As Oil Companies Dig Into Yasuní National Park, Ecuadorians Are Fighting Back
Considered the most biodiverse place in the world, the Yasuní is in danger of being ruined through the exploitation of its natural resources. And time is running out to save it.
- Winter 2016
- Tom Clynes
The most biodiverse park on the planet can be a very noisy place—especially around sunset, when day-shift creatures cede the rainforest to those who roam and serenade the night. But on a late afternoon in April, the trails near Yasuní National Park's Yasuní Scientific Station are jarringly quiet.
In a half day of hiking the muddy trails near the station, we see a few lizards and snakes, and a fast-moving troop of squirrel monkeys, but only a handful of the 610 bird species that have been catalogued within the park's borders.
"Only a few years ago, the wildlife here was amazing," says my hiking partner, Ecuadorian biologist and nature photographer Rubén D. Jarrín. But new roads and oil pipelines keep cutting deeper into this fragile wonderland, disrupting the movements and life cycles of everything from canopy-dwelling birds to ground-prowling jaguars. As seismic surveys pinpoint new pockets of oil in the park's pristine core, wildlife lovers in Ecuador and around the world are rallying to save this UNESCO Biosphere Reserve—and the densely connected web of people, plants, and animals living within it.
Jarrín and I spent the previous day driving to Yasuní from Quito, Ecuador's high-mountain capital. We climbed first into the treeless páramo, then threaded our way between active volcanoes, descending for hours through ghost-lit cloud forests. The dense pink fog finally parted, revealing a tremendous expanse of river-veined rainforest beneath us, stretching to the eastern horizon and two thousand miles beyond.
Biologists have identified the Yasuní area, located at the rain-drenched intersection of the Amazon, the Andes, and the equator, as potentially the most biodiverse place on Earth. Whereas much of the Amazon basin is flat, with relatively infertile soils, the low hills of this region host countless microclimates and are layered with dark, volcanically enriched soils.
In a single hectare of land here, botanists have identified 655 species of trees, more than in the United States and Canada combined. The ever-expanding inventory of fauna at Yasuní includes 173 mammals and more insect species than in any other forest on the planet. Sightings of globally threatened mammals like the giant anteater and pink river dolphin are fairly common. A lucky birder might make a once-in-a-lifetime sighting of a Rufous-vented Ground-Cuckoo or an Agami Heron. There are bats that catch fish; giant anteaters and otters; and a frog whose translucent skin allows an x-ray view of its internal organs.
The stakes here are even greater than the preservation of biodiversity, and they extend far beyond the patch of land itself. In order to stave off the worst impacts from a changing climate, scientists say, most of the planet's remaining fossil fuel resources will need to remain underground. The Amazon forest, as the world's largest carbon sink and its largest watershed, is crucial to mitigating runaway climate change. The northwestern Amazon, where Yasuní is located, boasts the basin's highest biodiversity and is considered the most likely region to maintain wet rainforest conditions. As anticipated climate change–induced drought intensifies in the eastern Amazon, this area could serve as a critical biological refuge for displaced species.
"If we can't manage to protect places that are this important," says Kevin Koenig, Ecuador program director for Amazon Watch, "then it seems unlikely that we'll be able to protect the rest of the planet. Depending on what happens here, we could be at the beginning of what could turn out to be a very tragic story."
Once Jarrín and I landed in the Andean foothills, we drove for two hours along corrugated roads north of the Napo River, the largest of Ecuador's Amazon headwaters. Here, the denuded landscape is pocked with chemical settling ponds, jumbles of roadside oil pipelines, and get-drunk-quick oil towns like Coca, Pompeya, and Lago Agrio (Bitter Lake, named after the former Texaco headquarters in Texas).
Ecuador's president, Rafael Correa, rode to his 2006 election in part on a wave of national outrage over the legacy of foreign oil companies' pollution of the nation's rainforests. The fiery Correa—a sort of Hugo Chávez lite with a showman's flair—recruited Hollywood activists for a "dirty hands" media campaign in support of the small nation's long-running legal fight against ChevronTexaco, which had dumped 18 billion gallons of toxic waste in the rainforest north of Yasuní. Pledging to throw the gringos out, Correa promised that Ecuadorian control over oil production would protect the Amazon's land and people.
