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Correa's Conundrum

The Yasuni National Park in the east of Ecuador, home to the indigenous Waorani and Kichwa groups amongst others, is one of the most biologically diverse places on earth, boasting the world's highest density of amphibian, tree and bat species. The soggy earth below this remote Amazonian redoubt also contains billions of dollars worth of oil which both the Ecuadorian government and multi-national oil companies are keen to get their hands on. Until recently, a radical proposal by President Rafael Correa's government known as the Yasuni-ITT (Ishpingo-Tambococha-Tiputini) initiative held out the hope that Yasuni's unique natural environment would be safeguarded by calling for international donors, both private and public, to contribute US $ 3.6 billion, half of what the estimated Yasuni oil reserves are worth. But in early August 2013, the president appeared on national television to announce that the fund, which had only reached US $ 13 million in actual deposits, would be liquidated, lamenting that 'the world has failed us'.

A flurry of recriminations has followed the sudden announcement and intense disputes over how much of the park is to be opened to exploration continue to surround the decision. President Correa argues that the opening of 1% of the park to prospectors could generate billions to fight poverty. Environmentalists and other supporters of the initiative recall the sorry legacy of the oil industry's work in Ecuador, siting Texaco's 20 year legal imbroglio over its alleged pollution of the Lago Agrio area and other examples of industrial malfeasance.

Demonstrators took to the streets of Quito in protest against the government's decision and a coalition of environmental groups have vowed to collect enough signatures, or 5% of the voting population of 10 million, to force the government to hold a referendum on the issue. Recent polls suggest that a large majority of Ecuadorians are opposed to drilling in Yasuni. President Correa, who has a history of antagonism with the country's media, hit back by proposing that if the referendum were successful, all print media should only publish online to save paper, and thus the country's forests.

The greatest fear for conservationists remains the impact which road building and the arrival of large numbers of people in search of work will have on the fragile ecosystems of this untouched part of the Amazon and how certain indigenous groups who are living in voluntary isolation will cope with the influx. The stage is set for yet another showdown between Big Oil and those fighting to protect the last few oases of nature untouched by human intervention.
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