaud. Trouble is, one side effect of the enormous debts now confronting those governments is that it’s much harder to justify just this sort of expenditure — even of a relatively small amount such as $3.6 billion.

Saving the Yasuni, its animals and its flora, though, is a project ideal for private foundations or conservation groups to lead — and for many of us, as individuals, to join. The park is worth the trouble. And Ecuador has a point: All of us who benefit from the environmental cleansing performed by rain forests and other hard-working habitats — many of them in impoverished countries — should be willing to help protect them. To paraphrase President Correa: The way to advance conservation is to make sure that poor countries benefit from conservation.

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