Ecuador Wants Us to Pay for the Amazon

| Thu Apr. 26, 2007 3:51 PM EDT

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This dilemma cuts to the core of environmentalism today. Ecuador is asking for international compensation to leave alone a major oilfield in the heart of the Amazon. Ecuador's president says he will wait up to one year for a response before drilling. At stake are not only plant and animal species, but also the homeland of several tribes living in voluntary isolation. These tribes are among the fiercest on Earth, renowned for giant spears.

"Ecuador doesn't ask for charity," said President Rafael Correa, "but does ask that the international community share in the sacrifice and compensates us with at least half of what our country would receive, in recognition of the environmental benefits that would be generated by keeping this oil underground." That could come out to about $350 million per year.

Environmental groups are in disagreement. To pay or not to pay?

Arguments against: 1) Biodiversity is priceless. Destroying this part of the Amazon is evil. But paying for abstention would implicitly legitimize its exploitation. 2) Ecuador might be ethical enough to leave it alone anyway. If we pay, who else will come out of the woodwork to demand compensation what they might have left alone? There's no money pot to pay for everything. 3) Paying for what should be a given might exacerbate the situation. A slightly-related case: When well-meaning Christian groups bought modern-day slaves in Africa in order to set them free a few years ago, they put enough cash into the system to promote more slave raids, after the market would have died on its own. Talk about a road to hell paved with good intentions.

Argument for: 1) For environmentalism to work, we need to integrate it into the economy, not just morality and law. 2) With $4,500 income per capita, Ecuador is among the poorest half of nations. Oil is its biggest source of income. 3) Again, biodiversity is priceless. Ecologists and economists have estimated that the value of all natural ecosystems across the world--in terms of their services to humanity--is about 30 trillion dollars a year. That's more than the GNP of all nations combined. But in this case Ecuador is making it easy for us by asking for just half of potential oil revenue. So the question becomes, who would pay, and how?