By Alister Doyle
OSLO (Reuters) - About a dozen companies are contributing to a novel conservation plan that pays Ecuador to protect part of the Amazon rainforest in return for barring oil drilling, the head of the initiative said on Friday.
Ivonne Baki said the scheme to conserve the Yasuni area of the Amazon basin, launched by leftist president Rafael Correa in 2010, has so far raised about $200 million, mostly from foreign governments.
"When I started last year it was only governments," she told Reuters by telephone from Paris. "Now we have around 12 companies, and more are coming." Individuals can also donate.
"It's going very well," she said.
Ecuador, an OPEC member, says that conservation of the area, which boasts one of the richest ranges of wildlife on the planet, means it will permanently forego 846 million barrels of oil and $7.2 billion in income beneath the jungle floor.
Baki said that corporate donors include Coca-Cola, Royal Caribbean Cruises, Japanese retailer Ryohin Keikaku Co, appliance maker Whirlpool, express delivery group DHL and Ecuador's chocolate producer Republica del Cacao.
She said she did not know the total donated by companies, sometimes in return for using Yasuni logos. Ryohin Keikaku, for instance, had given $200,000 alone.
Among benefits, the project is meant to protect wildlife - a single hectare of the Yasuni national park contains more tree species than in all of North America - and the livelihoods of indigenous peoples.
Keeping oil below ground would also slow global warming by avoiding emissions of 1.2 billion metric tons of carbon dioxide linked to oil and deforestation. That is roughly equivalent to Japan's greenhouse gas emissions in a year.
On a trip to Europe, Baki said she had met with cosmetics group L'Oreal in Paris as a possible partner. "We don't yet have any oil companies. I hope to meet with BP and Shell."
LUNGS OF WORLD
She said it was difficult to sell the idea of getting paid for not touching something.
"How do you say you want to be compensated for not developing the oil, not cutting the trees?" she said, adding: "It does have a value. This place is the lungs of the world."
Among the biggest sources, Italy has swapped about $50 million in debts for forest investment. She said that Ecuador was interested in talks with other creditors. The cash goes to renewable energy projects and conservation.
She said donations of more than $50,000, made via a website overseen by the U.N. Development Program, qualified for a guarantee that the money would be paid back if the region were ever opened to drilling.
But overturning the current policy would require a referendum or a 75 percent majority vote in Ecuador's parliament. "Opinion polls show that 90 percent of Ecuador's people favor the current policy," she added.
She said donations were "not at all" affected by Ecuador's decision in August to grant asylum in its London embassy to Julian Assange, the founder of Wikileaks who is wanted in Sweden for questioning over rape and sexual assault allegations.
The Yasuni initiative applies to three untapped oil blocks collectively known as the ITT. Yasuni is home to a vast array of birds, monkeys and other wildlife including jaguars and giant armadillos.
(Editing by Mark Heinrich)