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Using Oil to Save the Amazon

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It's hard not to love forests: great air, medicinal plants, and creatures roaming here and there. It's also hard not to love petroleum, especially when you don't have to dirty yourself with pumping it out of the ground. Cars, cosmetics, to-go cups, heaters, plastic wrap -- where would we be without the black gold?

Which begs the question: Which would you choose if faced with the stark choice between the tranquility of trees and the utility of oil?

Last year Nicolas Entel, the noted director of Sins of My Father (Pecados de mi padre), about the family of Pablo Escobar, decided to find out. He traveled to a forest preserve called Yasuní, in the Ecuadoran Amazon that has some of the greatest variety of plant and animal life of any spot on earth. Rivers rich in fish, amphibians, and even pink freshwater dolphins cross it. Some of the original human inhabitants still live according to ancient ways in thatched homes with cook fires sending smoke into the rafters.

In recent years it's also gotten a few new roads, which are making some of the residents, and many outsiders, nervous. That's because there's another reason Yasuní is special. As luck would have it - or not -- Yasuní sits on top of a huge oilfield. The big boys are building the roads so they can explore for oil.

Since Ecuador is a developing country, with lots of people clamoring for health care, homes and education, there's tremendous pressure on the government to let Big Oil do its thing in this pristine forest. Given the country's history with Texaco and other giants, most Ecuadorians know that nothing comes free: toxic lagoons, ruined communities and unfulfilled promises have traditionally been the tradeoff for Amazonian crude.

Nicolas was curious about a new plan put forth to save the forest and help the country. So he flew from New York to Quito, landing in the white city, 9,350 feet up in the Andes, to chat with President Rafael Correa, whose government supports the innovative Yasuní-ITT Initiative first proposed by an earlier administration. Correa explained the plan like this: In order for Ecuador to halt drilling in Yasuní, the international community -- governments, corporations, private people -- would have to donate the equivalent of 50 percent of the profits the country stands to make on the oil fields if they are developed. That's billions of dollars.

If it sounds like extortion, that's because it is.

But, as Nicolas discovered when he flew down to the city of Puerto Francisco de Orellana, also known as Coca, and boarded a motorized dugout into the back-country, extortion can sometimes be a force for good. As he documents in his new film, YASUNI, the forest is among the most beautiful places on earth. There's a stillness there you won't find in any "civilized" place. And it has produced a rich culture with much traditional wisdom, and also some glamour, as embodied by Eglantina Zingg, who grew up in the Amazon before becoming a MTV personality. She also appears in the film and was an executive producer.

YASUNI, which opens at the Miami International Film Festival on March 9, makes a good case for the trees being more important than the oil underground, which, after all would only satisfy the world's needs for short time.

The movie opens with an inspired scene of an actual oil derrick being installed in New York's Madison Square Park. Nicolas films the reactions of passerby, and believe me, they are not happy! Which makes me think the people of the Yasuní -- not to mention the flora and fauna -- must not be too happy with the idea either.

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