A treasure hidden beneath the soil… and a moral dilemma

Imagine… One day, rummaging in the attic, you make a magnificent discovery. According to the crumbling pages you hold in your hands, there is an inconceivable treasure hidden just a few meters beneath the soil in your backyard. Bursting with excitement, you grab a shovel, run into the yard, and carefully follow the hand-drawn map you found on the pages, only to find… that the treasure is buried right beneath the Magnificent Tree. Oh no! Not only is that tree the only remaining specimen of its species, it also holds dozens of nests of the endangered Tatobird. This bird, with its splendid plumage, is the only animal to spread the seeds of the magitato, your culture’s staple food.

What a dilemma! Thoughts tumble and tussle in your mind: the fortune that treasure would bring you is pretty irresistible, but the Magnificent Tree, in all its beauty and with all of its crucial functions, is truly priceless – and moreover, irreplaceable! After a few days, an idea starts to take shape. It is radical; totally new… could it work? Under the motto ‘nothing ventured, nothing gained’, you invite the neighbors over and present your proposal: if the community pays you half of the treasure’s value, you will commit to leaving it beneath the earth. The tree will remain unscathed, serving the community for many more years. However, if the community does not band together and pay the sum, you’ll be forced to move to Plan B: chopping down the tree, and coming into more riches than you could ever have imagined.

Yasuní’s trilogy of riches

Now, in Ecuador’s part of the Amazon rainforest, there are millions of these magnificent trees. In Yasuní National Park, 250 km south of Quito, more tree species (about 655) have been recorded in one single hectare than the total number of species of trees native to the USA and Canada. The park is also home to some 593 species of birds, 150 of amphibians – and more types of insects can live on and in one single tree than the all of the US’ insect species combined. Scientists have estimated that the park’s 9820 km² surface holds more than 100,000 insect species in total. But Yasuní is not only a place of unimaginable natural riches: it also shelters an exceptional human treasure. Two indigenous peoples, the tagaeri and the taromenane, live deep within the forests, in a state of voluntary isolation. They are among the last peoples on earth not to have been contacted by our modern civilization.

But Yasuní’s riches are not only on the surface. Beneath the fertile soil lies an extensive lake of black gold – some 856 million barrels of petroleum. The oil, from the Ishpingo, Tiputini and Tambococha (ITT) fields, is estimated to be worth at least 7 billion dollars. This discovery could be of critical importance to Ecuador, which remains a developing country. Calculations put the volume of petroleum beneath the Yasuní-ITT area at 20% of Ecuador’s proven oil reserves.

The curse of the black gold

However, many examples from across the globe have proven that big oil finds and the wealth they bring do not always benefit a country’s population. They can even lead to severe distortions of a state’s economy, and/or to corruption and violence (take Nigeria, Sudan and Venezuela, for example). This is what is called the ‘oil curse’, or the feared ‘Dutch disease’.

Moreover, extracting petroleum takes a heavy environmental toll: if all of Yasuní’s petroleum were to be extracted and used, this would send some 407 million tons of carbon dioxide into the earth’s atmosphere. Sadly, right when it would be needed most, part of the planet’s green lung (the part of the Amazon in Yasuní National Park) would no longer be able to absorb a part of this enormous cloud of emissions, seeing as it would be partially destroyed by the oil extraction.

An inspired idea – Crowdfunding

Faced with this immense conundrum, a creative and innovative initiative surfaced in Ecuador: if the international community were to pay the country half of the value it would accrue if it chose to extract the oil, Ecuador would leave Yasuní’s black gold untouched.

The ‘Yasuní-ITT Initiative’ was proposed by a number of environmental groups in 2007 and was rapidly adopted by the Ecuadorian government. The project could be described as crowdfunding, a phenomenon where a network of diverse members comes together to donate money to a cause. The fundraising is often coordinated through the internet, and regularly takes place after natural disasters. But how could this novel, bold idea be put into practice to save Yasuní?

In the end, it was agreed that the international community – meaning international organizations, friendly countries, NGOs, companies (through their corporate social responsibility (CSR) programs), Ecuadorians and simply citizens of the planet – will be asked to donate money to the cause. The donations, which need to amount to 350 million dollars per year for the next 13 years, will be collected in a trust fund managed by the UNDP (United Nations Development Program). The amassed funds will then be distributed among a range of programs for environmental protection, national reforestation, social programs and programs to generate a shift in Ecuador’s energy production towards renewable sources.

The Ecuadorian government will not simply be able to switch to Plan B (extracting the oil amidst environmental destruction), as it will have to award the initiative’s contributors guarantees in exchange for their donations. Each donation in excess of $50,000 will be backed up by a certificate of guarantee issued by the government, stating that if the government switches to Plan B, it will have to return the contributions.

A star-studded start

In 2011, when the trust fund was finally in place and operational after a long and difficult period of negotiations, the urgency peaked. If the fund did not hold 100 million dollars before the end of the year, the Ecuadorian government would move on to Plan B: extracting Yasuní’s petroleum.

And in the end, the insects, birds and trees were saved – by quite a motley crew. Contributions came from Hollywood stars such as Leonardo DiCaprio and Edward Norton, alongside countries such as Italy (which wrote off some $51 million of Ecuador’s debt), Australia and Germany, regions such as Wallonia in Belgium and the Rhone-Alpes region in France, as well as from multinational soft drink companies, Russian institutions, prominent figures such as Al Gore and Gorbachev, and a New York banker who donated her entire year’s salary.

It was thus with a star-studded cast that Yasuní-ITT took off. The project still has many challenging years ahead – collecting $350 million per year will be far from simple. Furthermore, the initiative is not without its critics. Some, for example, target the so-called ‘Block 31’, a part of Yasuní National Park whose ecological features closely resemble the ITT area. Even though Block 31 is immediately adjacent to the ITT fields and has lower oil reserves than its neighbor, the Ecuadorian government has decided to perforate the area to extract its crude oil – right next to its prized ecological initiative.

A model of sustainable development

Block 31 is only one example of the many controversies, criticisms and difficulties which surround the novel Yasuní-ITT venture. More will certainly follow. Nevertheless, this sustainable development project could be a valuable example for other countries. As UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-Moon said, “The world is just learning about Yasuní.  I hope word travels far and wide. Sustainable development is possible; it only takes leadership, creativity and commitment.”

This is a nonprofit explanation

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