Is Oil Worth Destroying Rainforests and their Indigenous Peoples? Part 1

Deep in the rainforests of Eastern Ecuador in the early 1940s, primitive Waorani warriors killed about a dozen Shell company workers who were preparing to drill for oil. Why? Because for centuries the Waorani lived on this land and they didn’t want outsiders despoiling the indigenous people’s habitat.

Why on earth would oil companies want to invade the pristine wilderness of Yasuni National Park and the Waorani Ethnic Reserve? This is like one of the clues in the Jeopardy! “Stupid Answers” category. The correct response is: “What is, “Because there’s oil there”? 

Yasuni Reserve (dark green) and with Waorini Ethnic Reserve (light)

Yasuni Reserve in eastern Ecuador. Photo –

A team of National Geographic journalists, including five photographers and reporter Scott Wallace, ventured to this area, which “may be one of the most biodiverse spots on Earth.” They came back with a dramatic and visually stunning report, “Rainforest for Sale.”

The Waorani share this area with another indigenous nation, the Kichwa. Both groups participate in trade and some tourism, but those Waorani in the ethnic reserve—or Untouchable Zone—do not. It’s the latter group that has attacked oil workers, and now settlers and loggers, as recently as 2009.

With an ever-increasing demand for energy—as populations in general, and middle classes in particular, grow—it seems that nowhere is sacrosanct, regardless of the personal and environmental impacts.

Eastern Ecuador includes a part of the Amazon Basin, parklands, native peoples reserves, and areas for oil exploration. One of the major problems is that these regions border, and even overlap, each other. An area called the ITT Block (for Ishpingo-Tamboocha-Tiputini) is the big prize for petroleum exploration. It is mostly little-explored forest. The oil companies are closing in. And if the Ecuadorean government does not receive $3.6 billion from those world entities that give a damn, President Rafael Correa is ready to open up the ITT to exploration.

He reasons that poor Ecuador needs the cash to lift itself out of poverty. And either governments and/or environmental groups cough up the cash or it will come out of the ground in the form of oil, an estimated 850 million barrels of it. Correa’s detractors refer to the so-called Yasuni-ITT initiative blackmail. “Every day,” says Wallace, ‘another bit of the wilderness succumbs to the bulldozers and backhoes,” even within the Yasuni’s limits.

If the initiative fails, oil development could overwhelm the southern Yasuni and creep into the Untouchable Zone. As things are now, the night sky glows faintly from the nearby gas flares. If exploration and drilling proliferate, there is no telling how many species might be devastated and even disappear. This includes millions of insects, many of whose species are still unknown.

It’s hard to imagine that demand for energy in Europe, Asia and North America is threatening the existence of insects, cats, a wide variety of primate species, and indigenous peoples in the remote rainforests of northwestern South America. But demand for energy from car owners, TV watchers, and people with homes to heat, mean profits for energy producers and transporters lying in the ground in a continent most of these people will never visit.

Wherever permissible, energy companies are building roads using innovative technologies that enable them to intrude through swampland and forest. These roads create a new set of problems involving the less-primitive indigenous groups. It has happened before. According to Wildlife Conservation Society biologist Galo Zapata, in the 1990s the US energy exploration company Maxus Energy Corporation, built a road. Before very long, “natives living within the (Yasuni) park moved their villages to the road and began hunting animals to sell on the black market. ‘With all the people who will move here, there will be a big demand for bush meat. It will be bad for the big birds and animals. The social impacts will be bad. The story will repeat itself.”

No country consumes energy like the United States does. Per capita, Americans are the world champ energy gluttons. But we are not alone. Middle-class populations are growing worldwide. If the United States does not lead by example in becoming greener, how can we ask the rest of the world to follow? There are Enough of Us already. In fact, there are too many of us. So fecundity in India and China can mean decimation in the rainforests of Ecuador.

We’ll conclude this story next week.


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