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Looking for oil in the Ecuadorian jungle
Credit: Photo Stock
Amazon Increasingly Oily
By Milagros Salazar

Oil and natural gas exploration permits are multiplying in the Amazon region, especially in its most remote and biodiverse corners, say researchers.

LIMA, Aug 25 (Tierramérica).- More than 180 oil and natural gas fields extend across the western Amazon, shared by five South American countries and threatening biodiversity and indigenous lands, states a study by U.S.-based organizations.

Peru is the most worrisome case: 72 percent of its jungle territory overlaps with plans for exploiting fossil fuels, says the report "Oil and Gas Projects in the Western Amazon: Threats to Wilderness, Biodiversity and Indigenous Peoples", published Aug. 13 by the open-access online scientific journal PloS ONE.

Blocks for oil and gas extraction cover an area of more than 688,000 square kilometers in the Amazon regions of Bolivia, Colombia, Ecuador, Peru and Brazil, and there are at least 35 multinational companies operating them, according to the researchers, who come from Duke University in North Carolina and the non-governmental organizations Save America's Forests and Land Is Life.

The concessions overlap "the most species-rich part of the Amazon for amphibians, birds and mammals", states the text.

"The western Amazon is the world's most biodiverse zone, especially in amphibians," one of the co-authors, Clinton Jenkins, an ecologist at Duke University, told Tierramérica.

In a single hectare one can find more than 600 species of trees, while in the entire United States there are perhaps 800 tree species, he noted. Any biologist who visits those areas will find species never before described by science but which are well known to the local indigenous inhabitants.

It is very difficult to travel there, and dozens of uncontacted indigenous groups are found there, people who are completely isolated from modern civilization, Jenkins added.

Peru "is the most alarming case," says the study's lead author, Matt Finer, chief ecologist at Save America's Forests. One of the biggest challenges is to keep track of the oil and gas projects that have multiplied in this country since the research began, in 2005.

In the first months of 2005, at least 15 percent of the Peruvian Amazon was affected by oil exploitation, over the course of that year it increased to 25 percent, and in 2006 rose to 50 percent.

So far in 2008, oil and gas activities have reached the point where they affect 72 percent of the Peruvian jungle, with 64 oil fields on 49 million hectares. Fifty-six of the fields were set up in the past five years, 20 are located inside protected areas, and 17 in proposed or existing territorial preserves for protecting indigenous peoples who seek to maintain their isolation.

But Peru's deputy ministry of Energy, Pedro Gamio, says that less than five percent of the land granted in concession to the companies is being exploited, and the government usually designates large blocks because the companies are making high-risk investments with a probability of success that is just 10 to 15 percent.

"Peru is the least explored in the region, because of the political pendulum that has hurt us. Unlike Colombia or Brazil, our country has missed out on the opportunity to attract investment," Gamio told Tierramérica.

According to the Ministry of Energy and Mining, concessions were granted for 84 fossil fuel projects by the end of 2007, 19 of which are in the process of drilling and 65 are engaged in exploration.

Finer pointed out that simultaneously with the concessions, conflicts between the oil companies and the indigenous communities grew. Peru is currently seeing intense protests in the Amazon against two decrees that promote private investment in native territories.

Although there are few that are currently being exploited, said Finer, exploration itself has impacts on the jungle, such as deforestation to build heliports and camps or to create access routes.

In fact, the main concern is the construction of roads, according to Jenkins. Once there are roads, settlers begin to arrive, the same pattern that has been seen in the jungles of Brazil, said the ecologist, who teaches part of the year at the Nazaré Paulista Institute of Ecological Research, in the Brazilian state of São Paulo.

The Ministry of Energy and Mining in Peru says there are regulations in place that require the oil companies to first utilize river and air travel, and the already existing roads.

Even for exploration, the plans should involve prior consultation and approval of the affected indigenous communities, according to Convention 169 of the International Labor Organization, an international agreement that Peru ratified.

"According to Convention 169, the indigenous peoples pre-date the conformation of the government and as such they should be consulted… but here the opposite occurs, undermining our consecrated rights," Alberto Pizango, president of the Peruvian Jungle Inter-Ethnic Association for Development, told Tierramérica.

In the opinion of deputy minister Gamio, "if we don't make an effort to find out the extent of Peru's fossil fuel potential, future generations will judge us, asking us why we didn't take advantage of this opportunity when petroleum was protagonist in the global economy."

The world's growing energy demand is a big incentive for companies based in the United States, Canada, Europe and China to search for fuel, says the report.

The environmental impact studies are not sufficiently independent for them to be convincing for local communities, because they are contracted and paid by the oil companies and usually do not take into account the interrelation of impacts. "There is no large-scale analysis of two, five, 10 or 20 lots at the same time," said Finer.

Protected areas in Ecuador and Bolivia are not free of oil exploration or drilling either, as evidenced by Ecuador's Yasuní National Park and Bolivia's Madidi National Park, say the researchers.

The Ecuadorian government divided nearly 65 percent of its Amazon region into petroleum blocks. The area is home to 10 indigenous groups. But in 2007, the authorities set apart a "Zona Intangible" of 7,580 square kilometers in the Yasuní Park in order to keep its oil resources in the ground in exchange for compensation from the international community.

In Brazil, the government issued 25 blocks in 2005 that surround the natural gas fields of Urucú and Jurua in the northwestern state of Amazonas. The National Petroleum Agency has announced its intention to explore Acre state, also in the Amazon region.

In Colombia, 35 exploration and drilling fields are located inside or near the department of Putumayo, on the border with Ecuador. The authorities opened a new round of bidding in the same area. Despite that fact, more than 90 percent of the Colombian Amazon is free of oil activities, according to the study.

"I drive a car, so I can't say they should ban petroleum and gas," admits Jenkins. But the use of natural resources in this region of the Amazon must be community based and environmentally sustainable, he says.

* Stephen Leahy (Toronto) contributed to this report.

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