The Disappearing Forest: Case No. 3,058,107

by Hannes Kuhtrgiber

For the first time in Ecuador, activists halt oil exploration in a national protected area. But only temporarily.

The Quichua guides quietly paddle the canoe as tourists aboard try to sight wildlife in the dense canopy above the Pacuyacu River. They've got a good chance: the Amazon's Cuyabeno Wildlife Reserve has over 900 kinds of trees and more than 500 bird species. But this morning the silence ends abruptly: a low-flying helicopter thunders overhead hauling its load of oil pipes.

Last year Petroecuador, the state-owned oil company, flew contracted workers to the three untouched areas of Amuyam, Zabalo, and Parjil, where they began constructing camps, heliports, and drilling platforms. They extracted valuable wood and cleared hectares of pristine forest from the reserve, a nationally protected area. In April, however, a team of local indigenas and environmentalists filmed the destruction and the embarrassing footage was shown on national television. With support from President Duran Ballen, the State's natural resources agency INEFAN quickly halted further oil exploration.

This was the first time in Ecuadorian history that outside forces halted petroleum exploration. The victory was short-lived. Oil industry lobbies kept hard at work; eventually the state succumbed, allowing two drilling sites to be reopened. These are situated in Zabalo, within territory of the Cofan, a group which has already had problems with the petroleum industry. The Cofan retreated to the remote Zabalo area after their territory near Lago Agrio was invaded by oil explorers and then colonists.

The Cofan will not cede more land. When drilling began in Paijil on October 28th, fifty spear- and shotgun-armed Cofan marched to the drilling site. Petroecuador suspended operations. Some speculate. however, that it was other practical considerations, rather than Cofan resistance, that stopped the perforation. Perhaps the company found too little oil, encountered deep-level radioactivity, or was discouraged by the million-dollar lawsuit Ecuadorian Indians have brought against Texaco in the United States.

The beginning of 1994 saw new oil penetration on the edge of the reserve, with road construction underway. Environmentalists are promoting alternative uses of the land such as ecotourism, but prospects don't look good. At this rate, after two more decades of exploitation oil reserves will run dry--and the forest will be gone.

(From Q. (Quito, Ecuador), No. 7, January 25, 1994, p. 15.)