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In the Ecuadorian Amazon, it’s biodiversity versus oil

A biodiversity assessment published today in the online journal PLoS ONE tries to bolster the case for protecting Ecuador’s Yasuni National Park, even as the government’s proposal for doing so has hit its rockiest stretch.

Ecuador unveiled the Yasuni-ITT initiative in 2007, offering to spare a block of the Amazon from oil development in exchange for cash from the international community. The proposal had been rumbling along, slowly picking up support from the international community, until Ecuadorian President Rafael Correa criticized the terms being sought by international donors. Now the initiative is floundering.

Foreign Minister Fander Falconi and other officials working on the project have resigned in protest. On Monday, the Wall Street Journal quoted Correa indicating that he plans to appoint a new team and continue with the initiative, but how that might affect existing negotiations with potential donor countries is unclear.

Headed by Margo Bass of Finding Species and Matt Finer of Save America’s Forests, two US non-profit organizations, the PLoS ONE study integrates data from multiple sources – published and otherwise – to provide a comprehensive picture of biodiversity in Yasuni. Estimating species richness isn’t easy, but their results suggest that Yasuni competes with other hotspots in the western Amazon, ranking in the top two locations around the globe for amphibian and reptile biodiversity and within the top nine for vascular plants; Yasuni also performs well in terms of birds, mammals and fish.

The paper doesn’t specifically endorse the Yasuni-ITT initiative, but it doesn’t shy away from environmental advocacy, either. Maintaining the area as a biological refuge should be a “global conservation priority of the first order,” the authors write. “If the world’s most diverse forests cannot be protected in Yasuní, it seems unlikely that they can be protected anywhere else.”


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