Oil highway bears down on uncontacted Indigenous groups in Ecuador’s Yasuní

  • The construction of a controversial oil road in Ecuador’s Yasuní National Park has expanded rapidly during the pandemic, and has now reached the buffer area of a core zone that’s home to uncontacted Indigenous peoples.
  • The groups are the last two Indigenous nations living in voluntary isolation in Ecuador, and the oil project puts them in imminent danger, activists warn.
  • They’re concerned about state-owned PetroEcuador’s plans to continue building the road and other oil platforms within the buffer zone, something that was made legal under a 2019 executive order.
  • Conservationists say this order violates the rights of the two nations in voluntary isolation, and the Constitutional Court is now reviewing a challenge filed against it.

Yasuní National Park in Ecuador’s northern Amazon rainforest has long been famed for being one of the most biodiverse places on Earth, home to thousands of species of plants, birds, insects, reptiles and mammals. It’s also home to various Indigenous communities, including the country’s last two uncontacted Indigenous nations, the Tagaeri and Taromenane.

But during the COVID-19 pandemic, conservationists have watched in alarm at the rapid expansion of an oil road cutting through the park, and the construction of a new oil platform only 440 meters, or a quarter of a mile, from the buffer zone of the park’s “intangible zone” (known by its Spanish acronym ZITT), a special reserve area within Yasuní where the Tagaeri and Taromenane live and outsiders are prohibited from entering.

Conservationists agree the proximity of this new infrastructure to the buffer zone, an area 10 kilometers (6 miles) wide that surrounds the ZITT, is too close to the two Indigenous nations in voluntary isolation, putting them in imminent danger and violating their rights under Ecuador’s Constitution.

“The buffer zone protects the core zone from direct intervention of external activities,” Carlos Mazabanda, Ecuador field coordinator for Amazon Watch, told Mongabay. “If you touch this buffer zone limits you are already influencing bad things happening inside the core zone, the intangible zone.”

Environmentalists have for years been fighting against the creation of this road, and the controversial Ishpingo-Tambococha-Tiputini oil wells (ITT), that it connects. The ITT project is the country’s largest oil field, located in what the state calls oil blocks 31 and 43; it begins at the Napo River and cuts through Yasuní’s thick jungle landscape toward the intangible zone.

Napo river, Yasuni National Park. The ITT project is the country’s largest oil field; it begins at the Napo River and cuts through Yasuní’s thick jungle landscape toward the intangible zone. Image by Peter Prokosch/GRID-Arendal via Flickr (CC BY-NC-SA 2.0).

The road advanced 8 km (5 mi) into the park during the pandemic, faster than any other year since the project began in 2017, said Mazabanda, who has been tracking the progression since 2017 through satellite imagery.

Its expansion will connect the rest of the ITT field to the two most controversial oil platforms thus far, the Ishpingo A and B platforms, which border the ZITT buffer zone.

Construction and exploitation of these wells was approved in 2019, but Mazabanda said the rapid expansion in recent months reflects the ambitious extraction policies of President Guillermo Lasso. Earlier this year, Lasso, a conservative, passed a decree promising to double oil extraction in the country, in an attempt to boost its struggling economy, which saw unemployment and poverty rise during the pandemic. Oil accounts for nearly 7% of Ecuador’s GDP.

Mazabanda said all of the Ecuadoran Amazon, which has been divided into oil blocks, is at risk of being sold for oil extraction. But oil expansion is much more likely to occur in Yasuní and the rest of Ecuador’s northern Amazon, a region that has proven reserves and where some extraction infrastructure already exists, he added.

“The pressure on the northern Amazon will be very strong these months,” Mazabanda said.

Oil trucks are being hauled on boats between extraction sites, regular traffic along the Napo river as there are no roads in these areas. Image by Kimberley Brown for Mongabay.

Immediate threat of the road

In the case of the ITT road, Kelly Swing, director and founder of the Tiputini Biodiversity Station with the University of San Francisco of Quito, warned that it will have a number of negative side effects both for the peoples in voluntary isolation and the biodiversity of the Yasuní region in general.

Any time a new road is created in the Amazon, Swing told Mongabay, it opens the area up to illegal logging and hunting, putting direct pressure on larger mammals and rare tree populations. In some cases, it could lead to species extirpation, he said. The contamination from such extraction projects, which includes oil spills and air and noise pollution from the construction projects, can be felt for several kilometers, he said. This can affect communication among a variety of species, and destroy their natural habitat, pushing them out of the area.

