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Ecuador Sells No Oil to Preserve Yasuni

Ecuador Sells No Oil for 3.6 Billion Dollars The government of Ecuador has been threatening to damage their Yasuni National Park — which, reputedly, houses the region of highest biodiversity in the entire Western Hemisphere — with oil drilling for many years. Former heads of states, famous biologists, environmentalists, and the usual legion of poster [...]

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Ecuador Sells No Oil for 3.6 Billion Dollars

The government of Ecuador has been threatening to damage their Yasuni National Park — which, reputedly, houses the region of highest biodiversity in the entire Western Hemisphere — with oil drilling for many years. Former heads of states, famous biologists, environmentalists, and the usual legion of poster face actors have been waging public outcry against the plans to extract oil from the Yasuni region since the plan was initially formulated. In 2007, the government of Ecuador devised an ultimatum:

If you pay us a large portion of the projected profits from the oil that we could otherwise extract from the reserve, we will leave it in the ground, we won’t destroy Yasuni.

Ecuador called this the Yasuni-ITT initiative. It could perhaps also be called by another name: extortion.

Debate followed, the heady environmental sect seemed to approve of the deal, and, in August of 2010, the Yasuni-ITT initiative had been settled:

A collection of the rich countries of the world will pay Ecuador 3.5 billion dollars to not destroy their own national park. Ecuador is being paid roughly 50% of the projected profits for the oil reserves beneath Yasuni, they are being paid to not drill for oil.

Map of Ecuador and the Yasuni Biosphere region

Ecuador has just sold a whole lot of “no-oil.”

From the BBC:

Under a pioneering agreement signed with the United Nations, the oilfields under the Yasuni reserve will remain untapped for at least a decade. . .

The agreement sets up a trust fund which will be administered by the UN Development Programme (UNDP).

Countries including Germany, the Netherlands, Norway, Italy and the US have expressed interest in contributing. -Yasuni ITT agreement BBC News

About Yasuni Biosphere

The Yasuni Biosphere region sits in the Ecuadorian Amazon hemmed in by the Napo and Curaray Rivers, around 250 km from Quito. This park is home to the area, “where amphibian, bird, mammal, and vascular plant diversity all reach their maximum levels within the Western Hemisphere.” Yasuni is also home to the Huaorani people — some of whom are thought to have still been uncontacted by the outside world.

This region of unsurpassed bio diversity also happens to sit directly above 846 million barrels of crude oil — 20% of all that Ecuador has.

A new model for conservation

The Yasuni Biosphere has been preserved with this 3.6 billion dollar trust for at least the next ten years. What happens after ten years? Does the Ecuadorian government get to ask for another $3.6 billion? This is perhaps anyone’s guess. But, as of now, the richest area of biodiversity in the western hemisphere now faces no major threats for the next ten years.

Ecuador threatened to destroy one of their most precious natural areas, and the rich countries of the world responded with cash. Environmentalists seem hopeful that this new model can be applied to other countries of the third-ish world as an incentive for their governments to respect the natural world within their borders. What they want to do is essentially issue pay offs to poor, debt ridden, aid dependent countries to influence them to save themselves.

It sounds like extortion to me, but, alas, this is the world I live in.

What are the future impacts of paying off countries to preserve their environment?

After the framework for this type of real world conservation has been put in place in Ecuador, other countries such as Guatemala, Vietnam, and Nigeria could be next in line for big international payouts in exchange for leaving parts of their environment in tact.

Though I must wonder: Is this not an incentive for crooked governments to threaten to destroy their natural treasures in a bid at cashing in?

Hey, Ecuador just got 3.6 billion for not destroying Yasuni, couldn’t we hold our own rain forests for ransom to see what we could get?

I can imagine this model being used to no good ends, I can imagine countries threatening to destroy aspects of their environment in hopes of international payouts.

But I also must remember that I live in a world of dollars and cents. The old saying goes, “money talks,” and this is the way it is. Ecuador could have easily cashed a large chit and took our 7 million dollars in profit just for extracting and destroying some jungle backwater full of bugs, bats, and naked jigaboos. But they didn’t. They listened to the call of the world and made a compromise:

They split the difference and let a region of rare biodiversity live on.

It is an odd place in time that we now sit at. Not only do we have the power to destroy and decimate the natural world, but we also have the knowledge of what impact this has. The concept that natural resources are finite is a relatively new one, the idea that you can only take so much out of nature before receiving diminishing returns is a foreign one. As I sit in the jungle of Guatemala, I sense that the indigenous people here lack the concept that their forest home may not always be around to support them: the fish are being eaten to extermination, rare jungle animals are still killed, eaten, or sold with hardly a shrug of acknowledgement — a guy down the river from me just bought a jaguar cub from a hunter for $50. The concept that the natural world is valuable left “as is,” seems to be a new one. It is good to see that price tags — an understandable measure of value — are somehow being applied to areas of great biodiversity.

Yasuni is worth the market value of the oil beneath it.

3.5 billion dollars postponed the destruction of Yasuni. Yasuni left “as is” is worth 3.5 billion dollars to the buyers (whoever they are). Ultimately, the preservation of this area of the world seems to be worth more than oil.

It seems ridicules to me that an international coalition of rich countries need to bribe the third-ish world to preserve their own natural treasures, but, this is the world I live in — a generation or two ago, I am sure, this same international community could have been making bids on the oil rather than offering to help keep it in the ground. It is good that we now know, on a high up political level, how many other Yasunis we have already destroyed.

This bribe paid to Ecuador to save Yasuni seems very askance to me — why should a county get paid for nothing? — but, again, I live in a world of price tags, commerce, a world where humans can decide what lives and what dies, a world where doing nothing is also an act that has value.

But Yasuni lives on.

Filed under: Economics, Ecuador, Environment, Politics, Rain Forests, South America

About the Author:

I am the founder and editor of Vagabond Journey. I’ve been traveling the world since 1999, through 91 countries. I am the author of the book, Ghost Cities of China and have written for The Guardian, Forbes, Bloomberg, The Diplomat, the South China Morning Post, and other publications. has written 3703 posts on Vagabond Journey. Contact the author.

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4 comments… add one

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  • Mike Crosby August 6, 2010, 12:23 am

    That’s a big piece of news and I learn it from Wade at Travelogue. Way to go.

    You make a good point Wade about other countries using this example to threaten to destroy their resources to get money. This certainly sets the format and I’m sure we’ll see this play out in the future.

    Does the US still get tagged as imperialist?

    That must be some kind of place in Ecuador. I remember taking a boat ride in Seattle to one of the islands. My friend mentioned that on this one island we were passing only had a prison, and they did not allow any development whatsoever for many years. He said there was all kinds of diversity.

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    • Wade | Vagabond Journey.com August 20, 2010, 10:52 am

      Thanks for the donation! The in laws have left and we are back in business.

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  • Mitch December 4, 2011, 3:04 am

    What an awesome initiative. Hopefully 10 years is long enough to allow the price of oil to drop since by then (IM HOPEFUL!! that) alternative energies will be more in demand.

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    • Wade Shepard December 5, 2011, 12:08 pm

      I like your optimism here, but I’m not so sure. Ecuador is one of the most corrupt countries on the planet, and oil is looking like it’s going to be a prime resource for a long time. I just hope there is enough funding to renew the lease or to buy the preserve outright.

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