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What lies beneath

Aerial view of a secret oil access road cut into Yasuní National Park

I shouldn’t be here. Since August 2013, all journalists wishing to enter Ecuador’s Yasuní National Park have had to apply for a government permit, pay a bond, and submit copy for approval so they can, in the words of the Ministry of Environment, “inform the public adequately”. I have chosen to stick with my tourist visa and keep schtum.

I’m glad I did. At times, this Amazon wilderness can seem like a modern-day Garden of Eden. On winding boat trips, I see grey dolphins cavorting in the rivers while turtles loll in the shallows. On sunlit morning walks, I hear dusky titi monkeys clamber high in the canopy above and coral snakes slither by in the undergrowth. At night, jaguars and giant armadillos roam the inky darkness. But trouble haunts this rainforest paradise.

A few days into my visit, while strolling through thickets of tall yellow grass, I stumble upon a group of workers in blue boiler suits trying to hose away the stubborn remnants of a crude oil spill under the blazing equatorial sun. An oily rainbow sheen floats upon nearby streams. Behind them, shielded from the heat by towering ceiba trees, workers slowly fill large metal oil drums with blackened and mottled industrial waste.

Further upriver, near a secluded clearing, a four-foot caiman lies belly-up in a still pool of water. It has been dead for days and its white, scaly body has become stiff and bloated. Nearby, behind a chainmail fence, a rusty network of pipes pumps cloudy residue into the Shiripuno river. The low rumble of a generator hums in the background.

Yasuní National Park is home to 100,000 different species of insect, 650 species of tree, 600 bird species, 120 reptile species, and 100 types of bat

The China connection

Industrial oil exploitation is slowly encroaching on Yasuní National Park. And 9,000 miles away in Beijing, a meeting is taking place that could help seal its fate forever.

At the magnificent Diaoyutai State Guest House, guards in dark-green tunics snap to attention as an Ecuadorian delegation arrives, led by vice president Jorge Glas. The group is warmly greeted by Li Yuanchao, the Chinese vice president, in front of an imposing silk-screen mural. The two leaders have much to discuss.

Over the last few years, China and Ecuador have entered into a deep strategic relationship. This union is underpinned by straightforward requirements: China needs oil, and Ecuador – which boasts the third largest oil reserves in South America –desperately needs investment.

Since Ecuadorian president Rafael Correa authorised a default on $3.2 billion of foreign debt in 2008 – which he deemed “illegitimate” because it had been illegally contracted by a previous administration – Ecuador has been shunned by international lenders. Except China.

At the vice-presidential get-together, China approves funding for the construction of a massive oil refinery on Ecuador’s Pacific coast. The deal brings the amount of money the Asian giant has lent Ecuador since 2009 to more than $12 billion. In exchange, China will claim as much as 90 percent of Ecuador’s oil shipments – an unprecedented monopolisation of production of an Opec member country.

Chinese loans now add up to nearly one fifth of Ecuador’s GDP, allowing Correa’s populist left-wing administration to push ahead with his “citizens’ revolution” which has seen an overhaul of the country’s infrastructure – including improved roads and ambitious hydroelectric projects – and has led to a drop in poverty of more than ten percent since he took office. “Chinese funding has become the cornerstone of Correa’s government,” says Dr Robert Evan Ellis, an expert in Latin America at the Centre for Strategic and International Studies in Washington DC.

The majority of oil sold to China comes from the Oriente region in the Ecuadorian Amazon. And after four decades of rampant industrial exploitation, the best remaining crude reserves lie in and around Yasuní National Park, a 10,000 square-kilometre area of primary rainforest that is home to the indigenous Huaorani tribe and has been registered as a Unesco World Heritage Site.

In the east of Yasuní sit the Ishpingo-Tambococha-Tiputini (ITT) oil fields which are home to an estimated 850 million barrels of crude oil – about 20 percent of Ecuador’s known reserves. For years, this protected area was off-limits to development. But it was always a challenge for a developing country to leave such lucrative resources in the ground.

Ecuadorian president Rafael Correa announces that the exploitation of oil will be permitted in the ITT fields

In 2007, shortly after Correa came to power, the government launched what was seen as a groundbreaking scheme  – the Yasuní-ITT Initiative. It promised to refrain from exploiting the oil in the ITT fields in exchange for $3.6 billion from the international community (about half of the value of the reserves at the time) which it would spend on poverty alleviation schemes. (The ITT initiative was billed as protecting the whole of Yasuní, quietly ignoring the fact that oil separation and pumping facilities are already scattered across the park.) But after receiving pledges totalling little more than $100 million, it scrapped the plan in August 2013.

