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Germany's Withdrawal of Funding Threatens Plan to Save Ecuador Forest

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Issue date: 
9 June 2011
Publisher Name: 
Science Magazine
Eric Marx
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The Ecuadorian government's plan to keep oil in the ground in Yasuni National Park in exchange for compensation from world governments has taken a severe blow in recent days. Germany had tentatively pledged up to $50 million a year for the so-called Yasuni ITT Initiative but had reportedly been having second thoughts. Last week, the Die Zeit newspaper disclosed that the country was indeed withdrawing its support, and German officials and others involved in the negotiations for the funding have confirmed that decision. Given this development, scientists and activists concerned about Yasuni are debating whether the initiative is dead and whether they should now concentrate on minimizing any damage from anticipated oil exploration.

Hailed by some as "the world's first really green oil deal," Ecuador's plan would leave almost a billion barrels of oil in the ground below Yasuni National Park in return for $3.6 billion, or about half the market value of the oil. Labeled the most biodiverse forest known on Earth, Yasuni National Park covers close to 1 million hectares on the eastern edge of Ecuador abutting the Peruvian border. (See a slideshow on the forest.)

But more than concern about the forest's animal and plant life has driven interest in the initiative. It would protect the indigenous tribes living in Yasuni and also offer a precedent for reducing future carbon emissions by forgoing fossil fuel extraction. Not exploiting the oilfields in Yasuni could prevent the emissions of around 410 million metric tons of carbon dioxide—equivalent to the annual emissions of France.

Despite Germany's change of heart, Yasuni activists say the initiative is still a work in progress. Yet they also acknowledge the need for political mobilization given the increased likelihood that Yasuni will again be considered open to oil exploration—what Ecuador's President Rafael Correa has repeatedly characterized as his only plan B alternative if global funding doesn't come through.

"With or without German support—or even without the [Ecuadorian] government's support—the initiative remains valid and legitimate, not only for the indigenous people that live within the borders of the national park but for Ecuadorian society and for the world as a whole," said Ivonne Yanez, president of Acción Ecológica, a Quito-based environmental activist group which has been instrumental in raising the initiative's profile.

Given the self-imposed deadline set by President Correa's government, Ecuador still has until the end of the year to collect $350 million, the annual amount proposed under the plan for the next 13 years. Since establishing a U.N.-administered trust fund in August 2010, Ecuador has only received roughly $40 million in multiyear commitments from an assortment of countries, including Italy, Spain, and Chile.

Nevertheless, support in Ecuador for the initiative remains broad and deep, ranging as high as 75% favorability in some polls. "Without a doubt, the initiative has raised the profile of Yasuni and its importance on a national and international level," says Kevin Koenig, the Amazon Oil Campaign coordinator for Amazon Watch. "Whether that is enough to stop Correa from drilling I'm not sure, though it obviously works in our favor."

However, some of the scientists who have lobbied hard to protect Yasuni are calling on environmentalists to work together with the oil industry on a sustainable extraction plan. "If Ecuador does not get this money, have no doubt, it will go for the oil--and plans are certainly already in place," says Kelly Swing, a founding director of the Tiputini Biodiversity Station, one of two Yasuni research stations. "The only functional way to save this biodiversity hotspot is to reach a policy decision at the highest levels in Ecuador to place an absolute ban on road construction in the region."

So-called roadless oil extraction, in which oil companies use offshore exploration and production methods and leave less of an imprint on the area being drilled, is a viable alternative, argue Swing and others associated with Scientists Concerned for Yasuni, a network of independent researchers that first came together in 2004 to stop a proposed road project inside the park. "Proposed projects lacking this approach should be rejected," says Margot Bass, a conservation biologist and founding member of Scientists Concerned for Yasuni.

Roadless oil exploration practices are already in use in Ecuador's Block 10, a region of Amazonian forest near Yasuni, notes Bass. "The process still involves opening a trail through the forest so that heavy equipment can operate along the entire route," explains Swing. "This trail means … there is a narrow strip of deforestation, usually something like 15 to 20 meters in width, … to the point that some of the trees in the canopy actually remain in contact overhead, thereby allowing upper canopy species to move through their habitat without experiencing as much fragmentation as they would when 'real' access roads are built."

Yet Koenig contends Block 10 is far from a good example to follow as the limited road building there has, he argues, produced environmental impacts similar to traditional oil exploration. And roadless oil extraction also involves helicopter support and other invasive actions which could greatly affect the two uncontacted tribes still living in the park. "The problem is the Yasuni Initiative does not only involve biodiversity but also forest people," said Yanez of Acción Ecológica. "This could be a genocide."

Matt Finer, a staff ecologist with Save America's Forests in Washington, D.C., and an active member in the Scientists Concerned for Yasuni network, cautions discussions of the initiative's demise were premature. "There are still 6 months left of life," says Finer, who sees any plan B discussions at this time detracting from ongoing efforts.

Indeed, there are some who believe that President Correa will again extend the deadline, and that if he decides to implement plan B, the parliament will not approve the decision. And perhaps even the German government will change its mind, suggest some. "The Initiative is strongly supported by a large number of parliamentarians, and it has the political support even from within the Ministry for Economic Cooperation and Development," says Carlos Larrea, a technical adviser to the Yasuni Initiative's negotiating team that recently returned from Germany. The German ministry confirmed it does not now plan to provide funding to the initiative, acknowledges Larrea, although a final decision would not be made until late October. "We still have hope the final decision will be positive."

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Extpub | by Dr. Radut