I have walked in a few rainforests in my lifetime, mostly in Australia and Indonesia. I would never forget the time I spent trekking through the majestic Kakadu National Park trails and being entranced by the amazingly luscious layers of its tropical rainforest, teeming with life and fragile ecosystems. I have witnessed the long-tailed Balinese Macaques playing with one another and trying to steal my lunch in the Ubud santuary, a short visit to Sumatra took me to the Harapan rainforest which is home, among other species, to an astounding array of charismatic butterflies….however I have never been to the Yasuni National Park in the north-east of Ecuador.
Having received an urgent email from an Australian eco-friend outlining exactly what’s at stake, I have done some researching and came across this telling document (linked below). Recently, scientists have identified what they call the most “biodiverse region on our planet” (details of which can be found here, warning: this is long and meticulously catalogued, a real treat for those who like to read about “the lungs of our globe”) and this rich torrent of life is to be found, you guessed it, at the Yasuni rainforest. Why is this attracting international attention, you may ask?
The Yasuní is one of the most bio-diverse places on the planet. It spans nearly a million hectares and is home to the greatest genetic variety of plants and animals on earth. It is thought to be a zone that did not freeze during the last ice-age, which began 2 million years ago and lasted up to 10,000 years ago. As a result, it became an island of vegetation where flora and fauna took refuge, survived and eventually re-populated the Amazon.
Just a part of Yasuni’s northern fringe, the 6.5sq km (1,600 acre) Tiputini Biodiversity Station, is the richest place in the world for bats, with an estimated 100 different species. The Tiputini Biodiversity Station is home to 247 amphibian and reptile species, 550 bird species and around 200 mammal species, including 10 primates and an array of large predators.
Big oil, once again, is threatening this most bountiful forest simply because Ecuador’s second largest untapped oil reserves happen to lie directly below that region:
Oil companies have found a massive deposit of crude on the outskirts of Yasuni—a find that could be as large as nearly 900 million barrels of crude, or some nine times greater than Ecuador’s annual oil exports. Though the price of crude has been fluctuating recently, that much crude could easily earn Ecuador over $10 billion, and potentially much more. For a country with a per-capita GDPof $7, 800, that’s serious money.
But opening up even parts of Yasuni to oil exploration could irrevocably change the forest—as well as the indigenous tribes that still live inside its borders. It’s not just the risk of oil spills and other accidents, which are almost inevitable. Drilling means roads and heavy equipment and most of all, people—all of which would impact the rainforest for the worse. And the deforestation that would accompany serious oil exploration would damage a major carbon sink, speeding up climate change.
Second largest? What happened to the first one? Well, as you can read below some of the usual suspects have managed to nearly destroy parts of the western rainforest and killing many indigenous people in the process. To do justice to this story would take a lot more than a single post. I have not seen “Avatar” but I understand that James Cameron’s film is about an alien tribe on a distant planet who is fighting to save their lush forest home from human invaders bent on mining its minerals and riches. Sounds familiar? This mining company in question brings Blackwater-like thugs for “security” (though Blackwater have changed their name to Xe then Academi since Eric Prince sold out, or did he?) and will stop at nothing to secure profits for its shareholders. Déjà vu?
A battle of a different kind is ongoing in Ecuador. Oil giant Chevron is currently in a $27 billion lawsuit with Ecuadorian indigenous tribes for environmental damage caused by Texaco, a company acquired by Chevron in 2001. In court Texaco has admitted to dumping 18 billion gallons of toxic waste inside Ecuador’s rainforest from 1964-1990. A court expert found contamination at every one of Texaco’s former well sites, estimating oil damages 30 times larger than the infamous Exxon-Valdez spill and spanning an area the size of Rhode Island.
The case, known to some as the ‘Amazon Chernobyl’, involves 30,000 indigenous Ecuadorian plaintiffs. The toxic spill impacted six indigenous tribes, one of which has vanished entirely. The court has found that over 1,400 people have suffered untimely deaths from cancer due to contamination from the oil spill.
Despite these facts, Chevron has gone to great lengths to avoid reparations for environmental damage. In 2008 it was revealed that Chevron hired key political players, including former Senate majority leader Trent Lott and John McCain fund-raiser Wayne Berman to lobby United States Trade Representative Susan Schwab, members of Congress, and Deputy Secretary of State John Negroponte to threaten suspending US trade preferences with Ecuador until the lawsuit was dropped. But the corporation’s attempt to use US political power to disenfranchise 30,000 indigenous people failed.
Ok, the pic above is not from the Yasuni National park (it’s the equally stunning San Rafael Falls, north east of Quito, still in Ecuador) but I put it there to underline the obvious point I’m trying to make. We’re not looking after this planet the way we should. Not by a long shot.
If you’d like to read more about this, here is a good site run by the Yasuní depends on you! that deals with the latest news, and you can also sign the petition to keep the oil underground, which will be sent to the Prime Minister of Ecuador.
Why are rainforests so important to us? The short version is that they provide a home to many plants, animals and insects, they help stabilize the world’s climate (though Inhofe, OK Senator might not understand this implication), they also protect against flood, drought, and erosion and support its indigenous people and their cultures. The rainforests are also generous as you can read below:
About 1/4 of all the medicines we use come from rainforest plants. Curare comes from a tropical vine, and is used as an anesthetic and to relax muscles during surgery. Quinine, from the cinchona tree, is used to treat malaria. A person with lymphocytic leukemia has a 99% chance that the disease will go into remission because of the rosy periwinkle. More than 1,400 varieties of tropical plants are thought to be potential cures for cancer.
The present Ecuadorian government is sort of trying to play big oil and has come up with a novel way of avoiding the mistakes of the first -exploitation- exploration by asking the world community to give the country some $300 million a year to keep the oil where it is. The page below first appeared on the CBS site but it seems to have been, well, missing, as the page is no longer available.
QUITO, Ecuador – Ecuador’s foreign minister resigned Tuesday after President Rafael Correa criticized his handling of negotiations to prevent oil drilling in a pristine Amazon reserve. Fander Falconi was the third government official to resign over a plan to seek international donations of $3 billion over the next 10 years to keep an estimated 850 million barrels of heavy crude oil under the ground in the remote Yasuni National Park. Prospective donors have demanded some control over how the money is spent and asked Ecuador to expand the amount of land protected from development under the initiative.
A last, sobering word on the disappearance of rainforests worldwide:
In 1900, Sumatra had 16 million hectares of lowland forest; today that figure has dwindled to a mere 500,000 hectares. Lowland forests in Sumatra are now regarded as among the most threatened forests in the world.opics.
UPDATE: Direct link to petition page (this petition was closed for a while then back up now as the powers that will decide the fate of Yasuni are still in discussions) here