'Give Me The Money Or I'll Shoot The Trees'

Feb 7, 2013
Originally published on February 7, 2013 3:07 pm

Ecuador's Yasuni National Park is one of the most diverse ecosystems on Earth. But there's a complication: The park sits on top of the equivalent of millions of barrels of oil.

This creates a dilemma.

Ecuador prides itself on being pro-environment. Its constitution gives nature special rights. But Ecuador is a relatively poor country that could desperately use the money from the oil.

In 2007, Ecuador's president proposed a way around the dilemma: Ecuador would promise to leave the forest untouched if countries in the developed world would promise to give Ecuador half the value of the oil — $3.6 billion.

"He proposed that we want to keep the oil there," says Ivonne A-Baki, who works for Ecuador's government. "What we need in exchange is compensation."

These days, A-Baki is traveling the world, asking for contributions. She chooses her words carefully. Still, the pitch runs the risk of sounding a bit like blackmail.

"The joke we always used to always talk about was, you know, 'Give me the money or I'll shoot the trees,' " says Billy Pizer, a former deputy assistant secretary for environment and energy under President Obama.

Pizer says he'd love to keep the park safe. But he says the proposal worried him as a potential precedent that would encourage other countries to threaten to destroy their own forests unless the world pays up.

Ecuador pressed ahead. In 2010 it set up a fund through the United Nations, and some countries started handing over checks. But so far, there is only $350 million in the fund — a tenth of the amount Ecuador has asked for.

If the country doesn't reach its goal, A-Baki says, it may eventually drill under the park.

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Transcript

STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

There is a place in Ecuador so remote, you have to fly first into a small airport and then, well, let's get's directions from an Ecuadorian.

IVONNE A-BAKI: You have to go in a motor-boat, like an hour and 45 minutes. And then to enter the park you have to go in a canoe for two hours. Because even the sound of the motor and the oil, it will spoil the very fragility of this place.

INSKEEP: The Yasuni National Park is one of the most biodiverse places on Earth. There's a complication: Underneath it is a lot of oil. And extracting that oil would require going in with more than a canoe. Ecuador is hoping instead to keep the oil in the ground and get paid for doing that.

David Kestenbaum of our Planet Money Team reports on a novel plan to get it done.

DAVID KESTENBAUM, BYLINE: For Ecuador, the oil under the park posed this very painful dilemma. Ivonne A-Baki, the woman you just heard, works for Ecuador's government. A-Baki does not see herself as an environmentalist. But she says going to the park is somehow transforming.

A-BAKI: You breathe and you see the difference of oxygen you breathe. The life of everything that you could find as animals is there.

You know, it's a big dilemma. What do we do? We keep the oil in the ground or we take it out?

KESTENBAUM: Ecuador prides itself on being pro-environment. Its constitution gives nature special rights. And yet Ecuador also desperately could use the money from the oil.

A-BAKI: We don't have anything. I mean we are a developing country that needs everything. You name it - electricity, education. You need schools.

KESTENBAUM: The oil, worth billions of dollars, was very tempting. But in 2007 Ecuador's president, Rafael Correa, proposed an alternative.

PRESIDENT RAFAEL CORREA: (Spanish spoken)

A-BAKI: He proposed that we want to keep the oil there. What we need in exchange is compensation.

KESTENBAUM: Money. The dollar value they picked, half of what the oil was valued at at the time - $3.6 billion.

It's an interesting idea. Ecuador is basically asking to be paid to do nothing. Ecuador promises not to touch the oil, but it wants to be paid for its inaction.

These days A-Baki is traveling the world, asking for contributions. She chooses her words carefully.

A-BAKI: We're saying we have a unique place that has value.

KESTENBAUM: Just to be clear, do I understand terms of this correctly? Ecuador has pledged it will leave that oil in ground as long as it gets $3.6 billion?

A-BAKI: No, it's not the way we're putting it. I'm not putting it that way. We are saying we would like to be compensated because we need the money and it's an environmental service to the world.

KESTENBAUM: What happens if you don't get the money?

A-BAKI: I don't want to even think about it. I don't want to think about it because I don't want to see this place destroyed. And it might be. It might be.

KESTENBAUM: You might drill under this park?

A-BAKI: We are not going to drill under this park.

KESTENBAUM: You just said it might happen, though, before.

A-BAKI: I said it might. I didn't say it will.

KESTENBAUM: This pitch - it does run a risk, the risk of sounding a bit like blackmail.

BILLY PIZER: Blackmail or extortion, something like that.

KESTENBAUM: Billy Pizer was the deputy assistant secretary for environment and energy under Obama. He's an economist, now at Duke University, and he says he'd love to keep the park safe. But this proposal worried him.

PIZER: You could just kind of imagine anybody that had a valuable ecosystem, a large forest threatening to destroy it unless they were paid some ransom. I mean the joke we always used to always talk about was, you know, give me the money or I'll shoot the trees.

A-BAKI: Ivonne A-Baki says German officials asked her, if we pay you not to extract your oil, what's to stop Saudi Arabia from demanding payment for the oil it hasn't extracted?

KESTENBAUM: Ecuador pressed ahead and in 2010 set up a fund through the United Nations. And some countries started handing over checks.

A-BAKI: The first country to contribute to the fund was Chile. After Chile, Spain, then Italy, Turkey. So many other different - Georgia.

KESTENBAUM: Even Germany found a way to contribute. The U.S.?

A-BAKI: No. The United States, the government, not yet.

KESTENBAUM: How much money is in the fund now?

A-BAKI: We are counting just what we have. Now it's around 350 million, so we have a lot of money.

KESTENBAUM: You have about a tenth of the amount you want.

A-BAKI: Yeah.

KESTENBAUM: Since this effort began, the oil in the ground has gotten even more tempting. Instead $7 billion, she says, it's now worth closer to 20 billion.

David Kestenbaum, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.