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Endgame in the Amazon


Sunset over the Rio Napo – the river that forms the northern border of Yasuní National Park.

Photo: / Mauro Burzio

Yasuní – is this the way beyond petroleum?

*There’s an attractive simplicity to the Ecuadorian leader’s proposal. Rafael Correa has said that his government is prepared not to extract nearly a billion barrels of oil from Yasuní National Park, a part of the Amazon rainforest of extraordinary but fragile ecological and cultural richness. To do so, however, Ecuador will need to be compensated by the international community to the tune of at least $350 million per annum for the next 10 years. The June 2008 deadline for this proposal to save Yasuní has been extended, but time is running out and the oil companies are poised, ready to drill. This month’s _New Internationalist_ looks at what’s happening to a bold plan that could point the way to breaking oil dependency – but which is also fraught with possible snares and pitfalls. Is this just carbon trading by another name? Or is it the neatest model for tackling global warming yet? And what do those most directly affected – the indigenous and other peoples of Yasuní itself – think of the idea?*


A vast forest so rich in trees that in just one hectare you could find as many species as exist in the entire continent of North America. A tropical haven, where flora and fauna took refuge during the last Ice Age, and which today hosts the world’s greatest biodiversity. A home to jaguars, giant otters, woolly monkeys and no fewer than 630 types of birds – including the rare harpy eagle – and 25 species of endangered mammals. 

A place where indigenous Waoraní, Quichua and Shuar peoples pursue their traditional cultures and ways of life. Where other groups remain in ‘voluntary isolation’, avoiding all contact with the outside world and are described as Ecuador’s last ‘free beings’, living in ‘societies of abundance’ because they produce just enough to satisfy their needs.

This is Yasuní, part of the Napo Moist Forest region where the Amazon meets the Andes. An area that UNESCO has declared a World Biosphere Reserve and which is protected by state decree as a 982,000 hectare National Park. It also includes an ‘Untouchable Zone’ where the rights of ethnic Tagaeri and Taromenane groups to live in isolation are upheld, in theory at least, by the Government of Ecuador.


Imagine oil. Crude oil. The very worst type. Low in quality, high in sulphur content. Oil that is four-fifths toxic water, which once sucked from the ground, is pushed out into the already moist earth and spewed into waterways, causing disease and death. Whose exploration leads to deforestation and pollution that poisons people and animals, and turns an ecological paradise into a wasteland.

This is the oil that lies beneath Yasuní. Almost a billion barrels of it. A quarter of known reserves in Ecuador – a country which for the past 25 years has based its economy, its entire model of development, on oil.

So, two very different types of wealth located, as though by some perverse design, in one place. One above the earth; one below. The clash of interests, concentrated in this corner of the Amazon, resonates outwards to the entire world.  In Yasuní the stage is set for a mighty and urgent global debate about development and sustainability, about climate change and, ultimately, survival.

Click to enlarge...
Click to enlarge the map. Photo: yasunigreengold.org / Mauro Burzio

A bit of history

It’s not the first time that this part of the Western Amazon has been threatened. Back in 1541 the Spanish adventurer and explorer Francisco de Orellana passed through here on his search for El Dorado – the myth of a golden city that fired the greed and imaginations of his ilk. But the biggest threat to the indigenous inhabitants of these forests came in the 20th century. When Shell oil workers tried to enter the territory in 1940, a Waoraní warrior called Moipa led the resistance against them, killing many. US missionaries suffered a similar fate in 1956. The first peaceful contact between the Waoraní people and outsiders did not come until 1958.

Soon after that, the discovery of large oil deposits brought dramatic changes to the province of Orellana in which the Yasuní Park is located. During the 1960s waves of settlers, encouraged by the Ecuadorian government, were drawn to the region by the lure of ‘black gold’.1

Forests were hacked through to lay a 420 kilometre oil pipeline across the Andes to the coast. Settlers poured in. Slashing and burning, they cleared the way for palm oil plantations and the like.

In 1969, missionaries from the US Summer Institute of Linguistics received authorization from the Ecuadorian Government to create a protection zone around its mission in indigenous Waoraní territory in Yasuní. The 66,570-hectare Protectorate that resulted represented 10 per cent of traditional territory. By the early 1980s five-sixths of the Waoraní population had been called to live in the Protectorate, which was later to become part of the Waoraní Reserve.2

Following the discovery of even larger oil reserves, the 1980s brought a second wave of invasion. Settlements mushroomed – including Francisco de Orellana (called El Coca by locals) which today is an oil town of 30,000.