Indeed, the newer, tidy-looking oil infrastructure south of the river seems like a great improvement over the dead landscapes to the north. That's in part because rules and methods have evolved since the anything-goes days when the northern oil fields were developed—and in larger part because the oil operation (a joint venture led by Spain's Repsol) so tightly restricts access to this area, which it calls Block 16.
Most of Block 16 overlaps a reserve that in 1990 was carved out of Yasuní National Park for the Waorani people, Amazonian Amerindians who are ethnically and culturally distinct from other ethnic groups in Ecuador, and who speak a language that's unrelated to any other known language. Waorani leaders successfully fought for a homeland to protect their culture and lands from settlers, logging, and oil exploitation. After the reserve was created, though, some Waorani leaders made controversial deals that brought oil drilling to the territory.
Now only oil workers, Waorani residents, researchers, and others willing to jump through significant bureaucratic hoops are allowed to enter, via a ferry terminal that is protected by razor wire and armed guards. This has slowed the rate of colonization and deforestation, and has reduced impacts from hunting.
"It has slowed the impacts, but it hasn't stopped them," says Juan Carlos Armijos. Over the eight years that he has worked at the Yasuní Scientific Station, which is run by Quito's Pontificia Universidad Católica del Ecuador (PUCE), Armijos has developed close ties with the Waorani, who until recently hunted with spears and blowguns and lived seminomadic lives. Now most Waorani have settled in roadside communities, and many use oil-company cash to buy guns. As a market for bush meat, feathers, and exotic pets has developed, wildlife in the forests near the roads has declined noticeably.
Armijos brings me to the village of Guiyero, which he helped to outfit with school classrooms, a computer lab, and a now-defunct fish-farming project. We meet Bogui Ahua, who shows us his pet Blue-and-yellow Macaw—one of many captive birds around the village. Nearby, a woman crouches over a fire outside her concrete-block house, burning the hair off the hind leg of a peccary that her husband shot that morning.
"In the old days, we would sing and dance when we had a peccary to eat," says Guiyero chief Wampi Humberto Ahua. He wears a headband of braided palm leaves, a necklace of jaguar teeth, and businesslike leather loafers as he speaks in the Wao language, which his nephew translates into Spanish. "We fought to defend our territory, but usually we just traveled and hunted. It was a calm life, mostly."
About 40 years ago, when Ahua was a boy, a helicopter dropped off a missionary. "One of our men came to the village and said, ‘We have a new friend.' But before we got there, the others had killed him where he landed." The next missionaries got a warmer welcome, "but since then our culture has declined," the chief says. "A few years ago some people gave us money to sign something in Spanish. Then the oil came. Now it's more difficult to find a forest with animals."
Though the Waorani have been pulled halfway into the modern world, Yasuní's two uncontacted tribes, the Tagaeri and Taromenane, continue lifestyles that have changed little since the Stone Age. "We know as little about them as they know of us," says Enrique Vela, Ecuador's former director of human rights for indigenous people. Most estimates put the number of uncontacted tribespeople between 80 and 300, though their population is declining as a result of asynchronous feuds with the Waorani, whose new tools allow them to more efficiently hunt and carry out the cycles of revenge that have defined tribal relations in the western Amazon for thousands of years.
Expanding oil exploration and production in Yasuní have bumped up tensions and conflict between indigenous groups over territory and resources. Though the government has delineated a no-entry "untouchable zone" for the people living in voluntary isolation, it has allowed oil surveyors to enter, and it approved plans for oil platforms at the boundary, squeezing the Tagaeri and Taromenane into an increasingly smaller patch of land.
With no understanding of the global forces converging around them, the two tribes are thought to be among the least likely of the 90 or so uncontacted peoples on Earth to survive the next decade. "They almost certainly have no idea of the existence of a country called Ecuador, which considers them citizens," says Vela. They also likely have no knowledge of the cascading series of missteps that have created the environmental and human-rights dramas now coming to a head at Yasuní.
