In the verdant underworld of the Amazon rainforest, shielded from the sun’s rays by the electric green foliage of towering kapok trees, many hazards can trap the unwary.
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A barely noticeable hole in the moist black soil will, if disturbed, disgorge streams of bullet ants, so named because the pain of their bite is said to feel similar to being shot.
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Further beneath the shimmering emerald canopy of the Yasuni national park in Ecuador is another, infinitely more dangerous peril. No less than 846m barrels of oil – 20 per cent of the country’s known reserves – lies below this pristine expanse of rainforest, covering almost 1m hectares.
Yet Ecuador has taken a decision that no other oil-endowed country has so far considered. It will refrain from developing the reserves beneath Yasuni national park and leave the forest untouched, if the outside world will compensate the country with half the money it would thereby forgo.
Extracting the oil would yield $7.2bn for Ecuador’s government. Rafael Correa, president, is asking for $3.6bn over 13 years in return for leaving the reserves in the ground. If this unprecedented scheme wins the required support, it should guarantee the future of those who inhabit this unspoiled region of the Amazon basin.
“If I can, I will teach my children this way of living,” said Remigio Alfonso, now 20. “I will teach them about the plants and the animals.”
ecuadorWhen Mr Alfonso turned seven, he was taken on hunting expeditions by his father. Armed with blowpipes and darts tipped with curare poison, a natural muscle relaxant derived from a vine of the same name, they would search for wild turkeys and howler monkeys.
Like all other members of the local Kichwa-Anangu community, he knows the possibilities – and dangers – of every shrub, tree and vine in his homeland.
Walking a forest trail, thickly carpeted by dead leaves and crisscrossed by roots, he pointed to the palm fronds that yield the tough fibre for fishing nets or hammocks. Another variety of palm tree produces wood of such strength that it can be used for spears and arrows. Nearby are the coils of the puma wacsa vine: if a fragment is boiled for an hour, it becomes a potent medicine for stomach ailments.
When scientists surveyed a single hectare of Yasuni park they found 655 species of tree – more than the total recorded in the US and Canada combined – making this one of the most biodiverse areas on earth.
Meanwhile, in Yasuni’s remotest corners there remain two indigenous groups, the Tagaeri and Taromenane, who live in total isolation from the outside world.
As for the oil, Mr Alfonso holds a clear view. “I want the oil to be left under the ground,” he said. “We need to learn from other countries. Oil companies come and they offer jobs and money but the exploitation leaves us with pollution.”
Ecuador’s government, however, does not take such an unequivocal position. Mr Correa’s offer to leave the oil untouched is conditional on receiving the sum requested – and unless the first $100m arrives by the end of this year, the proposal will die.
Maria Fernanda Espinosa, the national heritage minister, said that setting a deadline was “responsible”, adding: “Otherwise, we will have all the environmental provisions we need, the highest technology and everything, but we will have to take this oil out.”
So far only token amounts have been raised: Spain has given €1m ($1.3m), Chile has donated $100,000 and Belgium’s regional Walloon government has provided €300,000. All the money goes into a UN trust fund and Ecuador plans to use it for renewable energy, conservation and reforestation projects.
Ms Espinosa remains “optimistic” that the first $100m can be raised in time but she gave warning that her country was losing patience. “The ample majority of the Ecuadorians support the Yasuni initiative. But on the other hand, they’re waiting,” she said.
“They know that we need the resources. They have the generosity, the vision, the commitment – but in exchange for something. To see movement in the international community, some commitment, some recognition, something. And if it doesn’t happen, they are going to say: ‘Mr President, go ahead. Unfortunately, the world is not ready for this yet.’?”
Some rich nations have paid developing countries to preserve their rainforests.
In May, Norway agreed to give Indonesia $1bn in return for a two-year moratorium on deforestation permits.
As for the Norwegian position on Ecuador’s plan, a government spokesman said: “The proposal has been carefully assessed but so far the conclusion is that this initiative will not at present receive financial support from Norway.”
The Yasuni initiative’s central problem is that it does not fit into any established scheme. Under a UN programme – Reducing Emissions from Deforestation and Forest Degradation (Redd) – countries can be paid to conserve their forests and avoid carbon dioxide emissions.
But Ecuador is seeking compensation for lost oil revenues, not avoided deforestation. “Norway primarily co-operates with countries with respect to these issues through Redd and the Yasuni project is not an explicit Redd scheme,” said the spokesman.
However, Ms Espinosa pointed out that the proposal’s aim was to “make a model that will allow us to preserve our forest”. She said the Yasuni initiative was a “Redd project” but its goals were broader, resting on the wider concept of “avoided net emissions” by leaving fossil fuels in the ground.
Ecuador still hopes that Norway will contribute and talks are taking place with Germany. But Ms Espinosa acknowledged that the Yasuni proposal was undermined by its very novelty.
Asked whether it was ahead of its time, she replied: “In many ways, yes. Perhaps that’s why some actors in this whole puzzle are sometimes reluctant, sometimes worried about the safeguards, what is going to happen. But Ecuador has been very serious about this since the first day.”
She added: “Yasuni, I think, is a little part of that call to consciousness, of that call to co-responsibility. I mean we’re giving up 20 per cent of our oil reserves – us, Ecuador .?.?. This is a small, small piece of a country like Ecuador saying: ‘We need to change the logic, we need to change the way we do things.’?”
As Ms Espinosa tries to save the Yasuni scheme by negotiating with her fellow ministers across the world – she calls herself “optimistic but not naive” – the fate of the forest’s inhabitants may rest on her success.
Funding: Founder fears that scheme is being mismanaged
The ultimate heresy for an oil minister is to veto the development of a viable oilfield, writes David Blair in Quito. Alberto Acosta did exactly that soon after taking office in Ecuador in 2007.
“When the oil minister first proposed a policy of not extracting oil, he was seen as having gone crazy,” recalled Mr Acosta. A cartoon appeared in the local press showing him locked in a wrestling match with the head of Petroecuador, the state energy company, who bitterly opposed his stance.
Mr Acosta was the oil minister who drafted the plan to leave the reserves beneath Yasuni national park untouched, in return for compensation equivalent to half their value. But he is no longer in the government, having fallen out with Rafael Correa, the president.
Today Mr Acosta fears the scheme is being mishandled. “What the government of Ecuador is doing worries me. I recognise that the project started and is now going ahead thanks to President Correa’s decision. But I also have to point out that there are some problems which came from the actions of President Correa himself.”
Last January Mr Correa sacked his foreign minister and several officials who had been negotiating with other governments over the plan. The agreement to create a United Nations trust fund was signed last August – three years after Mr Acosta first drew up the scheme.
“We lost a lot of time to raise the money,” said Mr Acosta, pointing out that Ecuador missed the “window” before the financial crisis. But he still hopes the world will support the proposal. “In the US and Europe, billions of dollars were mobilised to save bankers. Priorities have to change. Life must come first,” he said.