Oil boom

A human and ecological disaster unfolded, triggered by unregulated oil exploitation and widespread illegal logging. Unlike the indigenous inhabitants, outsiders hunted indiscriminately and brought new diseases into the area. They polluted water sources with toxic contaminants, putting traditional ways of life in peril. Animals and plants were forced from their safe haven to the brink of extinction.

When local indigenous people tried to challenge oil interests, they faced repression, threats and even death. Omari Ima, chair of the Waoraní women’s organization AMWAE, says that at the time of her birth, some 30 years ago, her people numbered 16,000. ‘Today there are about a thousand of us left. It is simply a struggle for survival.’3

The non-contacted Waoranís – known as Taromenane and Tagaeri peoples – who had chosen to stay outside the Protectorate, suffered a worse fate. The Tagaeri lived in the Tiputini region, which became the heart of the southern oil fields in the 1980s, and there were many conflicts between them and oil workers.

Famed for their fierceness, the Tagaeri warriors speared oil workers, missionaries and others they saw as intruders. Most famously, in July 1987, they killed an Archbishop for the Capuchin Mission and a Colombian nun.

For their part, the Ecuadorian military fired rockets from helicopters into Tagaeri longhouses. Indigenous people were killed and dwellings razed by security guards. At one point there was even a plan to exterminate the Tagaeris.

The indigenous peoples of Yasuní retain strong community values. They need to – under the shadow of military and oil company repression.

Photo: / Mauro Burzio

Protection or violation?

Over the years successive Ecuadorian governments appear to have swung between measures to protect indigenous people and their habitats and moves to violate them.

For example, in 1979 the Ecuadorian Government recognized the unique nature of Yasuní sufficiently to make it the country’s only Amazonian national park. But it also allowed multinational corporations to prospect for oil in it and in the surrounding fragile rainforest regions.

Following fatal clashes between oil workers and indigenous peoples, the Government promised to grant protection to the non-contacted Waoranís fleeing from concessions operated by PetroCanada, Texaco, Petrobras, Shell and Elf.

In 1999 the southern part of Yasuní was officially declared an ‘Untouchable Zone’, a safe haven for those indigenous people who had chosen to live in isolation. The implication was that mining, logging, oil drilling and colonization would not be permitted. But illegal logging has persisted in the ‘Untouchable Zone’ and there has even been some prospecting for oil.

In January of this year the Spanish oil giant Repsol-YPF was responsible for a major spill in the Park which it refuses to clear up, despite an ongoing court action.

‘oil companies set about winning over the peoples of the forest, offering them small gifts such as football clothes and sweets in exchange for permission to drill for oil on their lands’

Because it has a concession (Block 16) at the main entrance to the National Park Repsol has extraordinary control over Yasuní – denying entry to whoever it wishes.

Waoraní activist Alicia Cahuiya says that, effectively, the land belonging to her people in Yasuní has been occupied by the oil companies and the military. ‘Every step we take is watched, and if we voice a protest Repsol turns the military on us. If we do not comply, they threaten to beat us. There have been cases where the military have killed Waoraní people and thrown bodies in the rivers.’3

In August 2004, after a state visit by Brazilian President Lula, an environmental licence was granted to the Brazilian oil company Petrobras to drill for oil in Block 31, just north of the Untouchable Zone, and next to the Ishpingo Tambococha Tiputinin (ITT) field which the Ecuadorian Government is now proposing to save from exploitation (see below).

Equipped with new contracts, oil companies set about winning over the peoples of the forest, offering them small gifts such as football clothes and sweets in exchange for permission to drill for oil on their lands.

According to Alicia Cahuiya, at the time villagers did not understand what was going on. Later, when they became sick from contamination caused by oil extraction and began to protest, the military came in to support the companies.

