My Trip to the Amazon, Part II: Background

(If you haven’t yet read Part I of my Amazon series, you can check it out here.)

In the summer of 2013, there were several different veins of news about oil drilling in Ecuador.

The first articles I had read, about Ecuador’s 11th Oil Round, were mixed with news about an ongoing lawsuit against Chevron, and news of President Raphael Correa’s unorthodox proposal to spare part of Ecuador’s Amazon from drilling.

I was confused at first, so I’ll try to sum up the three main things that were going on:

Oil Rounds

Oil Rounds are international auctions, in which the world’s oil companies pay Ecuador to gain access to tracts of land called “oil blocks”. Ecuador does this because it lacks the resources to develop the oil fields on its own. The problem is — the majority of these oil blocks are located in the Amazon Rainforest.

This article about Ecuador’s 11th Oil Round was my introduction to the subject. Before that I was, like most Americans, unaware that oil drilling was, or had ever, gone on in Ecuador. Nor did I know that Ecuador was home to a large portion of the Amazon Rainforest — including one of the most biodiverse areas in the world. To give you an idea of the geography, here’s a map of Ecuador:


See the really pretty deep, dark green right where I wrote the word “Amazon”? Now take a closer look at the Amazon region — the entire area is partitioned into oil blocks:


Those light orange blocks covering the area labeled Pastaza span over 8 million acres of primary rainforest. (Primary meaning mature — as in — really old trees and long established ecosystems yet to be disrupted by man). The blocks in the Pastaza were the ones up for auction earlier this year. Bidding on these came to an end on Thanksgiving Day, 2013. The Ecuadorian government has said it will take 6 months to review the bids.

The oil round is widely considered a failure because only a handful of these blocks were bid on. That is extremely encouraging news! We’ll know a lot more when Ecuador announces the results of the auction.

This image shows how intact this part of the rainforest is. Now look North — to the area around Nueva Loja (Lago Agrio). See the difference? Not long ago that area was just as pristine.


The area outlined in red is the Yasuní National Park. As a UNESCO World Biosphere Reserve and national park, it is supposed to be protected by the Ecuadorian government, and yet, as you can see the upper third of it has been divided into oil blocks and auctioned off.

The yellow area is the Ishpingo-Tambococha-Tiputini or “ITT” block. Considered the most biologically rich part of Ecuador’s Amazon, it is coincidentally thought to be among the most oil-rich as well. It is soon to be tapped by PetroEcuador, the country’s state-run oil company.

I also want to point out the areas covered in diagonal hatches. Those are “intangible zones” — areas set aside for indigenous people to live. The lower intangible zone, which encompasses the southern part of the Yasuní, is home to uncontacted indigenous tribes. Notice how Block 31 and the ITT block overlap with their territory.

The Lawsuit

In my first post I mentioned how the first drilling in Ecuador began over 40 years ago in Lago Agrio, and how it turned out to be an environmental and humanitarian disaster.

It started with Texaco — which is now Chevron. The resulting contamination was so awful that in 1993, a group of Ecuadorians 30,000 strong filed a lawsuit against Chevron seeking damages to pay for a cleanup. The Ecuadorians filed a case in the United States — but Chevron balked, saying the case should be decided in Ecuador. And it was. Almost 20 years later, in 2011, an Ecuadorian court ruled in favor of the 30,000 Ecuadorians. Chevron was ordered to pay a $19 billion settlement.

Chevron continues to fight against the settlement and has blatantly refused to pay. They have even gone so far as to countersue the Ecuadorians!

The video embedded in my previous post provides a great summary. Please check it out! Also, if you have Netflix, check out the documentary “Crude“.

It was after watching Crude that the magnitude of this situation started to sink in for me. If THAT was the outcome of oil drilling… does that mean the same thing is in store for all these other areas? I think it does. Actually — it’s already happening.

The Yasuní-ITT initiative

In 2010, Ecuadorian president Raphael Correa launched the Yasuní-ITT initiative. The goal was to raise about half the value of the ITT’s oil reserves from the international community. In exchange, Ecuador would agree not drill there, preserving the rainforest and preventing carbon emissions by keeping the oil underground.

Correa said that Ecuador needed the money to help develop the country and fight poverty.

The program needed to raise $3.6 billion by mid 2011. When Correa finally announced the program’s failure earlier this year, they had raised only $100 million.

Correa dramatically proclaimed that the international community had failed Ecuador, and that now they would be forced to drill in the ITT block. There are a lot more politics at play here than I fully understand or have time to get into. However, multiple Ecuadorian citizens that I spoke with believed that Correa never had any intention of not drilling in the ITT anyway — that the whole thing was a sham to shift the blame of the unpopular drilling onto wealthy countries.

For a time, I thought that the initiative was meant to protect the entire Yasuní region. The program’s website even appears to insinuate that this is the case, with the headline: “99.9% intact, El Yasuní Vive! Millones de Personas Vivirán Mejor” (99.9% Intact, the Yasuní lives! Millions of people will live better!) This is directly misleading. As I already pointed out — over a third of the Yasuní is already committed for oil drilling — not including the ITT — but the ITT is the only part of the Yasuní covered by the initiative!!

While roads and wells won’t cover the entire area of an oil block, the necessary infrastructure for drilling, housing workers, transporting oil, and waste management seems certain to require more than .1% of the land. That’s saying nothing of the colonists that will move in, and the inevitable oil spills that will eventually soil the rivers of the region.

The fact that the deal only encompassed the relatively small ITT Block may be a part of the reason for its failure. After all — since the adjacent block is already committed for development, one can look at the rest of Ecuador and reasonably assume that the degradation of the environment will spill over into the ITT whether or not it is opened to drilling.  

I also take issue with the statement that millions of people will live better. It seems to be an attempt to justify the displacement and genocide of indigenous people who inhabit the Amazon. The United States did the same — marginalizing and annihilating American Indians while stealing and squandering their resources. I think most Americans agree it’s one of the most shameful stains on our history.

Even if the indigenous population was not a consideration (they are often treated as such), it’s highly questionable that the development of the Yasuní’s oil fields will lead to better lives for millions. Most of the revenue from oil sales is concentrated in the oil companies. The money the state does get is largely spoken for as their national debt to China climbs higher and they are forced to make oil concessions in order to finance the government.

Thanks for reading! I promise that in Part III of “My Trip to the Amazon” I will actually get around to writing about MY TRIP to the Amazon!

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