Eye on the Amazon

Journey to Ecuador’s Secret Oil Road

In an exclusive investigation for reported.ly, journalist Nina Bigalke traveled to an oil concession deep in the Amazon rainforest to film an illegal access road, the existence of which Ecuador’s government has denied. As Indigenous peoples seek to secure the future of their ancestral lands, President Rafael Correa faces fierce political opposition ahead of a huge expansion of oil production into Ecuador’s Yasuní National Park.

"I'm sure, I'm positive that there is no road," Yvonne Fabara, Ecuador's hydrocarbons secretary, replied when I asked her about the operations of a state-owned oil company in the Amazon rainforest.

She was referring to a particularly remote and fragile area of Yasuní National Park near the border with Peru. With more than 100,000 species per hectare, the UNESCO biosphere reserve is one of the most biodiverse places on the planet. It is home to several Indigenous peoples, including two tribes who live in voluntary isolation. Yasuní also holds an estimated 20% of Ecuador's oil deposits, a resource that accounts for nearly half of Ecuador's exports.

Oil drilling in this part of the rainforest, called Block 31, was authorized on condition that no roads be built there. But satellite images published in a 2014 report revealed what appeared to be a road cutting some 20km into the protected area. Using these images, geographers from the University of Padua in Italy and a researcher from the Amazon Conservation Association calculated the road as being 26 meters wide.

Despite the satellite imagery evidence from the report, Ecuador's government maintains that the oil company in charge, state-owned Petroamazonas, built only a temporary "ecological trail" in order to bury a flowline, in compliance with the environmental license for the oil block. The only way to know for sure would be to travel through this remote corner of the Amazon and visit Block 31 in person.

Armed guards and military prevented environmental campaigners, the YASunidos, from entering Block 31 in 2014. (Credit: Yasunidos)

Assurances by Secretary Fabara that the methods employed by PetroAmazonas in the sensitive area are "being monitored by everybody" were rebutted by Professor Massimo De Marchi, an expert in sustainable development and environmental science and one of the authors of the 2014 report. De Marchi said that independent on-the-ground checks in Yasuní are almost impossible due to the remoteness of the forest and the "typical military and private security activities" that surround oil operations.

"The problem is a lack of transparency," De Marchi said, explaining that myriad incompatible claims have intensified what is now a political controversy.

Recent letters obtained by reported.ly outline how Ecuador's environment ministry refused two observation groups permission to visit the oil production facility in 2015, in one case citing environmental concerns.

In late 2014, Ecuador's government banned a delegation of German MPs from visiting the country when it was discovered the MPs planned to visit Yasuní National Park and meet with people opposed to the drilling. Meanwhile, a group of young environmentalists called YASunidos were confronted by armed guards and military as they tried to reach the area earlier that year.

Since no one else had been allowed to inspect the site, I decided to try and see the "trail" for myself.

Journey to the secret road

A heavy truck passes along the oil access road deep in Yasuni National Park. Credit: Nina Bigalke

Reaching the disputed location took me on a journey deep into the forest by boat and canoe along the Napo and Tiputini rivers. Inside Yasuní, residents from local Kichwa communities helped me to navigate the pristine wilderness and cross into Block 31, one of the latest oil concessions to be drilled. They do not want to be named for fear of reprisal.

For days, all we passed in our canoe was an abundance of animals and dense canopies. As we neared the disputed location, suddenly a stretch of road rose from the banks of the river. To avoid being met by armed security, we continued past and doubled-back on foot, making our way through the forest with a machete. Our slow progress through thick undergrowth brought home the sharp contrast, when out of nowhere a massive clearing opened in front of us.

Within minutes, vehicles approached. The rumble of a heavy truck drowned out the ubiquitous chirping of rainforest insects and birds. Soon after, a smaller truck approached. Both passed by, moving further along what was clearly a road.

Roads versus helicopters

In the Amazon, roads are known to impact the habitat well beyond their boundary. Various studies, including a January 2010 research paper published in the peer-reviewed journal PLOS One, have shown that oil access roads built in other parts of Yasuní and its surrounding buffer zone "have facilitated colonization, deforestation, fragmentation, and overhunting of large fauna … and illegal logging."

"You typically end up losing at least all the large fauna like tapirs and peccaries and the large species of birds within a very short period of time," says Dr. Kelly Swing, an expert in environmental science and director of the Tiputini Biodiversity Station, a research facility inside Yasuní.

To preserve the rainforest, the 2007 environmental licence for Block 31 stipulated a roadless design, where the oil platform – "essentially an island in the forest" – is serviced by a fleet of boats and helicopters, much like an offshore platform. To get the crude oil to a processing facility, the roadless access is combined with an underground flowline. This requires a temporary trail to bury the flowline before restoring the original geography.

