Thirst for Oil Imperils South America's Most Biodiverse Wilderness
QUITO, Ecuador - Yasuní National Park, located in the core of the Ecuadorian Amazon, is the most biodiverse area in all of South America, a team of Ecuadorean, American, and European scientists concludes in the first major peer-reviewed study of life forms in the park, published today.
But the 13 scientists warn that proposed oil development in Yasuní threatens to destroy one of the world's last high-biodiversity wilderness areas.
An agreement between the Ecuadorian government and the United Nations for a $3 billion trust fund that would compensate Ecuador for protecting the most vulnerable area of Yasuní by leaving the oil underground has begun to unravel.
"Yasuní is at the center of a small zone where South America's amphibians, birds, mammals, and vascular plants all reach maximum diversity," said co-author Dr. Clinton Jenkins of the University of Maryland. "We dubbed this area the 'quadruple richness center.'"
"This quadruple richness center has only one viable strict protected area - Yasuní. The park covers just 14 percent of the quadruple richness center's area, whereas active or proposed oil concessions cover 79 percent," the authors write in the open-access scientific journal PLoS ONE, where the study appears today.
"One of our most important findings about Yasuní is that small areas of forest harbor extremely high numbers of animals and plants," said lead author Margot Bass, president of Finding Species, a nonprofit with offices in Quito and Maryland. "Yasuní is probably unmatched by any other park in the world for total numbers of species."
Yasuní contains 28 endangered vertebrates on the IUCN Red List of Threatened Species. These include large primates such as the white-bellied spider monkey and Poeppig's woolly monkey and aquatic mammals such as the giant otter and Amazonian manatee, as well as and hundreds of regional species found nowhere else on Earth.
An average upland hectare (2.47 acres) in Yasuní contains 655 tree species, more than are native to the continental United States and Canada combined. The number of tree species rises to over 1,100 for an area of 25 hectares.
"In just one hectare in Yasuní, there are more tree, shrub, and liana [woody vine] species than anywhere else in the world," said Gorky Villa, an Ecuadorian botanist working with both the Smithsonian Institution and Finding Species.
A single hectare of forest in Yasuní is projected to contain 100,000 insect species, the highest estimated diversity per unit area in the world for any plant or animal group, says eminent entomologist Dr. Terry Erwin.
Yasuní National Park is an UNESCO Biosphere Reserve and World Heritage Site. The extraordinary diversity of this rainforest is best exemplified at the 6.5 square kilometer Tiputini Biodiversity Station, located on the northern edge of the park.
"The Tiputini Biodiversity Station is home to 247 amphibian and reptile species, 550 bird species, and around 200 mammal species, including 10 primates and an array of large predators," said Dr. Kelly Swing of the University of San Francisco in Quito.
"In addition, the station is the richest site in the world for bats," said researcher Dr. Thomas Kunz of Boston University. "We estimate that over 100 different bat species inhabit this small area."
"What makes Yasuní especially important is its potential to sustain this extraordinary biodiversity in the long term," said co-author Dr. Matt Finer of Save America's Forests, a nonprofit advocacy organization based in Washington, DC. "For example, the Yasuní region is predicted to maintain wet, rainforest conditions as climate change-induced drought intensifies in the eastern Amazon."
The paper concludes with science-based policy recommendations including a moratorium on new oil exploration or road construction within the park, and creating areas off-limits to large-scale development in adjacent northern Peru.
The scientists warn that oil can not be extracted without significant and irreversible negative ecological impacts, particularly in the remote and relatively intact oil rich northeast corner of Yasuní National Park which contains oil blocks 31 and ITT.
The Ecuadorian government has been promoting an innovative plan, known as the Yasuní-ITT Initiative, which would leave the park's largest oil reserves in the ITT block permanently underground in exchange for international donations of US$3 billion over the next 10 years.
Under the Yasuní-ITT Initiative, 900 million barrels of oil, worth US$6 billion would not be extracted as a contribution to fighting climate change.
But this initiative has started to fall apart. Ecuadorian and UN Development Programme officials were expected to sign the trust fund documents at the UN climate summit in Copenhagen in December, but in the event nothing was signed.
President Rafael Correa revealed in his radio address to the nation on Saturday that he ordered his team in Copenhagen not to sign the detailed Terms of Reference for the UN Development Programme trust fund because of what he called the "shameful" conditions set up by the trust fund.
Correa said Saturday some countries had attached many too conditions to their donations - conditions that were "unacceptable," because they harmed Ecuador's sovereignty and dignity.
In the days following President Correa's radio broadcast, Ecuadorian Foreign Minister Fander Falconi and two other high level members of the Ecuadorian negotiating team resigned in protest of Correa's attacks, disputing his negative characterization of the trust fund terms.
The president said the committee negotiating the Yasuní-ITT Initiative has until June to close a deal or his government will begin to explore the oil reserves.
In his resignation statement, Falconi opposed the six-month time limit on the talks.
Dr. Finer said today, "If the Yasuní-ITT Initiative does not succeed, the tragic reality will be drilling for oil in the core of the most biodiverse rainforest on Earth."