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Ecuador Exposes Rain Forest and its Inhabitants to Oil Extraction Effort

August 16, 2013 at 12:00 AM EST
Thousands of species of plant and wildlife call Ecuador's Yasuni National Park home, but it is believed that beneath the lush floor lies $7.2 billion of oil. Drilling could threaten the rain forest's biodiversity and indigenous populations. Some scientists argue a balance could be found. Hari Sreenivasan reports.
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JEFFREY BROWN: And we turn now to Ecuador, where one of the world’s most biodiverse places is under new threat. The nation’s president announced last night that he will allow oil drilling in the country’s Yasuni National Park.

Hari Sreenivasan has the story behind the decision. Our report was produced in partnership with The Miami Herald.

HARI SREENIVASAN: Ecuador’s Yasuni National Park is teeming with plant and animal life. According to scientists, any football-field-sized area of Yasuni has more species of trees than the U.S. and Canada combined.

The park also includes 121 different species of reptiles, 150 species of frogs, 596 species of birds, and 187 species of mammals.

Max Snodderly is a professor of visual neuroscience at the University of Texas in Austin.

MAX SNODDERLY, University of Texas, Austin: This park has 10 species of monkeys, and so it’s an opportunity to compare animals that are in the same environment.

HARI SREENIVASAN: He works on this platform in Yasuni’s canopy.

MAX SNODDERLY: One of the things that this area is known for is the species richness and the incredible biodiversity that’s here. So, that — and depending on where you are, there’s a different ecology, but this one has a particularly rich one.

HARI SREENIVASAN: But Yasuni may soon look very different. It’s believed that 846 million barrels of oil lie beneath the park, 20 percent of Ecuador’s reserves, worth $7.2 billion.

To protect this square of wilderness, Ecuador’s government presented a bold plan in 2007. President Rafael Correa asked foreign governments, civil society groups and others to give Ecuador $3.6 billion, about half the estimated value of the oil beneath Yasuni over 12 years. In return, the president offered to save the park from exploration. The effort, however, fell short.

Despite agreeing with the goal, many researchers and environmentalists concede that Ecuador’s government is ill-equipped to save the park on its own. More than a quarter of Ecuadorians live below the poverty line. Average daily income is just $26.

DAVID ROMO, Tiputini Biodiversity Station: This is like a very poor family trying to protect the family jewels, and in the meantime, most of the people in the family are starving to death.

HARI SREENIVASAN: David Romo co-directs the Tiputini Biodiversity Station, a base for scientists to work in the Yasuni. Another scientist, Terry Erwin, has been coming to Yasuni for 20 years. He’s a top entomologist at the Smithsonian Museum of Natural History.

TERRY ERWIN, Smithsonian Museum of Natural History: One of the really amazing things about what we’re collecting here is the fact that 85 percent of the species from the canopy in our samples — and we now have about 11 million specimens from all of our canopy work — about 85 percent are new species to science.

HARI SREENIVASAN: He also studies the effects of a small road built on the edge of Yasuni in 1994 to allow oil companies into the area.

TERRY ERWIN: The road is actually a clearing that’s 121 kilometers long. The local indigenous folks eat the bush meat forever, as long as they have been here, for thousands of years, and now they had a game trail that was 27 meters wide and 121 kilometers long, and they just hunted it out.

When we first started, we had five species of monkeys, and you could see at least three species every day. The abundance was big. But after three years of work, there were no monkeys whatsoever in my plot.

HARI SREENIVASAN: The park is also home to four indigenous tribes which are under threat as well.

RAMON INKERI, Huaorani Leader (through interpreter): My grandfather in 1955 killed five missionaries in the river Querarey when they came to evangelize and change on lives, because our history is that we live like nomads.

HARI SREENIVASAN: Ramon Inkeri is a leader of the native Huaorani tribe. His community abandoned the nomadic life after the road came. They have built houses and taken up farming.

RAMON INKERI (through interpreter): We’re thinking, because we have lost a lot of our identity — later, a kid here says the typical clothing is embarrassing. The grandparents are willing to teach, but the youth don’t want to learn because this world has changed. It’s a world dominated by the oil companies, because the oil company fascinates them because they get clothing, they get food for free. And all that dominates. And that’s the part we have lost.

HARI SREENIVASAN: But the Smithsonian’s Erwin thinks that oil extraction, if done correctly, can coexist with Yasuni’s indigenous population and biodiversity.

TERRY ERWIN: I think, in all of my work throughout the Amazon, in Peru, and in Bolivia and in Brazil and here in Ecuador, the lesson that I have learned is that if a government actually makes strict rules about how the oil companies behave, you can extract oil and save the biota.

But if you just open it up to the choice of the oil company, who will do things economically for the company and their investors and so forth, it’s not going to work. But if you have regulations and they have to follow, then they get the oil, the economy of the country benefits, and biodiversity is still here.

HARI SREENIVASAN: While blaming the international community for not coming through with funding in a national address last night, President Correa tried to play down the potential impact of oil drilling on the park, saying it would affect only 0.1 percent of the Yasuni basin.

Some environmental advocates don’t buy that assessment. Andrew Miller is with an environmental group, Amazon Watch.

ANDREW MILLER, Amazon Watch: That is kind of an extraordinary claim. Even the very slight environmental impacts can destroy entire species. It’s also the headwaters of the Amazon. And so, any oil drilling that happens and inevitable oil spills all flow downstream and end up in the Amazon.

HARI SREENIVASAN: It’s still too early to know exactly what the impact of drilling will be in Yasuni or if it will remain one of the most pristine, diverse places on Earth.

JEFFREY BROWN: And you can see more stories on Yasuni written by Miami Herald’s Jim Wyss. That’s on our Web page.