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Ecuador Asks World to Pay to Keep Yasuni Oil Underground

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Issue date: 
May 1, 2012
Publisher Name: 
Scientific American
Lisa Friedman
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Ecuador is eyeing the international Green Climate Fund as a way to help pay for its plan to trade oil for forests, a top government representative said.

Heading the campaign, former Ecuadorean ambassador to the United States Ivonne A-Baki said on a swing through Washington last week that she was frustrated with the U.S. government's indifference to the cause of Yasuní National Park.

She hopes to raise the profile of the lush rainforest in the run-up to this summer's U.N. Conference on Sustainable Development in Rio de Janeiro, also called Rio+20. The national park is located where the Andes Mountains, the Amazon Basin and the equator meet and is regarded as one of the most biodiverse places on Earth.

Yasuní also happens to be the site of Ecuador's largest untapped oil reserves -- nearly 1 billion barrels. President Rafael Correa has vowed not to drill there, under the condition that the international community chip in for his country's lost revenue. About $3.6 billion, to be precise, about half the estimated value of the reserves.

"It means sacred land, 'protected by God,' according to the communities that live there," A-Baki said, showing off a green cloth bracelet reading Juntos por el Yasuní, or "Together for the Yasuní," jangling alongside Turkish beads and indigenous Amazonian charm bracelets.

"You stay there just one day, and you are rejuvenated like being in a spa for the month. It's so pure, so clean. It feels like the place where life began," she said. Ecuador, A-Baki said, "still needs oil. We are a developing country, and we are not the one that is polluting the world. But we still believe this is a place that needs to be preserved."

Correa's plan has been dubbed everything from ecological blackmail to the world's most unique strategy for protecting the Amazon. But as the debate unfolds, one thing is clear: The money is not flowing fast. Celebrities from Bo Derek to Leonardo DiCaprio have pledged support, but so far, Ecuador has raised though a U.N. fund $116.9 million, the bulk of which comes from Italy in the form of a $50 million debt forgiveness.

Celebrities vs. skeptics
"There's a lot of folks who are skeptical at this point, because they haven't come up with the money and it's taken a long time," said Kevin Koenig, Ecuador program coordinator for Amazon Watch. "At this point, we would have hoped there would be more donations."

Spain has donated $1.4 million, with about another $6.5 million on the way, A-Baki said. The Andean Development Bank and the Inter-American Development Bank each have put $1 million toward the initiative, and a handful of countries, including Peru, Colombia, Germany, Georgia, Turkey and Australia, have donated between $100,000 and $500,000. Several private individuals, companies and regional government bodies in France and Belgium also are pitching in at growing rates.

Conspicuously absent: the United States.

"I don't even want to meet with the State Department anymore, because we aren't getting anything out of them," A-Baki said, waving her arm dismissively. Speaking in her former office at the Ecuadorean Embassy in Georgetown, she said Washington's disinterest in climate change is to blame. "They don't believe in climate change. ... They don't see it as a priority," she said.

Meeting with Sen. John Kerry (D-Mass.) on Thursday, A-Baki described the chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee as "very positive" about the Yasuní initiative and regretful of the absence of U.S. funding.

"He said, 'I feel bad that the U.S. is not supporting this,'" A-Baki said. Kerry's office disputed that, saying the senator merely indicated he would like to look into the project further and would try to be supportive.

In the meantime, other possible alternatives exist -- like the Green Climate Fund. Born out of the U.N. climate change negotiations, the fund could be up and running by next year. Nobody is sure how much money it will manage, but the fund is closely linked to a pledge nations made at the 2009 Copenhagen, Denmark, climate change summit to mobilize $100 billion annually in public and private funds for mitigation and adaptation needs in developing nations.

"That is something that we are approaching also," A-Baki said. "Right now, they don't have a penny in there, but it would be perfect for what we're doing."

U.S. sees 'problematic' elements
She noted that not exploiting the oil fields in Yasuní could prevent the emissions of around 410 million metric tons of carbon dioxide, equal to about one year of Brazil's carbon output. And the deforestation that would be prevented amounts to keeping 800 million tons of CO2 out of the atmosphere, double France's annual emissions.

"Everybody talks about how we need to reduce emissions, but how do you do it if you don't do things like this?" she said. "This is about prevention."

The U.S. State Department did not respond to requests to speak about the Yasuní initiative. But a look at some of the classified U.S. cables between 2007 and 2010 leaked to the anti-secrecy group WikiLeaks indicates a deep skepticism.

"There is little doubt that the Yasuní Reserve contains remarkable biodiversity and is worth preserving. However, there are several aspects in the proposal that are problematic, including: the valuation of the project, using either the oil or carbon credit benchmarks; still undefined post-Kyoto rules for different forest uses; lack of clarity on the guarantees that the [government of Ecuador] will provide; continued pressure to develop the petroleum reserves; and likely Ecuadorian resistance to an internationally managed fund because of sovereignty concerns," one 2009 cable on the project reads.

Some of those issues have long been addressed. Since those memos were written, the U.N. Development Programme has set up a fund, jointly managed with Ecuador, with a board that includes donors and civil society. Under it, the government guarantees all contributions above $50,000 will be returned if Ecuador ever does extract oil from Yasuní.

Pamela Martin, a professor of politics and international relations at Coastal Carolina University and the author of one of two English-language books on Yasuní, said U.S. resistance to the initiative is more complicated and is inexorably tied to the government's priority on maintaining friendly sources of petroleum.

"Particularly when the U.S. is discussing the need for more friendly sources, I wouldn't foresee support for an initiative to help keep Ecuador's energy underground," she said.

Leakage and 'Who owes who?'
Koenig of Amazon Watch said the early, ill-planned and poorly communicated pronouncements from the Correa government cast an initial pall over the initiative. So too, he said, did Ecuador's strategy of linking Yasuní with the "climate justice" movement that called for industrialized countries to pay developing nations ecological reparations.

The technical issues are equally challenging, he said. While decisions on how to compensate governments for protecting forests have moved forward at a rapid pace -- and those that put money into those developing forest policies may in the future garner carbon credits -- no category exists for avoided emissions from keeping oil in the ground. The leakage problems are particularly pronounced. What, after all, is to stop a country like Ecuador from preventing drilling in Yasuní but allowing it in the southern Amazon -- as it currently is doing?

Still, Koenig said, despite the challenges the Yasuní initiative is raising an important debate.

"Even the idea of it is causing some very constructive discussions about these big questions about how to get out of the 'oil trap,'" he said. "At its root, some of what this Yasuní initiative is about is 'Who owes who?' and this idea of the North paying the South to keep oil in the ground.

"I think it's very precedent-setting, both for Ecuador and potentially for other countries," he said. "If we're serious about climate change, then we need to start keeping oil in the ground."

Martin said she believes the Yasuní initiative has taken a positive turn, as evidenced in part by A-Baki's campaign and Ecuador's new willingness to reach out to international institutions it had once shunned, like the World Bank. She also praised the funding levels, saying Ecuador's ability to raise as much as it has in the midst of a financial crisis and less than two years after the United Nations inaugurated the trust fund was impressive.

But, she cautioned, Ecuador still has a ways to go in convincing the international community that the country, known as a serial debt-defaulter with lingering human rights and environmental concerns, has turned a true corner. Ecuador, despite its interest in tapping the Green Climate Fund, was one of a handful of nations that refused to sign onto the 2009 Copenhagen Accord that created it.

Reprinted from Climatewire with permission from Environment & Energy Publishing, LLC. www.eenews.net, 202-628-6500


Extpub | by Dr. Radut