Ecuador Won’t Drill for Oil in the Amazon—As Long as the World Pays Up

The South American country ups the ante on a unique plan to save Yasuní National Park, a haven for tropical birds.

Ecuador’s Yasuní National Park might trail American icons like Yellowstone and Yosemite in name recognition, but for sheer eco-abundance, the 3,800-square-mile Amazonian preserve has no peer. The park has nearly a fifth of the world’s bird species (including the Agami heron, pictured above), 10 percent of its amphibians, and more tree species in three acres than in the United States and Canada combined.

It also has oil—an estimated 846 million barrels of it beneath a trio of oilfields: Ishpingo, Tambococha, and Tiputini (known collectively as ITT). Black gold drives Ecuador’s economy, accounting for half of its export revenue and about a third of its taxes, and the current value of the ITT is roughly $10 billion.

Ecuador would just as soon leave the oil where it is—with one big caveat: that the rest of the world reimburse it for $3.6 billion of the potential lost revenues. That sounds like a lot, but it’s only half the ITT’s estimated $7.2 billion value in 2007, when Ecuadorian president Rafael Correa first floated what’s now called the Yasuní-ITT Initiative. The United Nations responded to the plan, and set up a fund that it administers, essentially brokering a contract between Ecuador and Everybody Else. Ecuador has agreed to prevent oil exploration if funds can be steadily raised by 2024. The donations, in turn, are earmarked for alternative energy and tree-planting projects.

Supporters have praised the unprecedented arrangement as innovative and ambitious. Critics have written it off as blackmail. While individual donations are accepted, the heavy lifting is left to governments. Germany and Italy were key to helping the fund meet an initial $100 million deadline at the close of 2011. But now the stakes are higher: The fund must raise an average of $291 million per year for the next 12 years to keep Yasuní drill free.

Despite the high price tag, promoters feel momentum is on their side, as the concept of financial incentives for carbon storage is gaining popularity. In countries like France and Belgium, support from grassroots groups helped prompt donations from regional governments, and similar organizations worldwide are pressuring their national governments to do their part. “Before we had to go out and ask everyone, starting from zero,” says Ivonne Baki, U.N. representative for the initiative and Ecuador’s former U.S. ambassador. “Now it’s become something where the donors are coming to us.”

This spring Ecuador launched a global social-networking campaign to help promote the initiative more broadly. Perhaps remote Yasuní will soon have Yellowstone’s cachet after all.