Ecuador's Largest National Park Opened for Oil Development

By Matt Finer and Margot Bass

QUITO, Ecuador, September 23, 2004 (ENS) - Controversy is raging over oil development activities slated for Ecuador’s largest national park - Yasuni National Park, which protects one of the world’s most megadiverse regions. Jaguars, harpy eagles, caimans and 13 primate species live in this lowland rainforest, the ecological treasure of the western Amazon basin.

Last month, Ecuador’s Environment Ministry granted the Brazilian national oil company Petrobras a long-awaited license to begin pumping oil out of the park in northern Ecuador.

The license was granted after a state visit to Ecuador by Brazilian President Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva. Lula offered the Ecuadorian President Lucio Gutierrez Borbua $100 million to invest in the development of this small Latin American country.


Yasuni National Park is inhabited by jaguars. (Photo courtesy Ecuador Ministry of Tourism)
The license opens the door for Petrobras to build a new road, a pipeline, two drilling platforms, and a major processing plant, all within Yasuni National Park.

The license has generated vigorous opposition from Ecuadorian and U.S. environmental groups, Amazonian indigenous groups, and has prompted scientists to organize a conference.

Concern centers around the new road that Petrobras could build to access the two drilling platforms and the processing facility. This 37 kilometer (23 mile) road would be a completely new artery into the northeast section of the park and would punch through large tracts of undisturbed, biodiverse rainforest.

Conservationists fear the road will provide an easy route for loggers, farmers and hunters to enter the park to clear its forests and harvest its wildlife.

The Ecuadorian NGO Ecological Action (Accion Ecologica) is demanding that the Environment Ministry withdraw the license and conduct a comprehensive social and environmental audit of oil activities within the park.

Finding Species, a Maryland nonprofit organization, is preparing the Quito launch of a photo exhibit spotlighting Yasuni species to draw more public scrutiny to the issue.


Navigation of Yasuni National Park is conducted by boat. (Photo courtesy Ecuador Ministry of Tourism)
Several other groups, including the umbrella group that represents all of Ecuador’s indigenous communities, have taken the issue to court, requesting an injunction of the license.

Scientists, who typically plan their conferences up to a year in advance, sprang into action last month to organize Yasuni Day for October 12. More than 20 Ecuadorian and international scientists will present biodiversity findings and will review current satellite images of forest loss and demographics in the region.

The organizers, from the Mindo Biological Station, Yale University, and Finding Species, believe that scientists cannot be on the sidelines of this controversy, given its potential impact for biodiversity conservation and research.

The controversy nearly came to a close in April, but was kept open largely due to the energetic campaigning of a small Ecuadorian NGO called Action for Life (Accion por la Vida). Just as the Ministry of the Environment was to grant Petrobras the license in March, Action for Life organized intense opposition efforts.

Action for Life maintains that a cutting edge development model should be used in this megadiverse park - such as entering the rainforest via helicopters or by boats - methods that are used for off-shore oil drilling. Action for Life lobbied for Petrobras to present studies of this alternative. The Environment Ministry agreed and required Petrobras to completed another round of studies looking at roadless models for entering Yasuni National Park.

Petrobras completed these studies in August and concluded that the road was indeed the best option, both economically and environmentally. After the state visit by Brazilian President Lula, the Ecuadorian Environment Ministry signed off on the project license.

Action for Life is currently trying to obtain these studies for analysis.

The rainforests which Yasuni National Park protects are widely recognized by scientists and conservationists as among the most biodiverse on the planet. The World Wildlife Fund has named the area a Global Ecoregion Priority, and Wildlife Conservation Society heralded it in its Living Landscapes Program. The United Nations Educational, Scientific, and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) designated the park a UNESCO Biosphere Reserve in 1989.


Logging and roadbuilding degrade the Ecuadorian rainforest. (Photo courtesy Accion Ecologica)
Yasuni National Park covers 982,000 hectares encompassing the Yasuní, Nashino, Cononaco, and Tiputini river basins. The park contains some of the greatest diversity of tree species per hectare in the world, with over 1,100 species documented within the Smithsonian Institution’s 25 hectare study plot. This compares to a total of 680 tree species in all of North America.

The park shelters an astounding diversity of wildlife - 567 species of birds, 106 species of amphibians, 72 reptile species, and 173 mammal species, including 13 species of primates.

"It’s a national park in a biodiversity hotspot," said Dr. Nigel Pitman, a Duke University scientist who is science director with the Amazon Conservation Association in Puerto Maldonado, Peru.

"Where are the other western Amazonian parks near the equator? To the north, forget about it," said Pitman. "To the east, you have to travel more than 500 kilometers, all the way across northern Peru into Brazil, until you hit the next national park. To the south, the next national park with comparable lowland forest, but not much of it, is Cordillera Azul - probably also about 500 km away."

"So Yasuni is a pretty lonely park," Pitman said, "our only hard protected area near the equator in a region that holds dozens of world diversity records."

Much of the concern about a new road stems from what happened along the first major road built into Yasuni National Park 10 years ago. Now referred to as the Maxus Road, it was the subject of an intense international debate in the early 1990s when the American company Conoco was the owner of the oil concession.


Huaorani indigenous hunter. The Huaorani way of life is disappearing due to contact with oil development. (Photo courtesy Bataburo Lodge)
Conoco eventually backed out of the area and sold the concession to Maxus, which then built a 120 km road into the eastern part of Yasuni National Park and the adjacent Huaorani Ethnic Reserve, which is home to the Huaorani indigenous people.

Today, events unfolding along the Maxus Road are not necessarily what conservationists anticipated. The gate at the beginning of the road has successfully kept out most illegal loggers and non-indigenous colonists, avoiding the overnight rainforest destruction associated with other new roads built into rainforests.

However, the gates have not been able to control indigenous colonists, and deforestation is spreading along the road as Quichua and Huaorani populations settle along the road and create farms, towns, and schools inside of the park.

The result has been the growing destruction of one of the great wildlife havens on Earth, and destruction of the Huaorani culture as it is subsumed into a cash economy. Indigenous hunters, now equipped with firearms and catching rides on oil company trucks, are overhunting everything from ocelots and jaguars, to peccaries and tapirs, to parrots and toucans.

Primate biologists are finding that the unprecedented hunting access provided by the Maxus Road is threatening the long term survival of large monkey species, such as wooly, spider and howler monkeys, in a huge swath of the park.

Environmental groups fear a repeat situation along the Petrobras Road. But the Ecuadorian Environment Ministry vows it will be different this time and has tacked on a list of 17 requirements to go with the environmental license.

One requirement is that the road only be used by oil workers and Petrobras must immediately report any newcomers along the road. Also, Petrobras must present a bi-annual environmental audit and report to the Environment Ministry every six months on the biotic and social impacts of the project.

Petrobras has also promised a "zero spill" policy, based on its computerized oil pipeline leak detection system.

Earlier this year a technical advisory committee, consisting of several Ecuadorian research universities and the international NGO Wildlife Conservation Society, held a series of negotiations with Petrobras in an attempt to improve the project.

Although the committee was unable to convince Petrobras not to include the new road in their plan, they did negotiate the establishment of a $4 million dollar fund that will support the long term management and protection of the park.

Considering that the entire Yasuni National Park had a budget of $6,000 in 2004, increased funding is a critical part of providing for its protection.

Whether these measures can avoid a repeat by Petrobras of the slow ecological disaster unfolding along the Maxus Road remains to be seen.