Rigs at the Edge of Yasuni

Since November, the Ecuadorian government has been moving to auction off oil blocks on 10 million acres of still-wild, roadless tropical rain forest in the Amazon region. Ecuadoran leaders hope to attract $1 billion in investments with the tender; they want contracts to be signed by September of this year.

The area for which foreign oil companies are currently bidding borders the Yasuni National Park, one of the richest, most exquisite biopreserves in the world. Jaguars, giant anteaters, white-bellied spider monkeys, harpy eagles and grunting Hoatzins, high-crested birds with claws on the wing digits of their young, flourish there. An average 2.5 acres in Yasuni is home to 655 species of trees, more than the combined number of native species in the continental U.S. and Canada.

This part of the Amazon region is particularly valuable to humans because of its wealth of plants—a garden of genetic diversity for potential pharmaceuticals and other uses—and because it is one of the most vital areas on earth for maintaining the equilibrium of the climate.

Earlier this month, when Ecuadorian officials came to Houston for the North America Project Expo trade fair—an event hosted by the oil exploration and production industries—a coalition of activists opposing more oil drilling in the Amazon region turned up to protest the auction. Amazon Watch, Tar Sands Blockade and Texas Environmental Justice Advocacy Services teamed up with groups of indigenous people from Ecuador and the United States to warn against the destruction of the rain forest, not only by drilling but by the building of roads through previously undisturbed areas.

Representatives of the Achuar Nationality and the Shuar Nationality, Ecuadorian communities that gained experience in the 1980s and 1990s fighting American companies like ARCO and Burlington (now Conoco Philips) in the area now up for auction, tried to intercept and deter potential investors who came to meet with Ecuadorian officials. Supporters, including members of Gulf Coast Idle No More, a group of American First Nations activists, held posters outside the Westin Galleria Hotel, where the trade fair was going forward. Police kept the protesters from going inside the hotel—a standoff that may be a harbinger of more serious things to come, since some indigenous people have vowed to defend the pristine area with their lives.

The Expo, held at one of the global centers of the oil industry, is a sign of the U.S.’s importance in the situation; other aspects of the Ecuadorian tender suggest that American interests are experiencing growing competition from emerging markets. The U.S. is still Ecuador’s leading customer for crude oil, but according to the U.S. Energy Information Administration, “Ecuador has begun to look towards the Asian market, namely China, as an alternative export market and source of investment.”

At press time, the Ecuadorian government and Halliburton were in negotiations about projects in two of Ecuador’s mature oilfields, but Chinese companies, together with Spanish, Italian and Chilean firms, are the major foreign interests currently involved in oil production in Ecuador. With a yield of 500,000 barrels of crude oil a day, Ecuador is the smallest producer in OPEC (the Organization of Petroleum Exporting Countries), and is one of only two OPEC members in this hemisphere (the other is Venezuela). Ecuador is the 11th largest supplier of oil to the U.S., but the second largest source of oil for the West Coast.•

Author: Stephanie Kraft

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