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Ecuador, ‘our rainforest’ and growing money on trees

It was an incredibly bold plan to begin with, and heart-breaking when it failed. Rather than drill for oil in the Yasuni rainforest, Ecuador would keep the forest intact and biodiversity flourishing in exchange for compensation of $3.6 billion. That’s roughly half of what the country would have made if the drilling went ahead.

Earlier this month Ecuador’s president ended the initiative after six years, with only $336 million having been pledged — “the world has failed us,” he said.

The forest in question contains more plant and insect species in one hectare than in all the US and Canada combined. It provides a critical habitat to 23 globally threatened mammal species, including the giant otter, the Amazonian manatee, and the pink river dolphin. Referring to it as one of the most bio-diverse places on the planet is a gross understatement — well for the time-being, at least.

Leaving the oil in the ground would save earth’s atmosphere from an additional 410 million tons of carbon emissions (the annual emissions from almost a million cars)[1]. Instead, if drilling goes ahead, we’d not only release those emissions, but in deforesting the area, we’d also be reducing the earth’s capacity to process them. Double whammy.

In this trade-off between forests and oil, as in most situations like this, short-term gains tend to win out. The global benefits of having rainforests intact are pulped in exchange for concrete, measurable, revenues that can be neatly tabulated in GDP figures — in precisely the way ecosystem services can’t.

And honestly, given how financial markets work, who can blame Ecuador? The services provided by the rainforest — oxygenation, carbon fixing, etc — are services we all benefit from, they transcend national boundaries and help keep our planet inhabitable. Leave the forest intact and we all win — but the opportunity cost of doing so, of not drilling for oil, that cost would be for Ecuador alone.

Which is why the original plan was so ambitious, and partly why it got so many people excited. It would turn the normal flow of events on its head: donor countries would effectively be saying we’ll pay you to not drill for oil — and what we once got for free, well now we’ll pay you for that too.

And paying Ecuador wouldn’t be an issue of charity or doing them a favour. We need those forests. They provide fundamental services to the planet as a whole, services that can’t simply be manufactured elsewhere.

The plan was an opportunity for us to willingly turn our backs on fossil fuels that come at such a destructive price. This isn’t about oil in the desert (though I have plenty to say about the destructive price of that too), it’s about oil from one of the planet’s most biodiverse ecosystems. It’s about trashing a rainforest so that we can, well, make more plastic, drive our cars more, and head that little bit further down the rabbit hole.

It was an opportunity for us to say we value forests more than we value these few more barrels of oil. An opportunity to take a few tentative steps outside the dithering UN climate talks. An opportunity to give developing nations some incentive to save their wilderness areas from rampant exploitation.

An opportunity for money to grow on trees.

[1] Calculation done on the US Environmental Protection Agency here.