In May 2017, a group of journalism students from MacEwan University in Edmonton, Alta., spent a week in Ecuador – four days in the Amazon rainforest – taking pictures, shooting video and talking to scientists, political observers, and indigenous people. The aim was to tell the story of the Tiputini Biodiversity Station of Universidad San Francisco de Quito, near Yasuni National Park. This is an area of extreme biological diversity and great beauty – which, unfortunately, is sitting on a sea of oil.

Economic boon ... or fly paper?

To put a happy face on their presence, oil companies call their roads 'ecological pathways,' but for locals they can be fatal attractions

By Courtney Bettin

The rainforest in the Tiputini-Yasuni area appears untouched, but it is under assault by economic interests – and that involves more than just oil exploration.  (Hamdi Issawi)

Jose Macanilla steps quietly across the forest floor, even though there is no clear path and it seems impossible not to step on broken branches and leaves. He deftly passes under the spiralling liana vines and over a line of army ants. Then, he pauses and points to the ground under a fallen tree.

The poison dart frog is only a centimetre or two long, and it blends in perfectly with the ground – except for the yellow spot on its back. The group of students he’s leading crowd around to get a closer look, but Macanilla, one of the guides at the Tiputini Biodiversity Station, is already deeper into the forest – looking for spider monkeys.

Macanilla is one of a handful of employees at the research station, which sits on the edge of Ecuador’s Yasuni National Park, and is operated by Universidad San Francisco de Quito and Boston University. It is in the most biologically diverse area in South America – perhaps in the world. The area, a hot, humid, tropical rainforest, is home to several hundred species of trees, mammals, birds and amphibians.

And it is under threat because it sits on a sea of oil, a resource Ecuador badly needs to turn into money. That means the habitat is under threat by oil exploration – as is the planet.

Lure of money

According to a 2012 report by the International Energy Agency, if catastrophic climate change is going to be prevented, “no more than one-third of proven reserves of fossil fuels can be consumed prior to 2050.”

Back in Quito, in his office at USFQ, which is decorated with dozens of nature photographs, bones, shells, spears and blowguns, Tiputini’s director, Kelly Swing, puts it in perspective. “In Ecuador, if you start with 100,000 species per hectare – and not every hectare is the same – you’re affecting at least hundreds of thousands of species.”

The problem with oil is not just the immediate effects of drilling, but also what it brings with it – people, machinery and development, Swing says.

To put a positive face on this, oil companies often refer to their access roads as ecological pathways, says Esteban Suarez, former director of the Wildlife Conservation Service – but the roads are often wide enough to accommodate several cars, and just their presence represents a serious environmental impact.

But if you can kill 10 of these animals, drag them to the road and wait for the next truck, your impact increases dramatically. And that is exactly what happened.

 “The local group that used to live in a wider area of the park, they get concentrated along the road, because they want to have access to the benefits of the road.”

Oil companies often have contracts with the local populations to provide transportation subsidies for the area. Any time a company vehicle passes through, the driver is obligated to offer rides to the indigenous people along the way. This convenience of being able to easily move through the area free of charge dramatically changes the day-to-day habits of the local people.

Also affected is the traditional practice of hunting, which used to be done for food and is now done for money. Also, people have come to live along the one access road, because, with free transportation, they are able to sell meat and crops at local markets.  

“The Huaorani would hunt a couple of animals,” Suarez says. “And, because they would have to carry the animals across their backs, it is a lot of work. But if you can kill 10 of these animals, drag them to the road and wait for the next truck, your impact increases dramatically. And that is exactly what happened.”

Controlling these practices and reducing their environmental impact is difficult because hunting is an intrinsic part of indigenous culture, and giving it up constitutes a loss of identity, he adds, yet the people are becoming dependent on the income they derive from selling game meat.

“The problem is that the impact of the road is not only what you clear here, it is that the road changes the lifestyles of people.”

Search for treasure

Oil exploration isn’t the only threat to the rainforest. The discovery of precious metal deposits, such as gold and copper, in the southeastern part of Ecuador, could open up similar avenues for development – or devastation. These metals are collected through strip mining – sometimes called mountain-top removal – which uses explosives to uncover materials many metres below the Earth’s surface.

Swing says this may be even more harmful to the environment than oil drilling, and offers less possibility of land reclamation.

Drawn by economic opportunity, indigenous people unwittingly help the road system undermine the environment.  (Sierra Bilton)

“It’s kind of interesting to me that, in Spanish, the word for strip mining is 'mineria a cielo abierto' – open to the sky,” Swing says. “The word ‘cielo’ in there is also the word for heaven … I always think, instead of heaven opened up, it’s like, No, this is hell opened up as far as nature is concerned.”

The direct effects of drilling can be confined, Swing adds, assuming there are no spills or accidents on site. Strip-mining can ravage several square kilometres of forest, and displace or destroy the plant, insect and animal species that live there. And this doesn’t take into account the effects of settlement along the access roads.

In a location like the area around Tiputini and in nearby Yasuni National Park, there is no telling the extent of the damage these actions could lead to, Swing says.

“We’re not just talking about local loss of a population of these organisms. We’re talking about this being the only place on the planet where these things live … It’s absurd.

“Despite that absurdity, governmental officials, and also mining executives, tend to say that our strategies are now 95 per cent recoverable. I would like to know how they do the math to get to a number like 95 per cent. Because I would tend to say, from the perspective of the biologist or conservationist, that it’s more like 95 per cent not recoverable.”

Even though there are mining practices that minimize the effect on the environment, many companies choose not to follow them, Swing adds. And the Ecuadorean government is not always able to enforce environmental standards.

However, barring international financial support, the country will likely continue to be forced to choose between financing infrastructure and social programs, and maintaining places like Tiputini and Yasuni National Park.

Pay to stay

In Tiputini, Macanilla reflects on the 2013 failure of the Yasuni-ITT initiative, a 2007 proposal by the administration of the previous president, Rafael Correa, to raise international funds that would have paid the country to leave the oil in the ground.

“We wanted to not take the oil or explore,” he says. “And the government asked other countries to help conserve and keep the oil in the ground. We asked for help economically and it didn’t work. It was impossible to come up with the money for Ecuador.

“They needed the money and oil is the main source for the country.”

We’re not just talking about local loss of a population of these organisms. We’re talking about this being the only place on the planet where these things live

Many Ecuadoreans are concerned about what is happening to their land, he says, but it’s hard to turn down the jobs that the oil companies bring, especially at a time when a drop in the price of oil has forced the country into recession.

Oil investment operates under the principle that prosperity will trickle down to even the poorest Ecuadoreans – and compensate for the loss of environmental habitat. It’s something Swing says is an illusion, because little oil money stays where the resource is produced.

“I think it’s the same everywhere in the world. Oil can be this wonderful thing, as far as economies are concerned, or it can be this big distraction. And I think Ecuador has gone through both of those kinds of boom-or-bust situations related to oil.”

There are no clear answers to the question of how to reconcile the environment and the economy. Oil continues to be pumped out of the area around Tiputini by the barrel, and there is no sign that the world will come to the rescue of the rainforest.

What is needed, Swing says, is a collective consciousness about what we’re sacrificing for transient wealth. But the outlook is not very positive.

“The fact is that we have a president in the U.S. right now who basically says global climate change is a hoax," he says. "And so we should be grabbing all of the natural resources we possibly can as fast as possible to improve our economy.

 “I think we’re living in a very perverse kind of world right now, with that kind of perspective towards nature and natural resources and our dependence on all of those things.”

A high-speed motor launch roars up the Napo River, bringing oil workers to the rainforest and, with them, economic opportunity.
(Sierra Bilton)