Drilling for Oil in Eden
Quito, Ecuador— The most biologically diverse habitat in the western hemisphere, the Yasuní rainforest in Ecuador, is under threat. The diversity of species in the Yasuní Park is unmatched by any other park in the world. One hectare contains more species of trees than all of North America, but hidden beneath this Garden of Eden lies temptation: oil worth billions.
Ecuadorian president Rafael Correa is bargaining the fate of the Yasuní Park against the willingness of the industrialized world to pay 3.6 billion dollars in return for a promise not to extract oil from the ecological preserve. The conservation proposal is praised internationally as a creative way to protect the Amazon rainforest and the indigenous people living there, but the fate of the Yasuní Initiative is in doubt. There is uncertainty whether the funding can be raised as governments grapple with the international economic crisis, and skeptics question whether the bargain could work.
“They are going to drill. They are going to drill,” an authority on the Yasuní project told me in confidence. “Perhaps ten years from now, perhaps 5 years from now. The next president will need that money.”
Oil is Ecuador’s top export, providing one third of its revenue, but despite the black gold pooled beneath its steamy jungles, Ecuador is a poor country. With little industry, Ecuador’s 58.9 billion GDP is among the smallest in Latin America. (By comparison, the GDP of the USA is 14,600 billion.) Exporting raw materials, primarily petroleum, bananas, and shrimp, has enriched foreign corporations, but the wealth has not trickled down to the people. 50 % of Ecuadorian citizens live below the poverty level. One third of the children in Ecuador are malnourished and 60 % in the indigenous populations according to Health Minister, Carina Vance. Between 1999 and 2000 one million Ecuadorians fled their homeland to escape the misery and financial collapse that left the country’s currency worthless. The US dollar is now the accepted currency.
“At some point conservation and ecology are kind of a luxurious thing. People have to eat,” says Prof. Hugo Navarrete, a Biologist at the Pontifica Universidad Católica del Ecuador, describing the situation from the point of view of those who would benefit from drilling.
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