Cruel Bait and Switch: Correa to Allow Oil Drilling in Amazonian Park

Barbara Fraser


Ecuador’s president announced August 15 that he would allow oil drilling in a fragile Amazonian park inhabited by nomadic tribes.

The decision, which threatens both the ecosystem and the indigenous Tagaeri and Taromenane people, ends a bold effort to convince the world’s industrialized countries to pay Ecuador not to drill for oil.

Indigenous leaders called for demonstrations on August 27 to protest the move.

The Ishpingo-Tambococha-Tiputini (ITT) oil block, located in Yasuní National Park and Biosphere Reserve in the southern Ecuadorian Amazon region, holds petroleum reserves estimated at 846 million barrels.

Those reserves lie under an area that is home to the Tagaeri and Taromenane tribes, which maintain their traditional nomadic lifestyle and shun contact with the outside world, as well as other indigenous groups that are no longer isolated, including the Waorani.

That part of Ecuador’s rain forest is also one of the most biologically diverse places on the planet, according to biologists who have studied it. Some of its plant and animal species are found nowhere else on Earth.

Oil accounts for about half of Ecuador’s income earnings, and the oil in the ITT block is estimated to be worth $7.2 billion. Ecuadorean President Rafael Correa had promised that if half that amount could be obtained by 2024, Ecuador would leave the ITT oil in the ground.

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But observers said the plan was complicated by slow disbursement of pledges and an international financial slowdown that eventually unraveled it.

In April, Correa publicly expressed annoyance at the slow pace of donations from industrialized countries and other international donors and ordered a review of the Yasuní-ITT program by the end of July.

The decision to suspend the Yasuní initiative and liquidate the fund was made at a Cabinet meeting on August 14.

Appearing before Ecuador’s legislature in July, Ivonne Baki, who heads the government’s Yasuní-ITT program, said the country had collected $116 million and was awaiting the disbursement of another $220 million, for a total of about 10 percent of the target amount. She told Congress that the entire amount was not in the Treasury because donors had pledged to disburse the funds over time.

For months, although government officials insisted that their “Plan A” was to keep the oil in the ground, they also indicated that if the compensation scheme did not work, they would open the area to drilling.

The boundaries of some adjoining oil leases were recently redrawn in a way that would make it easier to build a pipeline from the ITT field, according to Kevin Koenig of the non-profit Amazon Watch in Ecuador.

“I think the government is moving forward with prepping things for what could be eventual drilling plans,” Koenig said in early August, noting that Correa had a solid majority in the legislature that could make such a move easier.

The country is also going ahead with an auction of oil leases around Yasuní National Park near the border with Peru, although the July 16 bidding deadline was postponed until November.

New drilling operations in the area would increase pressure on the Tagaeri and Taromenane people whose territory includes the park, the ITT block and some other oil leases, Koenig said.

Members of one of those groups were involved in a violent confrontation with Waorani people earlier this year, the details of which Koenig said are still unclear.

According to James Anaya, U.N. special rapporteur for Indigenous People’s rights, two elderly Waorani people living in the Yasuní reserve were killed on March 5, reportedly by Taromenane people. In retaliation, a group of Waorani killed several Taromenane people in late March and kidnapped two Taromenane girls, according to a report by Anaya.

Anaya called for the Ecuadorian government to investigate the case thoroughly and for an “exhaustive examination of the causes of the conflict and the pressures that historically have affected Indigenous Peoples in these areas and caused their social and cultural destabilization.”

Even without drilling in the ITT block, Koenig said, noise from helicopters, other oil operations and road construction in the area is encroaching on the nomadic Tagaeri and Taromenane.

“With the pressure on the park and on these people, public policy is setting the stage for major conflict,” he said.