Petrobras plans to drill in Ecuadorian park


In Ecuador, as in many places in Latin America, protected status is no guarantee against oil drilling. Yet rarely do energy projects target land with the conservation credentials of Yasuní National Park, a 2,424,000-acre (981,000-ha) swath of Amazon rainforest that is listed as a Unesco biosphere reserve.

Yasuní includes 80% of Block 31, a 495,000-acre (200,000-ha) oil-concession area where Petrobras—Brazil’s state-owned oil company—hopes to begin drilling wells. The Petrobras project would not be the first for Yasuní. Spanish-owned Repsol-YPF has been extracting oil under a 494,000-acre (200,000-ha) concession it acquired there from Maxus, the first oil company to work in the area.

But scientists and green advocates fear more oil development will inevitably boost settlement pressure on the park, causing deforestation and destructive contact between outsiders and as-yet uncontacted indigenous people living in the region. They consider the risk particularly grave given the conservation value of the park, which is home to two research centers—the Tiputini Biodiversity Station, operated by Quito’s San Francisco University, and the Yasuní Scientific Station, of the Catholic University of Ecuador.

Rich in oil and species

Scientists say the area’s four main rivers—the Yasuní, Tiputini, Nashiño and Cononaco—host 600 species of freshwater fish, the greatest such diversity in the world for a watershed of its size. They calculate the park is home to 110 amphibian species, 600 bird species and 1,700 tree varieties. Tiputini station researchers report that in censuses done on several hectare-sized plots, they found a surprising 300 tree species per hectare. Kelly Swing, Tiputini’s director, calls the region “one of the richest areas of flora and fauna on the planet.”

Ecuador’s Environment Ministry is reviewing the environmental-impact study and environmental-management plan submitted by Petrobras, which already has the Energy Ministry’s approval and holds a 20-year concession calling for a three-year exploration period.

Petrobras wants to drill 14 wells and tap reported reserves of 69.4 million barrels. Output would start at 20,000 barrels of heavy crude daily, rising to a maximum 30,000 barrels a day. Rather than drilling straight down, the company would drill at angles—a practice known as directional drilling—so multiple wells can be sunk from a single platform. In all, Petrobras expects to build four platforms.

Petrobras plans a production plant outside the park, a roadway from a pier at the Napo River and a 19-mile (30-km) secondary pipeline linking its wellheads to the production plant.

Vicente Juepa, the Ecuadorian Energy Ministry’s undersecretary for environmental protection, says Petrobras has agreed to submit to independent monitoring and to work with the park to minimize impacts. He says Petrobras also will fund alternative-development projects to reduce logging by area residents, and adds local communities have pledged not to colonize land opened up for oil operations.

Wildlife, settlement issues

Still, Friedemann Koester, director of Catholic University’s station in Yasuní, remains concerned that construction and use of the roadway and other infrastructure will drive off wildlife and prompt destructive settlement. Even if outsiders don’t come in, he says, the project still could encourage local indigenous people to abandon hunting and gathering for farming, taking a toll on Yasuní as they clear land. “Once the road is built, indigenous people themselves will settle along it and start felling trees to open fields for cultivation of corn, yuca, plantain and other food,” Koester says.

Alex Rivas, a researcher with the nonprofit Ecuadorian Ecological Studies Foundation (Ecociencia) worries Petrobras will establish a paternalistic relationship with the region’s indigenous people, encouraging dependence rather than autonomous and sustainable development. Experts also fear development of Block 31 will open the door wider to oil projects in the region. Already, the government is planning to put the so-called Ishpingo-Tambococha-Tiputini project up for bids—an oil concession area in Cuyabeno National Park, which is to the east of Block 31.

There’s also speculation the government might overturn a decree that has kept 1.7 million acres (700,000 has)—some of which are in Yasuní—off-limits to development of any type to protect the Taromenani-Tagaeri, an uncontacted community of the Huaorani people.

Those studying Yasuní say the government ought to have a heightened appreciation for the region’s value, contending that only after the Maxus concession was granted a decade ago did researchers discover the uniqueness of the Yasuní area.

“In the Andean region and along the Ecuadorian coast, at least 70% of the native forest has been lost already,” says Tiputini’s Swing. “There are areas where there is no longer any forest. We can’t let the same thing happen on the Amazon side. Somebody has to preserve Amazonia’s riches, and that somebody must necessarily be the government.”

- Mercedes Alvaro

Friedemann Koester
Yasuní Scientific Station
Catholic University
Quito, Ecuador
Tel: +(59 32) 250-9680
Alex Rivas
Researcher in environmental science
Quito, Ecuador
Tel: +(59 32) 254-5999
Kelly Swing
Tiputini Science Station
San Francisco University of Quito
Quito, Ecuador
Tel: +(59 32) 298-4803