"There are two different realities here in Ecuador," says Renato Valencia, who directs the Yasuní Forest Dynamics Project. "There's the one that is defined by the law, and there's what's actually happening."
Ecuador's current constitution, ratified in 2008, protects the rights and cultures of indigenous people living in voluntary isolation. A more well-known clause recognizes nature itself—described by the Quichua term Pacha Mama—as an entity with legally enforceable rights, and forbids the extraction of non-renewable resources in protected areas.
Environmental and human-rights activists around the world celebrated the Ecuadorian constitution's groundbreaking poetry. But at home the difficulties of applying it soon became apparent, most dramatically at Yasuní. The most awkward issue is that of agency: Who speaks for the trees?
Shortly after his election, President Correa threw his support behind an audacious and unprecedented proposal: Ecuador would shelve a plan to extract an estimated 920 million barrels of oil inside a pristine and ecologically sensitive eastern tract of Yasuní known as the ITT Block (named for the Ishpingo, Tambococha, and Tiputini oil fields). In exchange for preserving the internationally important wilderness and preventing millions of tons of carbon emissions from entering the atmosphere, Correa asked the developed world to ante up $3.6 billion, roughly half of the then-estimated oil revenues the country would be forsaking.
Environmentalists held up the plan as a prototype for an exciting new paradigm, one that would reduce the burden of environmental preservation on poor countries as the world took the first steps toward a post-fossil-fuel era. Since then, proposals for "Yasunízation"—as pay-to-preserve initiatives have come to be known—have proliferated around the world, from New Zealand (coal) to Nigeria (tar sands), Quebec (gas fracking), and Norway's Lofoten Islands (oil).
But Ecuador's plan got off to a shaky start. Though Germany and other European nations quickly threw their financial support behind the ITT initiative, it took more than two years to negotiate the specifics of an agreement with the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP). The agreement specified that the funds, mostly from governments of wealthy countries, would be spent on researching and developing alternative energy and other technology, reforestation and care of protected areas, and social development.
In December of 2009 Correa signed the documents establishing the international trust fund and sent a team headed by his foreign minister to the United Nations climate summit in Copenhagen to announce the deal.
But oil interests—which account for a large portion of the government's revenues and the country's exports—were working behind the scenes to scuttle the initiative. After the team had already arrived in Europe, Correa abruptly changed his mind and called for renegotiations, insisting that his government retain more control over how the money would be spent.
With a new negotiating team in place (Correa's foreign minister resigned over the incident), the initiative's prospects veered between hope and growing doubts. As negotiations continued, the government launched an auction for new oil concessions adjacent to the ITT field and elsewhere in Yasuní National Park. Leaked internal documents would later reveal that while the government was publicly pushing the plan to forgo drilling (and making much out of the plight of uncontacted tribes) it was beginning negotiations with oil companies interested in extracting the ITT reserves, and negotiating loans with the China Development Bank that would be partially paid back with ITT oil.
Ecuador and the UNDP finally reached an accord in August of 2010, but some potential donors balked at its lack of accountability and financial guarantees. Germany backed out, deciding instead to fund REDD+, the UN's mainstream policy approach to reducing emissions from deforestation. Correa, refusing to budge, made it clear that he had a "Plan B" to exploit the oil if other countries refused to meet his terms. "We won't be useful idiots," Correa said. "We cannot be like beggars sitting on a bag of gold."
"A scent of blackmail was in the air," wrote Alberto Acosta, an Ecuadorian economist who briefly served as minister of energy and mines, "and it fueled doubts."
On August 15, 2013, with donor countries having committed less than 10 percent of Correa's asking price, the president announced that he was withdrawing the proposal to spare Yasuní's ITT Block. "The world has failed us," Correa said in a televised speech in which he blamed "the great hypocrisy" of nations who emit most of the world's greenhouse gases while calling for poorer nations to sacrifice economic progress for the environment. Correa made it clear that the country was headed in a new direction: Ecuador would drill its way to prosperity.
What Correa apparently hadn't understood was how deeply Ecuadorians valued their largest protected area. The announcement rekindled environmental and indigenous-rights sentiments that had first flared after ChevronTexaco had run roughshod over the Amazon in the 1980s and 1990s.
