Ecuador Says It Will Launch Controversial Drilling in Amazon Park

19 August 2013 3:30 pm


At issue. Opponents are promising to block plans to drill in Ecuador’s Yasuni National Park, homes to these white-banded swallows (Atticora fasciata).

The president of Ecuador says that he will move ahead with controversial plans to drill for oil in a renowned national park in the Amazon Basin. President Rafael Correa announced the move last week, saying that a 3-year-old effort to raise $3.6 billion from the international community to prevent development has failed. But opponents are promising to bring the issue to a national vote.

Researchers consider the nearly 10,000 square kilometers of land within Ecuador’s Yasuni National Park to be one of the world’s richest biological hotspots. Yasuni is also the territory of the Waorani indigenous people and two nomadic Waorani clans who live in voluntary isolation. But the park also holds lots of oil, in three contiguous blocks known collectively as the Ishpingo-Tambococha-Tiputini (ITT) oil field. In 2010, Correa launched the so-called Yasuni-ITT Initiative, a 13-year plan under which the government would forgo drilling in the park in exchange for donations equaling one-half of the value of the oil, a sum that analysts put at $3.6 billion.

But the initiative never really got off the ground, Correa said during a televised address on 15 August. The Yasuni Fund has collected just $13 million in donations, forcing what the president called a reluctant decision to move ahead with drilling. “The world has failed us,” he said. “It was not charity that we sought from the international community, but co-responsibility in the face of climate change.”

The announcement, rumored for months, drew immediate opposition from civil society and environmental groups, with many pledging to force a national referendum on the issue. Recent polls have suggested that up to 90% of Ecuadorians oppose drilling in the park, but those numbers could drop as pro-drilling forces make their case, says Kevin Koenig, Ecuador program coordinator at Amazon Watch in Quito. “Correa is going to be armed with a couple of months lead time and a lot of oil dollars to fund a lot of TV ads, so I think you are going to see those support numbers come down,” he says.

At the same time, Koenig that said he is encouraged by the size of antidrilling demonstrations in Guayaquil, a largely conservative city that is a national bellwether of political sentiment. “This is now not just about a handful of environmentalists,” he tells ScienceInsider. “It is a national issue that has become a point of pride.”

Correa said that oil development would have an impact on less than 1% of the park and that the government would take steps to protect the environment. But researchers familiar with the region are skeptical. “We know from experience that a road leads to loss or degradation of a swath of 5 to 8 kilometers wide,” says ecologist Kelly Swing, founder of the Tiputini Biodiversity Station, a field research center in the park. So “the 1% figure across the entire Yasuni Biosphere Reserve would amount to 20,000 hectares,” Swing says. “With over 100,000 species living in each hectare, we're talking about a huge number of species and individuals.”

Impacts could be minimized by the use of certain technologies, says project scientist Matt Finer of the Center for International Environmental Law in Washington, D.C.  A technique called extended reach drilling, for instance, can minimize the number of drilling platforms, and narrow-width “green pipelines” can move oil with fewer ecological disruptions. One of the more troubling portions of Ecuador’s drilling plan, Finer says, is the inclusion of a 60-kilometer pipeline network to move the oil.

Still, environmentalists are worried. Just 50 kilometers north of Yasuni, a half-century of oil development has left little nature intact, Koenig says. And other oil fields are being developed to the east and south, in effect surrounding Yasuni's uncontacted tribes in the so-called intangible zone. And Koenig says that the industry has a poor record of preventing oil spills. “With this kind of heavy crude, it's not a question of if there is going to be a spill,” he says. “Rather, when there is going to be a spill.”

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