Gas flaring just across the river from Yasuni National Park. Photo by Jeremy Hance.
By 2016, oil drilling will begin in what scientists believe is the most biodiverse place on the planet: remote Yasuni National Park. Late last month, Ecuador announced it had approved permits for oil drilling in Yasuni’s Ishpingo-Tambococha-Tiputinin (ITT) block, an untouched swathe of primary rainforest covering around 100,000 hectares or about 10 percent of the park. Approval was granted after an attempt by activists to trigger a national referendum on the issue was thrown out by Ecuador’s National Electoral Council.
The permits will allow a subsidiary of the national oil company, Petroamazonas, to drill in the ITT blocks. This part of Yasuni has been little visited by outsiders, including tourists and scientists. In addition to startlingly biodiversity, the area is also home to indigenous tribes who have chosen voluntary isolation.
The battle over Yasuni National Park’s ITT blocks, also known as oil block 43, goes back several years. In 2007, the government of Ecuador announced the Yasuni-ITT Initiative, which would have left the ITT block unexploited if the international community paid Ecuador $3.6 billion, or half the amount estimated from the untapped oil. The funds would have been delivered into a UN Trust Fund and used for sustainable and development programs in Ecuador. However, the President of Ecuador, Rafael Correa, scrapped the initiative last year after only $13 million was delivered, although $330 million was pledged.
After the government abandoned the ITT-Initiative, activists took over the task of safeguarding the rainforest. A coalition of groups, dubbed YASunidos, collected around 850,000 signatures to protect the park. Under Ecuadorian law, a national referendum is triggered if campaigners collect signatures from 5 percent of the national electorate. In this case, activists actually collected 25 percent more than required.
Dripping fungi in Yasuni. Photo by: Jeremy Hance.
However, when reviewing the signatures the National Electoral Council threw out nearly half a million or almost 60 percent, saying many were repeats and others were fakes.
Activists, though, have accused the NEC and the government of Ecuador of fraud in throwing out the signatures.
“[This] is the end of the facade of democracy in Ecuador. Since the beginning of the process we have been subject to physical and verbal attacks, so this was not unexpected,” Martin Carbonell, a spokesman for YASunidos, told the Guardian. “The whole process to defend Yasuni and the rights of nature is a battle we have fought for a long time. We can now appeal to the electoral tribunal, to Ecuador’s administrative court and also to the Inter American court of human rights. We will still fight for Yasuni and the Indigenous peoples.”
Yet, time is running out. With the permits now approved, oil companies are expected to move quickly into the ITT blocks, producing the first oil within less than two years.
Recent documents obtained by the Guardian further allege that in 2009 Ecuador was negotiating a secret deal with Chinese bank over ITT’s oil even as it was promoting its innovative initiative to the world community. Yet the government has vehemently denied this, calling the document in question “fraudulent.”
Although little reported, other portions of Yasuni National Park have been exploited for oil for decades with impacts on indigenous people and biodiversity. Most recently oil roads have been built in block 31, a massive area just west of ITT; however the government has dubbed these roads—large enough for two big vehicles to pass—”ecological trails.”
Juvenile green anaconda (Eunectes murinus) in Yasuni National Park. Photo by: Jeremy Hance.
Unidentified harvestman (arachnid) in Yasuni National Park. Photo by: Jeremy Hance.
Map of oil blocks within Yasuní National Park.
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