30.10.2011 - Natural Sciences Sector

Leaving oil in the ground

In the heart of the Amazonian forest, oil companies, scientists, environmentalists and indigenous communities are holding their breath. President Rafael Correa of Ecuador has made perhaps the most ambitious proposal yet to fight climate change, conserve a biodiversity hotspot and protect indigenous rights.

He is appealing to the international community to provide US$3.6 billion over 13 years in partial compensation for the loss in revenue if Ecuador undertakes not to exploit just under 1 billion barrels of oil lying beneath Yasuni Biosphere Reserve. The reserve is home to the Huaorani people, as well as to the Tagaeri and the Taromenani who are both living in voluntary isolation.

Oil companies are currently exploiting some parts of the reserve, including a block bordering the Yasuni Ishpingo Tambococha Tiputini area, licensed to the Brazilian company Petrobras.

In announcing the scheme to the UN General Assembly in September 2007, President Correa explained that Ecuador’s proposal was accompanied by the establishment of the Yasuni Ishpingo Tambococha Tiputini Environmental Fund – for the name of the area the government is proposing to spare. This fund includes ‘the diversification of energy sources, the development of capacities and investment in eco-tourism and the application of an integral agenda that includes health, education and environmental remediation.’ President Correa has also taken steps ‘to guarantee the physical and cultural integrity’ of peoples in voluntary isolation ‘while respecting the sovereignty of their territories.’  

The initiative reportedly obtained 75% approval ratings in a recent poll in Ecuador. NGOs have also come out in favour of the plan, among them Amazon Watch, the Quito-based Acción Ecológica and Scientists Concerned for Yasuni, a network of independent researchers. The scheme also has the support of several governments.

However,  Science reported in June this year that, ‘since establishing a UN-administered trust fund in August 2010, Ecuador has only received roughly US$40 million in multiyear commitments from an assortment of countries, including Italy, Spain, and Chile […]. Germany had tentatively pledged up to US$50 million a year but Die Zeit reported [in early June] that the country was withdrawing its support.’

The Yasuni proposal was discussed at the MAB conference on biosphere reserves and climate change held in Dresden last June. The  Dresden Declaration implicitly refers to Yasuni when calling upon States to ‘support innovative economic instruments and activities that combine climate change mitigation and adaptation, with maintenance of the integrity of ecosystems and biodiversity as well as social development, including the needs of local and indigenous communities, in particular in the context of extraction of natural resources and the generation of energy.’

As one observer remarked, when push comes to shove, the MAB Programme does not yet seem to wield sufficient influence in international circles to push through such an audacious funding scheme as Yasuni. He felt that intensifying networking within MAB would no doubt soon improve its leverage.

Ecuador has also proposed that OPEC levy a carbon tax at the oil wellhead, a concept devised by environmental economist Herman Daly. The earnings from the carbon tax would be used to give countries like Ecuador financial incentives to leave oil underground in vulnerable ecosystems.
Susan Schneegans

Taken from A World of Science, Vol.9 N°4, an issue celebrating MAB’s 40th anniversary

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