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Ecuador Stops Petrobras's Oil Road Into Biodiversity Treasure

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QUITO, Ecuador, September 8, 2005 (ENS) - Under heavy pressure from conservation groups and the indigenous Huaorani, the Ecuadorian Environment Ministry has temporarily stopped the Brazilian national oil company Petrobras from building an access road into Yasuni National Park and Biosphere Reserve, located in the heart of the Ecuadorian Amazon.

Ecuadorian and international conservation groups and scientists have been fighting the oil development project for well over a year. They claim the access road and oil infrastructure and activities would significantly and irreversibly impact one of the most biodiverse rainforest regions on Earth.

The 1.7 million acre Yasuni National Park in Napo province is located both in the western Amazon near the Andes mountains and near the Equator, a combination that makes it one of the most biodiverse parts of the already incredibly biodiverse Amazon region.

Adding to this opposition, the Huaorani, who are the indigenous peoples of the Yasuni region, have been mounting an intensifying campaign against the Petrobras development.

In May, two Huaorani leaders traveled to the U.S. to speak out against the project before the UN Permanent Forum on Indigenous Issues in New York, and before two members of Congress in Washington.

Then in July, over 150 Huaorani traveled from the rainforest to Ecuador's capitol to march in the streets of Quito in opposition to the Petrobras project. During the day of the march, the Huaorani spoke before Congress and met with the Ecuadorian Secretary of State, calling for a 10-year moratorium on new oil projects in their territory and the immediate removal of Petrobras.

An international coalition including U.S. based groups Save America's Forests, Finding Species, Environmental Defense, Land Is Life, Rainforest Action Network, and Rainforest Rescue; and Urgewald of Germany, the Rainforest Information Centre of Australia, and Accion Ecologica of Ecuador, gave critical financial and logistical support to the Huaorani.

Under the background of this strong opposition, the Ecuadorian Environment Ministry has, at least temporarily, suspended Petrobras from entering Yasuni National Park

For the past several months, Petrobras has been building the access road through the primary rainforest leading to the park boundary. But on July 7, the ministry informed the company it was not authorized to enter the park due to violations of the environmental license granted a year ago.

One of the most serious violations was that Petrobras was using a river of extreme conservation importance - the Tiputini - to transport heavy equipment.

Petrobras was not pleased. South America's most profitable company in 2004 with net profits of $6.6 billion, Petrobras responded to the suspension with a lawsuit on July 28 against the Environment Ministry.

The lawsuit was filed just two days after Brazilian President Luiz Inacio Lula de Silva sent a letter to Ecuadorian President Alfredo Palacio stating how he was worried that the Ecuadorian government's actions to suspend the activities of Petrobras threatens the future of the project.

On August 25, Petrobras' lawsuit was rejected in court. And more problems have emerged for Petrobras.

In late August, the Huaorani held an emergency assembly and decided to dismiss President Juan Enomenga, who is accused of working too closely with Petrobras. Strong anti-oil advocate Moi Enomenga was elected as the new vice president.

And last week, four former Ecuadorian Environment Ministers - inclucing former IUCN President Yolanda Kakabadse - submitted a letter to President Palacio asking that the suspension be maintained until studies can be conducted on ways to greatly minimize environmental damage from the processing facility and access road.

Also last week, a scientific report produced by over 50 of the region's biologists was delivered to the Environment Minister Ana Alban. The report details both Yasuni's extraordinary biodiversity and how a new access road is likely to significantly impact this diversity.

Yasuni National Park encompasses a large stretch of the world's most diverse tree community, the highest documented insect diversity in the world, and extraordinary levels of mammal, bird, amphibian, and plant diversity as well.

Letters from the Smithsonian Institution, Association for Tropical Biology and Conservation, and one from some of the top biologists in the world, including Jane Goodall, E.O. Wilson, Stuart Pimm, Thomas Lovejoy, and Paul Ehrlich were also delivered to Minister Alban.

All three letters warn of the extreme threats posed by the Petrobras project, particularly the new access road, on the biodiversity of Yasuni.

The three letters, along with the scientific report, were delivered earlier this year to the previous Ecuadorian government presided by Lucio Gutierrez, but were ignored.

Yasuni National Park is still largely roadless. Eight species of monkeys live in Yasuni along with the golden-mantle tamarin, the giant otter and two other otter species, endangered tapirs, deer and anteaters, peccaries and sloths, racoons, armadillos, and in the rivers, pink dolphins and dwarf dolphins.

Harpy eagles and king vultures soar above the canopy, while scarlet macaws as well as blue and yellow macaws feast on clay licks. There are salt licks where hordes of animals gather.

Well known cats such as jaguars and ocelots inhabit the Yasuni rainforest, which they share with lesser known species such as the jaguarundi and the oncilla.

The Tiputini Biodiversity Station, founded in 1994, is administered by the Universidad San Francisco de Quito as a biological research station and education center. Scientists at the station report that an "astonishing" 290 species of trees per hectare, and countless unstudied species of ferns, herbs, shrubs, lianas and epiphytes exist within Yasuni.

Oil development and colonization, with their complex set of political, socioeconomic and ecological changes, may yet be coming to Yasuni National Park, which then would be stripped of its remoteness by the driving forces behind rainforest destruction.

Environment News Service
Matt Finer
Thursday, September 8, 2005

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