Paying Ecuador Not to Drill

Joshua Bousel
Yasuni National Park, Ecuador

The oil bubbling beneath the 4,000-square-mile Yasuni National Park along the eastern border of Ecuador has long been a source of tension between environmentalists and those eager for economic development. The Ecuadorian government and the United Nations have recently attempted to resolve this socially and environmentally complex issue with a landmark agreement. From now on, the international community will pay Ecuador to keep its oil in the ground.

The UN is urging developed countries and foundations to pay $3.6 billion for a guarantee that Yasuni National Park will not be exploited for oil extraction. This figure is only half of the oil field’s estimated $7 billion value. Add to that the $5 billion that burning that oil could fetch on the global carbon market, and the $3.6 billion price tag looks like a steal. According to Daniel Ortega, an environment and climate change ministry spokesman, Ecuador is presenting “a new paradigm for development.”

The $3.6 billion trust fund will be managed and administered by the UN Development Programme. Preliminary plans are to invest the money in alternative energy development, schools, hospitals, indigenous tribal protection, and preservation and reforestation efforts across five million hectares of land—almost 20 percent of the country.

But the agreement is only the beginning. Many, particularly residents of the eastern countryside, are skeptical, especially because of Ecuador’s history of political instability and the extant problem of black market resource extraction in both timber and animal trades. Said one Shuar Indian, “The oil companies always do what they want.” Involvement of the UN Development Programme is intended to address these concerns.

Meanwhile, 30,000 Ecuadorians are undertaking what may be the world’s largest environmental lawsuit against Chevron for the environmentally destructive practices of its predecessor, Texaco (now owned by Chevron). Along a torturous, multidecade path to compensation, under the banner of nunca más, Ecuador may have cultivated fresh possibility in the field of sustainable development.