A Trip to Ecuador's Oriente and Block 16

by Paul Donahue
May 1998

About a year ago, as the leader of a small birding group, I had the opportunity to visit the new Tiputini Biodiversity Station in eastern Ecuador. This combination biological field station and tourist lodge is run jointly by the Universidad San Francisco de Quito in Ecuador and Boston University in Boston, Massachusetts. The facility is located in Ecuador's Napo Province, south of the Rio Napo, along its much smaller tributary the Rio Tiputini, on the northern boundary of the biologically rich Yasuní National Park.

Much more important, however, is the fact that the Tiputini Biodiversity Station sits smack in the middle of eastern Ecuador's oil deposits. To get into the remote field station one must travel through oil concession Blocks 15 and 16, areas well-known to environmental activists fighting rainforest oil development in the Amazon Basin. An oil concession block is 200,000 hectares or 2000 square kilometers in size. Block 15 is operated by Occidental Petroleum of Los Angeles and Block 16 by Yacimentos Petroliferos Federodes (YPF), an Argentinean oil company and the largest in South America. In October 1991, after the Conoco Corporation backed out under pressure from environmentalists, their partner Maxus Energy Corporation of Texas took over the contract with the Ecuadorean government to develop the oil fields in Block 16. Awhile back Maxus then sold all its shares in Block 16 to YPF.

We set off from the Oriente (Ecuador's eastern region) town of Coca in mid-afternoon, heading downstream along the Rio Napo. About an hour and a half later we landed on the south bank of the Napo, across from the settlement of Pompeya, at the beginning of what is known as the Maxus Road. Constructed several years ago by Maxus Energy Corporation, the Maxus Road is a very wide, carefully maintained gravel road that runs southeast for 40 kilometers, through Block 15 and into Block 16. Another branch of it extends 120 kilometers to the west.

As did Maxus before it, YPF now tightly controls access to the Maxus Road and Block 16. Before our bus was allowed to pass the checkpoint, all the members of our group were required to surrender their passports to YPF officials who would retain the documents for the entire length of our stay. The ostensible purpose for this control is to protect the Huaorani Indians, an indigenous group of about 1200 people whose land the road crosses. The true purpose for the control of the Maxus Road, however, is to keep out probing journalists and environmentalists wishing to check on the company's operations.

While YPF's control of the area might seem warranted, considering their enormous investment of capital, one should also be aware that much of Block 16 actually lies within the 612,560 hectare Huaorani Ethnic Reserve, with the remainder falling within Yasuní National Park, one of the country's most important protected natural areas. It is very difficult to justify having the access to such supposedly protected areas controlled by foreign entrepreneurs. If concern for the Huaorani is the reason for the control of visitors, why are the Huaorani not allowed to control the access to their own lands? And try to imagine the outrage Americans would feel if their access to Yellowstone National Park were controlled by British Petroleum or some other foreign oil company.

Anyway, after a long wait and reluctantly handing over our passports to the YPF officials, they allowed most of us to continue on our journey. The name of one of the Ecuadoreans traveling with us had accidentally been omitted from our passenger manifest and, consequently, the YPF officials did not allow him to pass. However, in late afternoon the rest of us boarded our bus and headed down the gravel road.

Settlers in search of land quickly take advantage of new roads anywhere in the Amazon region, often leading to rapid deforestation of the area. This was a prime concern of environmentalists regarding construction of the Maxus Road. The checkpoint at the road's beginning was supposedly going to alleviate this potential problem. Nonetheless, some Quichua Indians have settled along the northern section of the Maxus Road in Block 15 and have cleared farm plots or "chacras" out of the rainforest. Some Quichua hunters are also now hunting within Yasuní National Park.

