tagged w/ Gluttons
Demand for oil is squeezing the life out of one of the world’s wildest places.
By Scott Wallace | January 2013
The leaves are still dripping from an overnight downpour when Andrés Link slings on his day pack and heads out into the damp morning chill. It’s just after daybreak, and already the forest is alive with hoots and chatter—the deep-throated roar of a howler monkey, the hollow rat-a-tat-tat of a woodpecker, the squeal of squirrel monkeys chasing each other from branch to branch. A strange, ululating chant starts up in the distance, fades out, then builds again.
“Listen!” says Link, grabbing my arm and cocking an ear. “Titi monkeys. Can you hear? There are two of them, singing a duet.” He imitates the high-pitched, rhythmic cry of one of the monkeys, then the other. Only then can I distinguish the two separate strains that make up the counterpoint chorus.
This raucous celebration is the daily background music for Link as he heads out on his morning commute through what may be the most biodiverse spot on Earth. Link, a primatologist from Universidad de los Andes, is researching the white-bellied spider monkey, and he’s on his way to a salt lick a half hour’s walk away, where a group often congregates.
Giant kapok and ficus trees with sprawling buttress roots soar like Roman columns straight into the canopy, their bifurcating branches draped with orchids and bromeliads that sustain entire communities of insects, amphibians, birds, and mammals. Strangler figs coil around their trunks in a tightening embrace. There is so much life here that tiny killifish are wriggling in a shallow puddle created by animal tracks.
We turn down a slope into a forest studded with bizarre-looking Socratea trees, commonly called walking palms, with four-foot-high stilt roots that allow the trees to shift location slightly in a quest for light and nutrients. It’s one of the untold millions of evolutionary adaptations unfolding all around the Tiputini Biodiversity Station (TBS), a facility operated by the Universidad San Francisco de Quito on 1,600 acres (650 hectares) of pristine jungle on the edge of Yasuní National Park, which encompasses nearly 3,800 square miles (9,800 square kilometers) of prime rain forest habitat in eastern Ecuador.
“You could spend your entire life here and be surprised by something every day,” Link says. There are ten primate species in the forest around TBS, and a greater variety of birds, bats, and frogs than almost anywhere else in South America. There are as many insect species in a single hectare of the rain forest here as are known in all of the U.S. and Canada combined.
Yasuní’s location nurtures this abundance. The park sits at the intersection of the Andes, the Equator, and the Amazon region, an ecological bull’s-eye where extremely rich communities of plants, amphibians, birds, and mammals in South America converge.
Downpours are a near daily occurrence throughout the year, and there are few discernible changes of season. Sunlight, warmth, and moisture are constants.
This part of the Amazon is also home to two indigenous nations, the Kichwa and the Waorani, who live in settlements scattered along the roads and rivers. The first peaceable contact between the Waorani and Protestant missionaries took place in the late 1950s. Today most Waorani communities participate in trade and even tourism with the outside world, as do their former tribal enemies, the Kichwa. But two groups of Waorani have turned their backs on such contact, preferring to wander the upland forest in a so-called Zona Intangible—Untouchable Zone—set up to protect them. Unfortunately, this zone, which overlaps the southern sector of Yasuní, does not include the entirety of their traditional range, and the nomadic warriors have attacked settlers and loggers both inside and outside the zone, some as recently as 2009.
Far beneath the ground, Yasuní harbors yet another treasure that poses an urgent challenge to the precious web of life on the surface: hundreds of millions of barrels of untapped Amazon crude. Over the years, oil concessions have been drawn over the same territory as the park, as economic interests have trumped conservation in the struggle over Yasuní’s fate. At least five active concessions blanket the park’s northern section, and for a poor country like Ecuador the pressure to drill has been almost irresistible. Half of the nation’s export earnings already come from oil, nearly all of it from its eastern provinces in the Amazon.
In a proposal first put forward in 2007, President Rafael Correa has offered to leave indefinitely untouched an estimated 850 million barrels of oil inside Yasuní’s northeastern corner in a tract known as the ITT Block (named for the three oil fields it contains: Ishpingo, Tambococha, and Tiputini). As payment for preserving the wilderness and preventing an estimated 410 million metric tons of fossil fuel-generated carbon emissions from entering the atmosphere, Correa has asked the world to ante up in the fight against global warming. He is seeking $3.6 billion in compensation, roughly half of what Ecuador would have realized in revenues from exploiting the resource at 2007 prices. The money would be used, he says, to finance alternative energy and community development projects.
Hailed by supporters as a milestone in the climate change debate when it was first proposed, the so-called Yasuní-ITT Initiative has been hugely popular in Ecuador. National polls consistently show a growing awareness of Yasuní as an ecological treasure that should be protected. But the international response to the initiative has been tepid. By mid-2012 only about $200 million had been pledged. In response Correa has issued a succession of angry ultimatums, leading detractors to liken his proposal to blackmail. With the initiative stalled and Correa warning that time is running out, activity on the oil frontier continues to advance through eastern Ecuador, even within Yasuní’s limits. Every day, another bit of the wilderness succumbs to the bulldozers and backhoes.
A half hour after setting out from the TBS laboratory, Andrés Link reaches the mouth of a low cave at the bottom of a steep ravine. This is the salt lick he was looking for, but there are no monkeys here this morning. “They are afraid of predators,” he says, looking up through the canopy at the milky white sky. “When it’s overcast like this, they don’t like to come down.” The monkeys may be wary of jaguars or harpy eagles. But Link’s mind is on a more long-term and potentially definitive threat to the animals: the advancing oil frontier.
“You can see there is great interest in finding the oil,” he says. “The fear I have is that you need very little to get something started, and then ...” His voice trails off, as if the thought were too painful to articulate.
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