INSIGHTS: Oil Companies Poised to Penetrate Ecuadorian Amazon

{Editor's Note: The author of this week's Insight is an American biologist working in the rainforests of Yasuni National Park.}

By Matt Finer, Ph.D.

YASUNI NATIONAL PARK, Ecuador, April 28, 2004 (ENS) - The Brazilian national oil company PetroBras is now finalizing plans to build a 45 kilometer (28 mile) access road into the heart of the ultradiverse Yasuni National Park in the the Ecuadorian Amazon. This road will be a completely new artery into remote, roadless, primary Amazonian rainforest largely untouched by human activities.

Despite promises made by the oil company, this road will undoubtedly trigger an irreversible wave of colonization and overhunting within one of the great wildlife safe havens on Earth.


A Huarani man stands beside a sign designating the tribe's territory. (Photo courtesy Tribes Travel)
Further, this road will transect the territory of the Chiru Isla Quichua community living along the Rio Napo, and would enter the ancestral territory of the Huaorani, possibly even impacting an uncontacted community.

The extraordinary biodiversity of Yasuni National Park was recognized in 1989 when it was designated a UNESCO Biosphere Reserve. The park contains the highest known plant diversity per hectare in the world, and over 1,100 species of woody species were found in a single 25 hectare plot at the Yasuni Research Station, eclipsing the diversity of any other known site.

Yasuni Park is one of the best places in the world to still see threatened wildlife. Here, jaguars still roam, woolly and spider monkeys still swing through the trees, and harpy eagles patrol the canopy looking for a sloth to pick off for lunch.

And to make things even more dire, two other major oil projects located within Yasuni Park are in earlier stages of development.

To the immediate west of the PetroBras project, the Canadian company Encana is preparing to begin massive seismic testing operations.


An ocelot near the Yasuni Research Station (Photo by Dr. Friedmann Koester courtesy Yasuni Research Station)
And to the immediate east, the massive ITT project is looming on the horizon, possessing Ecuador’s greatest proven oil reserves of over two billion barrels. Thus, the PetroBras road could very well set the precedent for a new wave of roadbuilding within the park.

Recall that the eyes of the conservation community were solidly focused on the Yasuni in the early '90s when the Maxus Road was constructed deep within the park. Now, over 10 years later and well off the international conservation communities' radar screen, colonization and overhunting along the Maxus Road are accelerating out of control.

In fact, primate biologists at the Yasuni Research Station have documented that, due to the unprecedented access created by the Maxus Road, the harvest rate of woolly monkeys is now greater than the birth rate, and the woollies are on their way to local extinction.

And so now we wish to alert the international community of the unprecedented threats facing one of the most biodiverse rainforests in the world.


Rainforest in Yasuni National Park (Photo by Dr. Friedmann Koester courtesy Yasuni Research Station)
We also wish to alert the media of the unfolding drama surronding the PetroBras project, as right now only one small Ecuadorian NGO, Accion por la Vida, is actively fighting to stop the road.

Amazingly, through a series of meetings with some sympathetic ears in the Ecuadorian Ministerio del Ambiente, Accion por la Vida has actually been able to temporarily put the brakes on the project.

Accion por la Vida’s main message at the meetings - this project cannot be allowed to move forward until a roadless alternative is fully and fairly considered. Right now, the Director of the Ministerio del Ambiente, Cesar Alfonso Narvaez, has temporarily halted the project and is considering the request.

However, PetroBras is putting intense pressure on him to sign the license immediately so they can begin construction.

Accion por la Vida just sent a representative to visit with the impacted indigenous communities and learned that there is indigenous opposition to this project as well. This road will transect the territory of the Chiru Isla Quichua community living along the Rio Napo, and we just learned that they oppose the road.

Further, the road would enter the ancestral territory of the Huaorani, whose culture has already been transformed by the first major road into their territory, the Maxus Road. We have also heard reports that the road may impact an uncontacted Huaorani community; we are looking into this.