Eco-ethical Decisions | Species Extinction or Oil?

When I first read about this, it struck me as a kind of extortion:

Ecuadorian President Rafael Correa and his government say that if the international community can compensate the country with half of the forecasted lost revenues, Ecuador will leave the oil in Yasuni National Park undisturbed to protect the park’s biodiversity and indigenous peoples living in voluntary isolation.

Here’s what’s at risk:

Yasuni National Park protects one of the most biologically rich regions in the world, including a large stretch of the world’s most diverse tree community and the highest known insect diversity in the world. It is one of the most diverse places in the world for birds and amphibians.

And here’s the conundrum:

Ecuador is very poor. Its international debt is staggering. It’s chief asset is in the timber and oil of its Amazonian rain forest. Selling those finite resources would be to give away its basis for survival, and it at least acknowledges that this would be to despoil a global treasure of species and habitat diversity. The choice to NOT develop also has the benefit of avoiding the CO2 that would come from development AND maintain the carbon sink of hundreds of square miles of intact vegetation.

Now: how much is it worth to the commons of the planet to pay Ecuador to not develop Yasuni? How is that decision made across cultures and world political divides, and who will pay and how might that be prorated for each contributor? Can we expect energy-hungry nations (very like our own) to volunteer to pay higher oil and gas prices so that unseen indigenous people and rare salamanders can continue to survive?

This kind of tough world-community, for-the-long-haul decision about sustainability, diversity and planetary health is likely to become increasingly common in coming years. I’d like to think our species will have the foresight and resolve to do the right thing, spending proactively to purchase toward the future. This would be a whole new way of thinking. And in this case, a cheap purchase. Look at what one year of the war in Iraq costs!

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Fred First holds masters degrees in Vertebrate Zoology and physical therapy, and has been a biology teacher and physical therapist by profession. He moved to southwest Virginia in 1975 and to Floyd County in 1997. He maintains a daily photo-blog, broadcasts essays on the Roanoke NPR station, and contributes regular columns for the Floyd Press and Roanoke's Star Sentinel. His two non-fiction books, Slow Road Home and his recent What We Hold in Our Hands, celebrate the riches that we possess in our families and communities, our natural bounty, social capital and Appalachian cultures old and new. He has served on the Jacksonville Center Board of Directors and is newly active in the Sustain Floyd organization. He lives in northeastern Floyd County on the headwaters of the Roanoke River.

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  1. Makes sense to me. If we value clean air, water, trees, and natural areas, then we should pay for them. These costs could be offset by eco-tourist spending. I wonder if new technologies could extract oil from an angle that does not interfere with a protected park above?

  2. thanks for giving me something really valuable to chew on today. i think i’d send down my next car payment, at least. where do i mail it?

    awesome question. you go, fred!