"This time people could see that it wasn't the gringos who were going to ruin our rainforests, it was our own government," says Patricio Chávez, one of the founders of what would become known as the Yasunídos movement.
Buoyed by polls estimating that nearly three-quarters of Ecuadorians supported leaving the ITT oil underground, the Yasunídos organized marches and court battles and demanded that the government adhere to the constitution. And they began collecting and verifying signatures for a petition calling for a nationwide referendum on Yasuní.
What Ecuadorians—and the world—stand to lose becomes clear on arrival at the Tiputini Biodiversity Station, which overlooks a bend of the Tiputini River about 45 miles downstream from the Yasuní Scientific Station. Remote and reachable only by boat, Tiputini's trailsides are abundantly alive with animals that have become scarce in more accessible parts of the park.
On our first full day at Tiputini, Jarrín and I spend a half day exploring with 73-year-old Mayer Rodríguez. "You see more when you move slowly," says the sharp-eyed guide as he steps over an exposed ficus tree root that stretches nearly 1,000 feet away from the trunk. "I've walked these trails thousands of times, and I always come across something I haven't seen before," he says. "Always."
There are plenty of big, charismatic animals to see here: a tapir placidly munching on plants . . . a giant anteater roving the forest floor in search of its next meal . . . an anaconda hanging from a branch over the river, catching some rays while waiting for something to ambush. But at Tiputini, the smaller creatures can be the most astonishing. Mayer calls my attention to a foot-long stick-bug posing next to what appears to be a leaf—but is, upon closer inspection, a katydid whose wings even have what look like a leaf's nibbled, browning edges.
With 10 species of monkeys, Tiputini supports an active primate-research program. "This is the perfect place to study them, because they haven't been hunted," says Evelyn Pain, a primatologist at Stony Brook University who researches woolly monkeys. "But this species is so big and docile that they're usually the first to go when hunters do come into an area."
After tracking down a troop of about a dozen woollies (two individuals are radio-collared), Pain and two colleagues follow them as they make their way through the canopy, using their prehensile tails as fifth limbs. A quartet of Double-toothed Kites circles them as they move, darting in to snatch insects flushed into the open by the monkeys' commotion.
At the end of a day of bushwhacking and slipping along muddy trails in pursuit of monkeys, the researchers have pretty much worn me out. But it's hard to resist the prospect of sunset birdwatching. And so, at the risk of missing dinner call, I detour to a large pond and commandeer a rowboat.
Though the Amazon is full of extraordinary opportunities to add to life lists, the dense jungle can be a frustrating place to bird-quest: Canopy species stay high overhead, backlit by the sky, while understory birds are never at a loss for cover. But out on the water, with a ground-to-treetop view, you realize just how mind-blowing the bird life is here. I catch glimpses of canopy-dwellers like the Purple-throated Cotinga and Paradise Tanager, and get good long looks at ground-dwellers like the Undulated Tinamou and Ruddy Quail-Dove. There are macaws of all colors, aracaris and toucans, a Collared Puffbird. A flyover of what might be a Harpy Eagle causes a brief panic among the lower birds, but the raptor stays high enough to deny us a close look at the world's biggest and most powerful eagle, whose talons are longer than a grizzly bear's claws.
Later, I spot a Hoatzin. One look at this bizarre creature will dispel any doubts that birds are evolutionary throwbacks to the age of dinosaurs. Bright and multicolored, with bugged-out red eyes and a frizzy, spiky crest, the Hoatzin has a digestive system similar to a cow's, which allows it to ferment leaves and buds. Like the first known lizard-bird (the Archaeopteryx), Hoatzin chicks use claws on their wing digits to climb to their nests.
The next day, while swimming in the Tiputini River, I notice a pair of antbirds flying out of the understory with several Buff-throated Woodcreepers. Once out over the river, the multi-species hunting party grows quickly, adding warblers and other birds as they zigzag downstream.
Tjitte de Vries, an ornithologist at PUCE who has made several discoveries and reclassifications of bird species, had told me, when we met in Quito, to look out for such mixed species flocks, one of the tropical avian phenomena he's studied. De Vries, who has observed up to 40 species teaming up at Yasuní, says the adaptation seems to increase foraging efficiency and may aid in spotting and evading predators. "With more eyes and more voices, you get more alerts for predators and more diversity in terms of the food they find."
