Parks Beyond Borders: New Success As Ecuador Involves The World In Preserving Amazon Park

In an interview with National Parks Traveler on a weekend trip to the United States, Ivonne Baki, Ecuador’s Secretary of State for the Yasuní-ITT program, said the country's efforts to preserve one of the most diverse national park regions on the planet got a big boost last week when Italy pledged 35 million Euros to the project. The nearly 4,000-square-mile park is in Eastern Ecuador about 156 miles from Quito.

Ecuador’s revolutionary Yasuní-ITT initiative—which seeks to preserve one of the largest, most diverse national park regions on the planet—got a big boost last week when Italy pledged 35 million Euros to the project. In an exclusive interview with National Parks Traveler, Ivonne Baki, Ecuador’s Secretary of State for the Yasuní-ITT program, said, “this gift to humanity from Ecuador” is gaining momentum.

Ecuador has pledged to preserve Yasuní area resources, and in return, is asking the world to contribute half the revenue the country would receive if it drilled for oil in that part of the Amazon. The newest and largest contribution comes in the form of Italy forgiving an Ecuadoran debt.

Ecuador pledges to pay that money, and to deposit contributions from other donors in a fund of the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP). Those funds will help offset the loss of Yasuní oil export revenue with investments in renewable energy generation, energy efficiency, social development, reforestation and environmental conservation.

During a trip to the United States last weekend, Secretary Baki recapped recent successes that got underway in earnest last spring with the news-making global media campaign I Am Yasuní (see our earlier story on the campaign).

“If something is not known, it doesn’t exist,” Baki said. “The Yasuní and our program to prevent it from destruction was unknown. So we needed to make it known to the world.” The I Am Yasuní program is doing that—in part with an offbeat YouTube video.

“It’s all about marketing,” Baki says. “Now people are coming to us. We ended last year with $117 million pledged and this year we are already near 200 million. In the next 12 years, we’re seeking $3.6 billion.”

Baki describes the program as “revolutionary” and proactive. “This isn’t about cutting the trees and then getting money for reforestation—it’s something new and different. We’re dependent on oil but we’ve made the courageous decision to prevent the use of the resources. We have $200 million now, which is not much, but it’s getting better. Now people see this program is an example to the world.”

Baki says she “goes climate change meetings all the time, and nothing happens. They say we have to do something and nothing gets done. Ecuador,” she says, “is doing something.

“We are asking for preservation, for not cutting the trees or using the oil. Some governments are not getting it, they say, ‘you have oil in the ground and you’re not getting it out—are you stupid?’ But in Ecuador, we believe in preservation. Look how we have protected the Galapagos Islands. We are the only country with a constitution that gives rights to Mother Earth. We believe in this and in taking this leadership role.”

The constitutional provision that Baki points out is amazing. Materials produced by Ecuador that promote the Yasuní-ITT program assert that 2008 changes to the constitution alter nature from an “object of exploitation to a subject with constitutional rights (respect and conservation).” Article 71 of the constitution says, “Nature, or Pacha Mama, where life is created and reproduced, has the right to have its existence integrally respected, and its vital structures, functions, and evolutionary processes maintained and regenerated.”

Steady Progress

Baki says she wants “more participation, of course, but there is more awareness now. People know about this program and they congratulate us, saying ‘this is a gift for humanity that Ecuador is doing and we want to be part of it.'”

Gifts are growing, says Baki, “whether from people in civil society, NGOs, private sector companies, or governments.” The program started, “internally in Ecuador, so the people would know the vision we have and be proud of it.” And it was just in April of this year that “we started the world campaign—'I am Yasuní' ... a great campaign about how small the world is and how important places like Yasuní are. It’s working very well.”

“The US as a government, that didn’t sign Kyoto, is not supporting the program, or they haven’t done so yet,” says Baki, “but when you look at the civil society contributions, the United States is the second biggest country in the world in terms of contributions. Great Britain is first, and their government doesn’t participate in Kyoto either. The people of the United States are supporting us,” she says. “Two people gave a whole year of their salary.”

Baki believes the Obama Administration’s proposed “cap and trade” Energy Bill might have created the possibility for US government support. She hopes “that after the US election an energy policy will pass that will permit the US government to support the initiative.”

“The cost of climate change is only getting more expensive,” she says. “If we don’t preserve places like this for the world, we’re not going to make it.”

Come See Yasuní

If you think, “I am Yasuní,” you may want to visit Ecuador. “It is quite possible to see Yasuní,” says Baki.

There are US State Department advisories about crime and other hurdles in the country, but Baki says, “Ecuador is not a dangerous country.” It’s not an easy park to reach—more difficult than some Ecuadoran preserves—but there are well packaged, highly regarded, all-inclusive eco-resorts that simplify things.

One of those is the upscale Napo Wildlife Center. Baki says, “It’s easy to travel from Quito, the capital, to Yasuní and the Napo Wildlife Center. From Quito it’s a 25-minute plane flight or with the new roads it’s not difficult to go three hours by car, to the city of Coca, in the province of Orellana. Then you go by motor launch for two hours, then by guided canoe another two hours into the park. You go by canoe because even the sound of a motor would spoil everything.”

“A visit changes your life,” she says. “Once a person sees it, they have another vision of the Amazon, something you cannot get from a video. You have to feel it—which is why in the native language the word Yasuní means ‘sacred land.’”

Amazing Statistics

It’s not hard to be wowed by the park's statistics. Even a single talking point tells the tale—“The park holds 655 tree species in a single hectare, more than all the native tree species in the United States and Canada.”

Wikipedia says, “Yasuní National Park is arguably the most biologically diverse spot on Earth. The park is at the center of a small zone where amphibian, bird, mammal, and vascular plant diversity all reach their maximum levels within the Western Hemisphere. ... The total of its amphibian species are more than the United States and Canada combined. ... In spite of covering less than 0.15% of the Amazon Basin, Yasuní is home to approximately one-third of amphibian and reptile species. The park also harbors high levels of fish diversity with 382 known species. This number is greater than the amount of fish species found in the whole Mississippi River Basin. Yasuní also is home to at least 596 bird species which comprises one-third of the total native bird species for the Amazon. ... Yasuní has over 100,000 different species of insects which is roughly the amount of insect species that can be found in all of North America. The park also boasts one of the world’s richest levels of vascular plants.”

Says Baki, “This is a gift to humanity from Ecuador. It’s high time to think about future generations.”

For more—

For more information about the program, including other media coverage, and donating to the Yasuní-ITT initiative, visit this site.

The Guardian recently published an interesting video that delves into development pressures on the park and overviews the plan's political challenges.