Ecuador’s President Rafael Correa declared last Thursday, August 15, that the ban on oil drilling in his country’s Yasuni Park will be lifted. Ideally, successful oil extraction will aid the South American nation’s economy, but it will almost certainly come at the cost of the destruction of the local Amazonian environment. At this time, there is hardly any reason to believe that Correa may have a sudden change of heart and reverse his decision.
The impending loss of the Yasuni Park’s ecosystem is one more example of Mother Nature being on the losing side, not just in Ecuador, but also in other South American nations.
The Yasuni: A failed experiment?
Due to space limitations, this article cannot go into an in-depth discussion of the Yasuni conservation project, including the political negotiations between Correa and the international community. In essence, Correa proposed a plan in which the international community would pay the Ecuadorian government to not drill for oil in the park, ensuring the protection of the local fauna and flora. However, these pledges apparently have failed to materialize, as the Ecuadorian head of state has declared that his government has only received$13 million from international donors, a fraction of the $3.6 billion that was originally pledged.
Correa quickly blamed the international community for his decision, stating in his televised speech that “the world has failed us.” He also declared that “dear [Ecuadorian] youth, be sure that no one defends the Yasuni and no one is hurt the most by this decision than [me] the president.”
The decision to drill has come as a big blow to environmentalists, as it was hoped that, if the plan was successful, it could be used as a blueprint for similar initiatives in other endangered areas of the world. Ironically, the government’s decision also comes at a time when a new type of furry carnivore has been discovered in the cloud forest that borders Ecuador and Colombia. According to an article by National Geographic, the orange-brown animal, called an olinguito, is now the smallest member of the raccoon family.
Ecuador is not alone in South America in its exploitation of its natural resources, even at serious cost to the environment. However, the decision over the Yasuni Park has been the most publicized because of the innovative initiative that was carried out in an attempt to protect it.
For example, the Peruvian government has also recently authorized oil-related projects that will be harmful to the country’s wildlife. Peru’s Ministry of Energy recently authorized the energy company Repsol to carry out oil exploration operations in the northern part of the Peruvian rainforest.Media reportsstate that the exploration is taking place in the natural habitat of isolated indigenous tribes.
A few success stories
In drafting this commentary, I was a bit hard pressed to find positive stories of environmental protection projects in South America, but this does not mean that they do not exist. Some communities have been successful at protecting their natural environments from destructive development projects by governments and/or private industrial companies.
For example, in 2011 the Bolivian government of President Evo Morales suspended plans to build a road across the Isiboro Secure National Park. Indigenous residents protested the government’s plan, arguing that the road would bringenvironmental destructionand serve as an incentive for industrial corporations to attempt to carry out other projects in that area.
In addition, protesters in Peru have managed to stop Colorado’s Newmont Mining Corp. from implementing a major gold mining project, called the Conga. Thenumerous protestsagainst the mine have often turned violent as opponents of the project argue that it will destroy the local ecosystem, draining local lakes into reservoirs for mining. Furthermore, the actual mining itself will arguably pollute other local waterways.
Finally, there is even good news regarding an engendered deer population that may be making a comeback in Chile. According to new studies, the population of the Huemul deer is increasing in numbers thanks to governmental and conservationist projects, like in the Bernardo O’Higgins National Park in the Patagonian region.
Is the environment losing?
The perception of this author is that yes, the environment in South America is taking a backseat to development and economic concerns. There have certainly been some successes, like the cancellation of the Bolivian highway and the Conga project inPeru. These decisions, however, occurred not thanks to successful lobbying or dialogue with government representatives, but rather via violent protests that forced Presidents Morales and Humala to reconsider their decisions.
In addition, the discovery of the olinguito in Ecuador and the increase in the population of the Huemul deer in Chile, highlight the question of what other priceless and wonderful fauna and flora will be lost if the Yasuni Park is destroyed, fully or only partially, due to oil drilling operations.