The Ecuadorian government has devised a novel, albeit idealistic, plan to prevent gas and oil development in the Yasuní National Park in hopes of protecting biodiversity and combating climate change. The proposal, known as the Yasuní-ITT Initiative, would leave untouched nearly
one billion barrels of oil that lie beneath the national Park in Ecuador.

But since Ecuador is a country dependent upon its oil exports for revenue, the government must also devise an alternative way to raise revenue--$350 million for each of the next 10 years to be exact. And this is where the idealism comes in. Under the initiative, the government would sell certificates linked to the value of the unreleased carbon to provide alternative revenue to that which would come from exploiting the oil reserves. Unfortunately, there is also a possibility that the plan would do little to reduce carbon emissions if the carbon certificates are traded on carbon markets.

Despite the technical difficulties, projects like the Yasuní-ITT Initiative have generated some interest among environmentalists and scientists, including well-known figures like NASA researcher James Hansen. The authors of a new paper in Biotropica, which outlines the details of the  project, also remain optimistic. 

"This is a really novel approach that could fund a lot of rainforest protection," said Clinton Jenkins, a research scientist in the University of Maryland's department of biology. "It's also an innovative way of dealing with greenhouse gas emissions."

According to estimates of Ecuadorian officials cited in the article, preventing exploitation of the ITT oil fields, will keep 410 million metric tons of CO2 out of the atmosphere.
The authors note that use of a conservation strategy like that proposed by Ecuador would be particularly beneficial in areas that also offer great ecological value. The Yasuní National Park has such multiple benefits, they say, because it is one of the most biodiverse parts of the Amazon and within the territory of some of the world's last un-contacted indigenous peoples, the Tagaeri and Taromenane.

"Yasuní is an exceptional place in the world, biologically incredible, home to un-contacted peoples, and yet - perhaps tragically - full of oil," said Jenkins. "Society faces a test of what we value more, drilling for more oil, or preserving a cherished national park and the people who call it home."

Additional questions tackled in the study include why a national park is on the chopping block in the first place and what mechanisms are needed to prevent future Ecuadorian administrations from drilling the oil fields.

The authors conclude that the Yasuní-ITT Initiative, with its focus on generating alternative revenue, is a potentially precedent-setting advance in avoiding damaging oil and gas development in sensitive areas and an innovative way to address climate change.

Citation: Matt Finer, Remi Moncel, Clinton N. Jenkins, 'Leaving the Oil Under the Amazon: Ecuador's Yasuní-ITT Initiative', Biotropic Online, 10.1111/j.1744-7429.2009.00587.x