Oil or Trees? Germany Takes Lead in Saving Ecuador's Rainforest

Oil companies are salivating over the supply of black gold beneath Ecuador's rainforest. The South American country is pledging to keep the oil in the ground -- if the international community provides compensation. Now Germany has taken a leading role in raising the necessary cash.

By Jess Smee


There are many attributes which make the Yasuni National Park special: It is one of the most bio-diverse places on the planet, it is home to indigenous tribes which hunt and gather in its remote interior, and there's a unique breed of small bat. But the national park also has a geographic curse: It sits atop Ecuador's largest known oil reserve, thought to contain hundreds of millions of barrels.

And this potential fortune threatens its very future. In response, Ecuador has come up with an unusual plan to safeguard the UNESCO biosphere Reserve. The cash-strapped South American country has pledged to leave the oil in the ground forever -- something unheard of among oil nations -- if the international community compensates for some of the lost income.

The scheme, which was first mooted by Ecuadorian President Raphael Correa more than a year ago, got off to a slow start. By the end of the year the country extended its self-imposed deadline, in a last ditch bid to rally international support. Meanwhile, international oil giants were queuing to exploit the supply of black gold.

But now, all of a sudden, the ball seems to be rolling. Following a two-day visit by the Ecuadorian Foreign Minister Fander Falconí to Berlin, Germany had positioned itself at "the forefront of the initative," the Ministry for Economic Cooperation said.

However, officials urged caution on a newspaper report which said Germany would pay $50 million (€36 million) into a yet-to-be-established international fund. "There will be emphatically no financial promises. The conversation in the Ministry for Economic Cooperation and Development focused on the framework of the project and also on the efforts that Ecuador itself has to make," Stephan Bethe, spokesman for the ministry, told SPIEGEL ONLINE.

He stressed that Ecuador's idea had caught Berlin's imagination: "It offers a new approach to rainforests and, from the perspective of development politics, it is very promising," Bethe said. "Combining climate protection and fighting poverty will play a growing role in the future."

Ecuadorian Foreign Minister Falconí told the German daily Die Tageszeitung that Germany had pledged "the first significant contribution" to a yet-to-be-created international fund. The paper reported that Ecuador was pushing Germany to pay up within one month.

Hat in Hand

Ecuador estimates that by leaving the oil untouched, some 410 million tons of carbon dioxide emissions will be averted. Oil is Ecuador's most important export, generating around a third of its income. With the value of the untapped supply under the Yasuni National Park estimated at some $6 billion, the country argues it has little option but to approach international donors, hat in hand.

Environmentalists welcomed the plan as a way to save Ecuador's rainforest from destruction. Preventing forests from disappearing is a vital element in the fight against climate change as they absorb huge quantities of CO2 from the atmosphere.

Still, doubts lingered about the Ecuador model. Tobias Riedl from Greenpeace Germany's Forest Campaign warned that the scheme was far from perfect. "It is a double-edged sword. While we welcome moves to save this unique environment, the fact is that all rainforests need to be saved, regardless of whether they lie on valuable natural resources or not," he told SPIEGEL ONLINE.

"There needs to be a broader move with industrialized nations paying money into a fund to save these forests. Preservation of these bio-diverse areas comes at a price."

Meanwhile, environmental groups are looking to the Copenhagen Climate summit in December which aims to hammer out a new United Nations accord to replace the Kyoto Protocols which expire in 2012. Riedl remained upbeat, despite mounting signs that worldwide climate negotiations are stalling: "We expect to see how the preservation of forests can be brought into a new climate protection framework," he said. "That is a step in the right direction."

But there is a long way to go. Greenpeace estimates that €30 billion are needed to secure the future of the rainforests worldwide. And with 80 percent of all ancient forests (including rainforests) worldwide already gone, the clock is ticking. And Ecuador knows it.

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