As has been widely reported this week, Ecuador will soon start drilling for oil in Yasuni National Park, dissolving its ‘ITT’ plan to protect it with international funding.
As someone who has worked extensively in the Ecuadorian Amazon this is very upsetting, and here are my thoughts.
Yasuni National Park is one of the most biodiverse rainforest in the world, with an incredible diversity of flora and fauna and a rich native culture. It unfortunately also is sitting upon billions of dollars worth of oil.
The Yasunia ITT plan came down to this: if it is a world treasure of biodiversity, the world should help pay for it. A lovely concept, and a potential blueprint and way forward in which countries with struggling economies could get the international support to afford to keep their wilderness wild, and not destructively use it for the resources within.
The billions of dollars in funding they were looking for never came through, here’s probably why.
This is how ITT should have been presented to the world by President Correa:
“We deeply care about our rainforest, we’re willing to do whatever we can to protect it and develop ecotourism, join us in this fight.”
Here’s how it was actually presented:
[with gun to head of Yasuni]
“Pay up, or else we pull the trigger.”
It wasn’t just the very vapid plea for money, it was the fact that their plan for what they would do with the money was not well thought, transparent, nor allowing of investor advice from the beginning.
After a couple years of failed fundraising they finally did a more proper study to show the benefits of the proposed plan.
I went to the presentation of this report in Quito, hosted by the UN, and it was quite clear in the report that a) the project would absolutely be beneficial for Ecuador and boosting their economy via ecotourism and b) the unspoken: there seemed to be a very slim chance that they could make investing foreign governments confident in their ability to actually pull it off and use the money wisely and transparently.
It was clear while working in the Amazon that the government did not really care about the rainforest, and what ecotourism could do to its economy as it has done to places like Costa Rica.
“Our government, our president tells us, no, mandates us that this is a petroleum country!”
These are the exact (translated) words of the PetroAmazonas (state run oil company) representative who came to speak to our local town, Puerto Maldonado. His nationalist rant was clear, the data they presented to the townspeople on how the oil prospecting they were proposing would damage the environment was not. Most notably, the incredibly misleading graphics and absurdly wrong environmental impact data (i.e. “our study shows only 52 species of plants in the nearby rainforest reserve” while I could merely glance outside the town hall and see over a hundred species).
While we were fortunate in being able to communicate to the town that the information they were getting wasn’t accurate, it left me with a cloud over that ‘hope’ thing I had for the Amazon region of Ecuador. Imagine all of the other Amazon towns that are getting the same speech, the same pressure, the same money dangled in front of them.
Roads, helipads, and runways have already been developed in Yasuni for the oil companies to march on in. These roads were ‘secret,’ but locals and environmentalists knew about them as they were clearly visible from plane and helicopter rides.
Protecting such a large wealth of forest is not easy, for sure. I also understand what income oil can provide the people of a struggling economy, for the short term, at least. But this was such a wasted opportunity by the government. Ecuador is such a fantastic place to visit, and has so much to offer in the ways of tourism (Costa Rica can hardly compare on diversity and native cultures).
If this were well planned from the start, it could have been a wonderful reality. Instead, Yasuni may end up being a part of our history. The photos, the scientific specimens, the blow-dart guns, the stories, may all end up in a museum I’d take my future grandchildren to, to try show them what the true loss of a world treasure is like.