Conservation Crossroads in Ecuador: Tiputini Biodiversity Station and the Yasuní oil fields

Written by Justine Atkins

On an early morning boat, mist still rises off the water and the Amazonian air is thick with the characteristic dampness of tropical rainforests. We’re heading out in search of a nearby clay-lick where many parrot species congregate. In the partial slumber of any graduate student awake before 6 am, we sleepily scan the riverbank and tree line for any signs of life. It’s from this reluctantly awake state that our guide Froylan suddenly jolts us to the present and directs our gaze to a small clearing alongside the river. There, out in the open, a female jaguar sits in the grass near the river’s edge. By what seems like sheer luck, we have seen one of the most elusive Amazonian species, something our second guide José says he himself has only achieved five times in seven years.

This majestic female jaguar watches us closely from the safety of the grassy river bank, perhaps waiting for our boats to move on so she could continue on her route across the Tiputini river. Photo credit: Alex Becker

Of course, luck is only part of the story. The river we’re traveling down is the Tiputini River, which forms one edge of Ecuador’s Yasuní National Park — an area of some 3,800 square miles of pristine rainforest, historically left untouched by human development, that is practically overflowing with biodiversity. There are more species of plants, reptiles, insects, mammals and birds here than almost anywhere else in the Amazon and, by extension, the world.

Nestled in the dense array of kapok, ficus, Cecropias and Socratea or “walking palm” trees, is Tiputini Biodiversity Station (TBS). Established in 1993 and chosen specifically for its isolated location, the research station at Tiputini is a collaborative venture between Universidad San Francisco de Quito and Boston University. TBS supports ecological research at all levels, hosting everyone from visiting undergraduate students to PhD candidates to senior academics.

Almost everything about TBS and its surroundings reinforces the feeling that this is truly one of the most pristine and isolated centers of biodiversity in the world. As visitors to TBS for our Tropical Ecology field course, the first-year graduate students in Princeton’s Department of Ecology and Evolutionary Biology travelled by multiple planes, boats, buses and trucks over five hours from the nearest city (Coca) just to reach the field station itself. Photo credit: Alex Becker

Yet, as unfortunately seems inevitable whenever anyone talks about these last remaining ‘untouched’ areas, the pristine nature of TBS and Yasuní National Park comes with its own caveat. On our journey to the station, we are, probably naïvely, surprised to have to go through a security checkpoint run by the national oil company Petroamazonas. The mere presence of Petroamazonas indicates that the as yet undisturbed area surrounding TBS is up against a rapidly ticking clock. And with only a cursory glance over the basic facts of this situation, the sound of that ticking clock becomes deafening.

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There are hundreds of millions, possibly billions, of barrels of Amazon crude oil lying beneath Yasuní National Park. For any nation, but particularly Ecuador — a relatively poor, developing country — the temptation to drill is immense. (Ecuador’s per capita GDP in 2013 was $6003, compared to the US GDP in the same year of $53,042.) For example, the government stood to make over $7 billion net profit (at 2007 prices) from the extraction and sale of 850 million barrels of oil from these reserves.

Yasuní had the potential to be a model for innovative environmental policy. It possesses unparalleled species’ richness, is located in a nation dependent on the extraction of non-renewable resources, and is home to the indigenous Waorani and two uncontacted groups, Tagaeri and Taromenane. In many ways, the variety of stakeholders and conflicts of interests and aims among them represents one of the most daunting conservation and sustainable development challenges the world faces today. How do we balance the needs of biodiversity maintenance, socioeconomic parity and protection of indigenous people when the goals of each seem to fundamentally misalign with one another?

The attempt to resolve this conflict was compellingly detailed in a National Geographic feature in January 2013. In 2007, President Correa proposed the so-called Yasuní-ITT Initiative (named after the three oil fields in the area it encompasses: Ishpingo, Tambococha, and Tiputini). The Yasuní-ITT sought $3.6 billion in compensation (to be contributed by international donors, both countries and corporations) in exchange for a complete ban on oil extraction and biodiversity protection for the ‘ITT block’ in the northeast corner of Yasuní.

With this initiative officially instated in 2010, Ecuador became one of the first nations to attempt sustainable development and action against climate change based on a model of truly worldwide cooperation. For this model to be successful, the government relied on other countries to recognize that an international desire to preserve the ecological value of Yasuní also meant an international responsibility to contribute to the opportunity cost of this preservation. There was a ground swell of support for this proposal within Ecuador and initially this was also met with enthusiasm abroad. However, by mid-2012, the Ecuadorian government had received only $200 million in pledges, contributions stalled and the Yasuní-ITT initiative was officially abandoned in August 2013.

