"He said, 'I feel bad that the U.S. is not supporting this,'" A-Baki said. Kerry's office disputed that, saying the senator merely indicated he would like to look into the project further and would try to be supportive.
In the meantime, other possible alternatives exist -- like the Green Climate Fund. Born out of the U.N. climate change negotiations, the fund could be up and running by next year. Nobody is sure how much money it will manage, but the fund is closely linked to a pledge nations made at the 2009 Copenhagen, Denmark, climate change summit to mobilize $100 billion annually in public and private funds for mitigation and adaptation needs in developing nations.
"That is something that we are approaching also," A-Baki said. "Right now, they don't have a penny in there, but it would be perfect for what we're doing."
U.S. sees 'problematic' elements
She noted that not exploiting the oil fields in Yasuní could prevent the emissions of around 410 million metric tons of carbon dioxide, equal to about one year of Brazil's carbon output. And the deforestation that would be prevented amounts to keeping 800 million tons of CO2 out of the atmosphere, double France's annual emissions.
"Everybody talks about how we need to reduce emissions, but how do you do it if you don't do things like this?" she said. "This is about prevention."
The U.S. State Department did not respond to requests to speak about the Yasuní initiative. But a look at some of the classified U.S. cables between 2007 and 2010 leaked to the anti-secrecy group WikiLeaks indicates a deep skepticism.
"There is little doubt that the Yasuní Reserve contains remarkable biodiversity and is worth preserving. However, there are several aspects in the proposal that are problematic, including: the valuation of the project, using either the oil or carbon credit benchmarks; still undefined post-Kyoto rules for different forest uses; lack of clarity on the guarantees that the [government of Ecuador] will provide; continued pressure to develop the petroleum reserves; and likely Ecuadorian resistance to an internationally managed fund because of sovereignty concerns," one 2009 cable on the project reads.
Some of those issues have long been addressed. Since those memos were written, the U.N. Development Programme has set up a fund, jointly managed with Ecuador, with a board that includes donors and civil society. Under it, the government guarantees all contributions above $50,000 will be returned if Ecuador ever does extract oil from Yasuní.
Pamela Martin, a professor of politics and international relations at Coastal Carolina University and the author of one of two English-language books on Yasuní, said U.S. resistance to the initiative is more complicated and is inexorably tied to the government's priority on maintaining friendly sources of petroleum.
"Particularly when the U.S. is discussing the need for more friendly sources, I wouldn't foresee support for an initiative to help keep Ecuador's energy underground," she said.
Leakage and 'Who owes who?'
Koenig of Amazon Watch said the early, ill-planned and poorly communicated pronouncements from the Correa government cast an initial pall over the initiative. So too, he said, did Ecuador's strategy of linking Yasuní with the "climate justice" movement that called for industrialized countries to pay developing nations ecological reparations.
The technical issues are equally challenging, he said. While decisions on how to compensate governments for protecting forests have moved forward at a rapid pace -- and those that put money into those developing forest policies may in the future garner carbon credits -- no category exists for avoided emissions from keeping oil in the ground. The leakage problems are particularly pronounced. What, after all, is to stop a country like Ecuador from preventing drilling in Yasuní but allowing it in the southern Amazon -- as it currently is doing?