TBY talks to Ivonne Baki, Plenipotentiary Representative of Yasuní Ishpingo-Tambococha-Tiputini (ITT), on the importance of protecting the Yasuní rainforest area and the positive long-term effects of the initiative to protect Ecuador's natural beauty.

Ivonne Baki
In 2002, Ivonne Baki ran as a candidate for the presidency of Ecuador on a social justice platform aimed at education and sustainable development. In 2003, she became Ecuador’s Minister of Foreign Trade, Industry, Regional Integration, Fisheries, and Competitiveness. In 2006 she was elected to the Andean Parliament, and in 2007 she was elected President of the Andean Parliament by a unanimous vote. In 2009, she was name UNESCO Goodwill Ambassador for Peace by Director-General Irina Bokova. In 2009, she became leader of the Yasuní Ishpingo-Tambococha-Tiputini (ITT) negotiating team.

What makes Yasuní-ITT's project unique?

Yasuní-ITT is a 1 million-hectare area that is the most biodiverse place on the planet. In one single hectare there are more types of plants and trees than in the US and Canada put together. Animals migrate from many regions to Yasuní, and the region is home to a variety of prehistoric animals and plants. Moreover, there are more vegetable species in Yasuní than anywhere else in the world. There are also communities living in voluntary isolation; Yasuní in itself is a unique and magical place. However, another source of wealth in the zone is the vast quantity of oil underground. This is why President Correa made an announcement to the UN in 2007 that Ecuador would begin an initiative to conserve the environment and shift the energy matrix toward renewable energy, and that the country is willing to leave the oil found in the ITT fields of Yasuní untapped. However, we seek worldwide support for the petition.

How do you explain or quantify the value of this project?

It is a very difficult idea to explain and sell. Companies can sell or market a product in exchange for a value, but how do you sell oxygen? What value can you assign to it? The gas is shapeless, but it provides life. It is our responsibility to assign values to the immense biodiversity, plants, and animals in Yasuní-ITT, but this is not an easy task. Nobel Peace Prize winner, Dr. Eric Chivian, suggested that every medicine for the world's current diseases lies undiscovered in Yasuní, but no further research has been conducted on the topic. Nevertheless, he has supported the initiative by becoming our ambassador, uniting 88 scientists to urge that the area be preserved in order to carry out studies regarding its biodiversity. In the US, I met with Joseph Stiglitz, a Nobel Prize winner in economics, to discuss how to assign value to the intangible natural resources we have. A single plant or the venom of a frog can produce medicine for a variety of diseases, and treatments for cancer could be found in Yasuní's plant life; there's so much to discover, but the value is indeterminable. However, what we can estimate is the value of the CO2 that will not be produced. Although we want to assign a value to the great amount of biodiversity, one way to value Yasuní-ITT is by estimating the oxygen that the conserved trees would produce; 810 million additional tons. Someday, we aim to compile a more complete and accurate value.

Spain and Italy have been the main contributors thus far. What has held other countries back from joining Yasuní-ITT?

First and foremost, the economic crisis has affected many potential contributors. In fact, Spain and Italy gave their contributions prior to the debt crisis. In addition, there is a certain lack of knowledge about the campaign, and the focus of our negotiations has been geared toward Germany, Spain, Italy, Belgium, and France. We recently expanded the campaign to other countries, such as Turkey, Georgia, and Australia, as well as some Latin American nations. This branch of the initiative was launched in September 2011. It is not easy to make the world aware of an environmental initiative without an aggressive communications and public relations campaign, and so we are betting on social networking; young people are driving changes such as this.

What will be your immediate investments with the collected benefits?

We will make use of a trust fund once we hit a certain amount. The Steering Committee will be meeting in the coming months to decide where we will invest, but the focus areas are reforestation, environmental protection, and social development programs such as supporting the communities that live in the Yasuní area of influence without access to education, health care, or water infrastructure. The capital can also be used for investments in renewable energy. The Steering Committee can go in many directions, but the decisions we make have to fall under the umbrella of social and environmental issues.

What is the process of making a contribution to the Yasuní-ITT project?

Contributions can be made through our website, Small amounts receive a certificate with the person's name as proof that they have supported Yasuní-ITT. If contributors wish to obtain a return certificate, an amount of at least $50,000 must be donated, and people can work together to collect that amount. The benefits are the same as those of buying a product for your health or well being. We need to take action now. The drawbacks of climate change will be much higher than those of an economic crisis, and could cost as much as 20% of the GDP of every country. Those who contribute are protecting both humanity and the economy.