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Ecuador's Lessons in Balancing Conservation and Development

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The perceived trade-offs between environment and economy have vexed governments the world over; pressures to expand economic growth and tap new energy sources while protecting fragile ecosystems seem hopelessly trapped in a zero-sum-game mindset that makes consensus difficult.

The U.S. is facing this conundrum on at least two fronts -- the much-debated Keystone pipeline project and the equally contentious prospect of fracking in the Marcellus Shale deposits. In Ecuador, we have faced a similar dilemma, and the stakes couldn't be higher for our people and for global biodiversity.

The Government of Ecuador recently decided to drill for $18 billion in oil reserves beneath the Yasuni rainforest, one of the most biodiverse areas in the world.

Although Ecuador is a developing country, our first option was not to drill. Instead, in 2010 we launched a unique effort to invite the world share in the collective responsibility for protecting our environment. This was not a stretch, we thought, considering that the world shares the collective benefits of the rainforest, from the volume of oxygen it produces, to the medical advances it enables through unique species of plants, to the scientific value of having more types of trees and plants in a square mile of the Amazon than in the entire United States.

A trust fund was established under UNDP auspices that governments and private citizens could contribute to in order to help offset the economic losses of the indigenous communities who inhabit the Yasuni.

Sadly, the world did not respond to the UN's call to action. Despite a decision in 2012 by President Rafael Correa to expand the project for another year, it became clear to us that the international support was not there and we could no longer delay the economic benefits to our people that lay just beneath the soil.

While some may criticize the decision, the government has not forgotten its commitment to protecting the Yasuni. The president's announcement last month included a pledge to utilize the most responsible extraction methods available, including exploring horizontal extraction techniques, in order to mitigate any harm to plant and animal life. Furthermore, the government has also declared that oil exploration will only take place in less than 1 percent of the Yasuni, leaving the vast majority of the park untouched.

Contrary to some, we are not balancing Ecuador's budget on the fate of the Yasuni. While the benefits to our citizens from oil extraction will not be seen for many years -- long after the current Administration has left office -- we believe this investment in our future can serve as a win-win scenario for all.

With sound policies, our economy -- like our environment -- is sustainable. While we have expanded our social expenditure -- bringing it in line with many other developed economies -- we have also increased our national income revenue, tax revenue, and most importantly our non-oil revenue.

As a result of investments in infrastructure, health, renewable energy, and education, we have been able to spur our economy to become the third-fastest growing in Latin America, which has helped decrease poverty rates from approximately 33 percent to 25 percent. By investing in the human talent of all Ecuadorians, we have also seen the third-highest increase among all Latin American countries in the UN's Human Development Index this year.

Indeed, no imminent, structural or short-term financial need required us to drill in the Yasuni. Our vision is to work to achieve both growth and conservation. We owe this to future generations and to our commitment to keep investing in our country's most precious resource: our human talent.