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ENVIRONMENT: Ecuador Seeks Aid Not to Exploit Amazon Oil

Haider Rizvi

UNITED NATIONS, May 18 2007 (IPS) - A novel proposal by Ecuador is testing world leaders&#39 commitment to fight global warming and preserve the biodiversity of the Earth.

Native Waorani hunter-gatherer in Yasuni. Credit: Save Americas Forests

Native Waorani hunter-gatherer in Yasuni. Credit: Save Americas Forests

Ecuadorian officials told an international meeting this week that their government would ban exploitation of huge oil reserves if it was compensated for its effort to save the natural habitat of the Amazon region.

The untapped oil reserves are located in the heart of the Amazon, considered by scientists to be one of the most bio-diverse rainforests in the world. If explored and developed, the fields are expected to deliver more than 900 million barrels of oil.

"If the world truly is interested in saving the planet," said Ecuador&#39s representative Lourdes Tiban, "the government has decided to sell the oil, but keep it in the ground."

Tiban added in her statement that Ecuador would need financial assistance from the international community in exchange for the decision not to exploit the oil. The country will wait up to a year to determine if there has been an adequate response.

"I call on the U.N. agencies, member states and non-governmental organisations (NGOs) to consider our proposal," she said at the sixth annual meeting of the world body&#39s Permanent Forum on Indigenous Issues.

Her appeal came nearly two months after the energy ministry in Ecuador declared that it was ready to leave the oil in the ground because it did not want to harm an area of "extraordinary biodiversity".

But ministry officials warned that they would be able to implement this decision only if and when the world community delivered "at least one-half of the resources" likely to be generated by oil extraction.

"The international community has to compensate us for the immense sacrifice that a poor country like Ecuador would have to make," said President Rafael Correa in a recent radio address.

Correa estimates the compensation figure at around 350 million dollars a year.

"Ecuador doesn&#39t ask for charity," he said, "but does ask that the international community share in the sacrifice."

The recently-elected left-wing government says that oil revenues are vital for social development because more than half of its 13 million citizens live in abject poverty.

Ecuador is currently burdened with 15 billion dollars of external debt, including a substantial amount owed to the World Bank and Inter-American Development Bank.

While apparently pleased with the government&#39s position, leaders of the indigenous people of Yasuni National Park in the Amazon say they are not convinced that those in power would keep their promise.

"We want Carlos to be fired," said Moi Enomenga, leader of the Waorani indigenous people on whose lands the possible extraction would take place, referring to Carlos Pareja Yanuzeli, the head of the state-owned Petro-Ecuador oil company. "They are destroying our lands. We don&#39t want any oil companies in our area."

Yanuzeli is viewed by indigenous people as a staunch advocate for oil companies.

According to indigenous leaders, without seeking their permission, some oil companies, including Spain&#39s Repsol and Brazil&#39s Petrobras, are already operating in the area, which spans over two million hectares of rainforest.

The oil reserves are located in indigenous territory known as "Ishapingo-Tiputini-Tambococha (ITT)," which lies within the boundaries of the Yasuni National Park, an area designated a "biosphere reserve" by the U.N. Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organisation (UNESCO).

According to the World Conservation Union, the Yasuni Park is home to 25 species threatened by extinction, including the tapir, the largest land mammal on the continent, and 10 monkey species. The forest is also one of the most diverse places in the world for bird and tree species.

The Waorani people, who live in voluntary isolation in the ITT zone, are renowned for their giant spears. Their survival is completely dependent upon the rainforest.

Supporters of indigenous peoples&#39 rights from the scientific community say Correa&#39s appeal for compensation is an unprecedented chance to work with a progressive government in order to save one of the wildest and most abundant spots on Earth.

"What are urgently needed now are viable proposals from the international community to Correa," Dr. Matt Finer, an ecologist who works with the conservation group Save America&#39s Forests, told IPS.

In an interview, Max Christian of the University of Maryland&#39s Sustainable Development and Conservation Biology programme, described Correa&#39s suggestion as "a landmark opportunity" for the world to help protect Yasuni&#39s "astounding biodiversity".

The U.N. Convention on Biodiversity, which has been signed or ratified by 190 countries, calls for significant reduction in the loss of biodiversity by 2010. The treaty recognises that indigenous peoples&#39 knowledge of various plant and animal species is vital to save life on Earth.

Some of those in solidarity with the indigenous struggles for the protection of lands and resources from outside interference say they like Correa&#39s proposal, but have serious objections to what they see as an attempt to put a dollar price on native people&#39s right to exist.

"Let&#39s call things by their proper name," said Brian Keane, director of the indigenous rights organisation Land is Life. "Money is money, oil is oil, blood is blood, genocide is genocide."

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