A scarlet macaw near Rio Tiputini in Yasuni National Park. Via Geoff Gallice/Flickr
"The world has failed us." With those words, Rafael Correa, Ecuador's president and the man who has been put in charge of two of the world's most magnificent and threatened environmental ecosystems, announced Thursday that he'd soon start the destruction of one of them.
One of those places, the Galapagos Islands, is known throughout the world. The other, Yasuni National Park, located deep in Ecuador's Amazon rainforest, is less known, primarily because it has remained less touched by the modern world.
But it's arguably more important. Yasuni is the most biodiverse places on Earth–the sheer numbers of species that live in one hectare there put North America to shame. We'll get to that in a second. What Yasuni also has, unfortunately for the flora, fauna, and indigenous people living there, is oil. A lot of oil.
Depending on who you ask, Correa was either an innovator or a hostage taker.
Six years ago, Correa had an idea. In return for the promise that Ecuador wouldn't disturb an area known as the Ishpingo-Tambococha-Tiputini field—a 4,000 square-mile sect of the Amazon that has roughly 800 million barrels of crude oil laying underneath it—he asked the world for $3.6 billion in donations, just a small percentage of the oil's $18 billion street value.
Depending on who you ask, Correa was either an innovator or a hostage taker. With Thursday's announcement that Ecuador would soon begin drilling in the area, it appears he was the latter. Patricio Chavez, director of Amazonia por la Vida, an environmentalist group here, said Correa didn't give the international community much choice: "Pay or we drill."
Just $13 million was collected. (Another $103 million was promised.) Drill it is.
An independent report charted by the Ecuadorian government and published last year said that the Yasuni decision has an "important symbolic value, because its future represents the contradiction between maintaining Ecuador's most important heritage, its biodiversity and cultural wealth, and the extraction of fossil fuels, which has led its growth during the last four decades."
It's true that oil, and its cultural wealth and biodiversity (as monetized by tourism) have been key to Ecuador's revival over the past couple decades. With that money, it's managed to improve its highways to be some of the best in South America, improve infrastructure, and build a brand new airport in Quito. One of the stipulations of Correa's ITT plan was that Ecuador could do with the money as it pleased, something that turned off many would-be donators.
Because of that, and maybe because of the sheer unorthodox nature of the proposal, his plan never got completely off the ground. In his nationally-televised speech, Correa said it was "one of the hardest decisions of [his] governance" and blamed the "great hypocrisy" of nations who declined to donate money to Ecuador. The plan was projected to prevent 410 million metric tons of carbon dioxide from entering the atmosphere.
Earlier this month, in anticipation of a visiting Yasuni (I'll have more from there later this week), I met with Kelly Swing, a Louisiana State University professor who teaches at the Universidad San Francisco de Quito and is the founding director of the Tiputini Biodiversity Station, a research outpost located on the edge of the disputed land.
Since 1995, Swing and some of the world's top biologists have been studying the area and have found some simply astounding data: In one hectare, the area surrounding the station contains roughly 100,000 species of insects, more than all of the US and Canada combined, and many thousands of which have not been officially described. In Yasuni National Park, there are 600 species of birds, 580 species of frogs, and countless species of trees. There are ocelots, jaguars, and harpy eagles. There are howler monkeys and titi monkeys and peccaries and tapirs.
Much of this diversity, Swing said, can be explained by the fact that Tiputini is just a degree south of the equator (the area of the rainforest, which could have theoretically been more diverse than Tiputini, has already been destroyed by oil drilling and woodcutting.
"We've done so much damage on the Napo River in the last 40 to 50 years that many people think we may have already erased the part that was the most diverse on the planet," he said. With more drilling, the same could happen to the area surrounding Tiputini.
But there are a lot of places on Earth that are along the equator. What makes Yasuni so special is the fact that eastern Ecuador gradually transitions from the Andes mountains into the Amazon basin, giving it an "overlap" of both highland and lowland flora and fauna, Swing said.
In his speech, Correa promised that less than one percent of Yasuni would be affected by drilling in the ITT, but the fact is that drilling is already happening in parts of Yasuni that weren't part of the ITT deal, and Ecuador hasn't had the best track record with regards to drilling in the Amazon.
Between the early 1960s and 1992, Texaco operated more than 300 oil wells throughout Ecuador's Amazon region polluting vast stretches of it. The water there remains polluted today. I recently met with a group called ChevronToxico at an event in Quito, where they had brought bottles of water taken from rivers near where Texaco drilled: They had sediment and smelled strongly of oil. Many of the indigenous communities in those areas have no option except to drink that water. ChevronToxico claims that leaks from those wells have caused birth defects, cancers, and miscarriages. In 2011, lawyers representing local communities won an $18 billion lawsuit against Chevron in Ecuadorian court.
"We've done transects through the forest and it looks like there's been quite a decrease in the amount of fauna that's there versus 10 years ago."
Just a couple kilometers from Tiputini, Chinese and Ecuadorian companies drill for oil. To get to the biodiversity station, you have to take a canoe two hours from the nearest town, Coca, to roads controlled by oil companies. Along that road, Swing says he used to regularly see monkeys, jaguars, and other animals.
"Recently, there's been none of that," he said. The station is just 12 kilometers from the nearest drill site, and the noise can be easily heard there. The gas flares coming from the drill sites draw in insects in the night "like light to a candle." Frogs have trouble mating and larger animals can have trouble finding each other to mate. With more drilling comes more access. The animals become skittish, he said. "We've done transects through the forest and it looks like there's been quite a decrease in the amount of fauna that's there versus 10 years ago."
The big question is, what happens now? Even earlier this month, Swing was optimistic that with the more than a hundred million that Ecuador had been promised, that Correa had "passed the point of no return" on reneging on the ITT agreement.
"Correa has this free money coming in and at some point you pass the point where it's easy to bail out," he said. "To make the money on oil, they're going to have to put in a few hundred million and then wait a few years. The payoff is going to occur during someone else's administration."
With Thursday's announcement, it's clear Correa isn't worried about that.
But did the world fail Ecuador, as Correa said? After an initial influx of money, donations stalled. Swing said that in the beginning, there was a "spark of enthusiasm" in the international community, but that the country ultimately did a bad job of selling the idea.
"It didn't appear there was a focus on how to convince the world that this was a worthwhile cause and that Ecuador was a worthy recipient," he said. Those donors are about to find out--$13 million isn't the $3.6 billion Correa wanted, but it's not chump change either. "In the end, [they could] have lost the forest and lost their money."
An Economist writer said that "given the country's reputation as a 'serial defaulter,' donors were right to wonder if it might not renege on the pledge never to touch the ITT."
In front of the presidential palace in Quito, environmentalists took to the streets with signs declaring that "Ecuador is not for sale." Despite the country's poverty, which Correa called "the greatest abuse of human rights," public polls in the country have shown that 93 percent of the country supports the ITT plan and rejects drilling in the area. Still, they'll drill.
"We're sad, but I'm with a clear conscious because I think we've made the right decision for future generations," Correa said, without the slightest hint of irony.