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Sunday, January 14, 2007

Ecuador Bars Oil Extraction, Logging from Indigenous Zone

January 12, 2007 (Environment News Service)

To protect indigenous groups who voluntarily isolate themselves from the modern world, the Ecuadorian government has declared a two million acre zone in an oil-rich region of the Amazon off limits to oil development and logging.

The Presidential Decree signed last week by outgoing President Alfredo Palacio is intended to protect the core territory of the last two groups of indigenous peoples in Ecuador known to live in isolation.

Both the Tagaeri and Taromenane are renowned for their giant spears and regarded as among the fiercest tribes on Earth. There is a bloody history of encounters between these two groups and invading oil company workers, loggers, and colonists.

The Presidential Decree defines the boundaries of the so-called Intangible Zone, an area larger than the state of Delaware.

Located in the heart of the Ecuadorian Amazon, the Intangible Zone overlaps the southern part of Yasuni National Park, which despite its park status is open to oil development.

The Yasuni National Park region is widely recognized by scientists as one of the most biodiverse on Earth.

President Palacio signed the long-awaited Presidential Decree less than two weeks before President-elect Rafael Correa comes to power. The Ecuadorian Environment Minister Anita Alban, who will remain in this post in the Correa administration, and Energy Minister Ivan Rodriguez also both signed off on the Decree.

“President Palacio’s signing of this Presidential Decree was a brave move on his part. Hopefully the new government will build upon this to create an area that will truly protect the Tagaeri and Taromenani people by prohibiting oil extraction in the buffer zone,” said Brian Keane, director of the international indigenous peoples rights organization Land is Life.

“The signing of this Decree is a hard-fought victory in favor of the protection of peoples in voluntary isolation,” said Eduardo Pichilingue of the Ecuadorian NGO EcoCiencia, referring to the long, difficult process of finalizing the Intangible Zone.

The Intangible Zone was initially created in 1999, but it took eight years to define the zone’s controversial boundaries, which are surrounded by untapped oil fields.


A stretch of the Tiguino River in Yasuni National Park (Photo by Erich Lehenbauer courtesy Ecuador-Travel.Net)
In addition to prohibiting the extraction of oil within the Intangible Zone, the Presidential Decree establishes a 10 kilometer surrounding buffer zone where the construction of oil access roads is prohibited, but oil extraction is permitted.

No logging is allowed within the Intangible Zone. Illegal logging in the region has escalated in recent years, leading to deadly confrontations between loggers and the Tagaeri-Taromenane.

The government was recently warned by human rights advocates that illegal logging camps were operating within four kilometers of Taromenane houses spotted from aerial flights.

A logger was speared to death by the Taromenane as recently as April 2006, and in 2005 another logger was found dead with over 30 spears through his body.

“Putting such a massive area off limits to oil extraction and roads in a potentially oil-rich area is a major step towards protecting the Tagaeri-Taromenane and the extraordinary biodiversity of Yasuni,” said Dr. Matt Finer of Save America’s Forests, a conservation group based in Washington, DC.

“The problem is that the northern part of the park is still getting hammered by oil projects," said Finer, an ecologist who worked for years in the Ecuador's Yasuni Park area.

The Brazilian national oil company Petrobras as well as Andes Petroleum, a partnership between two Chinese state oil companies, CNPC and Sinopec, have active concessions within Yasuni National Park, which lies just north of the Intangible Zone.

Moreover, the largest untapped oil reserve in the country - over a billion barrels located in an area known as the ITT Block - also lie within Yasuni National Park just north of the Intangible Zone, Finer says.

One of the most significant details of the Decree is that it includes a large oil field, known as Awant, within the boundaries of the Intangible Zone. This field is now off-limits to extraction.

Andes Petroleum, which earlier in 2006 purchased the oil rights to develop the block that contains Awant, had been pressuring the government to alter the limits of the Zone to allow extraction of this field.

International and Ecuadorian nongovernmental organizations successfully pressured the government to maintain Awant within the Zone’s boundaries, citing evidence that the Taromenane were living very close to this area.

Of the five known oil fields of the southern Yasuni region, two were included within the Intangible Zone, although three remain just outside the limits of the Zone, within the buffer area.

“Given the realities of Ecuador - that is, the government’s drive to open up the entire Amazon to oil—the Intangible Zone could be the only true refuge for the Tagaeri and Taromenane” said Fernando Ponce of the Ecuadorian watchdog group, Citizens for Democracy.

“However, to fully protect the isolated peoples, Ecuador needs to develop economic alternatives and stop oil exploitation in all of Yasuni National Park and Huaorani Territory.”

CONAIE, the powerful indigenous organization that represents all of Ecuador’s indigenous nationalities, opposed the delimitation of the Intangible Zone because it leaves the northern part of Yasuni National Park open to oil development.


CONAIE President Luis Macas addresses a rally in Quito. March 2006. (Photo courtesy CONAIE)
In a letter to President Palacio in September, CONAIE argued that there should be a “moratorium on oil exploitation in all five million acres of ancestral Huaorani Territory.”

The Huaorani have previously called for a 10 year moratorium on new oil activities within their ancestral territory, which includes all of Yasuni National Park.

In September, the Ecuadorian Environment Ministry, led by Subsecretary for Natural Capital Alfredo Carrasco, presented the details of the Intangible Zone in front of over 150 Huaorani community leaders, assembled in the rainforest town of Coca.

Huaorani leaders were split on the issue. Some leaders supported the Presidential Decree as a means to finally crack down on logging and stop new oil projects. Others were much more worried about the loss of their territory to increased government control.

Subsecretary Carrasco repeatedly stressed that the Intangible Zone does not interfere with Huaorani activities or movements, and is simply a means to outlaw logging and oil extraction.

The Tagaeri and Taromenane maintain no peaceful contact with the outside world and are completely dependent on the surrounding rainforest for survival.

The Tagaeri are directly related to the Huaorani, the contacted indigenous peoples of this region, and the Taromenane are believed to be more distantly related.

Although no one knows with any accuracy, it is estimated there are 150 to 300 Taromenane and perhaps only 20 to 30 surviving Tagaeri.

In a 2004 report to the Ecuadorian government, a group of over 40 scientists with research experience in Yasuni, dubbed the Scientists Concerned for Yasuni, documented that the region is one of the most biodiverse in the world for plants, trees, amphibians, birds, insects, and mammals.

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