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Can the Paris Talks Save the Amazon?

During COP21, the International Rights of Nature Tribunal will also meet in Paris. Can Ecuador protect Yasuni National Park—and how can other countries learn from South America?
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Huaorani natives and Yasunidos activists march in Quito on April 12, 2014. (Photo: Rodrigo Buendia/Getty Images)

With tens of thousands of climate officials converging on Paris at the end of the month to seek an international agreement on global warming, environmentalists are reviving a controversial plan to protect a pristine stretch of the Amazon’s Yasuni National Park, which teems with biodiversity and is home to tribes living in voluntary isolation.

In 2007, President Rafael Correa of Ecuador presented a novel approach to reducing emissions: Keep the oil in the ground, in exchange for $3.6 billion from international donors—half the estimated value of those deposits—in a fund administered by the United Nations Development Program.

Critics likened the scheme to holding the rainforest hostage, a form of ecological blackmail, and said Correa’s proposed governing structure was inconsistent and unstable. By 2013, with only $13 million in donations and $116 million in pledges, President Correa canceled the plan.

The international community may finally be open to this kind of scheme. “This is a different moment in terms of climate awareness,” Koenig says.

“Without the Amazon jungle, the main lung of the world, life on the planet would probably disappear,” Correa said in a televised address. “Despite that, Amazon countries like ours receive nothing in return for a resource that is vital for all life. The world has failed us.”

Environmentalists felt betrayed by Correa, who (they say) travels abroad to extol the rights of nature, but refuses to stop drilling at home.

Correa “promised the exploitation of Yasuni would leave poverty behind,” says Pato Chavez, a spokesman for YASunidos, a coalition of environmental activists in Ecuador. “But nothing has changed and nothing will change. The people who live in the jungle live in poverty.”

As the U.N. talks get underway, YASunidos and environmentalists from around the world will meet at the concurrent International Rights of Nature Tribunal in Paris to discuss how to keep oil in the ground. “We are looking for allies on the issue,” says Chavez, who hopes to garner support from non-governmental organizations, donors, and foundations.

Thousands of activists are planning protests and other civil actions around the conference, which will convene delegates from more than 190 countries.

“Correa’s actions are unconscionable. Yasuni was a very unique proposal for keeping oil in the ground that would have set a global precedent,” says Robin R. Milam, of the Global Alliances for the Rights of Nature.

Lorena Tapia, Ecuador’s minister of the environment, says any attempt to reinstate the Yasuni plan would have to cover the costs of the infrastructure developed for drilling, which is set to begin next spring. She agrees with the activists on one point: “The fact is, the countries who produce emissions need to compensate the economic needs of those who don’t produce emissions.”

Ecuador remains heavily dependent on oil, which accounts for more than half of the country’s export earnings and a quarter of the public sector revenue.

With the Yasuni plan, Ecuador was ahead of its time and has since regressed, said Kevin Koenig, the Ecuador program director of Amazon Watch, which works to protect the rainforest and advance the rights of indigenous people.

The international community may be more open to this kind of scheme. “This is a different moment in terms of climate awareness,” he says.

Research published in Nature recommends that, globally, a third of oil reserves, half of gas reserves, and over 80 percent of current coal reserves should remain unused from 2010 to 2050, in order to keep average global temperatures from rising no more than two degrees Celsius above pre-industrial levels. If temperatures rise more than that, scientists have warned that global warming will become catastrophic.

Koenig added that Yasuni’s possible revival dovetails with the emerging #keepitintheground movement that is pushing nations to leave fossil fuels buried and urging institutions and foundations to divest from fossil fuels because of the harm they cause the planet.

The original Yasuni plan failed because it wasn’t grounded in sound economic theory, contends a working paper by Mario Andres Fernandez, an economist at Landcare Research in New Zealand, and Santiago Bucaram, a development professor at the Universidad San Francisco de Quito. “The road ahead will be the development of broader and better proposals for which the [initiative] could be considered as a predecessor.”

The authors have drawn up a new proposal to sell Yasuni’s oil deposits to a coalition of countries, making the market-driven process more flexible, simplified, and transparent. They plan to present the paper in Ecuador this month, though they concede it’s unlikely that the current regime would agree to give up property rights.

“We are sure our approach must be the path to follow and there is not any other feasible alternative,” Fernandez says. “If the objective of the Ecuadorian government is to protect Yasuni’s biodiversity, then it should follow our approach.”

Pamela Martin, a professor of politics and international relations at Coastal Carolina University, has argued that Yasuni offered replicable models for other fossil fuel dependent and megadiverse countries in the developing world, including Bolivia, Brazil, Colombia, Peru, Indonesia, and Nigeria.

Outside of Lago Agrio, northwest of Yasuni National Park, oil pipelines snake through the Amazon and gas flares burn over the treetops. Decades of petroleum extraction have left widespread pollution, the sticky soil stinking of asphalt, the water bitter and toxic in some settlements.

On a bluff above the muddy banks of the Aguarico River, Luis Chamba grows bananas and cacao on his family’s tiny finca. Of the environment, the 23-year-old says: “We have to take care of it. If we run out, if it’s done, we lose everything.”


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