/ 10 January 2011

Ecuador offers not to exploit pristine reserve

How much would you pay for the most biologically rich patch of land on Earth — some 1 000km2 of pristine Amazon, home to several barely contacted indigenous tribes, thousands of species of trees and nearly a billion barrels of crude oil?

Ecuador, home of the Galapagos Islands, the Andes mountain range and vast tracts of oil-rich rainforest, last year asked the world for $3,6-billion not to exploit the Ishpingo-Tiputini-Tambococha oil block in the Yasuni National Park.

A knockdown price, it said, considering the oil alone is worth more than $7-billion. The 407-million tonnes of CO2 that would be generated by burning could be sold for more than $5-billion in the global carbon markets.

But neither the oil block nor the park is for sale and under the terms of a unique, legally binding trust fund set up by the government and the United Nations, the oil and the timber in Yasuni will never be exploited.

Instead, donor countries, philanthropists and other individuals around the world have been invited to pay the money in return for a non-exploitation guarantee.

The idea of rich countries paying poor countries not to exploit their forests in return for financial compensation is being promoted at global climate talks. But the idea of paying poor countries not to develop valuable oil reserves is believed to be the most radical yet.

“The object is to preserve biodiversity and prevent climate change emissions. Ecuador is an oil-exporting country and the oil reserves in Yasuni have been shown to represent 20% of the oil in the whole country,” said Helga Serrano, from the Ecuadorean foreign ministry.

“We will keep the oil underground indefinitely. We think $3,6-billion is a fair contribution from developed countries,” she said.

So far only European countries have shown a firm interest. Germany has said it may pay $800-million over 13 years, with Spain, France and Switzerland reportedly considering the offer. Guatemala and Nigeria have asked Ecuador for help with similar programmes.

The plan was first floated by the Ecuadorian government in 2007 when it asked for $350-million a year to leave Yusuni park oil in the ground.

Any money raised would be administered by the UN Development Programme (UNDP) and would go to protect 4,8-million hectares of land in Ecuador’s other national parks — including the Galapagos Islands — and to develop renewable energy sources and build schools and hospitals for indigenous groups.

Conservation groups have been staggered by the biological riches in the park, which is at the intersection of the Amazon, the Andes and the equator.

It was recently found to have 650 species of trees and shrubs within a single hectare — the highest number in the world and more than in the whole of North America.

In addition, it has more than 20 threatened mammal species, including jaguars, otters and monkeys, and several hundred bird species. — Guardian News & Media 2010