I frequently discuss conservation in urban areas or areas where humans live and work- but that does not discount the value of more continuous swaths of nature with minimal human activities- the two forms of conservation are not and should not be mutually exclusive. It’s the difference between, such as in the US, National Parks that conserve evolutionary processes and large carnivores and diverse tree species to smaller, urban natural areas or reserves that provide some habitat but also areas of recreation. We still need those large swaths of relatively undisturbed nature to regulate planetary cycles, just as we need those small parks to feel restored after work or a place to hang out on the weekends. Not all of nature can survive in urban parks and we must recognize that if we want to share this planet and ultimately survive ourselves.
I am writing passionately about this topic because I feel very passionate about the conservation of one of those large swaths of undisturbed nature: Yasuni National Park and UNESCO Biosphere Reserve in Ecuador. Yasuni is the real deal, a true primary rainforest- it covers an area of 6,100 square miles, about the size of Delaware, and is one of- if not THE- most biodiverse place on this planet. It is also the site of my first rainforest experience. As a 20 year old undergraduate student of ecology, Yasuni is where I first stood in the center of a lush green canopy listening to a real cacophony of nature. It is the first place I learned rain can be literally deafening. The first place I heard the bizarre sound of a Howler monkey. The first place I saw the brilliance of a blue morpho butterfly. The first place I didn’t mind getting woken up before 6 am, as long as it was to the laughing of golden-mantled tamarins. The first place I felt nervous by the rush of thousands or millions of army ants on a mission. The first place I felt the freedom of a pair of macaws flying above the Napo River. The first place I was surrounded- literally surrounded- by butterflies of all colors and shapes, as if from a fairytale. The first place I learned that beetles can be the size of baseballs and sound like helicopters as they land on a fresh pile of dung before beautifully rolling it up into a neat ball for future beetles. It was a magical experience and it is a magical place. It made a lasting mark on me as emotionally, as a scholar of nature, and physically- as I now have a tattoo of that helicopter beetle.
Why I am telling you all about Yasuni now, 11 years after my experiences there? I am telling you about it because Ecuador’s president, Rafael Correa, just approved oil drilling in Yasuni. This did not come as a huge surprise and even his presidential opponent warned voters that he would approve it and blame the lack of international support. Who is to blame? Perhaps it is the international community, us, and perhaps not for the lack of conservation support but for the demand of cheap oil and the lack of energy conservation policies. Perhaps this idea of paying for the forest, while potentially a great one, came too soon and didn’t last long enough for it to be a viable solution in 2013. But the reasons don’t take away from the fact that drilling will happen, that Ecuador will have access to 20% of its oil reserves, that another country will have a few more years of cheap oil, that trees will come down, that more CO2 will enter the atmosphere, that individual animals and plants will die and that species will go extinct, probably many species.
There may even be nothing we can do about it, there probably isn’t anything we can do about it, but it is so important that we- as GLOBAL citizens- are aware of this beauty, able to understand the importance of this regulator of our planet in order to do something about it in the future- to prevent any more of Yasuni from oil exploration, to make conservation of areas like this a priority, a priority over short-term energy needs. A shift needs to happen and it needs to happen soon.
To get a more quantitative view of how incredibly diverse this place is (notice they don’t even mention invertebrates because the numbers are too insane!), check out this video. The video came before the approved oil drilling and so the hopeful ending is misleading:
But perhaps better than understanding the sheer number of species in this amazing place, I hope the idea of it and the visual will give you a sense of its value and that the thought of destroying even a small portion of Yasuni will make you feel the loss in your gut.
Is there anything we can do now? I’m not sure, but maybe we can push hard for regulations on how the drilling is carried out. In some coverage from PBS on Friday, Entomologist Terry Erwin reminds us that maybe regulated drilling could potentially reduce the negative effect on species- true? I don’t know, but I will post any petitions that you can sign as I find them in the comments of this post. In the meantime, follow Yasuni and Tiputini on facebook.