The Ishpingo-Tambococha-Tiputini (ITT) block is centered in Ecuador’s Yasuní National Park.
A failed plan in 2013 would have protected the block through a trust with funding from the international community.
Ecuador has been drilling for oil inside Yasuni for decades and currently has four other oil production sites inside the national park.
On Wednesday of last week, Ecuador began pumping its first crude oil from the Ishpingo-Tambococha-Tiputini (ITT) block in Yasuní National Park, believed to be one, if not the most, biodiverse places on the planet.
“It’s the start of a new era for Ecuadorean oil,” Ecuador’s Vice President Jorge Glas said last week on a visit to the site run by a subsidiary of the state oil company, Petroamazonas. “In this new era, first comes care for the environment and second responsibility for the communities and the economy, for the Ecuadorean people.”
The ITT block of Yasuní National Park became well known abroad because of the Ecuadorean government’s failed initiative to forego drilling for oil in the block if the international community paid half the expected revenue. The $3.6 billion would have been put into a trust fund overseen by the United Nations Development Program (UNDP) and focused on funding renewable energy and community projects.
The Ecuadorean government dropped the plan in 2013 after the international community pledged only $330 million.
The first barrels of oil are coming from the Tiputini part of the block, which lies just beyond the edges of the park. However, Ecuador has been drilling for oil inside Yasuní for decades and currently has four other oil production sites inside the national park. Future drilling, in Ishpingo and Tambococha, will also be inside the park’s borders.
Diego Mosquera, a biologist who works at the Tiputini Biodiversity Station monitoring wildlife, told Mongabay that the biggest impact from oil operations isn’t the drilling itself, but the infrastructure it brings, especially roads.
“Roads have several direct impacts like habitat fragmentation, extreme noise produced by heavy machinery, forest edge effects (changes in wind, light) soil erosion or wildlife collisions,” he wrote in an email. “But the worst part is that roads have attracted people. In the last few years colonization of pristine areas has increased dramatically with obvious effects like vast deforestation, illegal logging and uncontrolled wildlife trade.”
For example, in 2012 National Geographic photographers took shots of massive access roads cut through pristine rainforests in block 31 of Yasuní National Park, which lies adjacent to ITT. Although the roads were big enough to allow two – maybe three – bulldozers to pass comfortably, the government referred to them as “ecological trails.”
In the case of the ITT block – little-explored and located in the far eastern section of Yasuní – this means opening up what was once some of the most remote regions of the Amazon rainforest to exploitation.
Scientists believe that Yasuní National Park is possibly the most biodiverse landscape on the planet. A PLOS ONE paper in 2010 found that Yasuní sat in a small section of the Amazon and Andes region that sported the highest known diversity of mammals, amphibians, birds and vascular plants. At the time, scientists had documented 271 reptile and amphibian species, 169 mammals, 596 birds and 2,704 vascular plants. Though experts believe many more wait to be documented.
“The amount of genetic resources is practically unmeasurable,” Mosquera said.
People of Yasuní
Yasuní is also home to a number of indigenous groups, including a couple that have chosen to remain in voluntary isolation from the wider world. Any deeper incursion into the park either by oil companies or illegal settlers and poachers that follow may make this more difficult.
The exploitation of the ITT-block comes with other, often less discussed, impacts: climate change and ocean acidification. Experts believe around 1.67 billion barrels of oil lie beneath the ITT rainforest. Consuming those vast fields means burning more fossil fuels and putting more carbon into the atmosphere and oceans. Indeed, research has shown that the vast majority of fossil fuels must remain unexploited if the world is going to meet its pledge of keeping global temperatures from rising above 2 degree Celsius.
A signatory of the Paris Agreement last year, Ecuador has pledged to reduce its energy sector emissions by 20.5-25 percent by 2025 (or 37.5-45.8 percent with outside international support).
Yet, oil continues to play an oversized role in Ecuador’s economy and government. It’s estimated that about one third of government revenue comes from the oil industry, meaning the government has been especially hard hit by the global drop in oil prices.
Mosquera said the government should look at other non-oil industries to help its economy, such as ecotourism and sustainable agriculture.
“[Ecuador] should keep trying to diversify its economy investing more in non-traditional exports that could generate an alternative income,” he said. “In any case, any commitment to fight the ‘oil paradigm’ should come not only from the government but especially from its own citizens.”
Even after Ecuador dropped the Yasuní-ITT Initiative in 2013, the battle wasn’t over. Activists with YASunidos gathered around 850,000 signatures to hold a public referendum on whether or not to allow drilling in the ITT-block. Although 25 percent more than was necessary to trigger a referendum, the National Election Council threw out more than half of the signatures saying they were either repeats or fraudulent. YASunidos denied such problems with the signatures, but a referendum never came to pass.
Opinion polls at the time showed that if the referendum had been allowed it may have spared Yasuní-ITT.