In 2007, Rafael Correa, president of Ecuador, made an offer to the rest of the world. Underneath his country’s Yasuni National Park, one of the most biodiverse areas on the planet, lie 846 million barrels of oil valued at $7.2 billion. If the rest of the world could provide Ecuador with half that sum, Correa proposed, the oil would stay in the ground and the rainforest above it would stay intact.
By August 2010, with the help of the United Nations Development Programme, Ecuador had set up a trust fund to receive whatever funds it could raise and set a deadline of Dec. 30, 2011. If donors, both public and private, gave $100 million by that date, the project would go forward. If not, the deal was off. And by the time the deadline passed last Thursday, the world had stepped up: A suite of business people, national governments, and celebrities from Al Gore to Leonardo DiCaprio had donated $116 million, The Guardian reported. That's enough to keep 722 square miles of the park’s most valuable rainforest free from oil exploitation, at least temporarily.
Those millions are only a small part of the funds Ecuador hopes to raise. When Correa first came up with the idea, he suggested $360 million a year for 10 years would be enough to stop drilling in Yasuni indefinitely. The current goal is to raise the full $3.6 billion by 2024. A sum that large will almost definitely come in large part from other governments, which haven’t had much cash to throw around these past few years. The biggest chunk of the funds raised to date came from Italy, which wrote off more than $50 million of Ecuador’s debt. Germany put in more than $40 million. But at its core, Correa’s proposal depends on crowdfunding. Anyone can donate to the Yasuni trust fund, and even small donations help validate the project’s hypothesis—that there is an international community that values natural resources enough to pay for their survival.
Ecuador’s experiment taps into a growing sense that unexploited environmental resources have a value that can be monetized, just by leaving them be. Yasuni National Park contains awesome biodiversity: More tree species grow on just two-and-a-half acres in Yasuni than are native to all of North America. And rainforests are also particularly effective at sucking up carbon. That means that the more rainforests are destroyed, the more the world’s governments will have pay to mitigate damage from accelerating climate change.
The notion that everyone has a personal and financial interest in saving the rainforest (and other ecosystems) is a relatively novel one, so it’s not surprising that the world hasn’t poured money into Ecuador’s coffers. This experiment has made clear, though, that the decision not to drill for oil does have financial value—over the longer term, that value could outstrip the profits of exploiting resources. Reuters’ Felix Salmon does a good job of laying out President Correa’s incentives for keeping Yasuni in tact, even if he can’t scare up the full $3.6 billion he’s looking for by 2024. As Salmon puts it, “Oilfields, eventually, run out of oil. But untapped oilfields never do.” As long as the world depends on oil, fears climate change, and values biodiversity, Ecuador can essentially charge the world rent on benefits derived from the rainforest.