Ecuador pulls the plug on innovative cash-for-conservation program in the Amazon

Ecuador's President Rafael Correa.
Ecuador's President Rafael Correa.

Ecuador will open a pristine swath of the Amazon to oil drilling after the international community failed to back an ambitious conservation plan to leave the crude untouched, the government said Thursday.

In a nationally televised speech, President Rafael Correa said he was dissolving the Yasuní-ITT Initiative, in which the country planned to leave more than 840 million barrels of oil untouched if other nations would pay $3.6 billion, or half the market price of the crude.

“We weren’t asking for charity,” Correa said, “we were asking for co-responsibility in the fight against climate change.”

The ITT oil block — short for Ishpingo, Tambococha, Tiputini — holds about 20 percent of the nation’s reserves and lies in a remote corner of Yasuní National Park, one of the most biodiversity-rich spots on the planet.

The 2.4 million-acre U.N. biosphere reserve holds about one-third of all of the Amazon’s amphibian species. In any given two-and-a-half acre plot of the Yasuní there are more species of trees than in the United States and Canada combined.

The area is also home to the Tagaeri-Taromenane, one of the hemisphere’s last tribes living in voluntary isolation.

Correa said he was determined to protect the area and said the state-run oil company, Petroamazonas, would use cutting-edge technology to minimize the environmental impact. He also said oil exploration would be limited to an area of less than 1 percent of the national park.

The government and environmental groups had hoped that the innovative model — effectively crowd-sourcing conservation — could be replicated in other poor nations.

But since its launch in 2007, only about $336 million has been raised, mostly from European and developing nations. The United States, China and Japan — the world’s three largest gas guzzlers — did not contribute to the project.

Correa said the initiative was “before its time” and had suffered because it was launched in the midst of the global environmental crisis. But he also blasted developed nations for not supporting the project.

“The primary factor for its failure,” he said, “is that the world is a great hypocrisy.”

Despite its economic failure, the Yasuní-ITT Initiative has broad backing in Ecuador. Polls show that more than 80 percent of the population backs the initiative.

Rival political parties are asking for a national referendum to settle the debate and some sectors have suggested they will organize protests to defend the area.

Correa, a U.S.-trained economist who won reelection earlier this year, has enjoyed broad support thanks to his focus on new roads, schools and hospitals. On Thursday, he said Ecuador needs its oil resources to keep pulling people out of poverty. He also said that most of the income from the ITT oil would not be available until after he leaves the presidency in 2017.

“We’re not doing this for the next elections,” he said. “We’re doing this for the next generations.”

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