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Oil company breaks agreement, builds big roads in Yasuni rainforest

National Geographic photos show how large the so-called flowline corridor really is. Photo © Karla Gachet. Click to enlarge.
National Geographic photos show how large the so-called flowline corridor really is. Photo © Karla Gachet. Click to enlarge.

When the Ecuadorian government approved permits for an oil company to drill deep in Yasuni National Park—an area known as Block 31—it was on the condition that the company undertake a roadless design with helicopters doing the majority of the leg-work. However, a new report based on high-resolution satellite imagery has uncovered that the company in question, Petroamazonas, has flouted the agreement’s conditions, building a massive access road, at least one permanent bridge, and cutting more forest than was permitted. The issue is particularly relevant since just last month Petroamazonas was awarded additional oil permits for Yasuni’s much-embattled Ishpingo-Tambococha-Tiputinin (ITT) Block under the same seemingly roadless conditions.

“[Ecuador’s] Environment Ministry needs to demand from Petroamazonas an explanation of how [and] why they just blatantly violated the terms of the Environmental Impact Study and license,” co-author of the new report, Matt Finer with the Amazon Conservation Association, told

The issue goes back to 2005 when Ecuador’s Environment Ministry decided that any oil exploitation in Block 31 must be done without cutting large roads into the rainforest. This decision was only made after years of pressure from scientists and experts like Finer who argued that building roads deep into the park would pave the way for illegal colonizers and waves of deforestation, as it has in so many other places.

Large truck caught on high resolution satellite on oil road in Yasuni. Image courtesy of Matt Finer.

Large truck caught on high resolution satellite on oil road in Yasuni. Image courtesy of Finer, Pappalardo, Ferrarese, De Marchi (2014).

In 2007, the government approved an Environmental Impact Study (EIS) based on this new roadless design, which included helicopters flying equipment in and out and a thin corridor through the forest for the oil pipeline, known as a “flowline corridor.” At the time the permit was approved for a different oil company, Petrobras. Then in 2009, the concession was handed from Petrobras to Petroamazonas; but in taking over the concession, Petroamazonas also agreed to its conditions.

“The scientists of course didn’t want to see more oil development in Yasuni, but at least [we] felt good that if it did happen it would be roadless…so that’s why it was such a shock, when in 2012, we started getting reports that Petroamazonas, who took over the block, was building a road. These reports came from National Geographic reporters and photographers,” Finer said.

A major article in National Geographic on Yasuni National Park led to aerial photography over remote Block 31, which appeared to show large-scale roads slashing through the forest.

“These aerial photos weren’t totally conclusive because they were taken right at the time of construction of the flowline route so things of course looked raw,” said Finer. “So we decided to buy high resolution imagery and look at the scene one year later, September 2013. It is in these images that we can confirm that it is an access road because the route is covered in vehicles and permanent structures like bridges and culverts.”

Map of oil blocks in Yasuni. Map courtesy of Matt Finer.
Map of oil blocks in Yasuni. Map courtesy of Image courtesy of Finer, Pappalardo, Ferrarese, De Marchi (2014).

Analyzing high-resolution imagery of the area, Finer and colleagues found that Petroamazonas had broken a number of sections of their agreement. According to the report, Petroamazonas is using its flowline corridor as a major access road. On average, this corridor is 2.5 times larger than stipulated by the EIS with 94 percent of the corridor larger than the maximum size of 15 meters. Moreover, only one percent of this road is less than 10 meters, the recommended size in the EIA. In addition, Petroamazonas was allowed to cut 94.5 hectares of forest by the government, but it has actually cut more than 163 hectares or 72 percent above its allowance. Finally, the EIS stipulated no permanent bridges—only wooden structures that could be easily removed—however the satellite imagery shows at least one major, steel bridge crossing the Pindoyacu River.

The discovery that Petroamazonas has broken several of the requirements of its Block 31 license is timely since the government has just granted the oil company a license to drill in the even more controversial ITT Block, which covers about 100,000 hectares or 10 percent of the park.

Lying on the western edge of the park, ITT—which has been dubbed the most biodiverse place on the planet—was the center of a novel experiment in conservation that ultimately failed.

ehicles drive along oil road cutting through deep Yasuni bucking the government license. Image courtesy of Matt Finer.

Vehicles drive along oil road cutting through deep Yasuni bucking the government license. Image courtesy of Finer, Pappalardo, Ferrarese, De Marchi (2014).

In 2007, the Ecuadorian government announced it would forgo drilling in ITT if the international community compensated it with $3.6 billion, or half the expected revenue from the oil drilling. Known as the Yasuni ITT-Initiative, it was billed as a way to mitigate climate change by leaving 846 million barrels of oil in the ground, preserve species, and safeguard indigenous groups who had chosen voluntary isolation. The initiative was controversial, however, with some conservationists seeing it as essentially holding the park to ransom, while many others viewed it as among the most innovative and promising initiatives in contemporary conservation.

But last year the government killed the initiative after the international community pledged $330 million or less than 10 percent of the total. Still that wasn’t the end. Activists across Ecuador gathered around 850,000 signatures to kick off a national referendum on whether-or-not to drill in ITT. However last month, the National Electoral Council tossed out over 60 percent of the signatures claiming most were either repeats or fakes. Two weeks later, the government approved the drilling license for Petroamazonas, a license which has the same stipulations as those in Block 31.

But Finer says given the revelations of Petroamazonas’ operations in Block 31, the Ecuadorian government must “immediately…revisit their recent decision to grant the same type of license for ITT.”

In the meantime, activists intend to appeal the decision by the National Electoral Council, citing “fraud.”

Secret oil access road with in Yasuní's Block 31
Photo of the secret oil access road with in Yasuní’s Block 31. Photo © Ivan Kashinsky. Click image to enlarge.


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