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Experiment in Amazon conservation faces hurdles in keeping oil in ground

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 - that 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 Yasuni-ITT Initiative was designed to leave more than 846 million barrels of crude oil untouched, in perpetuity, beneath Yasuni 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 climate-disrupting 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 Yasuni 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 Yasuni — 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 Yasuni-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 Yasuni 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.

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