Ecuador To World: Pay Us To Save The Rainforest

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Some other news. Ecuador has abandoned what seemed like a creative way to preserve the environment. The government proposed not to drill for oil in some untouched parts of the Amazon rainforest, but in exchange for its restraint Ecuador wanted to be paid. David Kestenbaum of our Planet Money team explains the plan and why it failed.

DAVID KESTENBAUM, BYLINE: The Yasuni National Park in Ecuador is one of the most biodiverse places on Earth. There are orchids and jaguars and monkeys and birds. Ivonne A-Baki, who works for the Ecuadorian government, told me earlier this year that even getting to this part of the Amazon is difficult. You have to fly into this small airport and then get in a boat.

IVONNE A-BAKI: You have to go in a motorboat. You have to go for, like, an hour and 45 minutes and then, to enter the park you have to go in a canoe for two hours, because even the sound of the motor and the oil, it will spoil the very fragility of this place.

KESTENBAUM: Buried underneath this fragile place was oil, a lot of oil. And it was tempting to drill. Ecuador is a poor country. But in 2007, Ecuador's president, Rafael Correa, who happens to have PhD in economics, proposed a novel alternative. Ecuador would leave the oil in the ground, it would not drill, but it wanted to be paid half of what the oil was valued at at the time. It wanted $3.6 billion.

When I talked with Ivonne A-Baki, she was traveling the world asking for contributions, which was delicate, because the pitch, viewed a certain way, could sound a bit like blackmail. Pay us or we'll shoot the trees. Here's how she put it back then.

A-BAKI: We're saying we have a unique place that has value to the world.

KESTENBAUM: Just to be clear, do I understand the terms of this correctly? Ecuador has pledged it will leave that oil in the ground as long as it gets $3.6 billion?

A-BAKI: No. It's not the way we're putting it. I'm not putting it that way. We're saying we would like to be compensated because we need the money and it's an environmental service to the world.

KESTENBAUM: What happens if you don't get the money?

A-BAKI: I don't want to even think about it. I don't want to think about it because I don't want to see this place destroyed and it might be. It might be.

KESTENBAUM: You might drill under this park.

A-BAKI: We are not going to drill under this park.

KESTENBAUM: You just said it might happen, though, before.

A-BAKI: I said it might. I didn't say it will.

KESTENBAUM: Ecuador set up a fund through the United Nations. And while some countries and companies and individuals pledged money, the total was far short of the goal. By the end of 2012, the fund had only $6.5 million in it. When the project was officially scrapped, I reached out to Ivonne A-Baki again. She agreed to an interview, but then cancelled. Here is President Rafael Correa when he made the announcement on television a couple weeks ago.

PRESIDENT RAFAEL CORREA: (Speaking foreign language)

KESTENBAUM: Correa said ending the Yasuni initiative was one of the most difficult decisions of his presidency. He said the international community had failed Ecuador and left him with no choice. The real dilemma is this, he said. Do we protect 100 percent of the Yasuní and have no resources to meet the urgent needs of our people, or do we save 99 percent of it and have $18 billion to fight poverty?

Since Correa's announcement, environmental groups in Ecuador have said they will fight the decision; they are hoping to get signatures to force a national referendum that could protect the park. But the original plan, the Yasuni initiative, seems to be dead. It was a grand experiment in environmental economics, an attempt to solve a problem that comes up all the time.

Who should pay to protect the rainforests of the world? Who should pay to deal with climate change? Who should pay to protect the environment that arguably we all benefit from? Clearly the world is still working on an answer. David Kestenbaum, NPR News.

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