“The world has failed us,” President Correa said in a speech on national television in which he announced that he had signed an executive decree to permit exploitation of oil in the ITT fields. “With deep sadness but also with absolute responsibility to our people and history, I have had to take one of the hardest decisions of my government.”

“With deep sadness but also with absolute responsibility to our people and history, I have had to take one of the hardest decisions of my government”

Many observers claim Correa’s government did not seriously expect the ITT initiative to succeed. “The president’s inner circle never really believed the international community would stump up the money,” Dr Ellis says. “But it was a necessary posture for political reasons given the area’s environmental significance.”

The decision to scrap the plan sparked widespread protests. Pro-Yasuní protesters clashed with government supporters in front of the presidential palace in Quito and police fired rubber bullets, injuring 12 people. Tensions remained high when I arrived in the capital a couple of months later. On the day the National Congress ratified the drilling in October 2013, thousands of demonstrators marched through the streets under the watchful eye of heavily armed riot police.

A unique wilderness

The protesters’ anger is fuelled by what they fear is about to be lost. “Yasuní National Park is a wilderness unlike anywhere in the world,” says Dr Kelly Swing, a professor of environmental science at the Universidad San Francisco de Quito. “The level of biodiversity is absolutely mind-blowing.” In a single hectare, Yasuní has been found to be home to 100,000 different species of insect – the same amount of insect species that can be found in the entire North American continent. “There are hundreds of thousands of species in Yasuní we know nothing about,” says Dr Swing. “Every undiscovered species is an unopened book about life and survival.”

Yasuní’s 650 species of tree include the Socratea – the ‘walking palm’ – which continuously regenerates its long stilt roots, allowing it to ‘walk’ along the forest floor in search of sunlight. There are 600 bird species, 120 reptile species, and 100 types of bat. Such figures are extraordinary for an area half the size of Wales.

“The area is the ancestral home of the Huaorani, an indigenous warrior tribe whose language is unrelated to any other on Earth”

Yasuní’s location on the equator – which provides a warm tropical climate all year round with plenty of sun and rain – is only one reason for its incredible levels of biodiversity.

“Over geologic history, eastern Ecuador has been particularly stable,” explains Dr Swing. “During the Great Ice Age, for example, a huge proportion of the Amazon dried out and became tropical grasslands and savannah. But areas of the Ecuadorian Amazon – around what is now Yasuní National Park – survived these periods of dramatic climate change.” A popular explanation is that the Andes provided a buffer zone, protecting the lowlands of the Amazon Basin, and creating a refuge which allowed many species that might have died out to survive. Yasuní is a wilderness that has been millions of years in the making.

The area is the ancestral home of the Huaorani, an indigenous warrior tribe that for centuries lived so far removed from civilisation that their language is unrelated to any other on Earth. Their fearsome reputation used to scare oil companies away. On one early mission, oil prospectors were found dead, killed by long hardwood spears. But the last two decades have seen the Huaorani’s lands steadily encroached upon. Today, only a few hundred Huaorani still weave their homes out of thatched palm leaves and hunt in the forest for food.

Huaorani indigenous hunters in Yasuní National Park in the Upper Napo Valley, Ecuador, 2010

Gaba and Nemote, a middle-aged Huaorani couple, have lived in the same rough-hewn settlement on the banks of the Shiripuno river for more than a quarter of a century. “It was different back when we first moved here,” says Gaba, reclining in a hammock, virtually naked. “When we went hunting, there were lots of animals.” His Mponcno community has used nine-foot-long blowguns to hunt for generations. But oil activity has scared many animals away. Now they’re forced to walk for hours, deep into the undergrowth, to find wild boar and tapir to eat.

Nemote, his wife, sits braiding palm leaves into clothing, while one of their grandchildren plays with a pet monkey. A fire smoulders on the earthen floor. The peace is shattered as a helicopter thunders overhead. Nemote looks up to the sky. “The oil companies have changed everything,” she says, angrily. Her 27-year-old son Raúl works in the oil industry as an unskilled labourer. “I don’t like it because the work is dangerous,” he tells me. “But we need the money to live.”

The indigenous groups who stand to lose most from the ITT drilling are the Tagaeri and the Taromenane – two uncontacted tribes that split from the Huaorani decades ago and retreated deep into the rainforest. They live in voluntary isolation in an off-limits area known as the ‘Untouchable Zone’. Unfortunately, it borders the ITT block and as oil exploration moves ever deeper into the forest, the two tribes – which may number fewer than 200 people living naked in the forest – have become caught up in violence.

