Ishpingo and the importance of ITT

Saving Yasuni from oil extraction has long been a priority for conservationists, especially since former president Rafael Correa launched the ITT initiative in 2007. Correa asked the international community to donate $3.6 billion in return for keeping oil in the ground in the ITT field, located in what’s known as Block 43. The plan was scrapped six years later when less than 10 percent of the target figure was raised.

Block 43 was the last remaining bit of Yasuni that was free of oil activity, and the ITT initiative had been a symbol of hope for a new economic model.

Tarsicio Granizo, former undersecretary of natural heritage in the Correa administration, who helped craft the ITT Initiative, says the proposal wasn’t about conservation; it was about directly addressing climate change by giving incentives to keep oil in the ground.

But when the Ministry of Environment approved the third and final oil field in ITT earlier this year, that put to rest any possibility that the park could be saved from extraction activity.

Marcelo Mata Guerrero, Ecuador’s environment minister, who has a long history of working as an environmental consultant in the oil and mining sector, approved the Ishpingo oil wells A and B, which lie just outside the ZITT buffer zone. Eight platforms that lie inside the buffer zone were not approved. Mata gave no indication whether they would be approved in the future.

This decision to open Ishpingo has been in the hands of the Ministry of Environment since last year. In November, the energy minister, Carlos Perez, postponed opening the field after environmentalists and indigenous leaders occupied his office in protest. The activists said opening the third ITT area, which overlaps with the ZITT buffer zone, would put the lives of the indigenous communities in voluntary isolation at risk. They also demanded that the government leave the oil in the ground to preserve the region’s unique ecosystem.

Perez responded by saying he would wait until the Ministry of Environment approved the environmental licenses before moving forward in Ishpingo.

Despite the decision to reduce the field’s extraction area from 125.76 to 24.76 hectares (311 to 61 acres), conservationists say this is not enough.

Carlos Mazabanda, Ecuador field coordinator for Amazon Watch, says keeping wells out of the buffer zone is not enough if oil extraction is allowed to happen right up to the area’s border region. The environmental impact of drilling will go beyond those limits.

“Their intentions are deceitful,” Mazabanda told Mongabay, adding, “The real question is, what’s the real commitment the government is making to conserve this area?”

Neither the Ministry of Environment or the Ministry of Energy and Non-renewable Natural Resources responded to Mongabay’s questions by the time of publication, despite various inquiries.

The government has refused to stop oil extraction in Yasuni, saying it’s an area of strategic importance. The ITT project alone holds an estimated 20 percent of the country’s reserves.

Tiputini was the first oil field to be opened for oil extraction in 2016, and the Tambococha field followed in 2018. From these two fields alone, ITT produces 66,268 barrels of oil per day. With Ishpingo finally open for business, the government’s goal is to extract 90,000 barrels of oil per day from ITT by the end of the year.

The implications of Decree 751

Environmentalists thought they saw a saving grace for Yasuni in a popular referendum held in February 2018.

The new government of Lenín Moreno asked Ecuadorans seven questions that addressed changes at the economic, political, judicial and environmental levels. Question seven read: “Are you in favor of increasing the Intangible Zone by at least 50,000 hectares [123,550 acres] and reducing the oil extraction area in Yasuní National Park from 1,030 to 300 hectares [2,545 to 741 acres]?”

More than 67 percent of the population voted yes, and many thought this created a legal tool in which to claim more rights for nature and Yasuni.

In May, President Moreno finally signed Decree 751, which detailed this expansion of 59,000 hectares (145,800 acres) in the east of the park — but said nothing about scaling back oil extraction activity. Instead, it included an extra clause that now allows oil platforms to be constructed within the buffer zone of the ZITT. The buffer zone is a 10-kilometer area that goes around the park, where only certain low-impact activities are permitted, such as hunting or traditional activities, not oil extraction, says Granizo.

Granizo was the environment minister at the time of the referendum, and worked with the Moreno government to create question seven. But this clause was never part of the original plan, he says.

“This is a goal for the oil industry,” he told Mongabay, “This new decree opens the door for new operations [in the buffer zone], so for me this is a regression of rights. This could be considered unconstitutional.”

Mazabanda from Amazon Watch says the referendum question was a deception from the beginning. The people should have asked more directly whether they thought oil extraction should happen in Yasuni at all, he says.

