Why you should care
Oil could have helped secure the future of Ecuador’s indigenous communities. Instead, it’s threatening them.
The story of Yasuní National Park is a classic example of how good intentions to protect the environment and the rights of indigenous people can run aground when they come up against the reality of politics and the interests of big business.
Designated in 1979, the park covers 10,000 square kilometers of primary rainforest on Ecuador’s eastern border with Peru. It is one of the most biodiverse spots on the planet, with more than 200 species of mammals, 550 species of birds, 380 species of fish and more than 2,000 types of trees. Jaguars, tapirs and monkeys live in its dense undergrowth, while pink dolphins swim in its rivers.
The park is also home to the Tagaeri and Taromenane, two fiercely independent tribes that have resisted all attempts to integrate them into modern life. Unfortunately for them, and for the environment, Yasuní sits on vast deposits of oil — up to 40 percent of Ecuador’s reserves.
Even before Yasuní was declared a national park, Texaco had started drilling nearby. These days, state-owned Petroamazonas, Spain’s Repsol, Italy’s Agip and the China Petroleum & Chemical Corp. (Sinopec) are working in or around Yasuní.
In 2007, Ecuador’s government, led by then President Rafael Correa, came up with what seemed like an ingenious plan to protect the eastern reaches of the park, where there are three major oil deposits. Correa said Ecuador would leave the oil in the ground if the international community gave the country $3.6 billion to compensate it for lost revenue. Environmentalists applauded.
Western governments hailed the plan as an enlightened way to curb global warming. Some pledged money to the project, known as the ITT Initiative after the names of the three deposits — Ishpingo, Tiputini and Tambococha.
Oil sustains the earth’s equilibrium. Below the oil, spirits live. The land has life.
Manari Ushigua, tribal leader
The devil in the detail, though, was Rafael Correa. Western donors wanted to know how their money would be used. Correa said that was Ecuador’s business, and by 2013 the project had collapsed. “The world has failed us,” Correa lamented, accusing governments of paying lip service to the idea of protecting the Amazon and fighting climate change.
“The ITT idea was brilliant in theory, but in practice it was never going to work,” reflects Enrique Morales, a representative of Pachakutik, an Ecuadorian indigenous movement. “The donors wanted the money put in a blind trust, but Correa always had other ideas.”
With the project dead, Correa gave the oil industry the green light to expand its operations in the park. In 2016, Petroamazonas started drilling in Tiputini, and the following year in Tambococha, in the heart of Yasuní.
In February last year, Correa’s successor, Lenín Moreno, gave environmentalists hope of a reprieve. In a referendum, he asked Ecuadorians whether they wanted to expand the so-called untouchable zone of the park — where the Tagaeri and Taromenane live — while reducing the area that oil companies can exploit. Two-thirds of those who voted said yes.
But since then, while expanding the protected area that has no oil, the government has approved plans for new drilling farther inside the park.
“It’s trickery and a farce,” says Belén Paez, executive director of the Pachamama Foundation, a Quito environmental organization, referring to Moreno’s presidential decree, issued in May, which was supposed to enact the result of the referendum.
With Tiputini and Tambococha already producing oil, the environmental battleground has moved to the final deposit: Ishpingo.
“In many ways it’s the most important of the three,” says Carlos Larrea, an architect of the ITT Initiative and head of the climate change and sustainability program at the Simón Bolívar Andean University in Quito. “It’s the largest, containing around half of all the oil in the ITT, and it’s also the southernmost and therefore the most sensitive, because it encroaches on the untouchable zone and the buffer zone around it.”
Petroamazonas, which is pumping oil from Tiputini and Tambococha in partnership with China’s Sinopec, declined to comment on its plans for Ishpingo.
The company is by far the largest oil producer in Ecuador, accounting for about 80 percent of national output. About a quarter of that comes from within the Yasuní park.
While the battle for Yasuní’s future rages, elsewhere in the Ecuadorian Amazon indigenous communities have scored notable victories against the oil industry.
In March, the Waorani people successfully sued the Ecuadorian state, saying it had failed to consult them before opening up their ancestral lands to drilling.
Lawyers say the court ruling could serve as a precedent for other indigenous groups, possibly halting the future auction of oil blocks in the Amazon.
In an area just south of Yasuní, Chinese consortium Andes Petroleum this year declared force majeure on a contract to search for oil, saying indigenous protests had made their job impossible.
The company, a joint venture between the China National Petroleum Co. and Sinopec, still has a contract to work in an adjacent area but that too is proving challenging.
“We want both contracts annulled,” says Marlon Vargas, president of Confeniae, a confederation of indigenous groups from the Ecuadorian Amazon.
While some indigenous communities are open to the idea of working with oil firms — so long as they benefit too — others have a different mindset and are adamant that Ecuador’s fossil fuels should remain in the ground.
“Oil is a mineral and it sustains the earth’s equilibrium,” says Manari Ushigua, a leader of the Sápara people, one of the groups that forced the Chinese to declare force majeure. “Below the oil, spirits live. The land has life.”
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