Ecuador will open parts of the Amazon rainforest to oil drilling after a failed attempt to raise money from the international community to preserve the region.
The area concerned is home of the Yasuni National Park – one of the Amazon’s regions with the most diverse biosphere and a territory of several indigenous tribes living in complete isolation.
Apart from the rich biosphere, the Yasuni National Park also possesses abundant resources of crude oil. About 800 million barrels - 20 per cent of Ecuador’s reserves of petroleum - are believed to be extractable from beneath the park, translating into $7.2bn (£4.6bn) of possible income for the country where oil accounts for 40 per cent of the national exports.
In 2007, Ecuador’s President Rafael Correa has launched an initiative to prevent oil drilling in the precious region of the Amazon, offering nations to pay money to Ecuador in exchange for the guarantee the area will remain untouched. Aspiring to raise £2.3bn – half of the expected value of the oil beneath the park - the initiative has fallen short of its goal earning barely $13.3m, less than half a per cent of the targeted value.
Overall $336m have been pledged in six years to the fund administered through the United Nations, forcing Correa and his team to re-evaluate the venture.
"The world has failed us," Correa said in a nationally televised speech. He said the global recession was in part responsible but chiefly blamed "the great hypocrisy" of nations who emit most of the world's greenhouse gases.
"It was not charity that we sought from the international community, but co-responsibility in the face of climate change."
The Yasuni-ITT trust fund has now been suspended and a group of experts has been commission to draw up technical, economic and legal documents for Ecuador to submit to the UN in order to get an approval for the oil extraction.
In the interview, Correa said the drilling would only affect 0.01 per cent of the Yasuni basin and that all precautions would be in place to protect the area.
However, environmentalists have been alarmed by the decision and initiated protests in front of the presidential palace in Ecuador’s capital Quito.
"Yasuni is important for humanity and as Ecuadorians, we can make the difference,” said biologist Adrian Soria, one of the protesters. “Yasuni must be preserved and that is more important than the oil."
During the campaign, officials said the unique Yasuni-ITT initiative could have prevented 410 million metric tons of carbon dioxide from entering the atmosphere.
"It is deeply disappointing that this alternative model for dealing with oil and gas reserves in mega diverse rainforests did not work,” said Matt Finer, a scientist at the US-based Centre for International Environmental Law.
"The Yasuni-ITT Initiative was the lone exception to the relentless expansion of hydrocarbon projects deeper into the most remote tracts of the western Amazon. Now there is really no viable alternative to stop the wave of drilling slated for the most biodiverse region of the world."
Rafael Correa, a US-trained economist, has won broad popular support among Ecuador's low-income majority with heavy spending on welfare, health, education and infrastructure projects. According to analysts, he has now opted for the economically pragmatic approach.
He says it is essential for the country to expand its oil reserves in order to direct more state spending toward the poor.
Ecuador's oil output has stagnated at about 500,000 barrels per day since 2010 when the government asked oil investors to sign less-profitable service contracts or leave the country.
Since then, oil companies have not invested in exploration.