Saving Yasuni: Can a revolutionary plan protect the rainforest from commercial exploitation?

Ecuador's Yasuni National Park is not only one of the world's most biodiverse places. It is also home to up to five billion barrels of oil.

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The flight from Quito to Coca, a small oil town in the Ecuadorian Amazon, takes off a couple of hours late, so we don't reach Coca until around noon. Then we have to take a helicopter up the Napo river to reach Añangu, in the heart of Yasuni, the extraordinary national park that is among the most biodiverse places on the planet.

If all had gone to plan, we would have been in our seats long before the president and his party arrived. As it is, as we hover over the endless jungle, I can see that the president's own helicopter, a tough-looking military model, is already parked in a clearing in the forest, and the show has started.

Ana Alban, Ecuador's former environment minister, now her country's ambassador in London, had explained before we left England: "Now that the election campaign has started, the vice-president, Lenin Moreno, becomes president for the duration of the campaign. He is planning to make a televised address to the nation from the Amazon region in the last week of the campaign and we hope to meet him there. This will be his last national broadcast before he retires. He is not standing for re-election."

Apart from the ambassador, my fellow guest on the trip this morning is Genoveva Casanova, director of Spain's Casa de Alba Foundation and honorary ambassador for the UN High Commission on Refugees.

Alban urges us both to hurry, so we duck under the still-whirring rotors and make our way to the front of the crowd, where seats have been reserved for us. The president has obviously been well-briefed, because he pauses in his fluent oration long enough to greet each of us by name as we take our seats. The cameraman has clearly been briefed, too, because he zooms in on us as our names are mentioned and, when we look up, we can see our own faces on a giant screen. We can also glimpse behind us the serried ranks of Quechua people who have come in from Añangu and the surrounding area for what, for them, must be the event of a lifetime.

enin Moreno, the man siting just a few feet from me with a microphone in his hand and a warm smile on his face, is one of the most remarkable men in South American politics. Born in 1953, he was pursuing a successful career as a businessman in Quito when, in 1998, he was the victim of a car-jacking. Shot in the back and confined to a wheelchair ever since, he came to terms with his disability and took up a political career, being inaugurated as vice-president in 2006. Much of his energies have been devoted to improving the lives of the disabled in Ecuador and, boy, did they need improving. At the time of his shooting, it was rare to see people in wheelchairs in public. In rural areas, those with severe handicaps were treated as outcasts, sometimes confined to sheds and chicken coops.

But Moreno has actively changed all that. Wheelchair ramps have sprung up across Ecuador. People with severe disabilities now receive $300 monthly stipends from the government. And Moreno has helped draw up a law that compels Ecuadorian companies to set aside at least 4 per cent of jobs for people with disabilities. He recently pledged that the government would reach out to all disabled people who needed help. That, he said, amounted to a revolution.

Last year, Moreno was nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize for his work. More than two-and-a-half million signatures were collected endorsing him, and 180 countries signalled their support. In the event, the prize was awarded to the European Union – a decision greeted on most sides with distinctly underwhelming enthusiasm.

One of the reasons we have all gathered in the remote heart of the rainforest this February morning is undoubtedly Moreno's wish to demonstrate that his disability is not going to prevent him from going wherever he is needed and doing whatever he has to do. And that includes going to the Amazon. In a sense, he is returning to his roots: he was born and raised in the Amazon, at Nuevo Rocafuerte on the Ecuador-Peru border. Coming back to the Amazon to give the last speech of his career (for now at least) is obviously of great personal and symbolic significance.

But it is more important than that. Far more important. Moreno speaks about Pacha-Mama, the goddess of planting and regeneration widely worshipped among the Andean peoples. The concept of environmental protection is enshrined in Ecuador's constitution, and Moreno is here to tell us that the Yasuni initiative is central to Ecuador's plans to save the Amazon. And the future of the Amazon, he says, is vital for the future of Ecuador. Indeed, it is vital for the future of the world.

As the president speaks, I can't help thinking of my own first visit to the Amazon, more than 50 years ago. In 1959, I spent part of my "gap year" in South America, hitchhiking across the continent through Brazil, Bolivia and Peru. On the way back I decided to visit Brasilia, Brazil's new capital, which was then being constructed in the Amazon. The country's then-president, Juscelino Kubitschek, was quite clear about his intentions: Brazil's, he told the world on many occasions, was to open up its vast Amazon region to development.

I have to admit that at the time I had been quite attracted by the notion. This, it seemed to me then, was the "frontier spirit". I managed to cadge a lift on a lorry going up the long dirt road from Campo Grande in the south-west, k all the way to Brasilia, about 550 miles to the north-east. I found lodgings in the shanty town which had already grown up around the vast construction site and even volunteered my services as a "navvy". Not surprisingly, after a few days I attracted the attention of the authorities, who asked me whether I would mind being flown on a military plane to Rio. It was more a command than a suggestion. And they weren't going to charge me for the trip.

