Ecuador Agrees to Keep Amazon Eco-Treasure Free of Oil Drilling

QUITO, Ecuador, August 4, 2010 (ENS) – The government of Ecuador and the United Nations Development Programme have agreed to establish a trust fund to protect an ecologically unique site in the Ecuadorian Amazon from oil development.

The first of its kind in the world, the deal signed Tuesday in Quito leaves an estimated 846 million barrels of crude oil in the ground beneath Yasuni National Park in exchange for payments to the government of Ecuador in compensation for foregone revenue.

The accord will prevent the discharge into the atmosphere of more than 400 million tons of carbon dioxide that would have resulted from burning the oil that would have been extracted from the Ishpingo-Tambococha-Tiputini, or ITT, fields in eastern Ecuador.

At the Yasuni-ITT Trust Fund signing ceremony, from left: UNDP Associate Administrator Rebeca Grynspan, Foreign Minister Ricardo Patino, Vice President Lenin Moreno, and Maria Fernanda Espinosa from the Ministry of Cultural and Natural Heritage (Photo courtesy Government of Ecuador)

This precedent of avoided CO2 emissions could become a precedent for future climate negotiations.

Rebecca Grynspan, UNDP associate administrator and a signatory to the agreement, said, “We are witnessing the inauguration of new instruments of cooperation which will act as a basis for supporting other national and international efforts directed towards the search for economies that are in harmony with society, nature and the planet.”

In 2007, Ecuador’s President Rafael Correa launched the Yasuni-ITT initiative, seeking international financial contributions equaling about half of the country’s forgone revenues if the government left Yasuni’s oil reserve untouched.

The agreement seeks to strike a balance between protecting the park and its indigenous inhabitants, while generating revenue for Ecuador, a country dependent on oil for 60 percent of its exports.

Ecuador will now seek contributions from governments to protect the ITT fields from drilling and stressed that the agreement will not become a reality until the funds are collected.

UNDP will administer the trust fund. Initial donor countries include Germany, Spain, France, Sweden, and Switzerland. They have collectively committed an estimated US$1.5 billion of the US$3.6 billon that the Ecuadorian government seeks to replace the estimated $7 billion that oil exploitation would have brought.

Some of Ecuador’s indigenous groups are concerned by the Correa administration’s announcement this week that it will open up areas of Ecuador’s roadless, pristine southeastern Amazon region, as well as re-offering older oil blocks that were unsuccessful due to indigenous resistance.

San Rafael Falls on the Quijos River in Yasuni National Park (Photo by Lou Gold)

“We hope that the success of the Yasuni proposal doesn’t mean a defeat for the forests and people of the southern rainforests,” said German Freire, president of the Achuar indigenous people who have land title to almost two million acres of intact rainforest, all of which would be opened to new drilling. “We don’t want Correa to offset his lost income from leaving the ITT oil in the ground by opening up other areas of equally pristine indigenous lands.”

Yasuni National Park covers 982,000 hectares (2.5 million acres) at the intersection of the Andes Mountains and the Amazon River close to the equator and is considered one of the most biodiverse sites on Earth.

As a result of its unique location, Yasuni contains the greatest variety of tree and insect species anywhere on the planet. In just 2.5 acres, there are as many tree species as in all of the United States and Canada combined.

Yasuni National Park is the most diverse area in all of South America and shatters world records for a wide array of plant and animal groups, from amphibians to trees to insects, according to a team of Ecuadorian and U.S. scientists in a January 2010 study.

“Yasuni is at the center of a small zone where South America’s amphibians, birds, mammals, and vascular plants all reach maximum diversity,” said Dr. Clinton Jenkins of the University of Maryland. “We dubbed this area the ‘quadruple richness center.'”

Squirrel monkey in Yasuni National Park (Photo by Josh Bousel)

Yasuni contains 28 endangered vertebrates on the IUCN Red List, including threatened large primates such as the white-bellied spider monkey and Poeppig’s woolly monkey; aquatic mammals such as the giant otter and Amazonian manatee; and hundreds of regional endemic species found nowhere else on Earth.

“What makes Yasuni especially important is its potential to sustain this extraordinary biodiversity in the long term,” said co-author Dr. Matt Finer of Save America’s Forests. “For example, the Yasuni region is predicted to maintain wet, rainforest conditions as climate change-induced drought intensifies in the eastern Amazon.”

The authors conclude that proposed oil development projects represent the greatest threat to Yasuni and its biodiversity.

Yasuni is the ancestral territory of the Huaorani people, as well as two other indigenous tribes living in voluntary isolation, the Tagaeri and the Taromenane.

“We welcome this long sought after final step to protect an important part of Yasuni National Park,” said Kevin Koenig, Ecuador coordinator for the nonprofit Amazon Watch, who has been monitoring the Yasuni-ITT initiative since its inception.

“This is a big win for Ecuador, and the world,” Koenig said. “Now we need more countries to contribute, and for President Correa to keep his word.”

Political turmoil and uncertainty has marked the three years of negotiations leading up to yesterday’s signing ceremony.

Political turnover led to three different Foreign Affairs ministers and three distinct negotiating teams, while the government continued to allow drilling inside the park and expanded mining concessions throughout the Amazon.

President Correa’s public rebuke of his negotiating team after the Copenhagen Climate Summit where the trust fund was originally scheduled to be signed, led to the resignation of the entire team as well as Foreign Minister Fander Falconi.

But Ecuador’s civil society organizations, as well as the Huaorani people, kept the proposal alive by pressuring the government and continuing to increase the proposal’s popularity nationally and internationally.

The environmental organization, Accion Ecologica with its “Amazon For Life” campaign collected tens of thousands of signatures of support and kept the initiative in the news during times when the government’s commitment appeared to wane.

The Huaorani advocated for recognition of the park’s importance, the perils of oil extraction, and the need to keep out extractive industries from areas where the nomadic uncontacted Tagaeri and Taromenane people are present.

UNDP already administers more than 30 funds covering 74 countries through its Multi-Donor Trust Fund Office.

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