Ecuador's Yasuni National Park, a 4,000-square-mile rainforest, is home to 100,000 species of insects, 655 species of trees, and at least two isolated populations of natives, making it one of the most biodiverse places on Earth. It also happens to sit on nearly a billion barrels of untapped oil -- equivalent to about $7 billion in potential revenue for the country's struggling economy.
In spite of enormous economic pressure to drill, the Ecuadorian government made an unprecedented proposal in 2007: It would forego drilling in the Yasuni rainforest if the international community agreed to reimburse it for at least $3.6 billion over the next 13 years, or half of what it would earn from exploiting the oil. The idea has been slow to catch on, but on August 3 Ecuador and the United Nations Development Program signed an agreement to put in place a trust fund where countries can contribute to the initiative. Germany, Belgium, Italy, and Spain have already offered their financial support to Ecuador, and China, Korea and Japan have recently expressed interest in participating.
Minister Maria Fernanda Espinosa of Ecuador met with UN officials in New York this week to finalize negotiations for the unprecedented initiative, which, if successful, has the potential to become a paradigm for global rainforest conservation programs. She told HuffPost that she is amazed by the amount of support the initiative has received from even the poorest communities in Ecuador.
"I think that the visionary attitude of the Ecuadorian people is amazing," she said. "Eight out of ten people support the initiative. They are in favor of sacrificing the money, and in exchange providing humanity with cleaner air biodiversity and cultural diversity, because we are also saving the lives and habitats of several indigenous populations."
Espinosa said she thinks the initiative will receive a great deal of international support because of its implications for climate change. By foregoing the drilling of 865 billion barrels of oil, Ecuador will avoid the emission of 407 million metric tons of CO2 -- equivalent to the total emissions of a country like France or Brazil for an entire year. And in addition to reducing oil consumption and emissions, as part of the UNDP agreement, Ecuador will invest the money they receive in renewable energy and social programs.
"Even the oil companies are recognizing that this initiative is a very creative alternative to drilling," Espinosa said. "We're breaking the status quo, breaking what already existed in terms of corporate responsibility. And the international community will contribute because they recognize the service we are providing."
The plan for the immediate future, Espinosa said, is to travel to the United States, Holland, Norway, the United Arab Emirates, Qatar, Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, Syria, and Lebanon to seek contributions and seal negotiations. She hopes to raise $100 million in the first 18 months.
Alberto Acosta, Ecuador's former minister of energy, told The Guardian that Ecuador is feeling the pressure to succeed.
"The race is now on," he said. "If Ecuador attracts $100 million for Yasuni within the year, the oil will not be extracted. If it does not... it will be the end of the two uncontacted tribes and a vast swath of the most diverse forest in the world. Above all, however, it will be a tragedy for the world, because the only country which has had the chance to reject the extractive development path and demonstrate what is possible will have blown it."