Last year, about 20 Taromenane were brutally massacred by a band of heavily armed Huaorani. The attack was in retaliation for the slaying of a Huaorani man and one of his wives, who had failed to meet an impossible demand when they stumbled upon a group of Taromenane in the forest: to stop the cowode – outsiders – from encroaching on their territory. The Huaorani spared the lives of two Taromenane girls, aged seven and three, whom they took back to their village.

The government’s heavy-handed response was to send military-style helicopters into the remote jungle settlement – where armed, masked men grabbed the two terrified little girls . “It was a statement of power and intent in the region,” says Diocles Zambrano, a local activist. “The government wants to show that it is in charge… even in the far reaches of the rainforest.”

An indigenous woman confronts police outside a meeting between the Ecuadorian government and oil company representatives in Quito, November 2013

The discovery of oil

For millennia, the rainforest was only inhabited by indigenous tribes. But, in the late 1960s, after two decades of drilling throughout the Ecuadorian Amazon, a consortium of companies led by US oil giant Texaco discovered abundant reserves of crude oil beneath the jungle floor. When Texaco struck oil, Ecuador was unstable and impoverished and its chief export was bananas. The find has transformed the country.

The first barrel of oil to be pulled out of the Amazon was paraded though the streets of Quito in triumph, and it was hoped the country’s new-found reserves would usher in a new era of prosperity. The subsequent decades have seen huge swathes of rainforest hacked away and replaced with roads, drilling platforms, and pipelines. Oil now accounts for more than half of Ecuador’s exports.

In recent years, American influence in Ecuador has waned and today the country’s oil industry is dominated by China. “In many ways Ecuador is now in China’s pocket,” says Dr Ellis. The two countries have an unconventional agreement. “China does not provide traditional cash loans – it’s basically oil in exchange for credit,” Ellis explains. No actual money goes to the Ecuadorian government. Instead it receives credits – in yuan – which it can spend with Chinese companies operating in Ecuador on various projects. This has led to a surge in Chinese operations on the ground.

“Sprawling networks of rusty pipes line the countryside, cooling towers dominate the horizon, and heavy tankers chug along the roads”

The deepening economic ties between China and Ecuador can be seen in Coca, a fast-growing town of breezeblocks, pylons and corrugated iron, which serves as a gateway to the Amazon. It’s a dirty and edgy place. Beggars wait outside shiny new banks and mini-marts. Prostitutes cater to the legions of oil workers. Camouflage-suited soldiers patrol its potholed streets.

On a typical weekday, scores of Chinese workers can be found eating in restaurants whose menus serve kung pao chicken alongside local staples such as llapingacho potato cakes. I meet a group of engineers from a drilling company based in Hunan province one evening. “There is a lot of work in Ecuador,” says Hong-li, a manager in his early 40s. “We have to come here a lot.” His countrymen are gradually becoming used to the conditions in Ecuador. Throughout the surrounding countryside, Chinese script can now be seen on the sides of vehicles and buildings alongside Spanish slogans.

Both sides are keen to emphasise the benefits of drilling in Yasuní. A government ad that ran on Ecuadorian television in late 2013 shows a young mother cradling a little baby before nervously handing it over to an unseen hand. The infant receives a tiny jab before being returned to the arms of the grateful parent. The message is clear: Yasuní will be unharmed by drilling and the whole country will benefit. It’s part of a sweeping public relations campaign to assure the Ecuadorian population that Yasuní will be left “99.9 percent” intact by drilling.

It’s not an assessment that’s borne out by history. At the end of my stay, I visit the countryside around Sucumbíos province to the north of Yasuní. Half a century ago this area was lush, verdant rainforest. Today, sprawling networks of rusty pipes line the countryside, cooling towers dominate the horizon, and heavy tankers chug along the roads. The air is muggy and oleaginous. At an abandoned well outside the canton of Shushufindi I find a swimming pool-sized pit of gloopy black gunk surrounded by ferns and white-bark cecropia trees.

It is one of many hundreds of similar waste pits located near the Lago Agrio oil field which was operated over a 20-year period by a Texaco-led consortium. The pits have allegedly led to water and soil contamination and serious
health problems among local people and the last two decades have seen a vicious back-and-forth legal fight over compensation between lawyers representing local residents and Texaco, later acquired by Chevron. Protesters fear that it is only a matter of time before the whole of Yasuní National Park succumbs to such levels of environmental destruction.

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