Conquering climate change requires a commitment to help less advantaged countries. And no where is that dilemma more apparent than in the South American country of Ecuador. But will advanced countries answer the call?
Ecuador is ground zero in the battle to protect the Amazon Rainforest, where it is blessed with having more species of trees and bushes than anywhere else in North America. At the same time, the Yasuní National Park is home to 846 million barrels of oil that is worth $7.2 billion in revenue. If it is developed, however, it would produce an estimated 407 millions tons of carbon. It’s the classic paradox: economic development versus protecting the globe’s most pristine environment and the local tribes that inhabit the region.
“The indigenous community has the right to sell its land to oil and logging companies, which take the time to groom these populations and to help provide for their needs,” says Alan Howard, founder of the Sacha Agency, which is a digital marketing company that is dedicated to preserving Ecuador’s rainforest. “But a lot of our work has been put into maintaining the value of these lands where the locals get their food and they cannot afford for it to be destroyed.”
Howard, a millennial working with such companies as Duke Energy’s REC Solar, is a dedicated environmentalist. To this end, his company gives 15% of its profits to helping Kichwa people in the Ecuadorian Amazon. “Any company can do the same to protect the planet,” he says, noting that 400 people and 70 families are the locals that make up the Kichwa peoples.
To be clear, the oil companies are not the bad guys here. It is straight-up capitalism, which not only produces energy and profits but which also provides jobs and daily supplies to the locals. The Italian oil enterprise AGIP is active there.
Two years ago when Howard first visited the Kichwa people’s, they were evenly split over whether to sell parts of their land to the oil companies and to the loggers. While they clearly realize that maintaining their way of life is paramount, they are desperate for medicines and other necessities. To this end, private companies and philanthropist such as the actor Leonardo DiCaprio have taken up their cause.
“If they sell their land, they get a fraction of its true value,” says Howard. “And if their hunting lands are taken, they would become completely dependent on oil.”
“We are under a constant threat by the oil companies,” adds Freddy Ushigua, the chief of the Kichwa village, in a video interview. “The community has been working for about 30 years since AGIP came to our territory. It’s an oil company, But this company, and others, are trying to condition our community to need its support.”
Beyond oil development, an even more urgent issue has surfaced: illegal loggers, who come in and cut down their trees. The same monies used to buy life’s essentials are now getting allocated to hiring patrols. The community’s resources are therefore stretched thin.
The wider issue is whether the global community has a role in helping Ecuador preserve its rainforest: The Yasuní National Park comprises 20% of the nation’s oil reserves. The Ecuadorian government had earlier asked the international community to donate $3.6 billion by 2024 — monies that could offset half of the gains from oil revenues and which would be used to buy medicines and school supplies. But the idea never got off the ground and the proposal was tabled.
Ecuador’s predicament is similar to that of many African nations — that they are poorer countries and marginal polluters, which need economic development. Certainly, the indigenous peoples want to preserve their long-held traditions and to live off their land. But if the richer nations are committed to the climate cause, they must then assist the developing world in its quest to do the same.
What is the value of not releasing millions of tons into the air and in keeping a carbon sink in place? And if international communities fail to respond to Ecuador’s request, does that give oil companies an implicit approval to proceed? Is such complacency an endorsement of colonialism, with which Latin Americans are all-too familiar — or keeping poorer peoples dependent on foreign investment?
Yasuní National Park is rich with biodiversity and the indigenous peoples there have widespread support among idealist like Alan Howard. But more is necessary and thus, the Ecuadorian government and the Kichwa people are appealing to the international community: Ecuador and its citizens are working to combat climate change but such small nation with limited resources needs more focus.
The government, in fact, is moving away from fossil fuels and instead, it is using more solar and geothermal energy, which now comprises about 44% of the country’s electricity portfolio. And in keeping with the Paris climate accord, Ecuador wants 60% of its electricity to be supplied by sustainable fuels.
“The tide is changing for green energy and people’s care for the environment,” says Howard. “Ecuador is not asking for a handout. It is doing its part. Companies, generally, are realizing the importance of protecting the environment and what this does for their brands. We need to get the word out to protect the Kichwa people in the Ecuadorian Amazon.”
The ultimate outcome, though, is dependent on more than the goodwill of concerned citizens and enterprises. It is reliant on an international response — one that understands the inherent value of the Amazon Rainforest.