Originally from the Netherlands, de Vries came to Yasuní to study avian life after more than a decade in the Galápagos Islands. "I went from that extremely simple, isolated ecosystem to confront what is probably the most complex ecosystem on the planet at Yasuní," he says. "You see all sorts of interactions you'd rarely see anywhere else."
De Vries has investigated the effects of oil exploration on jungle wildlife, at times working as a contractor for the oil companies themselves. "The spills and contamination get the attention, but the secondary impacts are much worse in a place like this," he says. "The company might say, ‘Oh, there's only a 10-hectare impact around an oil platform; the displaced animals will just disperse.' But that section of jungle is already populated to a sustainable capacity. Displaced animals can't go there unless they displace others. Either way," he says, toggling between English and Spanish, "the animals will simplemente die."
One of de Vries's key findings is that, for many of the birds that live in the forest canopy, a road through the jungle has the same effect as a wall. "You'd think they'd fly across it, but they don't. It breaks up their habitat and fences them in. It disrupts feeding and breeding and migration, and limits genetic diversity."
De Vries and other wilderness advocates have petitioned oil companies to reduce road-clearing widths and leave sections of overhanging trees to provide a bridge for the canopy creatures, but the companies have not incorporated this as standard practice.
Though some experts say that the impacts from oil and gas projects in the Amazon can be minimized by using new technology for drilling platforms and other infrastructure, others disagree.
"People ask, ‘Can't we exploit oil in an ecologically responsible manner?' " says Amazon Watch's Kevin Koenig. "In some places, yes, but in places like this, so ecologically fragile and so diverse, with uncontacted tribes living in voluntary isolation, the answer is no."
In April 2014 Waorani leader Alicia Cahuilla delivered the first box of a total of 757,623 signatures to the National Election Commission, calling for a nationwide referendum on oil drilling in Yasuní. "We are struggling for Yasuní because it is our home," said Cahuilla. "President Correa wouldn't like it if oil companies went to his home and tore it down like they come and cut trees and build roads in our rainforest homes."
The Yasunídos, whom Correa had attacked as "troublemakers," "false greenies," and "well-fed nutcases," had carefully verified the signatures and collected 25 percent more than required. But with opinion polls showing that a clear majority of Ecuadorians supported leaving the ITT oil underground—even without international compensation—the last thing the president wanted was a vote. A few days later the election commission invalidated 66 percent of the signatures and halted the referendum. (A subsequent investigation by Quito's Universidad Andina Simón Bolívar studied a sample of 20,064 of the signatures and estimated that 673,863 of the total collected by Yasunídos were valid.)
The announcement that the election was off brought demonstrators into the streets. A crackdown soon followed, with civil rights suspended, cabinet members and other government officials forced out of office, and environmentalists and indigenous leaders arrested and harassed.
"In the end," says Patricio Chávez, "they crushed us."
It was hard not to feel crushed after my talk with Chávez, whom I'd met in Quito. But on my final afternoon at Tiputini, the industrializing world seems very far away. Rodríguez, Jarrín, and I follow a chaotic ruckus of parakeets, parrots, and macaws toward a saladero, a muddy depression whose high salt content draws animals of all kinds. Though we're careful to approach quietly, fresh prints of capybaras, tapirs, and peccaries tell us that we've missed some of the action.
In the middle of a puddle a small bit of oil bubbles to the surface, forming a sheen atop the shallow water. "A bit of petróleo coming up naturally like this doesn't bother the animals," Rodríguez says. "But as soon as people try to pump it up, the problems start."
Late last year, oil rigs moved into the ITT block and began drilling near the park's northern border. In July of this year the first barrels of commercial crude were shipped out. Vice President Jorge Glas declared that the reserve serves as a "gift for future generations." He also announced that exploratory drilling had boosted the estimate of the reserve's potential to 1.67 billion barrels of oil—nearly twice as much as originally projected.
