Clandestine Oil Road Near Yasuni Park Found By Satellite

WASHINGTON, DC, February 16, 2005 (ENS) - A new wave of oil exploration and development now encroaching on one of the planet's great reservoirs of biodiversity - Ecuador’s Yasuní National Park - has scientists in Ecuador and the United States worried.

An oil access road built by the Occidental Petroleum Corporation (Oxy) in the park's buffer zone has just been discovered by viewing satellite images. The Occidental road was built through primary rainforest, on the lands of an indigenous Quichua community.

In a letter written to Dr. Ray Irani, chairman and CEO of the Los Angeles based Occidental Petroleum Corporation (Oxy), some of the world’s most preeminent scientists expressed "deep concern" about the road.

Scientists who signed the letter include primatologist Jane Goodall; ant expert E.O. Wilson from the Museum of Comparative Zoology at Harvard; conservationist Gary Meffe of the University of Georgia who wrote "Principles of Conservation Biology; Thomas Lovejoy, who coined the term biodiversity and originated the concept of debt-for-nature swaps; Stuart Pimm of Duke University; population expert at Stanford Paul Ehrlich and director of the Missouri Botanical Garden Peter Raven, who are cofounders of the field of coevolution. All are authors, Ph.D.s, and outstanding in their fields.


Dr. Stuart Pimm is Doris Duke Professor of Conservation Ecology at Duke University (Photo courtesy Duke)
Given its unique location at the intersection of the Andes, the Amazon, and the equator, "Yasuni may well be the single most biodiverse forest on earth," said Pimm, whose expertise lies in species extinctions and what can be done to prevent them. "There are almost as many tree species in just 2.5 acres of the Yasuni region than in the U.S. and Canada combined."

The scientists remind Oxy that in its 2003 Health, Safety, and Environment report the company states that, in order to protect indigenous lands and the biodiversity of the Yasuni area, the company would not build any roads in the area. But satellite images recently obtained by the scientists clearly reveal that Occidental has been building an oil access road deeper and deeper into the primary rainforest over the past several years.

The letter calls on Occidental to immediately implement a roadless development mandate for all future activities in primary rainforests.

Such roadless development is referred to as the off-shore model as it treats the intact rainforest as an ocean and requires the use of helicopters to transport materials and personel. Such technology was promised by Oxy in its 2003 report.

In the 2003 report, Oxy writes, "A key decision made by the team was that the development of the oil field would not include construction of a road. Air transport, via helicopters, and waterborne transportation would be used for personnel and materials."


Dr. Ray Irani is chairman and CEO of Occidental Petroleum Corporation. (Photo courtesy Oxy)
"What is critical at this moment," according to Save America’s Forests staff ecologist Dr. Matt Finer who has lived in Yasuni and studied the park for years, "is to ensure that Occidental does not extend their road network any deeper into the primary rainforest. Their road is now within five kilometers of Yasuni National Park’s northern boundary."

"The step after that," added Save America’s Forests Director Carl Ross, "will be to ensure that Occidental immediately implement measures on the ground that minimize ecological damage from colonization, deforestation, and over-hunting along the road."

The biologists emphasized that the Yasuni region is one of the most diverse sites in the world for birds, amphibians, and insects, is home to 10 primate species, and is critical habitat for 23 globally threatened mammal species, including the jaguar, Amazonian tapir, and white-bellied spider monkey.

In their letter, the biologists state that they are "deeply disturbed" by the fact that Occidental has built a major oil access road through this biodiverse region. The letter reports that new oil roads, such as the Oxy road, represent the greatest threat to the Amazon’s remaining intact primary rainforests.

And in addition, the Brazilian national oil company Petrobras is preparing to build a new access road into the heart of Yasuni.

In a letter written to the President of Ecuador Lucio Gutierrez Borbua, and Environment Minister Fabian Valdivieso, the same group of biologists called on the Ecuadorian government to prohibit the construction of the proposed Petrobras road.

And in a separate letter, seven researchers from the Smithsonian Institution called on Petrobras to reconsider its plans to build the new access road into the Park.


An ocelot goes fishing in Yasuni National Park. (Photo by Friedmann Koester courtesy Pontificia Universidad Católica del Ecuador)
All four letters were delivered this week to the Ecuadorian Embassy in Washington, DC, the Ecuadorian Environment Ministry in Quito, and the Petrobras headquarters in Brazil.

"Based on Smithsonian research conducted around the world on trees, mammals, and insects, we can demonstrate that Yasuní is one of the most diverse forests on Earth," said Elizabeth Losos of the Smithsonian. "We strongly recommend that Petrobras consider a no-road policy to protect the remarkable biodiversity of the area."

The biologists emphasize that the no-road option would not limit oil development, but would minimize the environmental impact to the primary rainforest.

These letters join two other scientific responses issued in recent months on the impacts of the proposed Petrobras road. In January, the Association for Tropical Biology and Conservation (ATBC), the world’s largest scientific organization dedicated to the study and conservation of tropical ecosystems, unanimously passed a resolution calling on the Ecuadorian government to prohibit the construction of the proposed Petrobras road.

"Building a new road in the Amazonian frontier is like opening Pandora’s Box," said William Laurance of the Smithsonian Tropical Research Institution in Panama, who is president-elect of the ATBC.

"Once a new road goes in, it’s nearly impossible to stop subsequent colonization, over-hunting, and deforestation along the road," Laurance said.

Last November, 59 neotropical researchers from institutions in 10 countries, calling themselves the Scientists Concerned for Yasuní, wrote a letter to the Presidents of Ecuador, Brazil and Petrobras strongly recommending that the proposed road be stopped.


A white-bellied spider monkey in Yasuni National Park (Photo courtesy NYU)
One of them, Dr. Anthony Di Fiore, a researcher from New York University who has been studying primates in Yasuní for 11 years, said "New roads provide hunters with easy access to previously untouched areas. Populations of large monkeys, such as woolly monkeys and spider monkeys, are especially vulnerable to this added pressure."

"We concluded that the negative impacts caused by new access roads in primary rainforest environments can not be effectively controlled," said Margot Bass, executive director of Finding Species and lead editor of the Scientists Concerned for Yasuní report. "We strongly recommend that all planned and future oil extraction in Yasuní utilize a roadless off-shore model."

The Petrobras road would transect the territory of an indigenous Quichua community and would enter the ancestral territory of the Huaorani, the native inhabitants of the Ecuadorian Amazon.

In 1989, in recognition of the Yasuní National Park’s extraordinary biodiversity, the park was formally designated as a UNESCO Biosphere Reserve, in response to an official request by the government of Ecuador to the United Nations Environmental, Scientific, and Cultural Organization.