This method is significantly more costly than building a traditional access road, but widely considered best practice in sensitive environments.

"There is no need to have a highway there," Secretary Fabara confirmed when we spoke in late 2014, before I visited Block 31. "Absolutely no need."

The 2007 environmental license allowed the "ecological trail" to have a maximum width of 4.5 meters and a total clearing of no more than 10 meters tree-to-tree. Petroamazonas inherited the agreement when it took over the drilling concession from Brazilian oil company Petrobras in 2009. In 2011, Petroamazonas was permitted to increase the clearance width to a maximum of 14 meters.

The widest point of the clearing I filmed was about 30 meters, more than twice as wide as specified in the amended license and about three times as wide as in the 2007 license. Satellite images show segments of the road where the clearing is much wider.

The road "just evaporates"

The oil access road filmed by Nina Bigalke in Ecuador's Amazon rainforest.

"Once [the flowline] is buried, you don't have to have anything on the surface", Secretary Fabara said when we spoke in Quito. "You just rebuild whatever damage you did and it just evaporates."

None of the experts interviewed by reported.ly know of an oil access road in Yasuní that "evaporated" or that was later revegetated with natural habitat.

"Yes, if we wait 100 years, we can have a forest, maybe," Professor De Marchi, co-author of the University of Padua report, said. "But the problem is, it's a big investment. So, where you have a road, you improve the road, you open new roads. It's absurd to close a road. When you open the first cut, it's impossible to come back."

One of several bridges built to cross rivers inside Yasuni. Credit: GeoYasuni.org

Furthermore, the morphology of the clearing has fundamentally changed and differs vastly from the pictures of a benign trail in official literature. The video clearly shows that construction materials alien to the jungle, such as compacted gravel, were introduced to build the road surface. Trenches were dug and satellite images show permanent "water-crossing structures" along the road.

"They had to cut the top of the hill to have less of a slope for vehicles," Dr. Francesco Ferrarese, geographical expert at the University of Padua, observed when he saw the video. "I think this is extremely interesting, because it is difficult to restore the original morphology."

Drilling deeper still

In the politically charged battle over the right to define the future of an ever-shrinking territory of pristine rainforest, the road in Block 31 is significant, not least because of its strategic location. It lies directly adjacent to the last untouched oil block of Yasuní that until recently had been off-limits for oil operations: Block 43, often referred to by the acronym ITT, short for the Ishpingo, Tiputini and Tambococha oil fields within its boundary.

In August 2013, President Rafael Correa abandoned a high-profile initiative to keep the oil in the soil, paving the way for a major expansion of drilling into the ITT oil fields. In April 2014, Correa's government rejected two thirds of 756,000 signatures collected by the YASunidos environmentalists to force a public referendum on the issue. Permits allowing Petroamazonas to drill were signed a month later. Set to begin in 2016, Petroamazonas has been granted the new drilling license.

As with Block 31, the expansion into ITT came with promises to use "cutting-edge technology" to mitigate any impacts.

A conference of petroleum engineers in Quito in 2014 foreshadowed "the possibility of extending [existing] roads" into ITT, according to Bill Powers, chief engineer with a USA-based consultancy, in an interview by the Guardian.

Roads have been built into Block 16 and Block 31. ITT is the next concession slated for oil production. The fear is that road connections will be built through these blocks. Credit: InfoAmazonia.org/GeoYasuni.org

Presenting at the conference, a representative of Ecuadorian oil services company SERTECPET mooted opening road access to ITT through neighboring Block 31, Powers said. A Petroamazonas representative who spoke at the conference "was quite honest and straightforward about the fact it was cheaper to put in a road than to rely on helicopters" and that "they had the intention of applying the same development philosophy in ITT," he said.

A government official at that conference, Minister for Strategic Sectors Rafael Poveda, made familiar assurances that "the transport of materials will be done by helicopter and by river."

Money for oil

The issue has hit a nerve in Ecuador, not least because the OPEC member state depends heavily on crude exports. Oil resources are state-owned in Ecuador and, subject to market fluctuations, generate about half of all export revenues.

Since the country defaulted on its debt in 2008, it has come to rely heavily on Chinese loans linked to guaranteed oil exports and projects involving Chinese companies. Further such deals have been struck as Ecuador's government looks to China and elsewhere to mitigate the impact of plummeting crude prices on the country's economy.

Environmental impacts and local resistance

Quito. August 27, 2013: A riot policeman holds a shield reading 'Life' (written by protestors) during clashes following a protest against the exploitation of oil in the Yasuni National Park. Credit: Juan Cevallos/AFP/Getty Images

Profits from record crude prices in the past had been ploughed into public spending on infrastructure, health and education, but four decades of oil operations have left people divided over the ills and benefits of the industry.

