Amazon conservation experiment faces reality

Waving away a cloud of gnats, biologist Phyllis _Lissy_ Coley scours the Amazonian underbrush for inga shrubs, ...

Waving away a cloud of gnats, biologist Phyllis _Lissy_ Coley scours the Amazonian underbrush for inga shrubs, whose young leaves are loaded with powerful toxins and chemicals that might be useful in medical research.

Coley and her team from the University of Utah have spent almost two years in the Amazon of Guyana, Peru and Brazil researching the plant _ but this patch of Ecuador was delivering surprises. In a single week, Coley_s team found 60 species of inga, 40 of which were unknown to them _ and likely unknown to science. They also found a carnivorous caterpillar. While flesh-eating caterpillars exist in Asia, they_ve never been recorded in the New World.

The mysteries of this forest, which scientists like Coley are still discovering, could be at risk after this South American nation quietly began considering pulling the plug on one of the most innovative and ambitious conservation plans ever attempted.

The Yasun__-ITT Initiative was designed to leave more than 846 million barrels of crude oil untouched, in perpetuity, beneath Yasun__ National Park _ rioting with unknown species and tribes living in voluntary isolation.

In exchange, the government asked the world to cover just half of the crude_s $7.2 billion market price.

Environmental groups praised the plan as a novel way to slash greenhouse gases. In 2010, the United Nations threw its support behind the project, setting up a trust fund to receive and manage donations. There were hopes that crowd-sourcing conservation might be a model for other developing nations.

But six years after its launch, those goals are proving elusive. The plan has raised less than 10 percent of the $3.6 billion it_s seeking. Ecuador_s government says it has received $116.7 million and has pledges for an additional $220 million _ some of it in non-cash cooperation. The United Nations trust fund has just $9.8 million in the bank.

The shortfall is driving speculation that Ecuador might be forced to drill for crude in the ITT oil block (short for Ishpingo, Tambococha, Tiputini), which it says holds 20 percent of the nation_s reserves.

_We want to keep 400_million tons of CO2 out of the atmosphere,_ President Rafael Correa told a crowd in April. _But if the international community doesn_t help share the responsibility, we have to make the best decision for the Ecuadorean people._

Correa and his cabinet held a meeting about the fate of the project in June and are expecting to meet again in coming weeks. Officials say drilling the ITT is on the table.

In the balance is one of the most biodiverse spots on the planet. The ITT block is among the most isolated areas of Yasun__ National Park, a 2.4 million-acre U.N. biosphere reserve, which holds about one-third of all of the Amazon_s amphibian species, even though it represents just a small fraction of the total area. In any given two-and-a-half acre plot of the Yasun__ _ roughly the size of a soccer pitch _ there are more species of trees than in the United States and Canada combined.

_As a biologist, nothing makes me more awestruck than to work in an incredibly diverse and pristine area where every day you discover something that you couldn_t even imagine or anticipate,_ Coley said.

Even so, she understands the financial pressure Ecuador is facing.

_You can_t expect countries just to save rainforest because they_re amazing places and we would, as humans, like to keep them around,_ she said. _Given the potential to make oil money from here, I think it_s a remarkably generous offer to say to the rest of the world _Can you contribute and we won_t develop this area.___

Ecuador needs the money. One of the poorest nations in South America, oil represents more than half of its export earnings and is the country_s top source of revenue.

Keeping oil underground is like _a very poor family trying to protect the family jewels, in the meantime most of the people are starving to death,_ said David Romo, one of the directors of the University of San Francisco de Quito_s Tiputini Biodiversity Station, which borders the park and where Coley was doing her research. _So how do you do the trade-off here? The initiative gives us an option for that._

Ivonne Baki is the former Ecuadorean ambassador to the United States, a one-time presidential candidate who speaks six languages. Now, she_s traveling the world on behalf of the government, marshaling resources for the project.

While the initiative has seen a groundswell of popular support, she admits the financing has been disappointing. The government is considering _Plan B,_ which includes tapping the oil in the ITT block in a _conscientious_ way. But keeping the oil underground is still the administration_s priority, she said.

_We believe in conserving and we have done it before,_ she said. Twenty-five percent of Ecuador_s territory is in a national park or protected area, including the world-renowned Galapagos Islands. By contrast, 12 percent of the United States is under protection, according to the World Database on Protected Areas.

The Yasun__-ITT Initiative is _an environmental service we are providing to the world, not just Ecuador,_ Baki said.

But the world seems deaf to the plea. While countries like Italy, Germany, Spain, Turkey and Luxembourg have supported the effort, the United States _ Ecuador_s largest oil buyer and which has a long and troubled history of polluting the Amazon _ has not contributed to the effort. Neither have gas guzzling nations like China, Japan or India.

Baki speculated that crude-consuming nations fear the model might be replicated and push fuel prices higher.

But critics say the country also has a credibility issue. The socialist-leaning Correa administration has broken pledges in the past, defaulting on the national debt in 2008, and unilaterally forcing oil companies to renegotiate their contracts.

And while the country touts the initiative, it_s already exploring for oil in Yasun__ National Park and has begun building a road in oil block 31, adjacent to the ITT area. It_s also building a massive new refinery that_s designed to process more oil than the country is currently producing.

_It might seem like the government is operating in bad faith,_ said Ivonne Y__nez, one of the founders of the Acci__n Ecol__gica environmental group. _On one hand, they seem to be pushing Plan B, which is to extract the petroleum, and on the other hand there is Plan A that Ms. Baki is promoting._

Miami Herald | BY JIM WYSS

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