Today, Petrobras has got the infrastructure up and ready for oil exploration on the outer edges of Yasuní. They used a Swedish construction company called Skanska which has been slated by local communities and environmental groups. An investigation by Acción Ecológica – the Ecuadorian version of Friends of the Earth –  found that five out of the twenty families in the Quichai indigenous village of Chiru Isla inside Yasuní were poisoned by diesel and oil dumped into the watercourse by Skanska. All members of these families became seriously ill, suffering from headaches and vomiting. Waste from latrines at Skanska’s site went straight into watercourses, violating Ecuador’s health laws. Fearing repression, Chiru Isla villagers have preferred to remain silent about these violations.

Repression is real – and official. Skanska has private security guards. But a special security council called GESPETRO, set up by the Government for companies involved in oil extraction, also offers military support.  The oil companies provide the military with infrastructure, food, fuel, living quarters and emergency medical care in exchange for protection.

Pablo Fajardo, a lawyer for the Ecuadorian network Frente de Defensa de la Amazonia (FDA) says: ‘The population is being exposed to serious health hazards and illnesses related to oil spills and deliberate waste dumping while they often live in fear of companies, whose power is expressed through threats and violence. By using private armed forces, the companies try to control and stifle local resistance at any price. This is what it’s like in the entire region, and all companies working with oil are forced to deal with this reality.’3

Waoraní protesters defending their territories and demanding their rights to be respected.

Photo: / Mauro Burzio

A breath of fresh air

The election of Rafael Correa as Ecuador’s new president in November 2006 raised hopes, especially among indigenous people. Parallels were drawn with the election of Evo Morales in Bolivia. In some respects, these hopes have been borne out. Correa’s new Alianza PAIS Government has taken a tougher line with foreign private multinationals, refusing to renew a contract with US oil giant Occidental. Concessions have been suspended or renegotiated on terms that are better for the country and less profitable for the companies.

The radical proposal to leave in the ground millions of barrels’ worth of the crude at Yasuní’s ITT field came as a breath of fresh air.

It originated within civil society rather than government. Alberto Acosta, who became Energy Minister, was one of the main architects of the proposal, which was then adopted by President Correa. In April 2007 the President announced it as his preferred option. But, he said, Ecuador would need to be compensated for the loss of revenue that would ensue for the sacrifice. The field could produce at least $700 million worth of oil revenues annually. Correa suggested compensation of half this amount.

During the following months the idea was promoted with a Live Earth Concert and other attention-grabbing events. Meanwhile, Acosta left the Energy Ministry to chair the country’s Constituent Assembly, which has recently introduced the notion of the ‘rights of nature’.4

‘the oil would be kept underground indefinitely in return for a contribution from the international community payable annually for a period of 10 years, the time it would have taken for the oil to run out’

Correa repeated the ITT proposal at the United Nations in September 2007 and again in October. Since then it has gone through various stages and is still evolving. The gist is that the oil would be kept underground indefinitely and that the contribution from the international community would be payable annually for a period of 10 years, the time it would have taken for the oil to run out had it been exploited.

Carlos Larrea, a professor at Quito’s Andina Simón Bolívar University and one of the country’s leading economists, has been working out the technical details. He explains: ‘A compensation fund, administered by international environmental organizations through an international trust, would be created for Ecuador. The interest from this fund would be used by the Ecuadorian state for projects focused on conservation, alternative energy and social development in the country.’

The big advantage, he says, is that this would ‘allow the state to obtain an indefinite resource flow for sustainable human development’. If oil extraction went ahead, on the other hand, it would take at least five years before any income started flowing in and would stop after the reserves were exhausted, five years after that.

Money for the compensation fund could come from various sources, including UN bodies, national governments, international conservation and human rights organizations, and citizens around the world who could symbolically ‘buy a barrel’ to keep the crude in the ground. 

Flora meets fauna – around 105 amphibian and 72 reptile species have been documented in Yasuní.

Photo: / Mauro Burzio

The global benefits of doing so far outweigh the costs, Larrea reckons.

‘The country’s contribution to the reduction of global warming can be quantified and represents a much larger value than the profits Ecuador could receive if it decided to extract oil from ITT. If we only consider the costs of the abatement of carbon dioxide emissions coming from the ITT reserves, which amount to hundreds of millions of tons, we obtain a number that clearly justifies the conservation alternative as the only reasonable option for the future of a global society that aims to live in harmonious coexistence with nature.’

