by Esme McAvoy
After three weeks in Ecuador, I’ve returned to our little house in the Colombian mountains to find Minca basking in the full heat of summer. The days seem to melt, stretching long and lazy under the sun’s rays, and come early evening the high-pitched vibrating rhythm of cicadas now fills the still-warm night air.
In the garden, the tomatoes and spring onion seeds we planted are growing tall and both the vines of the maracuyá passion fruit and the maize have sprung up rapidly despite the parched summer soil. From my writing place here on the terrace, bright green fruits barely bigger than acorns are visible hanging from the branches of the mango tree – a promising sign that we’ll have a glut of summery mangoes when they ripen in about a month’s time. It’s good to be home.
My journey south into neighbouring Ecuador, however, was an interesting and inspiring few weeks. I was there to find out more about the country’s exciting proposal to leave its oil underground in an effort to combat climate change.
The Ecuadorian government faces a stark choice in the Amazon: over $7bn dollars’ worth of oil - a fifth of the nation’s total oil reserves - lies under a pristine part of the Amazon that scientists now agree is probably the most biodiverse patch of rainforest in the world. In a single hectare of this incredible, ‘megadiverse’ forest inside the Yasuní National Park, biologists have found 655 different species of tree – more than can be found in the whole of the US and Canada combined. It holds world records for the numbers of species of reptiles, amphibians and bats as well as being home to scores of unique bird and animal species found only in this part of the Amazon. Two of the world’s last remaining uncontacted tribes also live here – nomadic hunter-gatherers that live in isolation from the outside world.
In 2007, Ecuador’s president, Rafael Correa, announced that Ecuador would ‘lock up’ the oil beneath this part of Yasuní indefinitely, preserving the rainforest and its peoples, provided the international community supported them by contributing at least half the market value of the oil; Ecuador would forgo the rest. It’s the first oil-producing country in the world that’s volunteered to leave some of its oil untapped for the health of the planet – no mean feat in a country where oil accounts for 60 percent of the nation’s total annual exports and around half the country are living below the poverty line.
Yet speaking to people in Ecuador, it is clear the initiative has their overwhelming support, even by those working for oil companies. Most are all too aware of the environmental and social costs of oil. Large tracts of Ecuador’s northern Amazon have been decimated by decades of reckless oil drilling. Just this month, oil giant Chevron was ordered to pay damages of $8.6bn to 30,000 Ecuadorians who sued the company for dumping billions of gallons of oil-laced formation water and toxic drilling muds directly into the rainforest during the seventies and eighties. The toxic cocktail and regular oil spills poisoned their rivers, soil and drinking water, killing their animals and causing cancer in those living closest the waste pits and oil wells.
Leaving the oil underground this time round gives Ecuador the chance to do things differently. The contributions to the Yasuní fund would be invested in developing a new energy matrix for Ecuador based on renewable energy rather than oil, as well as funding social and environmental conservation projects nationwide.
Nearly four years on and the proposal is gaining traction, but slowly. Last August, the UN Development Programme (UNDP) became official administrators for the Yasuní trust fund. Now all that’s needed is the money to fill it. Governments of developed countries around the world have ‘expressed interest’ but only two – Chile and Spain - have actually followed through and added cash to the Yasuní coffers, with neither adding very much.
Understandably, President Correa is getting impatient and, of course, the big oil companies are circling. According to the UNDP agreement, if there isn’t at least $100m in the pot by the end of the year, Ecuador has the right to return the money to contributors and opt for the business-as-usual ‘Plan B’ - to drill for the oil. The next few months will be critical.
You can follow the proposal’s progress here and I promise to post a link to the article I wrote from Ecuador as soon as it’s online.
PS. Talking of promises, it didn’t take me long to find that Jack ‘n’ the beanstalk sounding fruit I mentioned in my last post.
The bizarre ‘guaba’ fruit resembles a mighty runner bean, some growing up to a metre long and weighing in at close to a kilo. Crack open the mighty pod and inside you’ll find a row of giant white furry beans. The white cottony fuzz tastes delicious – like a vanilla and sweet apple candy floss – earning them the nickname of the ‘ice-cream bean’. Inside each ball of fluff is a black, smooth seed as big and shiny as a beetle. Bizarre but definitely delicious!