Five months to save Ecuador's rainforest

Posted: 21 July 2011

Individuals can contribute as little as US$1 to compensate the country for leaving its oil underground.

Yasuni people
The Yasuni National Park is home to the Tagaeri-Taromenane, an indigenous people living in voluntary isolation. Photo credit: UNDP

In 2007, Ecuador floated an unprecedented proposal: it would leave a fifth of its oil reserves – 846m barrels of crude – underground for the health of the planet if, in return, the international community stumped up $350bn (£217bn), half its market value. The oil lies in the Ishpingo, Tambococha and Tiputini (ITT) oil fields, beneath the stunning Yasuni national park in Ecuador's Amazon, an area that scientists have called the most biodiverse tract of rainforest in the world.

But after four years of vainly trying to secure the cash from rich nations, Ecuador is turning to . . . us. Last week, the Yasuni-ITT trust fund, administered by the UN Development Programme, became open to donations of as little as $1 (previously, the fund only accepted contributions of $10,000 or more). "The idea is that individuals the world over will show their support . . . by symbolically 'buying' a barrel of Yasuni oil," says Carlos Larrea, technical director for the crowdfunding initiative.

Scarlet Macaw
Yasuni Park has around 600 recorded bird species, making it one of the world’s most diverse avian sites. Shown here the Scarlet Macaw. Photo © Nick Athanas/ UNDP

The environmental case for protecting this piece of Yasuni national park is beyond question: it boasts an incredible diversity of plant, animal and insect species, including 644 types of tree in a single hectare. It is also home to at least two uncontacted tribes. Leaving the oil underground will avoid the emission of 407m tonnes of CO2 – equal to the annual footprint of Brazil. The cash raised will be used to develop national renewable energy initiatives, in turn helping to fund environmental and social projects across Ecuador.

Chile and Spain were among the first to swell the coffers, adding $100,000 and €1m respectively. Italy followed by cancelling $35m of Ecuadorian debt, with the proviso that the money went into the fund. Germany, however, backed out of its initial pledge to contribute an annual €50m.

There is now around $40m in the Yasuni pot, but the clock is ticking. If there isn't at least $100m by December, Ecuadorian president Rafael Correa has said he will ditch the scheme for "Plan B" – drilling for the oil.

As if to prove he means it, the rainforest surrounding the ITT block is rapidly being readied for exploitation. Without that missing $60m, there's every chance the ITT block could be next.

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Contributions can be made via the Yasuni-ITT trust fund.