For the Indigenous communities in voluntary isolation, they lose a portion of an intact ecosystem they depend on for survival, he said.

“The area that they can circulate or look for resources has been limited,” Swing said. “So, on the one side, we’re losing nature, on the other side, we’re basically elbowing out the guardians of this place that have actually given us a chance as scientists to document what’s there.”

Manuel Bayón, geographer and founding member of the Critical Geography collective, said the scientific community has been warning of the negative impacts of ITT on Yasuní and local communities since the first platform was created in 2017. But he called the latest expansion “scandalous.”

Even the environmental impact studies carried out by the state oil company, PetroAmazonas (absorbed by the state oil company PetroEcuador in 2020), and approved by the environment ministry show that the Ishpingo oil platforms A and B will directly impact at least 64 hectares (nearly 158 acres) inside the buffer zone itself (as shown in the table).

Table via the environmental impact study, Table 5-7.

“We find it scandalous that they are making a platform in which they recognize that the protection zone of the isolated people will be directly affected,” Bayón told Mongabay. The noise contamination is likely affecting the area now, since PetroEcuador has already started constructing the oil platform, he said.

Neither PetroEcuador nor the environment ministry responded to several requests for comment. But the oil company has repeatedly described the road an “ecological access” that has had little environmental impact.

In September, the environment ministry told Mongabay Latam that “It is not a road but an ecological access.” It also denied the long range contamination of the project, saying the closest ITT oil platform to the buffer zone, Ishpingo B, is located 127 meters (417 feet) from the border and more than 10 km from the ZITT itself, “so it does not affect the buffer zone, much less the intangible zone where the isolated populations are located.”

Pedro Bermeo, a spokesperson for the environmental activist group Yasunídos, said the road is definitely not an “ecological trail” but closer to a highway. The ITT project has always been highly militarized and not open to researchers, he said. But during a visit to the area in July, Bermeo captured drone footage of the road construction, showing large patches of deforestation, tractors and excavators creating the road, and semitrailers driving on it.

“This isn’t a little path in a mountain. It’s a highway that’s 15-meters [49 ft] wide on which large trucks pass,” he told Mongabay.

The extension of the oil road in Yasuni as of August 31, 2021, showing a 0.5km distance of the road to the buffer zone of the Intangible Zone. Image courtesy of Monitoring of the Andean Amazon Project (MAAP).
A map showing the extension of the oil road in Yasuni in red, and the oil wells it plans to connect in the Ishpingo-Tambococha-Tiputini (ITT) oil field. Image courtesy of Monitoring of the Andean Amazon Project (MAAP).

Plans go ahead

In November, PetroEcuador’s general manager, Pablo Luna, told the economic commission in Ecuador’s parliament that he expects the Ishpingo A and B platforms to be open for drilling by the third quarter of 2022, with 20 oil wells on each platform.

He also stated an interest in creating access to the Ishpingo C and D platforms, which are located within the ZITT buffer zone itself.

Though these last two platforms have not yet been approved for exploitation, all the conservationists Mongabay spoke to say they fear approval is imminent. The former president, Lenín Moreno, passed a controversial decree in 2019 to allow oil extraction within the buffer zone. Drilling in the buffer zone itself is prohibited, according to the country’s own Constitution. But Moreno’s Executive Decree 751, which expanded the buffer zone in some areas, also included a special clause to allow oil extraction within it. Mazabanda said that while this makes drilling in the area legal, it’s not constitutional.

“The biggest problem is clear. The situation is that they are trying to enter the buffer zone,” Mazabanda said, adding there are proven oil reserves in this part of the country. “The [government] plans to double oil reserves, this plan is Yasuní.”

Shortly after the decree was passed, a group of lawyers and civil society organizations filed a motion with the Constitutional Court to have it overturned. The first hearing in this case took place in October this year, but a ruling is still pending.

Mazabanda said the rights of Indigenous people living in voluntary isolation is now in the hands of the country’s highest court.

The Constitutional Court is reviewing several other cases related to the rights of nature or Ecuador’s original peoples and their right to free, prior and informed consent. On Dec. 1, the court ruled that mining in Los Cedros Protected Forest is a violation of the rights of nature under the Constitution, and canceled the mining permits held by state-owned mining company ENAMI EP, which was in early stages of exploration in the forest. As part of the ruling, the court also said the government of Ecuador is obliged, under Article 73 of the Constitution, to do all it can to prevent the extinction of species across the country.

Banner image: Hoatzin (Opisthocomus hoazin) seen in the Yasuni river. Image by Kimberley Brown for Mongabay.