For the local population in the affected areas, the impacts are impossible to ignore. Oil spills are amongst the most visible ones.

More than two decades into a class action lawsuit against Texaco / Chevron, little has been done to clean up the toxic sludge and crude oil left behind in leaking open-air waste pits in a formerly pristine forest to the north of Yasuní. An Amazon Watch / Vice News expose alleged that Chevron tried to cover up the resulting environmental damage by deliberately seeking uncontaminated soil samples. Chevron public affairs officer Morgan Crinklaw disagreed, saying the sampling work was not conducted improperly.

Above: The Chevron Tapes

More recently, thousands of barrels of crude spilled into the Aguarico river after a Petroamazonas pipeline ruptured in July 2014.

Although "spills are the events that make their way into the public conscience," environmental scientist Dr. Swing stresses that in terms of environmental impacts, "oil companies do many things even before they get to the point of extracting oil."

"Any oil operation involves thousands of workers. We are talking about developing small towns in different parts of the forests. We usually think of that as a minor aspect, but those are impacts that go on day after day after day for years, having a chronic effect on the environment."

Such drastic changes continue to affect Indigenous communities, some of who choose to live in voluntary isolation in the remaining untouched parts of the forest. Many have been fighting oil operations on their ancestral lands for years.

"The people that we are opposing, they tell us, ‘If you continue, you will be persecuted,'" a resident of Yasuní tells me.

"This fight is not for myself or my parents or grandparents, it is for our children, and our children's children, so they do not have to live in a contaminated environment," he continued. "Otherwise, what are they supposed to say to them? That they are suffering because of the deeds of their parents?"

Above: A campaign by I Am Yasuni to create awareness of oil drilling in Indigenous Amazon lands. The group was initially funded by Ecuador's government "to help get funding to save the Yasuní," an organiser told reported.ly. "When our efforts turned out to be successful, we were shut down and the government broke all communication with us."

A struggle for democracy

President Correa has taken contradictory measures through his quasi-authoritarian leadership. He shelters WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange in Ecuador's London Embassy while curbing press freedoms at home. In 2008, he initiated the first constitution to put the "rights of nature" on a similar legal standing as human rights. A crackdown on NGOs in later years involved shutting down Pachamama, an organisation advocating those very rights, after it publicly opposed the expansion of oil drilling in the Amazon.

The environmental struggle has been exacerbated by what the independent watchdog Freedom House identified as a "pattern of cracking down on […] critical voices" and a "downward trend" in freedom of expression.

Leaked internal documents of Ecuador's intelligence agency, the Secretaría Nacional de Inteligencia, indicate that "spies were targeting political groups and individuals seeking to conserve the forest," the Guardian's environment editor, John Vidal wrote. And Correa spent millions of Ecuador's intelligence budget "to delete content critical of him and the first lady," Buzzfeed reported.

As a direct result of the government's strong-arm rhetoric against environmentalists, "the environmental justice struggle is now completely linked with democracy," says Ivonne Yanez, director of the NGO Accion Ecologica. "This government accuses Indigenous leaders of being terrorists and criminalizes young people for protesting against its environmental policies."

Demonstrators struggle with riot police during a march to protest against the policies of President Rafael Correa they say will result in more mining in the Amazon region and threaten the environment and their way of life, on March 22, 2012. Protests were prompted partly by a recent agreement between Ecuador and China for industrial copper mining in the Amazon's Ecuacorriente Zamora-Chinchipe region.The march was organized by the Confederation of Indigenous Nationalities of Ecuador (CONAIE), a powerful umbrella group that represents natives from around the country. Correa accused CONAIE of trying to destabilize his government. Credit: Rodrigo Buendia/AFP/Getty Images

The precise methods of production Petroamazonas will employ in the ITT oil fields remain to be seen. Valid concerns arise given the misleading narrative around production in Block 31 and the rebuttal of evidence that the environmental license was breached.

Contacted by email about evidence of a road in Block 31, Hydrocarbons Secretary Fabara replied that she was "most [concerned about] the information regarding Petroamazonas and the ITT as this is not within the scope of work."

Fabara said she spoke to Oswaldo Madrid, General Manager of Petroamazonas, who was copied into an email. Reported.ly invited Oswaldo Madrid to answer questions about the existence of the road, the timeframe and budget for restoring the original habitat, and plans for Block 43/ITT. These questions were also sent to Ecuador's Ministry of Environment and Ministry of Non-Renewable Natural Resources. We have not received replies to these questions at the time of publication.

Additional reporting by Malachy Browne.
Translations by Wendy Carrillo.
Edited by Malachy Browne.

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