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Ecuador issues permit for drilling in Yasuni National Park

Yasuni National Park

Yasuni National Park. Creative Commons: Joshua Bousel, 2009

In Ecuador, the government of Rafeal Correa has issued a permit for oil drilling in Yasuni National Park, arguably the most biodiverse place on the planet.

Competing interests have long been trying to claim the park for their own. While the park is world-renowned for its diversity of flora and fauna—one hectare in the park contains more species of trees, birds, reptiles, and amphibians than the entire US and Canada combined—it also sits atop of an estimated 800 million barrels of crude oil, amounting to 20 percent of Ecuador’s total reserves.

To complicate matters further, two of the world’s last uncontacted tribes call Yasuni home, as well as other indigenous groups whose ways of life could be upended by industrial development or a catastrophic oil spill. With all this in mind, it is hardly surprising that drilling in Yasuni is surrounded by controversy.

The newly issued permit authorizes Petroamazonas, a subsidiary of the state-owned oil company, to construct roadways and camps within the borders of the 6,500-square mile reserve. It also allows Petroamazonas to prepare for drilling in the area known as the Ishpingo-Tambococha-Tiputni concession, or ITT oil block.

Petroamazonas has been in the news recently for seeking partnerships to increase its oil production both at home and abroad. Currently the smallest member of the Organization of Oil Producing Companies (OPEC), Ecuador produces approximately 520,000 barrels or crude oil per day, with roughly 75 percent of that tied to Petroamazonas or Rio Napo, its affiliated joint venture. Oil is the country’s main export.

The decision to issue a drilling permit in Yasuni is the latest event in a long saga that has left environmentalists and indigenous activists disheartened.

In 2007, President Correa launched a plan known as the Yasuni-ITT initiative. Under the initiative, Ecuador was to maintain its moratorium on drilling in the park in exchange for donations from developed countries. In August 2013 the plan was formally scrapped for failing to reach its goal $3.6 billion goal.

According to the Correa administration, only $336 million had been pledged and even less—about $13.3 million—was actually delivered, prompting the President to announce, “the world has failed us.”

A national petition to spare the park from development was then launched by a coalition of advocacy groups known as YASunidos. The coalition collected about 850,000 signatures, more than 250,000 over the minimum amount needed to trigger a referendum.

Earlier this month, Ecuador’s National Electoral Council (CNE) deemed nearly two thirds of these signatures fraudulent, prompting an explosion of demonstrations across the country, and undermining the effort to block development.

Responding to the announcement, Martin Carbonell, a spokesperson for YASunidos, said:

It’s very worrying what has happened. It is the end of the facade of democracy in Ecuador. Since the beginning of the process we have been subject to physical and verbal attacks, so this was not unexpected.

He vowed that his group would continue to fight oil drilling in the region. But, barring any new developments, drilling within Yasuni’s borders will become a reality in the very near future.

According to Environment Minister Lorena Tapia, the ITT oil development will begin outside of the park, and then move within the boundaries in a later phase. The first barrel of oil is expected to be pumped from the project in March 2016.

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