"Por que não?" I replied.

How things have changed, I was reflecting, just over half a century later. Here was the president of another Amazonian country telling his audience something quite revolutionary – that vast tracts of jungle should not be opened up for exploration and exploitation. On the contrary, they should be preserved: for the benefit of Ecuador, for the benefit of the Ecuadorian region as a whole and even for the benefit of the wider world.

Now, Moreno is not averse to hyperbole. He has written books, he has composed songs. He is a performer in every sense of the word. Yet when he goes on to tell his audience, "If there are no jaguars or pumas, we shall all die," I get absolutely no sense that he is merely putting on a show.

fter a while, the president calls on Ivonne Baki, the Secretary of State for the Yasuni-ITT Initiative, to come to the dais. Baki has an extraordinary CV: her parents were Lebanese and she is married to a Lebanese businessman and politician but her life has been spent in Ecuador's public service. She has been Ecuador's ambassador in Washington, leader of the Andean Parliament, and a candidate for president. Now her job is to lead Ecuador's fight to save Yasuni National Park – a fight which has attracted support from conservationists around the world, including such eminent figures as the scientists Jane Goodall and Edward O Wilson, the Hollywood actors Leonardo DiCaprio and Edward Norton, the former US vice-president Al Gore and the Secretary General of the United Nations, Ban Ki-moon.

A striking figure, Baki takes the microphone, sits beside the president and addresses the audience. "Ecuador is a developing country," she says. "It's really tough for us. Electricity, infrastructure, schools, health, hospitals. We are starting from zero. We need everything. Yet we have to preserve the environment as well. It's written in our constitution."

The country faces an impossible dilemma, she continues. The Yasuni National Park is one of the most biodiverse locations in the world: home to 596 species of birds, 2,274 species of trees and bushes, more than 382 species of freshwater fish, at least 169 species of mammals, 141 species of amphibians and 121 species of reptiles. "There are also more than 100,000 species of insects per hectare, the highest number on the world."

Yet, with savage irony, it is here in Yasuni that some of Ecuador's most valuable oil reserves are to be found. "You may have 900 million barrels of oil – that's 20 per cent of the oil of Ecuador. It could be more. They say it could be 1 billion, or even 5 billion barrels."

So what should the country do, she asks. "Should we keep the oil in the ground or take it out?" Can Ecuador somehow manage to have its cake and eat it?

In a nutshell, the answer is yes. Baki explains that the Yasuni-ITT Initiative, for which she is responsible, is the emblematic project of the Ecuadorian government. To avoid the environmental destruction caused by oil exploration in one of the areas with the greatest biological and cultural diversity of the Amazon, the government has committed itself to a permanent ban on oil production in the Ishpingo-Tambococha-Tiputini (ITT) oil fields, located in Yasuni.

To make good on that commitment, the Ecuadorian government has agreed to forego 50 per cent of the oil revenues, currently estimated at more than $12bn, which it would otherwise have received. This is a colossal sacrifice – and one the government is ready k to make. But, Baki explains, Ecuador cannot afford to go it alone. "The government of Ecuador, in the spirit of shared responsibility, is seeking contributions of $3.6bn over 13 years – corresponding to half the value of exports foregone in 2007 – from international public and private contributions. This initiative will promote the conservation of the world's most valuable biodiversity."

Baki points out that conserving Yasuni's forest will also avoid the emission of approximately 1.2 million metric tons of carbon dioxide, since deforestation is one of the principal sources of CO2 emissions. And she ends on a note of optimism: to date, the amount raised by, or committed to, the Yasuni-ITT Initiative is $330m.

But what will the money be spent on? Here, too, Baki explains, the concept is visionary. "We want to build Ecuador's economy on the basis of renewable resources, not fossil fuels." The funds under the Yasuni-ITT initiative are administered by the Multi-Partner Trust Fund Office of the United Nations Development Programme. The first project, a mini-hydroelectric station – at Huapamala in Loja in southern Ecuador – has just been launched.

