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August 05, 2013

An experiment in Amazon conservation faces economic reality

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I recently returned for Ecuador where I was working on this story about one of the most innovative and ambitious conservation plans ever attempted.

The Yasuní-ITT Initiative was designed to leave more than 846 million barrels of crude oil untouched, in perpetuity, beneath Yasuní National Park — rioting with unknown species and tribes living in voluntary isolation.

In exchange, the government asked the world to cover just half of the crude’s $7.2 billion market price.

Environmental groups praised the plan as a novel way to slash greenhouse gases. In 2010, the United Nations threw its support behind the project, setting up a trust fund to receive and manage donations. There were hopes that crowd-sourcing conservation might be a model for other developing nations.

But six years after its launch, those goals are proving elusive. The plan has raised less than 10 percent of the $3.6 billion it’s seeking. Ecuador’s government says it has received $116.7 million and has pledges for an additional $220 million — some of it in non-cash cooperation. The United Nations trust fund has just $9.8 million in the bank.

The shortfall is driving speculation that Ecuador might be forced to drill for crude in the ITT oil block (short for Ishpingo, Tambococha, Tiputini), which it says holds 20 percent of the nation’s reserves.

“We want to keep 400 million tons of CO2 out of the atmosphere,” President Rafael Correa told a crowd in April. “But if the international community doesn’t help share the responsibility, we have to make the best decision for the Ecuadorean people.”

Correa and his cabinet held a meeting about the fate of the project in June and are expecting to meet again in coming weeks. Officials say drilling the ITT is on the table.

In the balance is one of the most biodiverse spots on the planet. The ITT block is among the most isolated areas of Yasuní National Park, a 2.4 million-acre U.N. biosphere reserve, which holds about one-third of all of the Amazon’s amphibian species, even though it represents just a small fraction of the total area. In any given two-and-a-half acre plot of the Yasuní — roughly the size of a soccer pitch — there are more species of trees than in the United States and Canada combined.

An entomologist from the Smithsonian Museum of Natural History told me that 85% of all the insects he collects in Yasuni are unknown to researchers. 

PHOTO: Santiago Serrano

See the full story here. 

Interested in supporting the cause? You can donate as little as $2 though the UNDP website. 

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jim wyss

Inside South America is written by Jim Wyss, the South America bureau chief for the Miami Herald and McClatchy Newspapers.

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