Can Ecuador Trade Oil for Forests?

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An Ecuadorean Waorani boy at Ecuador's Yasuni National Park Credit: AFP

I’m in Quito, Ecuador tonight, where I’ve flown—by way of a long detour to Panama City, thanks very much Continental Airlines—to report a story about one of the more innovative conservation ideas out there. Ecuador—which you can find nestled in the northwestern corner of South America, between Colombia and Peru—has two major natural resources: oil and the rainforest. Ecuador is a member of the OPEC petroleum cartel, and exports 285,000 barrels of oil a day, which provides about one-third of all Ecuadorean tax revenues. At the same time, Ecuador is blessed with some of the most varied and valuable rainforest in the Amazon rainforest, with the crown jewel being the Yasuni National Park in the country’s east—perhaps the most biodiverse spot left on the planet.

There’s just one problem: those two resources are overlapping. Oil companies have found a massive deposit of crude on the outskirts of Yasuni—a find that could be as large as nearly 900 million barrels of crude, or some nine times greater than Ecuador’s annual oil exports. Though the price of crude has been fluctuating recently, that much crude could easily earn Ecuador over $10 billion, and potentially much more. For a country with a per-capita GDP of $7, 800, that’s serious money.

But opening up even parts of Yasuni to oil exploration could irrevocably change the forest—as well as the indigenous tribes that still live inside its borders. It’s not just the risk of oil spills and other accidents, which are almost inevitable. Drilling means roads and heavy equipment and most of all, people—all of which would impact the rainforest for the worse. And the deforestation that would accompany serious oil exploration would damage a major carbon sink, speeding up climate change.

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The question of Yasuni is the modern development dilemma all wrapped up in a neat bow. And usually we know how this story goes—nature and wilderness, no matter how valuable, rarely beats black gold. Even here in the U.S. the Obama Administration—pushed hard by Republicans and the oil industry—have inched towards opening up areas of the Arctic to drilling, despite the threat to the environment. If a rich country like the U.S. decides it can’t afford not to drill in environmentally sensitive areas, why in the world would a struggling nation like Ecuador chose differently? It’s all another reflection of the age of extreme oil—if we’re going to find more crude, we’re going to need to drill in remote, harsh and vulnerable areas.

There may be another answer, however. Ecuadorean President Rafael Correa has said that his country would be willing to let all that oil stay in the ground, and keep Yasuni undisturbed. But it would come with a price: Ecuador would like to see public and private donors kick in $3.6 billion into a fund—administered by the United Nations Development Programme—that would be invested in renewable energy and community development projects in Ecuador. That money is about half the value of the oil buried around Yasuni.

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Ideally, it’ be a triple win: Yasuni remains undisturbed, the world averts the emission of hundreds of millions of tons of carbon through deforestation and the burning of oil, and Ecuador is still able to capitalize on its resource. And Yasuni is hardly the only project that would essentially pay developing countries not to cut down forests in the name of a global environmental good—remember REDD? We all depend on the rainforests of the world for fairly important environmental goods—like the air we breathe—so why should we all chip in? “This is an idea that is putting under scrutiny the current global ethics on co-responsibility when you need to think about administration of global goods,” Maria Fernanda Espinosa, Ecuador’s minister of coordination of heritage and a key player in the Yasuni initiative, told me and other journalists at a meeting in Quito today.

Of course, since the financial crisis and the collapse of climate legislation in the U.S., the world has gotten a lot less generous when it comes to environmental aid—and $3.6 billion is a lot of money. There’s also the reality that the Yasuni initiative is an untested idea, and there are political worries about the long-term political stability of this kind of investment in Ecuador. “We haven’t been the most stable country politically,” says Natalia Greene, the program coordinator at the Pachamama Foundation in Quito, an NGO that focuses on indigenous people. “We need to send the world a message of trust for this to work.”

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Time may be running out—Correa has indicated that Ecuador wants to see at least $100 million in funding for the Yasuni project by the end of the year, but so far barely more than half that has been pledged. That could scuttle the initiative, Correa said last month in New York:

The international response to our call has been poor. We’re renouncing an immense sum of money. For us the most financially lucrative option is to extract the gasoline.

I’ll have more to say about the Yasuni project—and the wonders of the rainforest itself—when I get back into Internet range. But from here it sure looks like no money, no forest—and that’s bad news for all of us.

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Bryan Walsh is a senior writer at TIME. Find him on Twitter at @bryanrwalsh. You can also continue the discussion on TIME’s Facebook page and on Twitter at @TIME