We flew from Quito to Coca, in the Ecuadorian Amazon, to get to Tiputini Biodiversity Station deep in the rainforest. It was a tough choice, whether to take the bus or plane, and flying felt like the shameful, hypocritical choice given the region’s controversial and damaging oil extraction in recent decades. The alternative for the return trip was 2 days of treacherous mountain roads in the rainy season, and two nights in Coca, a busy, polluted town, home to local communities and oil workers. The flight was half an hour each way. It is this convenience, and our expectation to take the quicker, simpler journey, that has helped us become dependent on oil. We are now so desperate to find new oil fields to exploit, that one of the most biodiverse places on earth, Yasuni National Park in Ecuador, could be irreversibly damaged to meet our fuel demands. If this does happen, then in exchange for the suffering of indigenous peoples and the destruction of biodiversity, we would gain enough oil to keep the world running for about a week. It seems a ludicrous choice to make.
However, just like the many passionate scientists working in the depths of the forest at Tiputini Biodiversity Station, fly we did. Stepping off the plane was like stepping into a sauna, hot and muggy, but instead of the heady smell of tropical rainforest we were greeted by an unpleasant mix of traffic fumes and smoke. Before long we were in a boat on the Napo river, heading downriver, the banks so far apart that the mighty rainforest – where it was still standing and hadn’t been cleared for oil or agriculture – appeared to be no more than a hedge along each side. We passed a gas flare burning on the banks, and were overtaken by speedboat ferries taking their cargo of workers to the oil and gas extraction sites.
After an hour and a half we arrived at a checkpoint owned by Repsol YPF, a Spanish-Argentinian oil and gas company that controls access to a road that would take us to a second boat on the Tiputini river. We filed through, our bags were x-rayed, and we drove for an hour, on a bus with no sides and hard wooden bench seats, along the gravel road.
Repsol YPF are so sensitive to security that photography is forbidden. This region was first and foremost home to the indigenous Huaorani people. The Huaorani remain, some living in wooden homes built for them by Maxus (the Ecuadorian company that originally constructed the road) that bear no resemblance to their traditional houses. We saw these, and paths disappearing into productive crop gardens, drove over rivers with signs giving their indigenous names, and saw dugout canoes in the water beneath us.
We learnt a great deal more about what we had seen later in the week, when a presentation and documentary on the road and Huaorani communities was shown at the research station. The road itself, necessary for the transport of oil, resulted in direct deforestation, but as discussed in a previous blog, roads bring people which lead to further deforestation. To prevent colonisation along the road, the oil company became guardian, hence the checkpoint. It was alleged that at one point, unsure what to do with a particular waste product, and apparently seeking to fulfill an obligation to be of benefit to the local communities, this waste was spread on top of the gravel road to keep dust levels down. Not only was dust not a problem to start with, this toxic waste soon washed off in the rain, and into the surrounding soil and water. It was also alleged that the education that has been provided by the oil companies has been a failure, with the level of education so poor that school graduates are not employable in towns, where many now wish to live and work. We heard anecdotally that it has also deprived them of their chance to develop the knowledge of the forest that is needed to live as previous generations have done. As a result, school graduates now often end up as beggars in town, or reliant on an elderly relative who will support up to twenty people in the forest. From what we heard and saw, it appears that the social fabric of this Huaorani community has been destroyed.
The road remains gravelled and not paved so that one day the forest can grow back… when this was explained to us it was met with a grim, hollow laugh, as if this small token gesture would redeem the companies of the devastation they have caused.
Elsewhere in the Ecuadorian Amazon, the legal battle between indigenous communities and Chevron, responsible for extremely destructive practices over the last 30 years, is ongoing. Support for the local communities is one of several campaigns run by Amazon Watch, and their statement about Chevron’s activities is chilling:
“The company deliberately dumped billions of gallons of toxic wastewater into rivers and streams, spilled millions of gallons of crude oil, and abandoned hazardous waste in hundreds of unlined open-air pits littered throughout the region. The result is widespread devastation of the rainforest ecosystem and local indigenous communities, and one of the worst environmental disasters in history.” Amazon Watch
While extraction practices now need to be seen as far more socially and environmentally responsible, the fact that the gas fields are now harder to reach, and the grade of the oil much lower, means that extraction will be increasingly energy intensive and destructive. One must only look to neighbouring Peru, where the sadly familiar dance between government, oil companies and indigenous people is also taking place, to see oil companies acting in their own interests despite their statements to the contrary. In Peru, the very existence of groups in voluntary isolation is denied by the oil companies who want to work in their territories, despite clear evidence that indigenous people are present.
Seeing the effects of our thirst for oil, as first-hand as we were able, was shattering. An understanding of what is at risk makes it even more difficult to contemplate the effects of further extraction, encroaching more and more on areas like Yasuni National Park. Since we visited, an oil spill caused by a ruptured pipeline (belonging to another oil company) resulted in 11,000 barrels of oil entering the Coca river, which then made its way downstream to the Napo, and onwards into Peru. The Ecuadorian President, Rafael Correa, has offered an innovative solution to the conservation of the region: rather than continue with oil extraction, the oil will remain in the ground if the international community donates half the value of the oil to Ecuador, for use in social and environmental projects. This would amount to $3.6 billion, over 13 years, which in global economic terms is the bargain of the century (this ‘Billion Dollar-o-Gram‘ helps put it in perspective). But even this – a simple lifeline for some of the last pristine rainforest in the world – has been met not only with apathy by governments around the world, but with fierce criticism. Critics argue that Correa is blackmailing the world, and that his assurances cannot be guaranteed. The argument in favour asserts that as Ecuador could very much use the economic benefits of this oil, they should be compensated for foregoing its exploitation. I think it is a small price to pay to at least buy some more time to work out a cleaner way to exploit the oil reserves, or to come up with a sustainable alternative to oil, that we will need sooner or later anyway.
Our bus stopped at the top of a bank above the Tiputini river, and we hobbled off. Huaorani families were washing, playing, and fishing in the river, small children giggling, and a woman cackling with laughter as she shared jokes with our guides and coaxed a fishing line. This was the last leg of the trip, down the much narrower, meandering Tiputini. Trees hung low over the water. We spotted monkeys, herons, kingfishers, and still life arrangements of turtles on half-submerged branches, who would tip sideways into the water as we went past. We were scouring the trees for wildlife, and hoping against hope for a jaguar on the bank, as river travel is often the best way to see a big cat in the rainforest. A boat on a narrow jungle river is one of my favourite places to be, and the hour and a half it took to reach the research station was a joy. As the afternoon sun turned golden we rounded the final bend and saw wooden steps rising out of the water, leading to a roofed platform, beyond which lay the dining room and narrow trails leading to cabins in the forest.
The journey had been long, and had shown us one of the uglier sides of the world, before ending in one of the most beautiful places on earth. Without the sound of the boat engines, the jungle noises could now be heard, and we sat and watched the water flow round the bend beneath the station, as the light faded, macaws flew back to their roosts, and bats emerged to skim the surface of the water.