Rainforest Scientists Oppose New Oil Road in Ecuadorian Amazon

By Matt Finer

YASUNI NATIONAL PARK, Ecuador, December 1, 2004 (ENS) - Fifty international rainforest scientists declared their strong opposition to the construction of a new oil road into Ecuador’s Yasuní National Park in a letter and report submitted this week to Ecuadorian President Lucio Gutiérrez. The scientists fear that penetration of the road into pristine forest areas will lead to species extinctions.

Yasuní National Park, located in the Ecuadorian Amazon, protects one of the Earth’s most biodiverse rainforests and is a refuge for threatened species such jaguars, Amazonian tapirs, giant otters, harpy eagles, and woolly monkeys.

In August, the Ecuadorian government granted the Brazilian national oil company Petrobras a license to construct a new road into an undisturbed part of the park to facilitate oil extraction.

Ecuadorian environmental and human rights groups immediately launched a lawsuit in Ecuador’s Constitutional Court to halt the project. The groups lost the initial suit and are now appealing.


Rainforest in Yasuni National Park (Photos courtesy Scott Suarez)
The impending road construction galvanized more than 25 top rainforest scientists from around the world to meet in Mindo, Ecuador last month at a conference organized to discuss the role of science and scientists in this looming threat.

"The conference clearly established two things; the extraordinary biodiversity of Yasuní National Park and the uncontrollable impacts on that biodiversity once a new road is built,” said Margot Bass, executive director of Finding Species, one of the environmental NGOs that organized the meeting.

By the end of the conference, a new group dubbed the Scientists Concerned for Yasuní (SCY) was born. The members of SCY unanimously agreed to oppose the new road and called for the government of Ecuador to enact a law prohibiting future road building in its national parks.

"Any future oil development must treat the intact rainforest as an ocean and use roadless methods to access the oil,” asserted Tom Quesenberry, director of the Mindo Biological Station where the meeting was held.

SCY members decided to draft a technical advisory report to submit as a friend of the court brief in the critical legal battle over the oil project.

The scientific findings presented at the conference and in the report reveal that Yasuní protects one of the most biologically rich regions in the world.

"The park protects a large stretch of the world’s most diverse tree community,” reported Nigel Pitman, Amazon Conservation Association’s director of science.

There are 644 tree species in one hectare (2.47 acres) of Yasuní National Park, almost as many as the 680 species found in all of the United States and Canada combined.

Moreover, at least 100 tree species have been found over 25 hectares, eclipsing the diversity seen in Central American and African rainforests.

The only known area with comparable diversity to that found in Yasuní is Lambir Hills National Park in Malaysia. Still, it is estimated that there are well over 2,200 tree species within Yasuní, making it the likely world champion for tree diversity.

"Yasuní also protects one of the most diverse places in the world for birds,” said EcoEcuador Board Member Chris Canaday, noting that over 560 species have been documented.

As for amphibians, Shawn McCracken, president of the TADPOLE Organization said, "On a global scale, amphibian diversity reaches its pinnacle in the upper Amazon basin, and Yasuní National Park resides in the heart of this megadiverse region.”

Yasuni contains the highest known insect diversity in the world, with a mind-boggling 100,000 species per hectare, and is among the top known sites in the world for bat diversity.


Spider monkey in Yasuni National Park (Photo by Scott Suarez courtesy Proyecto Primates)
The park also has a rich primate diversity with at least 10 species, and perhaps as many as 12. It protects one of the few areas that contain all three of Amazonia’s largest monkey species - howler, woolly, and spider monkeys.

Yasuní also shelters 25 mammal species that are of global concern according to IUCN - The World Conservation Union. The park is one of the key refuges for the globally endangered giant otter, and there are reported populations very close to the planned road site.

Yasuní also protects such threatened mammals as the Amazonian manatee, white-bellied spider monkey, giant anteater, and pink river dolphin.

Scientists at the Mindo meeting pointed out the devastating ecological effects caused by new roads penetrating the rainforest.

Ten years ago, the oil company Maxus built the first road into the Yasuní. The gate at the beginning of the road has successfully managed to keep out non-indigenous colonists, but it has not been able to stop the accelerating colonization along the road by indigenous Quichua and Huaorani communities.

Grady Harper, a specialist in tropical forest mapping from Conservation International, presented aerial images showing the deforestation that has occurred along the Maxus Road over the past 10 years. "Deforestation and settlement are occurring along the Maxus Road within the park, in spite of the fact that this road was built with the understanding that it would be returned to forestland after the oil extraction was completed,” he told the assembled scientists.

Jonathan Greenberg, from the University of California at Davis, reported research estimating that within 50 years, half of the forest within two kilometers of the Maxus Road will be lost.

Maggie Franzen, also from the University of California at Davis, reported, "The road greatly increases the area of forest subjected to hunting pressure by the Huaorani and provides access to markets where hunters can purchase ammunition regularly and sell hunted game."

"We’ve found evidence for local depletion of the spider monkey and woolly monkey, and possibly the Amazonian tapir, in the hunt areas of two Huaorani communities that have become established along the road,” she said.

A study by Dr. Larry Dew of the University of New Orleans found that the unprecedented hunting access provided by the Maxus Road is driving unsustainable hunting rates that threaten the existence of woolly monkeys within the park.

Dr. Anthony Di Fiore, a professor at New York University who has been researching primates in Yasuní for 11 years, said, "Roads provide hunters with easy access to previously untouched areas. The Maxus oil road has had a dramatic impact on mammalian populations over the past 10 years. Populations of large primates, which play crucial roles as seed dispersers in tropical ecosystems, are especially vulnerable to this kind of human pressure.”


Caiman in Yasuni National Park (Photo courtesy Scott Suarez)
The Scientists Concerned for Yasuní concluded that the Maxus Road, despite supposed tight entry safeguards conducted by the oil companies, represents a serious threat to the park’s biodiversity and threatened species. SCY points out that all available evidence clearly indicates that the negative impacts of roads are uncontrollable.

Moreover, the scientists see no evidence that indicates the new Petrobras Road would be an improvement over the Maxus Road. The proposed road’s proximity to Quichua communities along the Napo River and Huaorani communities within the park indicate that the Petrobras Road would also likely serve as a magnet for colonization and overhunting.

The Petrobras road would penetrate into one of the most undisturbed parts of the park, making the negative impacts even more profound.

Fifty-six scientists signed the letter to government officials. It was submitted, along with the report, to Ecuador’s President, Environment Ministry, and Constitutional Court.

In the letter, the scientists stress their strong opposition to the new road into Yasuní National Park, the country's only strict protected area in one of the most biodiverse regions of the planet – Western Amazonia near the equator.

The scientists also call for a new law prohibiting new roads in Ecuador’s National Parks. Brazil already has such a law, so it appears that Brazil's national oil company is exporting to Ecuador a practice that is illegal in its own country.

The Scientists Concerned for Yasuní now hope their plea, backed up with a wealth of scientific information accumulated over the last 10 years, will be heard at the highest levels of the Ecuadorian government and be taken into consideration by Ecuador’s Constitutional Court.