Travels in Ecuador: Choosing the riches of life or of oil

This is a guest repost from Wonk Room’s itinerant Brad Johnson.

I just returned from a two-week vacation in Ecuador. The nation, slightly smaller than the state of Nevada, is fascinating for its diversity. From the isolated Galapagos archipelago to the fecund jungles of the Amazon headwaters, from coastal forests to the volcanic highlands of Quito, one finds an explosion of life, culture, and language straddling the equator.

Part of my trip was spent in the rainforests of the Napo River, at an eco-lodge on the border of Yasun­ National Park, at the intersection of the Andean foothills, the Amazon basin, and the equator. Each day offered the chance to see dozens of species of birds, insects, and reptiles, as well as a practically uncountable array of plantlife. The Kichwa people own and maintain the land, farming on the river banks, hunting in the forests, and selling crafts in the city upstream. The apparent diversity is no mistake:

A team of scientists has documented that Yasun­ National Park, in the core of the Ecuadorian Amazon, shatters world records for a wide array of plant and animal groups, from amphibians to trees to insects.

The newly-published study by a group of international scientists found that Yasun­ contains more species of frogs and toads than are native to the United States and Canada combined. The plant and insect diversity is even more striking “” each hectare of the park contains more tree and shrub species than all of the United States and Canada combined, with 100,000 species of insect estimated in each hectare. The entire park covers about 9,820 square kilometers, less than Los Angeles County, a little larger than Yellowstone National Park.

However, this vast store of biodiversity and culture is under unprecedented threat:

However, numerous major threats confront the ecosystems of this region””including hydrocarbon and mining projects, illegal logging, oil palm plantations, and large- scale transportation projects under the umbrella of IIRSA (Initiative for the Integration of Regional Infrastructure in South America). For example, oil and gas concessions now cover vast areas, even overlapping protected areas and titled indigenous lands.

In particular, Ecuador’s second largest untapped oil fields lie beneath the largely intact, northeastern section of the park, known as the “ITT” block for the Ishpingo, Tambococha, and Tiputini oil fields, representing 20 percent of Ecuador’s crude oil reserves. In 2007, Ecuadorian president Rafael Correa proposed the Yasun­-ITT Initiative, which would prevent exploitation of its $6 billion worth of oil in exchange for some percentage of international aid or carbon market proceeds. In the run up to the Copenhagen conference, it appeared that Yasun­-ITT would coalesce into a deal, with Germany taking the lead with seed financing. However, Correa joined the Hugo Chavez bloc of South American countries that condemned the limited accord struck by leading nations, leaving the fate of Yasun­ in doubt. After Correa announced on January 9 his intentions to drill in the park, several members of his government resigned in protest, including Fander Falconi, Minister of Foreign Affairs.

This battle over conserving untold riches of life and our fragile atmosphere versus a decade or two of polluting but valuable energy is repeated throughout the globe, including the United States. The Appalachian hardwood forest is a center of biodiversity in the United States, but mountaintop removal coal mining is literally stripping away the mountains and filling the streams, as people choose profit over their children’s future.