If, on top of saving carbon emissions, account is taken of the Yasuní biosphere’s essential role in the global water cycle, climate regulation and oxygen production, then the compensation being requested looks even more modest.

Larrea’s calculations do not try to take into consideration invaluable ‘services’ such as saving the habitat and livelihoods of indigenous peoples. There are clearly some things to which even economists cannot attach price tags. Whatever the economics, the moral, ecological and human rights perspectives should not be lost in the complex and contentious thicket of calculations.

How serious is Correa?

Naturally, there is opposition. Some of the strongest is coming from the state oil company, Petroecuador, which currently administers the ITT field. There is also powerful lobbying from the Brazilian state oil company Petrobras and the Chinese state company Sinopec, both of which have strong interests in the Amazon region. And there are those within the Government who oppose the plan, arguing that the country’s dependence on hydrocarbons is an unavoidable fact of life. Oil currently accounts for 60 per cent of exports.

But there is also vociferous support. The main national indigenous group, CONAIE, though often at odds with the Government, has given this proposal its backing. There is also considerable support from the population in general. Surveys in the major cities of Quito and Guayaquil show a majority in favour of keeping Yasuní’s oil in the ground – whether or not the Government is compensated for doing so.

Even in the oil town of Francisco de Orellana/Coca, there is growing support for keeping oil in the ground, reports anthropologist Laura Rival. People are recognizing that oil exploitation is just not worth it. Not only does it destroy the local environment – they have seen that it does not reduce their poverty (see box below). This battle of interests – even within the Government – has produced contradictions that cast doubt on the Government’s green and pro-indigenous claims.

For example, while Correa was saying that his preferred option was to leave the oil in the ground, in December 2007 his government’s environment ministry gave the green light to a Petrobras scheme for exploration inside the Park, using helicopters to access drilling platforms and allowing construction of a connecting road between the two well sites.

The harsh treatment meted out to locals who protest raises further questions. In December 2007, two months after the ITT proposal was touted at the UN, the governor of Orellana province, Guadalupe Llori, was arrested by the Ecuadorian army. She was detained in prison on charges of terrorism, sabotage and fraud.

Llori’s lawyer said she was being accused of organizing a strike in November 2007 that brought oil production to a halt. Protestors had demanded that oil companies hire more locals and make income tax and royalty payments directly to local governments. The Ecuadorian Government declared a state of emergency in the province.

In spite of these clashes, and apparent governmental support for the oil companies against local people, Carlos Larrea believes that President Correa and several key players in his administration are genuinely behind the proposal. What is needed now, says Larrea, is the engagement and interest of the international community to give the proposal legs.

The oil wealth myth
Although Ecuador depends on oil for 60 per cent of its exports and oil prices have skyrocketed, the economy is stagnant with a growth rate of just 0.5% – the lowest in 50 years. More than a million people have emigrated in the past six years. Urban unemployment remains high and nearly half the population is living in poverty.

Oil wealth has not filtered down.

This is not unusual. According to economist Jeffrey Sachs it’s the norm: countries over-reliant on exporting natural resources rarely show much economic growth.

Local views and the big shift

The voices of the local people of Orellana province tend to get lost in the national and international debate. Or sometimes the debate is focussed exclusively on indigenous people. While oil extraction has disastrous effects on isolated indigenous communities, the region’s other inhabitants also suffer. Political repression at the behest of oil companies remains an ongoing issue province-wide.

In February this year workers’ unions, indigenous groups, local councils and others came together to produce the ‘Orellana Declaration’, a key demand of which was the release of Governor Guadalupe Llori. But they also, unequivocally, called for non-exploitation of the ITT field, for preservation of the Yasuní National Park and for the expulsion of the companies currently operating within it.

For all Ecuadorians, shifting their economy away from its current over-reliance on oil and towards other activities is crucial. As the local signatories of the Orellana Declaration say: ‘Most of the wealth from natural resource extraction has served only to fatten the coffers of foreign multinationals, of their national associates and accomplices, who, implementing an irrational exploitation of petrol, have irreparably damaged our territories.’5

Carlos Larrea comments: ‘The choice between conservation and oil extraction in Yasuní [is the choice] between the current development model, based on extraction and non-sustainable exploration, and a future model with a vision towards respect for nature, cultural diversity and the satisfaction of human needs.’

