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Ecuador's Imperiled Paradise - One of the World's Most Important, If Least-Known Battles: A Conversation with Dr. Ivonne Baki

Oct. 3, 2011 | Written by Forbes

Ecuador's Imperiled Paradise - One of the World's Most Important, If Least-Known Battles: A Conversation with Dr. Ivonne Baki

In 2007, Ecuador’s President Rafael Correa proposed protecting his country’s biodiversity against huge oil revenue prospects. This was the archetypal mother of all environmental contests, and remains so. The United Nations Development Program (UNDP) signed on to President Correa’s proposal, and it was again discussed at the UN’s most recent 66th General Assembly. At that United Nations meeting, US$52.9 million of both public and private sector donations were committed to the proposal, as UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon joined President Rafael Correa in a special meeting, along with Ecuador’s indigenous Huaorani tribe. Two packed rooms at the U.N., and an overflow crowd of dignitaries there to listen indicates the excitement of the Yasuni-ITT Campaign. But will the rest of the world listen?

The stakes are high: oil revenues in Ecuador to the tune of billions of dollars, or nations coming to Ecuador’s assistance to collectively help her leave that oil in the ground and thereby save some of the world’s most precious wildlife?

I spoke with Dr. Ivonne Baki, Ecuador’s Plenipotentiary Representative and head of the Yasuni-ITT Initiative about this unique opportunity – or crisis – in her country.

Michael Tobias (MT): Dr. Baki, Ecuador’s Yasuní National Park, designated in 1979, is among the most biologically prolific areas on the planet and home to at least two indigenous non-contacted ethnic groups. It also holds, apparently, vast amounts of heavy crude oil in the ground, the equivalent of an estimated 407 million tons of carbon dioxide, carrying a US dollar value in excess of 7 billion. For nearly two decades there has been controversy, social, economic and scientific debate over how Yasuni’s indigenous people, habitat and potential oil revenues for all of Ecuador might be reconciled?

Dr. Ivonne Baki (IB): Well, Michael, as chair of the Yasuní-ITT Commission, my views are pretty straightforward! As you note, on the one hand we’ve got this incredibly beautiful, biologically and culturally diverse National Park. On the other hand, a developing country with a third of its population in poverty, and massive oil reserves underground. How do you maintain a sustainable balance between biodiversity and oil extraction? I don’t know if that is possible. Oil extraction by definition is not a sustainable endeavor. Yasuní biodiversity has been evolving for thousands of years – but damage from oil extraction could drive some of its unique species to extinction. That would represent massive long-term damage in the name of short-term profit. Moreover, looking at Ecuadorian history, oil revenues have not lead to investment in sustainable development. An entirely new energy matrix is needed – which is where the Yasuní funds will be invested.

MT: In what ways?

IB: We now hear a global call for clean, alternative energy sources and Ecuador has a huge unexplored potential to develop geothermal, solar, wind, and hydraulic energy. What we need to see are countries that will actually face the difficult decision of foregoing oil dependency to move towards a more sustainable, eco-friendly model of energy production.

MT: Is Ecuador up to it?

IB: Let me put it this way: if we continue to depend on oil to such a degree, IPCC studies demonstrate that there is no future for the planet and humanity; we are reaching a tipping point of CO2 emissions, the Earth’s tipping point. The balance between nature and oil extraction is simply not sustainable.