But more crude is not likely to give this nation much relief, thanks to a series of botched reforms. Ecuador rewrote its oil laws in 2010 to give the state an increased share of what were then windfall oil profits, and agreed to give foreign producers a fixed price per barrel pumped. After defaulting on what Correa called "immoral" foreign bonds, the country was forced to turn to the Chinese for $15.2 billion in loans to finance oil drilling, infrastructure improvements, and social programs. The Chinese presciently insisted that the loans be repaid with discounted oil. In the aftermath of the crash in oil prices, analysts estimated that Ecuador was, at summer's end, selling ITT oil for nearly $20 less per barrel than it cost to produce. In the wake of a destructive eruption of the Cotopaxi Volcano, and a disastrous earthquake on the Pacific coast, each barrel of oil that's pumped up pushes the once up-and-coming country ever deeper into debt. Park guards say they no longer have fuel for the boats and vehicles they need to patrol the park against increasingly bold incursions by Peruvian poachers and illegal loggers.
"You could easily look at places like Nigeria and see this coming," says Verónica Potes, a Quito lawyer and indigenous-rights activist. "But it didn't have to happen here. Greed and a lack of transparency have turned the blessing of abundant resources into a curse."
And yet, the fate of the majority of Yasuní still remains to be sealed. Only a few of the 360 proposed wells have been drilled in Yasuní's ITT block, and in the large tracts of untouched forests just south of the park, indigenous peoples have thus far managed to defend their territories from development. Meanwhile new projects involving birdwatching and other ecotourism, forest-derived botanical products, cacao, and selective logging are popping up as more sustainable alternatives to mineral extraction.
In 2017 a new government (Correa will not seek reelection) may view continued exploitation as a political liability, and be more open to preserving the Ecuadorian Amazon for future generations. That's far more likely, say Ecuadorian environmentalists, if there's pressure from abroad. The failed initiative has succeeded, at least, in raising global consciousness about the importance of Yasuní, and drawing a clearer line from fossil-fuel extraction to proactive responses to climate change. Despite Correa's role in killing the initiative, he was at least partially right about the world having failed Yasuní.
Saving the most biodiverse place on Earth is at least partly up to us—especially in the wake of a recent Amazon Watch investigation that traced the path of crude coming from the western Amazon. It turns out that the Chinese, with more oil than they can use, are reselling most of it to the United States. Activists hope that the Amazon oil will someday be stigmatized like Canadian tar sands oil, with attendant boycotts and pressures for divestment.
Whether the prototype experience of Yasunízation is predictive—or merely a starting-line hiccup to a viable way to preserve biodiversity and slow down climate change—is still up in the air. But the seeds of a solution probably lie in something like what was originally proposed for Yasuní. Without incentives to keep the oil in the ground, it may be impossible for Ecuador—or any developing country—to break free of the petro curse.
As I sit down to my final dinner at Tiputini Station, the sunset silhouettes a troop of pygmy marmosets (the world's smallest monkey, weighing only 3.5 ounces) making their way through the low branches. Above them a flock of Scarlet Macaws squabbles over a bounty of forest fruit. The industrializing world still seems very far away. But less than 15 miles from Tiputini's outdoor dining area, the oil rigs are already in place.
"Yes, we're worried," says Kelly Swing, the biologist who co-directs the station. "Until now the road building and exploration haven't hit the most ecologically important parts of the park. But now they are getting closer to the core. Even if they tried harder to lessen the impacts, there are some places that are just too fragile to be drilled for oil."
The equatorial night comes on quickly. After dinner, I accompany a few of Swing's students on a nighttime hike to Tiputini's observation platform, which rises over the forest canopy. Above a concert of frogs I hear the raspy chwip of a Ladder-tailed Nightjar, setting off on its nocturnal sally for insects. Halfway up the 140-foot-high platform we train our lights on a family of night monkeys, peering at us from the crotch of a tree.
At the top we extinguish our lights, following Swing's advice, and peer toward the north. It takes a minute or so for our eyes to adjust to the darkness. Then, one by one, we make it out: the faint orange glow of gas being burned off at a well head, just beyond the horizon.
The conversations trail off as we gaze over the top of the jungle, into a moonless night lit by a most unwelcome light.