We later have lunch in a lodge built by the Quechua people to encourage wildlife tourism. I find myself sitting next to Diego Zorilla, the United Nations Development Programme's representative in Ecuador. It is clear that he is a passionate believer in the Yasuni-ITT initiative. Indeed, he thinks some potential benefits may have been understated in Minister Baki's presentation. As far as climate change is concerned, for example, it is not just a case of the reduction in CO2 emissions resulting from lower rates of deforestation. There is the crucial role, now being explored by scientists, that the vast Yasuni forest plays in the hydrological cycle of the whole Amazon Basin. "And if the Amazon Basin dries out thanks to deforestation and flips over to savannah, what does that mean for the whole world's weather patterns?" Zorilla asks.

or one reason or another, I have been visiting the Amazon on a regular basis for more than 50 years, ever since that first trip to Brasilia. I have crossed it, by road or in the air, from north to south and from east to west. There was a time, back in the 1960s, when you could fly in a jet plane hour after hour and see nothing but a great green expanse below. Those days are gone. The need to preserve what is left of the Amazon from the various threats that assail it – oil exploitation, cattle, logging, soya, palm-oil and so on – is more urgent than it ever has been.

In this context, the amounts of money asked by Ecuador to "save" the Yasuni seem derisory, a tiny fraction of the amount of money we have thrown at the banks since 2008. People who deprecate Ecuador's initiative for this park, calling it "blackmail" or "greenmail", need their heads examining. This is an idea whose time has come.

As our lunch draws to an end, I have an opportunity to talk to the president in person. More accurately, after I have presented my compliments in stilted Spanish, I have a chance to listen to Lenin Moreno as he reminisces about his Amazonian childhood. By now, I am flagging from the effort of keeping up with all the quick-fire Spanish, but Genoveva Casanova, who has been sitting next to him throughout the meal, helpfully fills in the gaps.

"He says that one day," she tells me, "a puma was attacking his uncle's cattle. His uncle called the men in the family to come and help hunt the animal. Suddenly the animal jumps out of the bush and everyone starts shooting. One of the cousins had a very old gun. When the animal is dead, they realise it is the man who has the very old gun who has shot the beast. The president tells us that his uncle gave him the skin of the puma and he kept it for years. He really cherished that skin."

I ask Casanova to ask the president whether he has ever seen a jaguar. I myself have seen wild animals all over the world in my time, but never a jaguar. The president nods. Yes, he has seen a jaguar. I am green with envy.

I have a feeling that the president is ready to stay in that Quechua village for hours, reminiscing about his childhood in the Amazon, but it is time for him to go, and he is wheeled to his helicopter. The members of the Cabinet who have accompanied him to Yasuni gather to pay their respects. As the squad of soldiers salute and the tribes-people gaze in wonder, the great green beast takes off and roars back to Coca, where the presidential jet awaits. We feel the downdraft as the helicopter passes overhead.

When the president and his party have gone, and all the Quechua have dispersed, some to their village houses, others to a greater distance, our local guide, Remy, escorts us through the forest to a boat which is waiting to take us to another jungle lodge, down-river, where we are booked to stay the night.

Baki, who accompanies us, explains that for the final two hours, we will be paddling down a creek – a quebrada – with no outboard motor. The Napo Wildlife Center, where we are heading, is on a lagoon. On the way we see several caiman and the tracks of a tapir, as well as five species of kingfisher, several striated herons, a cluster of hoatzin, and an owl-eye butterfly, to name but a few.

On the way back the next day, I see a family of giant river otters and a boa constrictor in a tree, waiting to catch parrots flying in to a nearby clay lick. As we sit there, looking at the 2m-long reptile coiled around a high branch with its head in the air, ready to strike, Remy tells us: "A boa constrictor needs to eat only one parrot a month."

After a while, we get out of the boat and walk along a trail through the forest to another clay lick, where hundreds of parrots have gathered. "They need the clay to clear the toxins in their diet," Remy explains.

For the record, the various birds we see that morning include dusky-headed parakeets, white-eyed parakeets, blue-eyed parakeets, blue-headed parrots, yellow-crowned and mealy Amazon parrots.

We also see a scarlet macaw, which brings an abrupt end to the spectacular show when it spots a large hawk approaching. It issues a loud squawking alarm, the birds panic – and suddenly they are off, in all directions.

'Where the Wild Things Were: Travels of a Conservationist' by Stanley Johnson, is published by Stacey International, priced £9.99. For more on Yasuni, see mptf.undp.org/yasuni, and yasuni-itt.gob.ec/inicio.aspx

Additional research by Zachary Norman

Yasuni in numbers

2,704: The number of plant species known to be found in Yasuni

400: The approximate number of plant species that are unique to the region

28: Plant species found in Yasuni that are vulnerable, endangered or critically endangered

9,823km2: The total area of Yasuni National Park – about half the size of Wales

13: The park's number of vulnerable, endangered or critically endangered species

121: The number of reptile species living in Yasuni

100,000: The number of insect species per hectare of Yasuni – the highest proportion in the world

141: The number of amphibian species in Yasuni – more than in the US and Canada combined

1,418: The number of animal species known to be found in Yasuni

43: The number of animal species known to be unique to the region

2: The number of uncontacted tribes in Yasuni – the Tagaeri and Taromenane clans of the Waorani

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