How the World Forced Ecuador to Destroy Its Own Environment

The Ecuadorian government has announced its intention to start drilling for oil in the Yasuni area of the Amazon basin. The decision comes as a major setback to environmentalists trying to protect one of the world's most biodiverse regions from development and pollution. The government claimed that the initiative it had launched to get international donors to pay Ecuador not to drill in the Yasuni did not successfully garner the amount the government would be forgoing in oil revenue from the area. The innovative campaign asked the world for donations totaling $3.6 billion (half of what the country would be forgoing by not drilling).  

There is little doubt that had the decision to drill not been taken, significant damage to the environment could have been avoided. A single hectare (2.47 acres) of the Yasuni national park contains more tree species than all of North America. Animal populations across the planet are 30% smaller now than in 1970, according to the UN environment program. In tropical regions such as Ecuador, the rate of decline is almost double the global average. By keeping the oil in the ground, 400 million tons of carbon dioxide could have been prevented from going into the atmosphere. Protecting Yasuní National Park would prevent another 800 million tons of carbon emissions. Add it all up, and that’s like preventing three years’ worth of Brazil’s total emissions.  

However, it also needs to be remembered that Ecuador is a sovereign country and it has complete territorial sovereignty over the Yasuni delta. Oil is its main export. It stands to gain 800 million barrels of crude and $7.2 billion in income. The government has debts to pay. Ecuador is unable to access finance on international markets. Instead it has sold more oil and borrowed more from China, both of which add to the impetus to exploit fossil fuels in the Amazon. However, although it is correct to acknowledge that the decision is a terrible loss to the environment, Ecuador has a right to do whatever it wants with its resources. The biggest loser in the whole scenario is the idea of a collective effort to fight climate change.

Ecuador’s innovative idea to seek money in return for not drilling did not materialize out of thin air. The idea had been repeatedly proposed by numerous academics and environmentalists and had the backing of the UN. Last year, in a paper in the Journal of Political Economy, Northwestern’s Bård Harstad argued that paying poorer countries to keep their fossil fuel resources unexploited could be one of the most cost-effective ways of tackling climate change. At the U.N. Green Climate Fund talks in 2009, wealthy nations had pledged to mobilize $100 billion a year by 2020 from public and private sources to help poorer nations curb their greenhouse-gas emissions. Ecuador seems like a reasonable target for those climate efforts. As the the country's president said, "It was not charity that we sought from the international community, but co-responsibility in the face of climate change.”

However, the major glitch, which comes as no surprise, is that countries are not actually willing to pay for such environmental initiatives. In the end the Ecuadorian government only raised $13 million, a far cry from the $3.6 billion it had sought.  Other than private donors including Bo Derek, Leonardo DiCaprio, Edward Norton, and Al Gore, as well as many members of the British public (who were the leading private contributors), only a handful of countries from Europe responded. No major government of the world that could actually spare the funds seemed to care.

The events in Ecuador point towards a greater ill. Unless governments around the world realize the gravity of the situation and actually decide to address environmental issues, rather than paying mere lip service, the problems will persist and further exacerbate as time goes by.