…or we shoot the dog

Ecuadorean President Rafael Correa is apparently trying to blackmail the world into paying his country not to destroy a chunk of Amazon rainforest that has oil beneath it.

I say “apparently” because I read it at Mother Jones‘s blog The Blue Marble, which sources it to Environmental News Service, which I’m not familiar with. The only other reference I can find is from China’s Xinhua news service, posted on a Venezuelan energy-news site. None of these is a source on which I’d stake my life.

Nevertheless, the story raises more than one interesting issue, worth considering because they aren’t coming up now they will eventually.

The government of Ecuador will wait up to one year to see if the international community offers to compensate the country for not developing a major oil field in the heart of the Ecuadorian Amazon, Energy Minister Alberto Acosta says. The area of lush, primary rainforest shelters a unique diversity of animals and plants.

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.

“The first option is to leave that oil in the ground, but the international community would have to compensate us for immense sacrifice that a poor country like Ecuador would have to make,” said Correa in a recent radio address.

President Correa estimates the compensation figure at around US$350 million per year.

Correa has been strengthening state control over Ecuador’s gas and oil, has recently succeeded in a referendum to rewrite Ecuador’s constitution to give himself more power, and today expelled the local representative of the World Bank, so you have some idea where he’s coming from.

He’s advancing the idea that environmentalism is something only rich people and countries can afford to care about, the “gold before green” model of development that China has often argued for. The trouble here is that once you chop down jungle that (reportedly) contains unique species and habitats, you can’t buy it back with the money you’ve made. Gold before green is how the developed world got rich, but now we’re realizing there are global costs for it that we didn’t imagine and those costs are huge.

We may owe Ecuador reparations, at least in principle. But equally in principle, every country should treat unique ecosystems such as the Amazon as inviolate, places that are simply off-limits to strip-and-clear development, the way a city council simply doesn’t consider expropriating a church to build an apartment building even though the apartment might pay more taxes.

In practice, if Ecuador is entitled to compensation for the wealth it would derive by devastating its own jungle, every country is entitled to compensation for not destroying world treasures when there’s an economic argument for doing so. Canada deserves compensation for not slapping a huge hydro dam across Niagara Falls, the U.S. for not using the Grand Canyon as a garbage dump, Australia for not filling in Sydney Harbour for tennis courts. For pity’s sake, nobody should pay you for not fouling your own nest.

Indeed, we don’t value biodiversity purely for its prettiness or for some abstract moral value, but also for its economic potential — unexamined plants could supply us with the 21st-century equivalent of the pine-bark-tea cure for scurvy, but that’s no use if we chop them all down before we figure that out. If Ecuador really does destroy a unique biome for the short-term benefit of oil and gives up the economic potential (such as permanent royalty payments from pharmaceutical companies the world over) inherent therein, it deserves what it gets.

All that having been said, it’d help if the developed world’s insatiable thirst for oil didn’t make chopping down the Amazon quite so tempting.

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One response to “…or we shoot the dog

  1. Pingback: The Amazon protection racket continues « The EcoLibertarian

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