Amazon Increasingly Oily

By Milagros Salazar*
LIMA, Aug 28 (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, warns a study by U.S.-based organisations.

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 kilometres in the Amazon regions of Bolivia, Colombia, Ecuador, Peru and Brazil, and there are at least 35 transnational corporations operating them, according to the researchers, who come from Duke University in North Carolina and the non-governmental organisations 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.

One can find more than 600 species of trees in a single hectare, 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 live in the area, people who are almost completely isolated from modern civilisation, 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 mushroomed in this country since the research began, in 2005.

In early 2005, at least 15 percent of Peru’s Amazon jungle region was affected by oil exploration and drilling, a proportion that rose to 25 percent over the course of that year and to 50 percent in 2006.

So far in 2008, oil industry activity has reached the point that it affects 72 percent of Peru’s rainforest, 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 mere 10 to 15 percent probability of success.

“Peru is the least explored part of 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 in the phase of exploration.

Finer pointed out that conflicts between the oil companies and indigenous communities have grown as the number of concessions has expanded. Peru has recently seen intense protests in Amazon jungle provinces against two decrees that promote private investment in native territories. The decrees were eventually struck down by Congress.

Although there are few areas where drilling has actually begun, exploration itself has impacts on the jungle, such as deforestation to build heliports and camps or to create access routes, said Finer.

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 environmentalist, 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 utilise river and air travel, as well as already existing roads.

Even for exploration, the plans should involve prior consultation with and approval by the affected indigenous communities, according to International Labour Organisation Convention 169, which Peru has 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 Interethnic Association for the Development of the Peruvian Rainforest (AIDESEP), 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 why we didn’t take advantage of this opportunity when petroleum was the star 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 for 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 special 7,580 square km area 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 north-western 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 Colombia’s Amazon jungle region is free of oil industry activity, according to the study.

“I drive a car, so I can’t say they should ban petroleum and gas,” admitted Jenkins. But, he added, the use of natural resources in the Amazon rainforest must be community-based and environmentally sustainable.

(*Stephen Leahy contributed reporting from Toronto. This story was originally published by Latin American newspapers that are part of the Tierramérica network. Tierramérica is a specialised news service produced by IPS with the backing of the United Nations Development Programme, United Nations Environment Programme and the World Bank.) (END/2008)

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Justice in the World – 1971 Synod of Bishops

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