A Climate Gift for Future Generations: Ecuador Seeks to Commercialize Rainforest

By Christian Schwägerl

Ecuador is the first country in the world to announce plans to leave the oil reserves beneath its rainforests in the ground. The country wants foreign businesses, including German companies, to compensate it for making this sacrifice.

There are as many different types of wood growing on each hectare in the Yasuni rainforest in the northwestern Amazon as there are species in all of North America. Even rare species of animals, like the mountain tapir and the brown-headed spider monkey, exist in the region. This paradise is also home to a number of native tribes now living in complete isolation from the outside world.

There is more biological diversity in the Yasuni rainforest than almost anywhere else in the world. The virgin forest is protected by its status as a national park and UNESCO biosphere reserve, but for how much longer? Several oil companies are pressuring the government in the Ecuadoran capital of Quito to finally issue drilling licenses for the biosphere.

The Yasuni region sits atop Ecuador's largest known oil reserve, consisting of several hundred million barrels. Oil is the country's most important export. And although oil has not made Ecuador rich, without petrodollars and petro-jobs the country would likely be even poorer than it already is.

This makes a proposal that Ecuadoran Environment Minister Marcela Aguiñaga has now advanced in Berlin and other European capitals all the more sensational. Ecuador is the first oil-producing nation to propose leaving crude oil reserves permanently in the ground.

"Not producing the oil in the first place saves the atmosphere additional carbon dioxide," explains Aguiñaga, who worked as a conservation guard on the Galápagos Islands before embarking on her career in government. "In addition, the rainforest is spared the development." Even if drilling technologies were used that protect the rainforest, loggers would likely descend on the area in the wake of the oil companies.

Until now, the West's appeals to developing countries to get involved in the fight against global warming and protect their biodiversity have fallen largely on deaf ears. The temptation to follow conventional paths to wealth is too great. And now one of South America's poorest countries is calling upon industrialized nations to pony up so that its fossil fuel wealth can remain in the ground.

"The crude oil under Yasuni National Park is worth many billions of dollars," says Aguiñaga. In the summer of 2008, Ecuadoran President Rafael Correa made a first attempt to protect the rainforest and resources. He proposed that Western and Ecuadoran taxpayers each foot half the bill for the decision not to tap crude oil reserves in the environmentally sensitive area. But the initiative never bore fruit.

Now Correa is under pressure to give in to the oil companies after all. Hoping to prevent this from happening, Aguiñaga submitted a new, and final, offer during a trip to Europe: that Ecuador be compensated mainly by Western companies, which could then sell the Yasuni oil in the virtual form of CO2 certificates.

Industrial companies and power plant operators in the European Union are now required to present such certificates in return for emitting carbon dioxide into the atmosphere. Supply and demand determine the price per ton. The Ecuadorians are proposing that the crude oil in the Yasuni region be incorporated into the CO2 trading system. The Yasuni reserves would be converted into equivalent tons of CO2 not emitted into the atmosphere as a result of Ecuador preventing production from moving forward.

"The revenues would be used to enhance the protection of 5 million hectares (12.3 million acres) of nature reserves in Ecuador, to promote more environmentally friendly rural development and to protect our native tribes," says Aguiñaga. The rainforest would remain untouched and the oil would stay in the ground, and yet the country would receive enough money for development. It sounds like an ideal solution.

But wherever Aguiñaga goes she faces the same tough questions: What happens if the Saudis start demanding compensation for oil they don't produce? And what if a new government in Quito permits drilling for oil after all?

The model, Aguiñaga argues, is only meant for regions where petroleum reserves are located beneath extremely biodiverse ecosystems. And the donors would be given the right to confiscate the oil if it does end up being produced.

Nevertheless, Aguiñaga has not fully convinced anyone yet, especially since a decision over whether such new forms of CO2 reduction are to be officially recognized, and therefore have monetary value, will not be reached until the 2009 UN Climate Conference in Copenhagen.

If she fails to win over governments and companies, Minister Aguiñaga sees only one alternative to opening up the Yasuni region to drilling: environmentally conscious citizens worldwide could ensure that the fossil fuel remains in the ground by privately buying CO2 certificates -- as a climate gift to their children.

"We will offer the opportunity, on the Internet, to buy the chance to keep the Yasuni oil in the ground with a credit card," says Aguiñaga. "It would be an ideal present for Christmas or for the birth of a child."

Translated from the German by Christopher Sultan.

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