Ecuador: Historic $3.6 bn deal keeps rainforest above the oil


An ambitious international trust fund negotiated between Ecuador and the United Nations Development Fund (UNDP) could pave the way for an exciting new set of projects to protect global rainforests.

In January Plant Talk reported on some extraordinary findings in the journal Plos One where scientists claimed to have identified the most species rich place on the planet. But the news came with a significant caveat - the remarkable mega-diversity was rich in another way. It was sitting atop millions of barrels of oil making up a significant portion of Ecuador's richest oil fields.

Map of Yasuni national Park

Yasuni National Park in the northwest Amazon is potentially one of the most biodiverse areas on the planet. This map shows the threats in the region from oil blocks and access roads.

The news got worse when it was revealed that just 14% of the land area was sitting inside protected areas, a figure dwarfed by the active and proposed oil concessions (79%). Because of this the protected area, Yasuni National Park, very quickly became a global figurehead in the battle between extraction industries and the conservation of rainforests. Of course, paying countries to protect rainforest is not a new idea but paying countries to leave oil underground is an altogether more significant step - mainly because of the huge sums of money involved.

The Ecuadorian government placed the daunting figure of $7bn (at today's prices) on the estimated 900 million barrels of oil, which would release an estimated 410 million tons of carbon dioxide if burnt. So clearly any agreement to leave the oil underground, and protect the indigenous tribes and wildlife, had to come close to matching this figure.

In 2007 President Correa announced he would postpone ITT drilling and in the process remove the prospect of the $7 billion potential. In a radical piece of thinking he proposed something known as the Yasuni-ITT initiative (named after the three oil reserves under Yasuni of Ishpingo, Tambococha, and Tiputini) to generate financial wealth and, importantly, keep the oil underground.

After three years of negotiations a figure of $3.6bn, payable over 10 years, has been agreed on. Although commitment from the international community has been slow there are now enough countries and philanthropists involved to broker the deal, particularly Germany which has pledged $800m. The money would be used by Ecuador to help protect other National Parks, including the Galapagos Islands, and fund green energy infrastructure.


Dr. Peter English from the scientific team asserts that “Yasuni is the most diverse area in South America, and possibly the world. Amphibians, birds, mammals, and vascular plants all reach maximum diversity in Yasuni.”

This landscape is part of a vast stretch of wilderness, and the figures the team of scientists revealed were staggering. Yasuni appears to protect the richest area in the world for woody plant species: per hectare there are approximately 655 tree species and this figure rises to 1,100 for 25 hectares. In total there appear to be about 900 species of vascular plants per hectare placing it within the top nine richest global centres.

maps showing biodiversity in the amazon

Species richness data from across the northern Amazon region for four groups was analysed. These maps were then laid over each other to discover the areas of highest biodiversity or "quadruple richness areas" as the report describes them.

But the report stresses this richness is not confined to Yasuni. The whole of the Amazon basin is rich in tree species and the report confirms that the richest belt runs east-west along the equator from Yasuni to Manaus. "More studies are needed to confirm exactly where the highest areas of diversity lies," according to the authors.

Despite its extreme wilderness, apparently you can walk for thousands of kilometres without encountering a road, Yasuni is home to many plants that are globally threatened – including the tree Rollinia helosiodes (critically endangered according to IUCN) – and their prospects may be uncertain.

Given the importance of oil to Ecuador many indigenous campaign groups have raised concerns that even though Yasuni may be protected oil exploration may open up other wilderness areas in the country. However, for now, there is reason to celebrate.

Related links:

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Ecuador thumbA study published in the open access journal Plos One has revealed extraordinary species richness in the western Amazon covering eastern Ecuador and northern Peru.