Ecuador’s President Rafael Correa delivers a nationally televised speech from the government palace in Quito, Ecuador, Thursday, August 15, 2013. (AP Photo/Dolores Ochoa)
The tapir, dark brown and the size of a small cow, had been shot in the head and floated away dead before the hunters could retrieve it. Now the man at the helm of our outboard skiff, traveling up a muddy Ecuadorean river in the Yasuni National Park with some scientists from the Tiputini Biodiversity Station, has spotted the freshly killed animal.
A couple kilometers further upriver, we pass a hunting party of Indians. They have new clothes; one of the men wears a big watch; a woman in their party has a bright yellow dress; on their canoe sits a big new outboard engine. These are all signs that they are not local subsistence hunters, but outsiders in search of illegal bush meat to sell in the towns. As we glide by, the Indians smirk condescendingly at the worried conservation-minded scientists. This is how jungles die: one tapir at a time, bit by bit, nibbled away by poachers, settlers and illegal loggers.
Yasuni is scientifically determined to be the most biologically diverse place on earth: researchers here even discovered a fungus that can digest plastic. But Yasuni sits atop a large part of Ecuador’s known petroleum reserves, and that means this global treasure is under dire threat.
For a time, the effort to save Yasuni appeared to have a real chance. In 2007, at the peak of a recent wave of global concern about anthropogenic climate change, Ecuador’s left-wing president, Rafael Correa, promised to keep 20 percent of the country’s known petroleum reserves—an estimated 846 million barrels of Yasuni’s Ishpingo-Tambococha-Tiputini (ITT) oil field—permanently out of reach…if the international community would contribute at least half of the revenue that Ecuador could earn by extracting the oil (about $3.5 billion).
Donations were held in a trust fund operated by the United Nations Development Group and used to finance alternative energy projects like wind and solar. The fund needed to raise only $350 million a year for the next ten years. And the plan was seen as a possible model for other developing economies wishing to escape dependence on oil exports.
But shortly after Correa launched the Yasuni initiative, the global financial crisis of 2008 hit, and the few states—mostly in Europe—that had responded positively dialed back their support. Meanwhile, the largest economies and the worst polluters—including the United States and China—simply ignored the plan. Announcing the end of the Yasuni initiative on August 16, Correa put it bluntly: “The world has failed us.”
Like the Keystone XL pipeline, Yasuni is something of a global test case for the climate-activist rallying cry of “Leave the oil in the soil and the coal in the hole.” If humanity cannot manage to refrain from drilling for oil beneath the most biologically diverse place on earth, then how can we expect any state or community not to drill for oil beneath barren desert, degraded farmland or on the ocean floor?
Now the jungle here will likely be destroyed, not necessarily by oil spills but by the larger economic reverberations of petroleum development. First will come the oil prospectors, and with them roads. Upon the roads will come hunters, loggers, miners, drug smugglers, settlers, ranchers and thus deforestation.