Trees versus oil in Ecuador

Trees versus oil in Ecuador

Page last updated: 14 May, 2008

By Max Seitz, Yasuni National Park, Ecuador

Workers clean up after oil spill in Ecuador's rainforest

The impact of oil spills in the forest is disputed

In the Amazon region of Ecuador, to the east of the country, economic requirements and the need to protect the environment are totally at odds with one other.

Where this contradiction is most pronounced is the Yasuni National Park, an area of 982,000 hectares, situated 300 Km to the east of Quito. It is the largest protected land mass in mainland Ecuador, and has been declared by Unesco a Biosphere Reserve.

According to US biologist Kelly Swing, founder of the Tiputini Biodiversity Station (EBT), the area is are "more varieties of animals and vegetation than in any other part of the planet" - 100 species of amphibians, around 70 of reptiles, more than 520 kinds of birds and about 160 species of mammals.

But the largest crude oil deposits in Ecuador also lie in this national park. Currently around 60% of its surface is occupied by oil companies, with their oilfields, pipelines, roads and human settlements.

This "colonisation" began in the early 70s, when the State allowed the oil companies various blocks of land which today lie in a protected area.

Since the Yasuni National Park was created later, in 1979, the oil companies defend their presence in the area, with the argument - hotly disputed by environmentalists - that they got there first, and have the right to stay put.

However, the destruction of the tropical forest in order to make way for the mining infrastructure, the waste materials produced, and the frequent oil spills, are cause for concern to both government and scientists alike.

Impact on nature

Hydrocarbon exploitation in a protected area is certainly of concern to Alonso Jaramillo, director of Yanusi National Park.

"I certainly don't like the idea," he said.

"I recognise there is a clash of interests, but we have to understand that the economy of Ecuador is sustained thanks to hydrocarbon exploitation."

President Rafael Correa inaugerates an oil drilling rig

Ecuador has become a major oil exporter

Half of Ecuador's GDP comes from crude oil. Production reaches 500,000 barrels per day.

"In a situation like this, the only thing we can do is control the way they work and to respect environmental rules and regulations and demand they use technology which minimises the impact on nature," said Mr Jaramillo.

"But to do this we have to encourage these establishments and provide more economic resources."

The scientists who work at the EBT say that the negative impact on the Yasuni National Park caused by oil mining activity is "undeniable".

"Four decades of exploitation have had a direct impact on this protected area. The companies have drilled part of the tropical forest in order to build roads, platforms and housing for their workers," Ms Swing explains.

"Also, the waste material produced by the perforation process often escapes into the area, it's a common thing that there are leaks from the pipelines. The State company Petroecuador is alone responsible for 850 spillages since the year 2000, simply because of lack of funds to modernise their installations."

Some companies within the Yasuni National Park have been employing modern technology to considerably reduce the impact of their operations on the environment.

Managers at the Spanish company Repsol YPF, who run the largest operation within the protected area, said they were unhappy about the "demonisation" of the oil industry there, and pointed out several arguments in its favour.

They admit that felling trees in order to build their installations has had a negative impact on the forest, but it insist it has been kept to a "minimum" because they have re-planted an equivalent amount.

"Our operation is clean - we are reducing the surface occupied by the oil platforms in order to preserve more vegetation and we use gas produced by the crude oil to generate energy, instead of burning it off," said Edgar Delgado, manager of the oilfield.

"Furthermore, any waste liquid from bathrooms, kitchens and other areas used by the workers is collected and purified by organic means before being thrown into the river. Solid waste is taken to another part of Ecuador."

Way of life

But in spite of its advanced technology, Repsol was responsible this year for a crude oil spillage - which for environmentalists was "huge", but the company describe as "limited."

"It occurred at a time when pipeline covering was damaged and we set about cleaning it up," Delgado insisted.

Meanwhile, researchers state that added to the environmental impact of hydrocarbon exploitation is the effect it has on the human population.

Parrot in Ecuador rainforest

Ecuador's rainforest supports some of the planet's most extraordinary - and famous - species

Within the Yasuni National Park there is a reserve of some 2,000 huaorani indigenous people. Almond-eyed and short in stature, they traditionally live by hunting animals, gathering fruits and seeds, and fishing.

But in Tiguino, a native village right next to an oil installation, the aborigines say that the exploitation of crude oil had not only changed their way of life, but also the economy.

The huaorani now no longer live in straw huts with dirt floors where they slept in hammocks, but in modern houses with beds.

Some of them work in re-forestation which the oil companies are undertaking. Others, taking advantage of the new roads, have begun activities which are damaging their very habitat: they work with the logging companies or they provide markets with meat, far beyond their own alimentary requirements.

Some have strong objections.

"Not only do they invade our territory, they also destroy the forests which are our source of food, and they release oil into the rivers which provide our drinking water," said Penti Baihua, a representative of the huaorani community.

"Because of the pollution we are suffering from skin diseases and cancer."

But others in the community point out the oil companies provide medical care, education, housing, transport, food and clothing in return for allowing them to work on their lands.

"We want all the advantages and facilities the white people have," said Mingui Ahua, a leader within the village of Timpoca, where Repsol operates.

"I believe our people can only progress if there are good relations with the oil companies."

But the Ecuadorean authorities, who have scant access to the Yasuni National Park, envisage a problem: the creation of a "dependence culture".

"The indigenous people receive benefits from some companies, but they don't guarantee them much future, they don't even give them the opportunity to learn anything except how to pressurise in order to get what they want," said Ecuador's Environment Minister, Marcela AguiƱaga Vallejo.

"We have to intervene in the agreements made between the oil companies and the huaorani, in order to ensure the indigenous people know how to self-negotiate and be independent from a company that may one day just get up and leave."