The most biologically diverse place on earth is a portion of the Amazon rainforest known as Yasuni. Environmentalists have targeted the region for an innovative and internationally recognized conservation project, and the populist President Rafael Correa seems to be on board. However, Correa has many obligations to social movements and businesse alike under Ecuador’s constitutional referendum. Can Ecuador’s government juggle multiple budgetary obligations in order to conserve biodiversity in the Amazon, and at what point does a remarkable environmentalist proposal fall apart under the weight of intensive social and economic programs?

The Yasuni stretches over approximately one million acres. Biologists studying the biodiversity of the region remark on the more than 300 species of trees than inhabit areas smaller than two football fields. More than 500 species of birds can be found, and 40% of the Amazon’s mammal species are protected within Yasuni’s bounds. The Ecuadorian government declared Yasuni a national park in 1979 and a wildlife sanctuary in 1989. Subsequent designations in 1999 and 2006 made Yasuni an “untouchable zone” where no type of extractive activity is allowed. However, the government, which has depended on oil revenues to repay foreign debts over the past 25 years, has largely ignored these designations, even following the 2003-2006 court case against Texaco for the “Chernobyl of the Amazon,” environmental damages caused by sloppy oil drilling and repeated oil spills. Further, a recent proposal such as the Project Ishpingo-Tambococha-Tiputini (ITT) would require further extraction in the heart of the Amazon over a period of 10 to 15 years; the proposal has not yet received full government endorsement.

When President Rafael Correa came into office at the end of 2006, his administration became the first in decades to take the proposals of indigenous communities and environmentalist groups into consideration. And in 2007 he agreed to support an alternative proposal to the ITT Project, written by environmentalist groups to maintain the oil in the ground. The proposal relies on the international community to provide US$350 million to the Ecuadorian government in exchange for a national policy of non-extraction of oil. International oil companies have stated that up to US$920 million in oil revenues can be extracted from Yasuni. However, the group Amazonia por la Vida has reported that the US$350 million is the approximate amount of benefit of extraction in Ecuador, once environmental damages and opportunity costs for other industrial projects are included.

President Correa’s approval of the alternative plan in 2007 was characterized by a complex dance between oil companies and social movements. After endorsing the plan, the president repeatedly attempted to award small sections of Yasuni to oil companies already operating in the area, and environmentalist groups around the world responded with an uproar of disapproval. On July 22, 2008, he formally launched the plan onto the international stage, soliciting donations from all sectors. However, Correa’s ministers continue to remind him that the moratorium on drilling in Yasuni ends in 2009, and that, realistically, the government needs US$350 million per year in revenues in order to avoid extraction and meet its budgetary needs.

In September of 2008, Ecuador ratified a constitutional referendum full of social programs – social security, unemployment, health care plans, and government subsidies for all levels of education – in order to meet the needs of various social movements in Ecuador. But the Yasuni case illustrates that the government simply cannot have it all. The 2007 proposal to save the Amazon’s biodiversity, with an original budget of US$350 million over ten years, now has a price tag of US$350 million per year. And as nervous government officials watch citizen expectations of government programs rise, it remains to be seen how the government will carve up its revenues, and whether idealist environmentalism can survive recent changes in government strategy.

Emily Joiner

Emily Joiner is a first year global policy studies student at the LBJ School of Public Affairs specializing in International Development. She is an editor of the LBJ Journal of Public Affairs.