Oil in the Rain Forest
Yasuni National Park by Jen Frey
"Come to the woods, for here is rest. There is no repose like that of the green deep woods."
I remember when I first heard about the Rainforest, I was in 4th grade. We were learning that the rainforest in South America is filled with plants and animals that have yet to be discovered and told that we needed to preserve this land. I fell in love and for many years, my family donated money to save the Rainforest for my Christmas presents.
This past February, my life long dream of visiting the Amazon Rainforest came true. I went with a group of healers to study with RocioAlarcon, EcuadorianShaman/Herbalist/Ethnobotanist. I could barely contain my excitement as I prepared for the trip. Though I admit, I suddenly had some minor anxiety when I thought about jaguars and anacondas. Despite all of my efforts, I was not prepared for what I experienced.
We began our journey into the Ecuadorian Amazon by visiting a museum in Coca, Ecuador. This museum had several maps of Ecuador including a few that focused on the Yasuni National Park which is where we were headed.
In 1989, UNESCO declared the Yasuni National Park to be a Bio-reserve and Cultural Heritage Site. Yasuni is believed to be the most biodiverse area in the world. The Yasuni contains record numbers of amphibians, birds, and insects species (many of these are endemic to the Yasuni) and 1 hectare of the forest has more species of trees than all the native species in North America. Gorky Villa an Ecuadorian botanist states, “In just one hectare in Yasuni, there are more tree, shrub, and liana (woody vines) species than anywhere else in the world.” The Yasuni is also the home of several Indigenous groups, including the “uncontacted” groups, Tagaeri and Taromenane. In 1999, the Ecuadorian government designated a large portion of the Yasuni National park as “untouchable”, not to be mined, drilled, logged, colonized or exploited.
The next map we saw showed the areas where oil is being drilled inside this “untouchable” Park! For along with the incredible array of plants, animals and people, the Yasuni National Park is also rich in oil. From the new map, we could see that now the park is cut in half and there are oil companies in much of the park. Seeing this on a map is one thing, experiencing it is another.
As we made our way into this wild park, we were immediately greeted by a pipeline that continued our entire 2 hour drive. Most of the time there were multiple pipelines. These often were near creeks, they went through people’s yards, we even saw one that was under a house. We were told that the pipelines have leaked, often the leaks going unnoticed for some time. This is the Amazon Rainforest, where after 2 days, my quick-dry pants had not dried. One can only imagine that this is not a good environment for metal pipes. In May 2013, an estimated 420,000 gallons of oil were spilled near the Yasuni, contaminating the water of Coca, the Napo River and other parts of the Amazon Rainforest. In a BBC article, Diego Mosquera, World Biologist and Director of Tiputini Biodiversity Station in Ecuador’s Yasuní National Park, stated, “In the past 30 years of oil operations in the Amazon have been spilled something like 20 million gallons of oil.”
According to Mosquera, Ecuador’s Ministry of the Environment reports that between 2000 and 2010 there were almost 50 spills per year, and in 2011, 60 oil spills were reported. This adds up to more than one oil spill per week for 2011.
Along our route, we also saw refineries and an open pit well with the oil bubbling up from the ground. All the areas where the refineries and pumping stations were, were once covered with thick forest, filled with plants and animals, which compounds the contribution to global warming.
We finally reached our destination, Iamoe Center, whose mission is to inspire, promote and support the well-being and respect for all beings in the area surrounding the Iamoe Center. As the gates opened, I could feel that I reached a sanctuary. We were greeted by Achiote and Cacao trees. It was evident that Nature is honored there. Unfortunately, Iamoe is surrounded on 3 sides by oil companies.
The story of the Yasuni National Park is a well-known one. This is an area of unprecedented beauty and the inhabitants in it, are very poor according to modern Western standards. Some hold on to their ancestral beliefs and try to protect the land. However, many are given promises of wealth and better lives for their children. What parent doesn’t want their child to have a better life? This same story is repeated in my own state of Pennsylvania as people allow companies to frack on their land, only to discover that their water becomes undrinkable even flammable. The story of the Yasuni is even more complex as many of the inhabitants are nomads and while the land was designated for the Indigenous, most do not own property rights or the mineral rights.
As their neighbors sold their land, Iamoe tried to buy what they could. When the land was purchased by the oil companies the trees would be felled. After the oil companies cut the trees down, supporters of Iamoe would go into the forest and collect orchids and other plants that were growing on these trees. Iamoe now has a beautiful Orquideario. Many of these plants, especially those that grow high in the trees (like Orchids) have not been identified by science. In fact, on a walk into the forest, we found a wild cacao tree that had yet to be identified.
Even while staying in the beautiful mecca of Iamoe, I was bothered by the oil companies. At night, instead of the cries of jaguars, I heard huge trucks rumbling by. Our incredible healing ceremony with a local Shaman was surrounded by the noise of the oil workers partying and fighting. Everywhere that I went in the Yasuni, I always had fantastic cell reception; better than in Quito, even better than in my own home. I couldn’t help but think of John Muir and wondered what he would say about the Amazon, the heart of the Wild, being filled with so much human noise. For these woods were not a place of rest. Then I wondered, if this noise bothers me, how does it effect the indigenous and the wild animals and plants who are not accustomed to Western society? Remember the effect of the butterfly sneeze, what is the global impact of this noise in such a remote and pristine area?
While organizations like Iamoe, the Tiputini Biodiversity Station, and the Pachamama Alliance are working to try to preserve the Yasuni, the pressure from oil development is relentless. In 2007, the Ecuadorian Government put forward a plan called the Yasuni-ITT initiative. This was an unprecedented plan where the government vowed to indefinitely refrain from oil drilling in the Yasuni if the international community would give them 50% of the value of the reserves or $3.6 billion over 13 years. There were issues with the initiative, mainly how the funds would be used, though over $100 million was raised. In 2013, Rafael Correa, the Ecuadorian President, dissolved the initiative, stating that there was poor economic follow through from the international community.
As upsetting as it was to discover the oil activity in the Yasuni, I am glad to have had that experience, for I think that we can no longerbury our heads and remain deaf, dumb, and blind. Nature needs us to be her voice. Though she does speak quite loudly herself (global warming, tornadoes, earthquakes, hurricanes, ...); we tend not to hear her or more accurately we ignore her.
Perhaps the encroachment of oil drilling can be slowed if we reduce our consumption of oil and plastics. we can try to preserve this beautiful area by reducing our consumption of oil. Perhaps we can help wake up the wider world to the treasure of this place. Ecuador has become a mecca for ecotourism, for birders and plant-lovers, for adventure tourists, as well as, scientist trying to discover new plants and medicines.
We also need to be willing to listen and respond to the needs of the living Forest and all her inhabitants, which by itself, is priceless.
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