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Rainforest Road Scheme Blocked by Government

3 May 2006

From Environment News Service 

Huaorani in Yasuni National Park. 

Huaorani transport visitors in traditional
dugout canoes through Yasuni National Park.
Photo © Universidad de Especialidades
Turisticas UCT

The Brazilian national oil company Petrobras has relinquished plans to build a new access road into Yasuni National Park, located in the megadiverse Ecuadorian Amazon. The company has not given up on oil development within the park, but now says it will employ helicopters to access the site.

For nearly two years, Ecuadorian and international conservation, indigenous, and scientific groups have been fighting to stop the road into the park, which is a designated UNESCO Biosphere and is currently roadless. They fear a road would allow land development of all kinds to penetrate the pristine rainforest that shelters a rich diversity of species as well as indigenous peoples who prefer to avoid contact and retain traditional ways.

In a written statement last week from Petrobras to Save America's Forests, a conservation group based in Washington, DC, the company explained that it will follow the advice of the Ecuadorian government not to build the road.

"The new operation will be based on helicopter transportation inside Yasuní National Park, therefore, it eliminates the access road inside the park," explained the Petrobras statement. "It includes recommendations of both the Environment and Energy Ministries and the suggestions of other organizations of civil society, which had contributed to its improvement."

"This is a huge step in the right direction," said ecologist Dr. Matt Finer of Save America's Forests. "The two most potentially damaging components of the project - the road and the processing facility - have been taken out of the park and Huaorani territory." The Huaorani are an independent indigenous tribe of
the Ecuadorian Amazon.

"Given the proliferation of oil concessions throughout the Amazon, hopefully this will set a critical precedent," said Finer. "No new oil access roads through primary rainforest."

"This is a milestone, not only because the road will not be built, but because for the first time, Petrobras has retreated in its colonialist attitude in Latin America", commented Roberto Smeraldi, director of Friends of the Earth - Brazilian Amazonia.

This outcome seemed unlikely in May 2005, when Petrobras began constructing the road through primary forest in the northern buffer zone of the park. By June, the road had reached the northern boundary of Yasuni, and Petrobras requested permission from the Environment Ministry to continue road construction into the park.

But the turning point had come just a month earlier, in April, when the Ecuadorian Congress, responding to widespread street protests, ousted Lucio Gutierrez from the presidency. The Gutierrez administration had granted Petrobras the environmental license for the project in August 2004.

The incoming administration of Alfredo Palacio, and in particular the new Environment Minister Anita Alban, were more sympathetic to the concerns of conservationists and scientists that a new road into the intact northeast section of Yasuni would be devastating.

A report prepared by a group of 50 park scientists in November 2004 concluded that Yasuni was one of the most biodiverse rainforests on Earth, and that new oil access roads would pose the greatest threat to that biodiversity.

The report advocated roadless oil development, a position also supported by the Smithsonian Institution based in the United States as well as and Ecuadorian nongovernmental organizations.

On July 7, 2005, Alban wrote a letter to the Petrobras President and CEO José Sergio Gabrielli de Azevedo denying the company authorization to enter the park and continue road construction.

Among the principal reasons cited for this refusal of authorization was the lack of environmental study for building the processing plant within the park, and the lack of consideration of access alternatives that would minimize impact.

The letter concluded that if the processing plant were built outside the park, as called for in the original environmental impact study, it would not be necessary to build an access road
into the park.

South America's most profitable company in 2004 with net profits of $6.6 billion, Petrobras responded to Alban's letter with a lawsuit on July 28, 2005. On August 25, Petrobras' lawsuit was rejected in court, and now Petrobras has agreed to give up road construction within the park.

Still, Finer warns that several major problems still exist in connection with the oil development at Yasuni National Park.

Oil extraction is being allowed to continue within ancestral Huaorani territory despite the indigenous people's call for a 10 year moratorium on new oil activities on their lands.

The Huaorani demanded the moratorium last summer when 150 of them marched through the streets of the capital, Quito, to protest widespread oil extraction in their territory. Huaorani leaders presented their plan for a moratorium to Congress and high-ranking officials in the Palacio administration.

"The Huaorani have made it clear they oppose new oil activities," said Brian Keane of the indigenous rights group Land is Life, based in Cambridge, Massachusetts. "They complain of widespread illnesses due to contamination and fear for the survival of their brother clans living in voluntary isolation," Keane said.

"Allowing Petrobras to drill in Yasuni would be a gross violation of the rights of the Huaorani and Taromenane peoples. In fact, it would most likely be the end for the Taromenane," he said. The small group of Taromenane still live by choice as one of the world's most isolated tribes.

Conservationists are concerned that Ecuador is still permitting oil extraction to take place within a national park. Other Amazonian countries such as Brazil and Peru prohibit such activities within parks. Finer says Yasuni is the only national park in this incredibly biodiverse region, thus there is added urgency to fully protect it.

In addition, conservationists worry that the petroleum processing facility is planned for construction just two kilometers (1.24 miles) from the park boundary in a primary rainforest environment.

Nonetheless, says Finer, given the "extremely difficult task" of persuading an oil giant such as Petrobras to make costly adjustments to minimize environmental damage in an oil dependent country such as Ecuador, many people in the environmental community consider Petrobras' decision to stop the road a major victory, especially in view of the fact that the road is constructed right up to the boundary line of Yasuni National

Yasuni National Park encompasses a large stretch of the world's most diverse tree community, has the highest documented insect diversity in the world, and has many diverse species of mammals, birds, amphibians, and plants.

The Tiputini Biodiversity Station, founded in 1994, is administered by the Universidad San Francisco de Quito as a biological research station and education center. Scientists at the station report that an "astonishing" 290 species of trees per hectare, and countless unstudied species of ferns, herbs, shrubs, lianas and epiphytes exist within Yasuni.

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