Guardian Environment Network

This Guardian story was written by reporter Haroon Siddique. Grist is a member of the Guardian’s Environment Network.


A unique proposal to protect one of the world’s most biodiverse places from oil drilling is facing a looming deadline without any funding in place.

The Ecuadorian government has said it is prepared to keep hundreds of millions of barrels of heavy crude oil in the ground, but in return it wants the international community to compensate it at the level of $350m (£202m) a year for a decade.

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The deadline – already postponed twice – is in December. While there has been political support from Spain, Germany and Norway, as yet there has been little in the way of hard cash.

The Yasuni national park in Ecuador lies at the intersection of the Amazon, the Andes and the equator and spans almost a million hectares of primary rainforest. It is home to indigenous tribes, who wish to be left in isolation, and an extraordinary array of wildlife and plants, much of it endangered. Avoiding the oil extraction would also prevent the release of an estimated 100m tonnes of carbon into the atmosphere.

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Environmentalists believe the innovative proposal has the potential to be a model for how developing countries manage their environments and the global fight against climate change.

Nelson Torres, the Ecuadorian deputy ambassador to the UK, described it as a “third way of management of climate change” and said that it would “lay the groundwork for energy transformation globally”. Anita Rivas, the indigenous mayor of Orellana, where Yasuni is located said: “It’s a brave proposal, a unique proposal.”

The Ishpingo Tambococha Tiputini (ITT) field block lies in the south of Yasuni park, within an area officially designated in 1999 as an “untouchable zone” – a safe haven for those indigenous people who have chosen to live in isolation. The compensation package the Ecuadorian government is demanding is designed to deliver half the income that would accrue if the oil was extracted, over a period equating to the likely lifetime of the field.

The government has shown a greater will than previous administrations to protect indigenous people and the environment. Last week, the nation overwhelmingly passed a constitution that granted Ecuador’s tropical forests, islands, rivers and air similar legal rights to those normally granted to humans. But the president, Rafael Correa, is faced with the harsh economic reality that 70 percent of the country’s income comes from oil and 38 percent of people in the South American republic live below the poverty line.

In recent years, drilling has been allowed up to the boundaries of the “untouchable zone” but the region has seen little of the economic benefits, with a poverty rate in Orellana far higher than the national average.

A statement from Penti Baihua, a member of the Huaorani tribe, said oil companies had contaminated water, soil and air, scared away animals, and brought diseases that had made members of their families ill and even killed them.

“The oil must stay in the ground in the ITT and the [untouchable] zone because it is our home. If the oil companies destroy all of the Yasuni, where will we live?” he said.

There is widespread support for drilling to be blocked in the ITT but not everyone agrees with the government’s method. The meeting in London was organised by the Yasuni Green Gold campaign to launch its book of the same name which highlights the park’s vast array of plants and animals, believed to have resulted because the area did not freeze over during the last ice age.

The campaign director and joint author of the book, Ginés Haro Pastor, emphasised that while he supported financial help for Ecuador’s development he felt it should be separated from the issue of the Yasuni.

Yasuni Green Gold wants an unconditional commitment from the government not to drill oil in the untouchable zone regardless of financial pledges and wants it to scrap the idea of a deadline altogether.

Environmental campaigner Tony Juniper, formerly executive director of Friends of the Earth, is enthusiastic about the concept of developing countries being compensated for protecting the environment. He believes taxes, including a small duty on foreign currency trades, could raise the tens of billions of pounds needed to replicate the Ecuadorian scheme around the world.

But, he added, there were issues that needed to be ironed out, including whether countries should be able to seek compensation in respect of rainforest they had previously designated as protected, and whether wealthy nations such as Saudi Arabia and Russia should be able to claim cash for not extracting oil.

© Guardian News and Media Limited 2008