25. Fast Track Oil Exploitation in Western Amazon

by Project Censored
Published: Last Updated on

PloS One, August 2008
Title: “Oil and Gas Projects in the Western Amazon: Threats to Wilderness, Biodiversity, and Indigenous Peoples”
Authors: Matt Finer, Clinton N. Jenkins, Stuart L. Pimm, Brian Keane, and Carl Ross

The Guardian, August 13, 2008
Title: “Amazon rainforest threatened by new wave of oil and gas exploration”
Author: Ian Sample

Student Researcher: Rob Hunter
Faculty Evaluator: Sasha Von Meier, PhD
Sonoma State University

The western Amazon, home to the most biodiverse and intact rainforest on Earth, may soon be covered with oilrigs and pipelines. Vast swaths of the region are to be opened for oil and gas exploration, putting some of the planet’s most pristine and biodiverse forests at risk, conservationists have warned.

A new study has found that at least thirty-five multinational oil and gas companies operate over 180 oil and gas “blocks”—areas zoned for exploration and development—which now cover the Amazon in Bolivia, Colombia, Ecuador, Peru, and western Brazil.

The western Amazon is also home to many indigenous ethnic groups, including some of the world’s last uncontacted peoples living in voluntary isolation. Underlying this landscape of extraordinary biological and cultural diversity, which environmental scientists refer to as the lungs of the planet, are large reserves of oil and gas. Growing global demand is stimulating unprecedented levels of new oil and gas exploration and extraction—and the threat of environmental and cultural devastation.

Researchers tracked hydrocarbon activities across the region over a four-year period and generated a comprehensive map of oil and gas activities. The maps showed that in Peru and Ecuador, regions designated for oil and gas projects already cover more than two thirds of the Amazon. Of sixty-four oil and gas blocks that cover 72 percent of the Peruvian Amazon, all but eight were approved since 2003, and at least sixteen were signed in 2008. Major increases in activity are also expected in Bolivia and western Brazil.

“We’ve been following oil and gas development in the Amazon since 2004 and the picture has changed before our eyes,” said Matt Finer of Save America’s Forests, a US-based environment group. “When you look at where the oil and gas blocks are, they overlap perfectly on top of the peak biodiversity spots, almost as if by design, and this is in one of the most, if not the most, biodiverse places on Earth.”
Some regions have established oil and gas reserves, but in others companies will need to cut into the forest to conduct speculative tests, including explosive seismic investigations and test drilling. Typically, companies have seven years to explore a region before deciding whether to go into full production.

“The real concern is when exploration is successful and a zone moves into the development phase, because that’s when the roads, drilling and pipelines come in,” said Finer.
Writing in the journal PLoS One, Finer and others from Duke University and Land is Life, a Massachusetts-based environment group, call for governments to rethink how energy reserves in the Amazon are exploited.

One issue, the authors argue, is that while companies must submit an environmental impact assessment for their project, these are often considered individually instead of collectively. “They’re not looking at the bigger picture of what happens if there are lots of projects going on at the same time. You could have each individual company thinking they’re being relatively responsible and keeping their own road networks under control and so on, but what happens when you have fifteen other projects around you? All of a sudden, when you look at the bigger picture, you have a sprawling road network,” said Finer. The creation of widespread road networks will put previously inaccessible forest at risk of deforestation, illegal hunting and logging, the authors argue.

Further research by the team found that many of the planned exploration and extraction projects were on land that is home to indigenous people, who whilst being consulted, have no say in whether a project goes ahead or not. At least fifty-eight of the sixty-four blocks in Peru are on land where isolated communities live, with a further seventeen infringing on areas that have existing or proposed reserves for indigenous groups.

“The way that oil development is being pursued in the western Amazon is a gross violation of the rights of the indigenous peoples of the region,” said Brain Keane of Land is Life. “International agreements and inter-American human rights law recognize indigenous peoples’ rights to their lands, and explicitly prohibit the granting of concessions to exploit natural resources in their territories without their free, prior and informed consent,” he added.

Indigenous resistance is increasingly organized, politicized, and effective at both national and international levels.
“This expansion occurs to the detriment of our peoples and of Mother Earth,” warns Jose Antunez, a leader of the Ashaninka people of Peru.

Update by Matt Finer

This story, which highlights the threats facing the western Amazon from oil and gas development, not only involves one of the most biodiverse regions on Earth, but, as we have recently seen, is literally a matter of life and death for people in the region. While much of the previous scientific analysis and global attention has focused on the massive deforestation in the eastern Amazon in Brazil, our study was one of the first to highlight the magnitude and scope of threats facing the still largely intact western Amazon (Bolivia, Colombia, Ecuador, Peru, and western Brazil).

After its publication in the open-access scientific journal PLoS ONE in August 2008, the story did receive a considerable amount of international press, including pieces in the Guardian, New Scientist, Associated Press, and several major newspapers in South America. Our paper appeared at a particularly opportune time, when the media and public were focused on high oil prices and dependence on foreign oil. While our paper sounded the alarm about the impending crisis in the western Amazon and was noted by the scientific community, most of the complex issues raised in our paper largely continued to stay under the radar of the public and mainstream media in the United States.

In June 2009, there were deadly clashes in northern Peru between the police and indigenous peoples who had been protesting new government policies. These policies—enacted to comply with a free trade agreement with the US—promoted oil, gas, mining, logging, and biofuel projects on indigenous lands without their consent.  This issue was a major topic of discussion in our paper, under the heading of Free, Prior and Informed Consent. These events, which reportedly left over fifty people dead, resulted in a second round of press reports citing our article. The New York Times and Reuters, for example, highlighted our finding that the vast majority of the oil concessions in the Peruvian Amazon overlap titled indigenous lands.

The issues raised in our paper continue to be of critical importance. Oil and gas concessions (blocks) now cover more than 700,000 square kilometers in the western Amazon, even more than we estimated in 2008. The problem of new oil and gas exploration and development projects in sensitive areas is particularly severe in Peru and Bolivia, and increasingly so in Colombia. In contrast, a hopeful sign is that Ecuador continues to promote its innovative Yasuni-ITT Initiative, which we highlighted in our study. Ecuador is proposing to leave nearly one billion barrels of oil, 20 percent of its known reserves, locked in the ground forever in exchange for alternative sources of revenue from the international community.

As a means to make information from our research about the western Amazon more accessible, we established the WesternAmazon.org website to distribute information and the data from our studies. We also provide links to any news stories linked to our study and the issue of oil in the Amazon.