Oil Versus Environment in the Yasuni Amazon

Juan Fernando Ayora

Imagine a world untouched by globalization, in which nomadic indigenous groups live in complete isolation, where one hectare of earth is so rich in biodiversity that it has more species of animals and plants than Mexico, U.S. and Canada combined. What if this untouched land was sitting on billions of dollars worth of oil reserves, and close to a third of your country's population was below the poverty line? Would you try to preserve this biological gem or would you cash it in?

This is the quandary Ecuador currently faces with its Yasuní National Park in the country's Amazon rainforest, and which Argentine director Nicolas Entel explores in his short documentary "Yasuní." Entel, well-known for his last documentary, "Pecados De Mi Padre," decided to make the film after doing a promotional video on the Yasuní-ITT Initiative for the TED Conference.

The initiative, which is led by Ecuadorian president Rafael Correa, seeks to "threaten" the international community into taking ownership of the problem by asking it to donate roughly half the monetary value of Yasuní's oil reserves in exchange for an indefinite freeze on drilling in the area. That's a big chunk of cash. When the initiative officially launched in 2010, Correa asked for $3.6 billion over 13 years. The Ecuadorian government has pledged to match whatever is donated, which hasn't been much so far. The money is held in trust funds administered by a UN Development Programme that works with a board made up of indigenous people, locals and scholars, among other knowledgeable people from the community.

The documentary, which had its world premiere recently at the Miami International Film Festival, starts by showing what would happen if an oil rig drilled in the middle of Madison Square Park in New York City. The point may not seem relevant at first glance, but Entel argues that this is a global issue. "The world is interconnected. It's like an interconnected highway system," said Entel in an interview with Univision News during the festival. "The air that the Amazon in Ecuador produces is the air we breathe here in Miami, where we are today. It's very important to know that."

Viewers then travel with Entel in his quest to see the reality in Yasuní and to meet the indigenous peoples who have been affected by oil companies invading the land. The viewer is introduced to two groups: the Kichwas, who have been protected and created a system of sustainable development; and the Waoranis, who have suffered the consequences of oil exploitation. The contrast between the two is stark. "The Waorani community is a community that has terrible lack. They went from not living in one place, from being nomads to being forced to settle under the shadow of an oil field and now they are suffering from this. They are dying of diseases they should not be getting," Entel said.

What's evident from Entel's film is that the value of this land isn't just hidden underground in its oil reserves. The abundance of species and biodiversity in Yasuní is practically unmatched, potentially making it a vast resource for science and medicine. Or not. There's an argument to be made that there's as much value in leaving it pristine and untouched. With or without oil, the land is priceless.

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