Threats and Conservation Efforts

Amazon Oil Road Yasuni
Oil road near Yasuni National Park. (Image from "Proyecto Primates", New York University and University of California Davis. Image © Larry Dew 2000)

Threats to the Ecuadorian Amazon, and the Battle for Conservation

While it is estimated that humans have populated the Amazon region for over 10,000 years, reaching a population in the millions, it is only in relatively recent history that the entire Amazon region has been threatened by exploitation of resources. From the search for gold in the 15th century to the rubber boom of the 19th and early 20th centuries, foreign invaders have viewed the Amazon as a source of valuable materials to be extracted and sold for rapid profits. During this time period, the native cultures have been used as slaves, mistreated, and often killed when they got in the way of the process.

Oil was discovered in the Ecuadorian Amazon in the 1960’s, and since then, large areas of pristine rainforest have been cut down to make room for pipelines and roads. This development has brought additional problems to the Amazon. Roads such as the Auca Road, built in the 1980’s by Texaco extending deep into the Yasuni region to provide access to its oil fields, were constructed without control points. This road caused a rapid influx of colonists to the area, who cut down the forests to sell the timber and create farmland. Spur roads, often cut by the colonists, furthered the destruction. And the oil pipeline crossing the country from the Amazon to the northern coast (along with smaller pipelines running through much of the Amazon region) has been plagued with leaks. As just one example of over one hundred reported spills, in early 2009, one of these pipelines leaked 14,000 gallons of crude oil, much of which entered the Santa Rosa River.

Oil drilling activities by Texaco from 1964 to 1990 are now the subject of a major class action lawsuit against Chevron-Texaco. More than 18 billion gallons of toxic wastewater were dumped in the Ecuadorian Amazon, about 17 million gallons of crude oil was spilled, and hazardous waste was left behind in hundreds of open pits in the forest. This is considered to be one of the worst environmental disasters on the planet, eclipsing by far even the damage done by the Exxon Valdez. Soil, groundwater, and surface water contamination have caused a wide range of cancers, birth defects and miscarriages in local populations; all caused by a disaster that has still not been cleaned up. In 2011, an Ecuador court found Chevron liable for over 19 billion in damages…but Chevron is putting its corporate money and influence to work in fighting the verdict. For more information, please visit www.chevrontoxico.com

Logging and Mining Activities

In 2007, Ecuador, the eighth most biodiverse country in the world, also had the world’s highest rate of deforestation, a situation which has not significantly changed in recent years. New roads, new development, and oil and mining exploration continue to open access to new areas, and a near total lack of protection or control in these areas inevitably results in rapid destruction of the surrounding areas, starting with selective logging and followed by clearing of land for farming and cattle.

Mining activities are increasing in many parts of Ecuador including the Amazon, continuing the process of new roads and opening access to new areas. Without strict environmental oversight, these activities are likely to result in further environmental contamination and deforestation. However, the Ecuadorian government continues to pursue oil exploration and mining in pristine regions motivated by financial gain.

The Battle for Conservation

On the positive side, the preliminary victory of the Amazon communities against Chevron-Texaco was a strong message to oil and mining interests that the environment must be protected. Further, Ecuador's 2008 constitution includes much stronger language protecting the environment. Indeed, it includes a “Nature’s Bill of Rights,” including the right to be free from exploitation and “harmful environmental consequences.” The new constitution also includes a prohibition on the extraction of oil in protected areas such as Yasuni National Park, but with an exception…such drilling can proceed if petitioned by the President and declared in the national interest by the Congress.

Indigenous communities in the Amazon are increasingly organized, and are opposing further exploitation of their lands. Communities across the Amazon are looking toward tourism as an option to protect their lands while providing a sustainable income. In 2008, a military and police control point was created at a key access point of illegal loggers in the Amazon, which, according to early reports, has effectively ended illegal logging in at least one part of the Amazon near the Auca road.

In 2007, President Rafael Correa offered a unique proposal to the international community: He would keep the oil in the fields known as ITT, considered the second largest untapped oil fields in Ecuador, underground—in exchange for compensation equal to approximately half of the estimated value of the untapped oil from the international community. The goals of this proposal include combating climate change, protecting Yasuni National Park, and respecting the territory of the indigenous people of the area, particularly those still living in voluntary isolation. To date, the proposal has received support from numerous countries, and many international and national NGO’s are strongly supporting the idea and helping to collect the necessary funds...but the effort is still far short of its final goal.

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