Similar sustainability issues were at the forefront of the recent UN Climate Change Conference 2015 in Paris, also known as COP 21 (21st session of the Conference of Parties). Much of the prolonged negotiation and disagreement among the attending countries was based on the divergence of priorities among developed and developing nations. The former group was, by-and-large, pushing for uncompromising targets on emissions reduction and renewable energy use from the current highest emissions contributors, chief among which are developing nations like China and Brazil.

But developing nations felt strongly that they should not be excluded from the full benefits of industrialization, which developed nations have profited from in the past. One potential solution to this conflict, and one which led to part of the Paris Agreement, is for developed nations to support developing nations in the transition from fossil fuels to renewable, lower emission energy sources through financial compensation. Sound familiar? This was exactly the logic behind the Yasuní-ITT, so the failure of this initiative represents more than just a threat to Yasuní — it symbolically threatens action against climate change worldwide.

A closer look at the failure of the Yasuní-ITT reveals that there were in fact more complex considerations at play than simply a lack of pledged contributions. In an essay evaluating the decision to abandon the initiative, Ariana Keyman, an associate at the Busara Center for Behavioral Economics in Nairobi, assessed the particular political, economic and social factors that contributed to the Yasuní-ITT’s demise. Due to his dogged pursuit of a ‘New Latin American Left’, Ecuador’s President Correa was determined to increase spending on pro-poor socioeconomic development while also preserving the status of Ecuador’s environment and biodiversity. Unfortunately, as is often the case, something had to give and it was ultimately the environment that was compromised. This was only exacerbated by the historic dependency of this country on the oil industry and the ‘closed-door’ manner in which the Yasuní-ITT was both adopted and abandoned by the government. In this light, perhaps the case for international collaboration and economic cooperation on tackling the challenges of biodiversity conservation and climate change is not so hopeless, but it is still likely to be a bumpy road ahead.

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Tiputini Biodiversity Station itself still seemed largely untouched during our trip in January 2016. Part of this was surely due to our unfamiliarity with the oil extraction process, but it’s clear that the continued tireless efforts of environmental groups are at least holding off the worst of the potential destruction for now. The founding director of TBS, Kelly Swing, wrote in a guest blog post in National Geographic in 2012 that the incursion of oil companies in this area has also in some ways helped scientists learn more about the incredible ecological communities in this region, thanks to increased funding and accessibility.

More than the literal isolation, the overwhelming presence of a brilliant array of mammals, birds, reptiles, amphibians and insects that seem to be almost dripping from the trees was a constant reminder of how far from urbanization we were and the sheer uniqueness of the location of TBS. Every morning, we awoke to the reverberating booms of howler monkeys and the screeching calls of caracara and macaws high above us. Walking to and from the dining area, we routinely spotted roosting bats, several species of anole lizards and learned to recognize the squeaking communications and rustling branches around us the local woolly monkey troop on their morning or evening commute. All of these wonderfully unique species (clockwise from top left: white-necked jacobin, motmot, woolly monkey, and tree frog) are threatened in some capacity by the oil industry. Photos credit: Alex Becker.

It appears, however, that the benefits are unlikely to outweigh the costs, particularly when the long-term consequences of the oil industry in Yasuní will be unknown for years to come. Swing was quick to point out that alread there are documented negative impacts — insects are being drawn to huge gas flares and eviscerated in large numbers, eliminating important food resources for frogs, birds and bats, and industrial noise pollution disrupting the communication channels of calling birds and primates, potentially limiting their ability to find mates, locate food, and avoid predators.

In establishing the research station along the Tiputini River, Swing said that their goal was “to be able to study and teach about nature itself, not human impacts on nature.” From our experience there, this goal was definitely realized in the most fantastic way possible, but how many other visitors who come after us that will be able to say the same thing we cannot say with any certainty. As global citizens, this is a concern that we should all be dedicated to addressing.

Justine is a first-year PhD student in the Ecology and Evolutionary Biology department at Princeton University. She is interested in the interaction between animal movement behavior and environmental heterogeneity, particularly in relation to individual and collective decision-making processes, as well as conservation applications.

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