Yasuni National Park — a 10,000-sq-km reserve on the western fringes of the Amazon basin — is indeed a paradise, considered by many scientists to be the single most biodiverse spot on the planet. But it’s a paradise in danger of being lost. Oil companies have found rich deposits beneath the park’s trees and rivers, nearly 900 million barrels of crude worth billions of dollars.
This account, from a recent article in Time, by Bryan Walsh, could be just another story of big, bad capitalists trying to destroy the environment, but there is a very interesting twist:
Ecuadorian President Rafael Correa has told the international community that his country would be willing to forgo drilling and leave Yasuni largely intact in exchange for donations equal to $3.6 billion over 13 years.
The Yasuni story is an interesting case study in environmental and international ethics. The first world loves to preach to the third world about environmental values, and Ecuador is giving us a chance to put up or shut up. There are some complicating challenges, such as the chronic instability of Ecuadorian government, which makes many wonder with the Ecuadorians can be trusted to keep their end of the bargain, rather than just taking the money and then running to the oil companies anyway.
And then there is the question of who, exactly, should pay up. This grand Coasean bargain is made difficult, in a predictable way, by the game of rich countries trying to free ride off other rich countries. The benefits of preserving this diverse ecosystem are primarily psychological, not economic or even, perhaps, ecological; thus, converting those psychic values into dollars is not an easy task. Who should pay for the environmental benefits, and how do the rich countries come to a bargain that will stick?
I like what the Ecuadorians are trying to do. They have a resource that other people don’t want them to exploit. Theirs is a mostly impoverished population who has every right to demand compensation for satisfying the eco-whims of the privileged. I applaud their willingness to be seen as environmental pirates.
But at the same time, this story is sad because it illustrates the following false dichotomy:
You see, there are really only two options here: 1) the pristine wilderness we see on the left or 2) what happens when oil companies enter the picture, which is seen on the right.
Sadly, these images illustrate how far too many environmentalists frame the effort to preserve environmental value. We get to choose either the picture on the left or the picture on the right. They do this by making arguments about how “sensitive” or “fragile” an ecosystem is [fun activity for the reader: ask your favorite environmentalist to name one of the thousands of ecosystems on the planet that isn’t “sensitive” and watch him/her fumble for an answer], arguing that any encroachment at all by development will cause the whole system to fall apart.
Hogwash. No sane person wants to see great rainforests compromised. On the other hand, most sane people are skeptical that responsible energy development cannot preserve the dominant share of environmental values. Environmental sanity is, as always, about balancing, not about perpetuating false dichotomies. This is true in the Yasuni rainforest, and it is true everywhere.
Of course, if Geroge Soros or Al Gore or Bill Gates or the Sierra Club want to get their money together and pay the Ecuadorians to keep out the bad guys, I’d celebrate that–as long as they don’t use my money.