Developing alternatives to oil will need to happen at several levels. The current plan, according to Larrea, envisages ‘energy diversification and democratization, the promotion of renewable energy and development of alternative energy projects, especially solar and geothermic, and the promotion of small-scale hydro-electric projects’.

But other areas of economic activity need to come under its umbrella. Eco- and community-tourism are touted as possibilities.

How the compensation fund is managed will be key, Larrea acknowledges.

‘The national and international public should be informed of the use… [of] the funds raised through the proposed mechanism and citizen oversight of this spending. The funds should be allocated towards strategies that would contribute to freeing the country of its current state of dependence and to find effective solutions to fight poverty. One possibility is the creation of a bond supporting family-based subsistence farming.’

Time is running out

Several governments, including those of Spain, Italy, Germany, Belgium and Norway, have expressed interest in the ITT proposal. Organizations like the Wallace Global Fund have committed sums to the initiative. A number of other groups including Acción Ecológica, Amazon Watch, Earth Economics, University of Maryland, Charles Stewart Mott Foundation, Pachamama Alliance and World Resources Institute have put their weight behind it. But firm commitments for the full sum of money haven’t yet been reached. Frustration at the slow speed at which mechanisms, such as those for ‘buying barrels’, are being developed is not inspiring confidence. A June 2008 deadline for pledges has been extended to October 2008, but even this will most likely need to be extended again.

At the same time, the Government has already begun a bidding process for the ITT oilfield. If funds are not raised they will open all the bid envelopes the day the ITT offer ends. If this happens, indigenous people in voluntary isolation risk annihilation. Their lack of immunity to outsiders’ diseases; their complete reliance on the forests for survival makes them acutely vulnerable.

‘they no longer prepare clearings but plant crops under the canopy to avoid being spotted by helicopters’

As Laura Rival reports: ‘These non-contacted groups all live like refugees in their own land.... They no longer prepare clearings, but plant crops and maize under the canopy to avoid being spotted by helicopters. They cook late at night, so that smoke rising from their hearths does not give them away. They are on the move at all times, endlessly searching for quieter hunting spots and better hiding places. According to my Waoraní friends, they hate the noise of machines and engines, and choose to flee to the same places where the monkeys and the peccaries flee.’

Whatever happens, oil extraction in Yasuní has to stop: for human rights reasons, for ecological reasons, both local and global. A model is needed to halt exploitation of oil in ecologically fragile areas. Unlike carbon trading, which has done nothing to reduce oil extraction and use – just provided windfalls for utility companies – the ITT looks like a possibility as long as its aims are not perverted by profiteering.

In the words of Ana Rivas, who heads the Municipal Government of Francisco de Orellana/Coca: ‘There are many arguments in favour of leaving the oil in Yasuní Park in the ground. If we achieve this, not only will we conserve an enormously diverse area, home to the Tagaeri and the Taromenane, but also we will become a universal symbol that a new world is possible. It really is. The success of the defence of Yasuní will be a milestone in overcoming the challenge which humanity has in thwarting the effects of climate change.’

Click here to visit the Save Yasuní Action page
Donate a book, send an NI magazine or contact your local group.

Yasuní includes an ‘Untouchable Zone’ where indigenous groups are able, in theory at any rate, to live in ‘voluntary isolation’.

Photo: / Mauro Burzio

Vanessa Baird is a Co-Editor of New Internationalist magazine.

  1. Ginés Haro Pastor et al, Yasuní Green Gold, New Internationalist Publications, 2008.
  2. Laura Rival, ‘Ecuador: The Huaorani [Waoraní] People of the Amazonia, self-isolation and forced contact’, World Rainforest Movement Bulletin no 87, October 2004.
  3. Agneta Enström, ‘Ecuador’s Yasuní Park: Oil Exploration or Nature Protection’, Corpwatch, 20 March 2008 www.corpwatch.org
  4. Carlos Larrea, ‘Will it be conservation or oil extraction in Yasuní National Park?’ 27 February 2008 www.sosyasuni.org and a talk given by Carlos Larrea to the Centre of Development Studies, University of Oxford, April 2008.
  5. Meeting of oil producing provinces of Ecuador, ‘Declaracion de Orellana’, 12 February 2008, El Coca.

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