The way the question was posed shows that the government did not have the best interests in mind for the environment or the nearby indigenous communities, says Mazabanda.

Repercussions for drilling in Yasuni

Kelly Swing, director and founder of the Tiputini Biodiversity Station with the University of San Francisco Quito, has long been studying the impacts of the oil industry on the Amazon rainforest. He says extraction technology has improved drastically since the 1970s and ’80s, which marked a catastrophic period for the environment. Better equipment today has reduced the risk of spills and leaks, and new extraction sites no longer use gas flares that emit toxins into the atmosphere.

One of the textbook examples of this environmental catastrophe is the Texaco (owned by Chevron since 2001) oil field that opened in the north of Ecuador in 1967, which for decades had been dumping toxic waste into the Amazon. No one has ever assumed responsibility for cleaning up the toxins, and black pools of oil still sit in the rainforest, also affecting the communities just outside the city of Lago Agrio.

“[Oil production] has evolved, but it’s all because of pressure from the outside,” Swing told Mongabay, adding that oil companies also noticed that not losing oil to leaks and spills “is good for their bottom line.”

Still, it’s impossible to prevent leaks entirely, says Swing, pointing to a number of examples in the U.S. and Canada where oil companies use the best technology but spills continue to happen. In the case of the Amazon, extracting near bodies of water is particularly risky as these exacerbate the spread of oil.

Last year, state-owned PetroAmazonas started exploiting the Tambococha oil wells, which lie just behind the Tambococha and Jatuncocha lagoons. The latter, whose name in indigenous Quichua translates into “large lagoon,” is the biggest in Ecuador’s Amazon, and both areas are famous for their species diversity.

In a recent reporting trip for Mongabay to Jatuncocha, I saw more than 30 species of birds, two species of monkey, and the region’s famous pink dolphins in just three hours. Locals and environmentalists are concerned that if there was a spill in any of the Tambococha wells, it would reach the lagoons and destroy the area.

Hoatzin (Opisthocomus hoazin) seen in the Yasuni river. Image by Kimberley Brown for Mongabay.

One of the bigger concerns for environmentalists is the construction of roads to access these remote extraction sites. These roads often create a chain reaction that invites agriculture or other human activity, leading to mass deforestation. Swing points to the area north of the Napo River, near Lago Agrio or Shushufindi, as an example. The area was once pristine rainforest but was opened up to extraction activities in the 1960s, and today is almost completely surrounded by oil palm plantations.

If this were to happen near Yasuni, it would be a disaster not just for the region but for the climate. New science is increasingly pointing to the need to save tropical forests as an essential way to address climate change. Destruction of tropical forests accounts for some 8 percent of the world’s annual carbon dioxide emissions, ranking just below the United States, and significantly more than the EU, according to a report by Global Forest Watch.

A Yasuni park guard, who asked not to be named as he was not authorized to speak to the media, says he is impressed by how PetroAmazonas has been running its operations in ITT. The oil company has its own monitoring system, including camera traps, has modest-sized roads, and has employed biologists to ensure that its operations have the least environmental impact possible.

But, the guard says, these extraction areas are highly secure and no one can enter without the company’s permission. This includes the 40 park guards working in Yasuni and staff from other environmental monitoring bodies. So it’s questionable how much information about spills or other accidents actually makes it out of the compounds.

Despite Ecuador’s economic dependence on oil, conservationists insist that alternatives are possible and they involve changing the current economic system. Granizo, who is currently the senior manager at the World Wildlife Fund in Quito, says he continues to promote the growth of the bio-economy. This includes focusing exports on more sustainable initiatives, supporting local production and reducing consumption worldwide.

“The world capitalist system is one of the things that will destroy the planet … but I believe in the solidarity and community economic model,” says Granizo, adding, “We have to keep fighting. We are here to fight.”

Banner image caption: Oil trucks are being hauled on boats between extraction sites, regular traffic along the Napo river as there are no roads in these areas. Image by Kimberley Brown for Mongabay.

About the reporter: Kimberley A. Brown is a Quito, Ecuador-based freelance multimedia journalist who regularly covers the intersection of indigenous land rights and effective conservation. You can find her on Twitter at @KimberleyJBrown.

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