• Photo: btdevil/flickr

Like the mists that hang around its towering trees, the vast Amazon rainforest remains shrouded in mystery. Scientists believe that its unexplored reaches contain literally thousands of unknown species. Just last year a new subspecies of monkey was confirmed in Columbia, and on average new species are discovered every few days. While there are no longer any blanks on the map, the rainforest’s impenetrable canopy and dense cloud cover limits satellite imagery's effectiveness as a mapping tool over the forest. And what's more, the Amazon is home to dozens of tribes of hunter-gathers living a Stone Age existence, with little to no contact with the outside world.

To a romantic or a wilderness lover, these reasons alone are sufficient to preserve this remarkable environment. Yet the Amazon is more than just an exotic land of mystery and adventure, where jaguars lurk and tales of the lost city of El Dorado still abound. The rainforest is critical to life on Earth, providing all living things with fresh air, helping to stabilize the climate, and yielding up the properties of many different medicines.

Tragically though, upwards of 17 percent of the Amazon has already been destroyed, with thousands of hectares still disappearing almost daily due to logging, road construction, mineral and oil development, and expanding agriculture.

But there are glimmers of hope that all is not lost. Last summer, in partnership with the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP), the government of Ecuador announced an innovative initiative to halt any future oil development in the eastern part of the country’s Yasuni National Park deep in the forest near the border with Brazil. Covering some 10,000 square kilometres, Yasuni is one of the world’s most biodiverse areas, which gives it importance beyond Ecuador’s borders.

However, the proposal naturally comes with a catch. Ecuador estimates the value of its untapped oil reserves in Yasuni at nearly $7.2 billion (USD), and in order halt development needs to raise half of that through international aid. The money raised will be used for alternative, sustainable energy development and other projects aimed at local indigenous people in the region. Given that Ecuador is one of the poorest countries in South America, it would hardly be realistic to expect it to cover these costs alone.

Alas, funds for the project have so far proved as elusive as the Amazon’s fabled city of gold. To date, only Spain and Chile have pledged funds, and both sums offered are paltry, 1.3 million (USD) and 100,000 (US) respectively. Where are Canada and other wealthy nations in all of this? Last year, Canada spent about five billion on foreign aid, significantly more than the 3.6 billion needed to meet Ecuador’s goal. Perhaps we need to start rethinking how we spend foreign aid, and take into consideration what might be called "environment aid." Indeed, environmental groups hope that if successful, Ecuador’s partnership with the UNDP can become a model for other tropical countries. But that won’t happen unless countries like Canada, with the funds to make such projects a reality, embrace these new initiatives. I for one hope we do, and in the process learn to realize that the real El Dorado is and always has been the rainforest itself.