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Ecuador expands oil drilling despite fierce opposition from locals

Petroleum is Ecuador’s top export commodity, but the industry has wreaked havoc on the environment and small communities in the Amazon.

POMPEYA, Ecuador (CN) — “The oil comes from the heart and lungs of the Amazon in our park. Companies are sent here by the government, and they do not care about us."

So said Mauricio Jipa, a resident of the small Ecuadorian community of Pompeya, when asked by Courthouse News about oil extraction in his territory. He explained how the forests have gradually changed with the introduction of big roads, gas flares and oil tankers frequenting back and forth on the Napo River.   

"Unfortunately, we know that the state will never give up oil," he added.

Pompeya lies on the brink of Yasuni National Park in the eastern Ecuadorian Amazon. The park is listed by Unesco as one of the most biodiverse places on the planet, and is home to several indigenous groups such as the Waorani and Tagaeri.  

Since 2016, however, it has been a hotspot for oil companies, which currently drill in several areas of the park. Most disputed is the so-called ITT block, short for Ishpingo-Tambococha-Tiputini, which lies in the remote northeastern part of Yasuni. It is the most extensive area for drilling and is inching closer and closer to a buffer zone established to protect uncontacted indigenous people.  

Mauricio Jipa in his small Ecuadorian village Pompeya. (Mette Mølgaard Henriksen /Courthouse News)

The wells are operated by the state-owned company PetroEcuador, and the government also gives drilling licenses to foreign operators such as China's CNPC Chuanqing Drilling Engineering Company Limited.  

Tourism guide Jorge Luis Gabriel Borgos grew up in the nearby town of Coca. He has also witnessed the changes, as the area transformed into a top destination for oil exploration.   

“When I was a kid, we could bathe in the river and drink from it. It was clean. I could also see plenty of wildlife at the riverbanks," he said in an interview. "Now, all you see is the big ships transporting oil.”  

Borgos said a Chinese petroleum company approached him to ask for help convincing local indigenous communities to allow extraction in their territory. It's a job that would bring in a lot of money, but also force him to “scam” his friends, he said.

“They asked me if I know people from the communities and could convince them to allow oil exploration in their area. They told me to offer whatever [they] need, whether it was new canoes or engines. But I know how oil destroys an area, and a few years down the line my friends would have been left with nothing. So I declined,” Borgos said.  

Oil extraction activities in Ecuador’s Yasuni National Park. (Sumal Allpa Archives via Courthouse News)

Ecuador has over 1 million indigenous people, and the majority are based in the Amazon. The legal rules to access their territories are complex.  

On paper, the Ecuadorian state or its partners must ask for local consent before allowing any kind of drilling. But in reality, expansions of extraction areas happen without concern for the environment, according to Hector Vargas, an eco-tourism guide in Yasuni National Park. 

In an interview, he claimed oil companies expanded their activities in the coveted ITT fields into what is known as block 43 without any official monitoring during the pandemic. He is convinced that no special regulatory measures were taken, even though the area is technically protected.  

“They were building new oil wells and expanding inwards from the Napo River without any supervision. The problem here is that the government has to regulate themselves, as PetroEcuador answers to the Ministry of Environment,” Vargas said.  

However, official licenses to drill in block 43 are in place. And with around 1.5 million barrels of oil estimated to be waiting to be taken from the ITT block, the potential profit for Ecuador is huge.  

Oil is Ecuador's top export. Last year, right-wing President Guillermo Lasso announced plans to double the country's oil production. With an expansion of block 43, the government has predicted revenue of $3.4 billion in 2023 alone.  

The country's long history with oil is at the heart of one of the world's biggest pollution scandals, driving litigation that has crossed multiple continents and decades. One arm of the lawsuit resulted in a $9.5 billion judgment against Chevron for damage to the country's rainforest and its indigenous people, but efforts to collect on that judgment in the U.S. resulted in a fraud judgment and disbarment of the Ecuadorians' attorney. The U.S. Supreme Court meanwhile refused to disturb a ruling that says the judgment against Chevron was ghost-written by an Ecuadorian judge who took bribes.

Meanwhile underground and in the rivers of Lago Agrio, where the still-unclaimed judgment against Chevron was drafted, pollution from oil spills is still visible.

The soil outside Lago Agrio, Ecuador, still contains oil from a massive Chevron spill. (Mette Mølgaard Henriksen/Courthouse News)

While the Chevron case has drawn much worldwide attention over the last 20 years, the media focus has shifted to oil exploration in Yasuni National Park. One reason is the national court recently deemed a 2014 attempt to hold a referendum on oil drilling in the ITT block valid.  

Back then, the referendum was rejected after the government said hundreds of thousands of signatures collected for the petition were invalid, and thus the question of whether oil in block 43 should stay in the ground was never put to voters.

Now, it looks like Ecuadorians will have their referendum, albeit years after companies moved into the ITT area.  

For locals and environmental organizations, it is difficult to document the damage to nature caused by oil drilling in the park. However, many say it is only a matter of time before the oil industry does irreparable damage to Yasuni's diverse ecosystem.

Yasuni National Park is listed by UNESCO as one of the most biodiverse places on Earth. (Mette Mølgaard Henriksen/Courthouse News)

“With the oil industry, we know that it is always a question of when and not if there are going to be spills," said Kevin Koenig, director of climate, energy and extractive industry at Amazon Watch, in an interview.

He added, "The construction of wells has several destructive impacts on biodiversity. It causes deforestation. You have gas flares burning in the park, attracting all kinds of insects and affecting human health, as well as road construction in places where there were supposed to be only ecological trails.”  

Koenig said the Ecuadorian government and PetroEcuador have a bad track record when it comes to obtaining mandatory local consent before moving into a new territory.  

“We have seen an absolute failure of the Ministry of Environment to hold companies accountable over the past years. They are not being checked on preventive measures, technology standards or spill controls. In Yasuni, there are eight different oil blocks overlapping the park and no independent monitoring of the extraction,” he said. 

Mette Mølgaard Henriksen contributed to this report.

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