Sitting on a Sack of Gold


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Generous equatorial rains fell on fertile terrain giving both life and color to this fragment of the planet. During millions of years, the region provided a plethora of vital ingredients to the workshop of evolution while biotic processes polished ecosystems into an equilibrium involving the greatest concentration of species anywhere and for all times. In far less than 1% of the land mass of the planet Earth, within the boundaries of Ecuador, more than 10% of all species, terrestrial and aquatic, can be found. Although we do not know with certainty the total number of species for the entire globe, best estimates place a likely maximum between 8 and 9 million.

According to the experts, this Andean-Amazonian country, despite its limited expanse, could be home to a million species, but much work is yet to be done in order to document the exact quantity. Furthermore, some authorities suggest that Yasuní, all by itself, might house a million species of plants and animals. We do know that eastern Ecuador has more than 2000 species of trees altogether and around 600 tree species per hectare. In contrast, the U.S. and Canada combined only have 560 native species of trees. And even though more than half of all modern pharmaceuticals are ultimately derived from plants, science has formally studied less than 5% of Amazonian flora in relation to potential clinical applications. Yasuní also has 50% more species of frogs than the two largest countries of North America together. This park has three-quarters of the number of bird species of those same countries in an area absolutely diminutive in comparison. If we consider the insects, the number per hectare in Yasuní is similar to the total for all lands in the New World north of Mexico. To generalize, Yasuní has more species per square kilometer than almost any entire country in the temperate zone, no matter its size.

Without doubt, the first humans to set foot in the place we now recognize as Ecuador perceived a land of abundance, a region with space to live and water to drink, as well as flora and fauna to consume – an Eden waiting to be exploited. At first glance, it would have been easy to notice some plants and animals as potential sustenance but there was no chance that those early arrivals could immediately appreciate the utility of thousands of things that are currently taken for granted. Nonetheless, with time and experience, we learned to comprehend numerous gifts of nature and came to categorize them as valuable assets. Early along, our list of resources was no doubt quite limited, but little by little, innovation incorporated more species and things onto the list of useful goods.

Across the millennia, we came to understand the value of many wild species from cinnamon to quinine, from curare to dragon’s blood, of copper, gold and crude oil, but there are still untold biological treasures hidden in the Amazon rainforest. Ignorance of our flora and fauna is doubtlessly a stumbling block for scientific advancement, but also represents a void in potential for the human race. As long as we remain unaware of so many natural wonders, we will certainly continue to miss opportunities to reach the goal of an optimal, full existence. The good news is that we still have a chance to conserve our natural treasures for the future, a time when our level of knowledge must, by default, be increasingly complete. In the meantime, what’s woefully missing is the sense that we must treat Mother Nature with proper care and she will always give us our daily bread – and so much more.

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