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Wednesday, December 05, 2007

Oil Developers Permitted to Penetrate Pristine Upper Amazon

WASHINGTON, DC, December 4, 2007 (ENS) - One of the most intact and biodiverse rainforest regions on Earth, located in the Upper Amazon Basin on the Ecuadorian-Peruvian border, is now threatened by imminent oil development, warns a conservation organization based in Washington with close ties to its counterpart groups in South America.

Known as the Napo Moist Forest ecosystem, this region is renowned for its record-breaking diversity of life and is so remote that it is home to several uncontacted indigenous groups living in voluntary isolation.

A male crimson masked tanager, Ramphocelus nigrogularis, perches in the dense lowland flooded forest this species prefers. Not classed as imperiled, they inhabit parts of Colombia, Peru, Ecuador, and Brazil. (Photo © Mark Gurney courtesySave America's Forests)

Yet the governments of Ecuador and Peru have just given the green light for three major new oil projects in the area.

"Three different oil companies are set to begin operations in what is arguably the most biodiverse spot on Earth," said Dr. Matt Finer, an ecologist with the DC-based nonprofit organization Save America's Forests. Finer has spent years in the remote Amazon back country, and his research is ongoing.

The Peruvian government just approved the environmental impact studies for Block 67 belonging to the U.S. company Barrett Resources and Block 39, which belongs to the Spanish corporation Repsol.

Barrett Resources (Peru) LLC, is an independent upstream energy company based in Delaware that advised the state regulatory agency Perupetro a year ago of its plans to develop commercial Block 67, its 250,000-acre contract area located in the Maranon Basin of northeastern Peru.

The Ecuadorian government recently granted an environmental license for the Brazilian state oil company Petrobras to drill for oil in Block 31 located in Yasuní National Park, a roadless area sheltering some of the world's rarest species.

Classed as Vulnerable to extinction, this primate, the monk sake monkey, Pithecia monachus, lives in the upper Amazon basin of Colombia, Ecuador, Peru, Bolivia and Brazil. (Photo by Reserva Communal Tamshiyacu-Tahuayo courtesy Rainforest Conservation Fund)

All three blocks are located within the core of the Napo Moist Forest.

In addition, the Peruvian government has just signed eight more contracts with multinational oil companies.

Finer calls the drive by the Peruvian government to lease out oil blocks throughout its large portion of the Amazon "relentless."

Analysis by Save America's Forests shows there are now 50 active blocks under contract with multinational companies in the Peruvian Amazon, and at least 13 more are on the way.

"Around 73 percent of the Peruvian Amazon, an area the size of the states of California and Maine combined, is now or soon will be in the hands of oil companies," warns Finer. "That's up from just 13 percent in 2004."

In addition to concerns about the region's extraordinary biodiversity, these new projects pose a major threat to Peru's vulnerable uncontacted peoples.

Indigenous, environmental and human rights groups have been protesting for months that the projects in Blocks 67 and 39 overlap territories of several groups in voluntary isolation.

AIDESEP, the association that represents the indigenous groups of the Peruvian Amazon, has requested that the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights, with headquarters in Washington, DC, intervene in the matter.

Both Barrett and Repsol first plan on conducting massive seismic campaigns in this sensitive area, followed by the construction of production wells in the former and exploration wells in the latter.

The coati, Nasua nasua, ranges from Colombia and Venezuela to northern Argentina. The species is threatened by roadbuilding, habitat encroachment and hunting. (Photo © Finding Species Inc. courtesySave America's Forests)

Large quantities of heavy crude oil are known to exist under both blocks.

Further, of the eight new blocks with fresh contracts, half overlap territories of peoples in voluntary isolation.

"The lives of peoples in voluntary isolation are in grave danger with these signed contracts," warned AIDESEP President Alberto Pizango.

Of these four highly controversial blocks, three now belong to the Canadian company Pacific Stratus Energy, and the other belongs to the American company Occidental.

This wave of controversial oil projects in the Peruvian Amazon comes at a moment when that government has won a new free trade agreement with the United States. The U.S. Senate today approved the free trade agreement with Peru with strong bipartisan support.

The free trade agreement takes the environment into consideration said President George W. Bush. "Today's action by the Senate also marks the approval of the first free trade agreement that fulfills the May 10 bipartisan trade agreement with Congress by incorporating enforceable labor and environmental standards."

In Ecuador, environmental groups have been battling against the Petrobras project in Yasuni National Park for four years. In 2005, the Ecuadorian Environment Ministry prevented the company from building an access road into park

Harpy eagles, Harpia harpyja, are in danger of becoming extinct due to habitat fragmentation, habitat destruction, and hunting. The proposed oil road into Yasuní National Park would fragment their habitat. (Photo © Ricardo Kuehn courtesy Save America's Forests)
In 2006, Petrobras came back with a roadless design utilizing helicopters to access the drilling platforms. This new roadless design was just given the green light from the Environment Ministry in the form of a new environmental license.

The only bright spot of the region, says Finer, is the innovative Ecuadorian initiative to leave the country's largest untapped oil reserves, known as Ishpingo-Tiputini-Tambococha, ITT, permanently underground in exchange for compensation from the international community.

The oil fields are located underneath Yasuní National Park.

The aim of the proposal is to provide a creative solution for the threat posed by the extraction of Amazonian crude oil, and contribute to preserving biodiversity, reducing carbon dioxide emissions that would contribute to global climate change, and respecting the rights of indigenous peoples.

Experts just completed a six-day workshop in Quito where they analyzed the government's ITT initiative, concluding the proposal is viable, of global significance given the ecosystem services provided by Yasuní National Park, and potentially precedent setting for other sensitive areas containing fossil fuel resources.

Ecuador's President Rafael Correa has given the international community one year, which expires in June 2008, to offer a compensation package of $350 million per year for 10 years if Ecuador does not exploit the oil resource. This equals half of the income the country would obtain by extracting ITT's crude oil.

In January, the Ecuadorian government delimited a 758,000 hectare zone off-limits to oil activities, known as the Zona Intangible" in the most remote part of the Ecuadorian Napo Moist Forest.

The Rio Napo region is situated at the western extreme of Amazonia where it hosts extraordinarily rich tropical moist forests. The ecoregion covers the northwestern portion of Peru, the Amazon region of Ecuador and the southwestern corner of Colombia's Amazon.

The international conservation organization WWF says this ecoregion has "some most species-rich forests in the world. For example, below 300 meter elevation there are 138 orchid species that have been identified in Ecuador alone.

"Much of this ecoregion is not well known by scientists," says WWF, "possibly holding species currently undiscovered with the possibility of increasing worldwide biodiversity."

View photos of the wealth of animals in the Upper Amazon at Save America's Forests Yasuni biodiversity site.

Copyright Environment News Service (ENS) 2007. All rights reserved.

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