The Yasuni National Park in eastern Ecuador is generally acknowledged to be one of the most diverse biological reserves on earth. Declared a UNESCO World Biosphere Reserve in 1989, it is home to Ecuador’s last two indigenous peoples living in voluntary isolation. Just one hectare of the 988,000-hectare park contains as many species of tree as the US and Canada combined.
Beneath Yasuni lie three oil reserves – the Ishpingo, Tambococha, and Tiputini (ITT) – that hold over 850 million barrels of crude.
In 2007, Ecuador President Rafael Correa approached the UN Development Program with a novel proposal: in return for US$3.6 billion from the international community – half the projected value of the oil reserves – the country would leave Yasuni undisturbed. It became known as the Yasuni-ITT Initiative.
"This is the first initiative of its kind in the world," said Maria Fernanda Espinosa, Ecuador’s minister of cultural heritage. "It could be seen as the first real mechanism to avoid emissions, because keeping the oil underground means we avoid releasing 407 million tons of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere."
A trust fund was set up in August to hold international contributions and a month later Chile became the first donor, depositing US$100,000. Germany, Spain, France, Belgium and Italy have all expressed an interest in supporting the initiative.
The accumulated funds will be redistributed to sustainable projects. These include the development of renewable energy sources, conservation and reforestation, promoting energy efficiency, and facilitating sustainable social development.
The initiative also lends itself to a variety of contribution mechanisms. Ecuador will issue Yasuni Guarantee Certificates (CGYs) in US dollars equivalent to the value of each donation. CGYs could be issued in return for canceling portions of Ecuador’s external debt or to individuals who want to symbolically purchase barrels of oil which are left in the ground.
However, Yasuni-ITT is not compatible with the carbon emissions reductions released under the UN’s clean development mechanism (CDM), which means that European nations can’t offset emissions by contributing to the fund.
But the fact that the Yasuni-ITT model doesn’t focus on developed world emissions could be its single greatest advantage – it may lead to other developing countries offering to mothball non-renewable resources in return for financial incentives.
"Given the limitations of the Kyoto Treaty, Ecuador has put forward an innovative alternative, which involves the participation of developing countries in mitigating climate change," Espinosa said.