The canoes slip away from the dock, the morning mist still clinging to Anangucocha Lake in eastern Ecuador's Yasuni National Park. The water is the ink black of old tea, the paddles vanishing beneath the surface with every stroke. The Amazon rain forest has yet to fully awaken; the silence is broken only by the call of a distant troop of red howler monkeys. Then a single small squirrel monkey easy to pick out with its black-and-white masked face scurries along a branch arching over the river, followed by another and then another. Soon the trees are full of families of bounding squirrel monkeys, mixed with individual capuchin monkeys marked by their distinctive blond collars. This is wildlife more vibrant than I've ever seen treating the great Amazon forest like a playpen. "There are such wonders here," says Luis Garcia, a 46-year-old nature guide native to the region. "This is why Yasuni is a paradise."
Yasuni National Park a 10,000-sq-km reserve on the western fringes of the Amazon basin is indeed a paradise, considered by many scientists to be the single most biodiverse spot on the planet. But it's a paradise in danger of being lost. Oil companies have found rich deposits beneath the park's trees and rivers, nearly 900 million barrels of crude worth billions of dollars. That's money that Ecuador a small South American country in which a third of the population lives below the poverty line and petroleum already accounts for more than half its export revenue badly needs, money that oil companies and consumers will be only too happy to provide if drilling is allowed to go forward. If Ecuador follows the usual path of development, that's exactly what will happen with disastrous consequences for the park. "Yasuni is a truly unique place in the world," says Gorky Villa, an Ecuadorian botanist who works with the conservation group Finding Species. "Our concern is that it will be ruined before we can even understand it."
But there may be another way. Ecuadorian President Rafael Correa has told the international community that his country would be willing to forgo drilling and leave Yasuni largely intact in exchange for donations equal to $3.6 billion over 13 years, or about half the expected market value of the park's oil deposits. The plan known as the Yasuni-ITT Initiative, after the name of the reserve's oil field would conserve Yasuni's unique biodiversity and prevent the emission of over 800 million tons of carbon dioxide, an amount equal to Germany's annual greenhouse-gas footprint. The Yasuni plan would be a first for global environmental policy: recognition that the international community has a financial responsibility to help developing nations preserve nature. "Oil is by far the most important part of Ecuador's economy," says Carlos Larrea, a professor at Andean University and a technical adviser on the Yasuni project. "But we are willing to keep that oil indefinitely unexploited if the international community contributes."
Of course, from another perspective, the Yasuni initiative might look like environmental blackmail by Ecuador: Pay us or the forest gets it. And since the proposal was first floated a few years ago, Ecuador has struggled to get international partners to sign on, in part because momentum on climate policy has ebbed in the face of the prolonged global economic crisis. Nor does it help that Correa himself has sent mixed signals on the project, simultaneously preparing for drilling even as he asks for donations.
There is, however, no ignoring the essential justice of the plan. If we all really do have a shared stake in the natural heritage represented by hot spots like Yasuni, then we have a shared responsibility in helping a poor country preserve it. "We need these resources to develop the country, but we're also responsible people who want to protect Yasuni," Correa said in New York recently. "If the poor don't receive direct benefits from conservation, conservation won't be sustainable."