About 20 Huaorani families have also now settled out along the Maxus Road. The Huaorani typically went off on several weeks long hunting trips through the forest. Those now living near the Maxus road have given up going off on these long hunting trips and now hunt up and down the Maxus Road instead. Traditionally leading a hunter-gatherer lifestyle with a minimum impact on populations of game animals, they have also now taken to selling their wild-killed meat in Coca for cash. Transport along the Maxus Road was part of the agreement reached in return for oil drilling on their land, so YPF has provided two trucks just to transport Quichua and Huaorani up and down the road. The Huaorani hunters take advantage of this transport to get their game to town.

When beginning construction of the controversial road, to limit environmental damage Maxus consulted extensively with biologists on its design. The original plans called for a narrow road with the forest canopy meeting overhead. This would have minimized desiccation along the forest edge and allowed shade-loving organisms to cross back and forth over the road. In twenty years or so when the oil had all been pumped out of the area, the narrow road would be abandoned and would eventually deteriorate and revert to forest again. The sort of road Maxus actually built, however, is very different from those original plans.

First, as the road also services an underground oil pipeline, it is much wider than originally planned. The very broad, sunny swath it creates through the forest effectively isolates many organisms on one side from those on the other. The many shade-loving species of birds, frogs, butterflies and other insects of the forest floor and dark forest undergrowth will not cross it and the monkeys, squirrels and lizards of the forest canopy are not able to cross it.

The effective width of the road is even greater in some ways. The climate in the undergrowth and understory of a tropical forest is normally very stable, insulated by a thick layer of leaves from the extremes of temperature and humidity that occur up in the sunny canopy. With the wide road surface open to the hot tropical sun, relatively hot and dry air is able to penetrate many meters into the forest on both sides, changing the growing conditions for the plants and animals in that zone. Another problem comes from the thick clouds of dust raised by the many oil company trucks rumbling up and down the road. Researchers have found that this dust penetrates about a hundred meters into the forest on both sides of the road, affecting communities of plants and insects.

Once all the oil has been extracted from the area the Maxus Road is not, as originally planned, going to easily revert to rainforest. According to biologists who witnessed the construction, it is the best built road in Ecuador and will never disintegrate. It is constructed of various layers, including crushed rock and some type of heavy duty plastic mesh material. At the very least, the road will have to be dynamited if it is to disappear.

After bouncing along through the forest for a couple of hours, a little after dark we veered right at a fork in the road. An orange glow lit up the sky in front of the bus, and as we crested the next hill a scene right out of a James Bond movie lay before us. Here, in the middle of the rainforest, was the Northern Production Facility, a large oil refinery in about the most unlikely spot imaginable! Hundreds of orange arc lights illuminated the scene, while automatic weapon-carrying guards patrolled the grounds. Because of the heavy nature of the crude oil in the area, this refinery and others like it are needed so that lighter oil can be mixed with the heavy oil before sending it down the oil pipeline and up and over the Andes. This heavy crude oil is not very cost effective to get out of the ground. To provide additional incentive, the Ecuadorean government gave Maxus two oil fields outside Block 16 as part of the original deal.

Anyway, after picking up a field station staff member waiting for us at the Northern Production Facility, we continued on in the dark to the banks of the Rio Tiputini. Here we boarded our boat and headed downstream to the field station, leaving behind the world of oil development. For two or three hours we wound downstream between high banks clad in dark forest, the only light coming from a spotlight wielded by a fellow in the bow. Swerving around fallen trees and other obstacles, and occasionally bumping over a submerged trunk, it wasn't until 10 PM that we finally arrived at the field station.

For the next five days we were immersed in the rich rainforest of Tiputini. Through a network of trails that spread out from the station we were able to explore the tall terra firme forest in search of the 500-600 species of birds that inhabit the area. Still relatively unaffected by the overhunting that characterizes so much of Amazonia, large birds and monkeys were common.

From Tiputini's tall treetop tower an unbroken carpet of rainforest stretched in all directions. There was no hint that a short distance over the horizon YPF and other multinational oil companies were busy at their work of destroying that pristine environment. About three years ago, due to the fault of PetroEcuador, a major oil spill occurred in Yasuní National Park with oil going into the Rio Tiputini farther downstream. Fortunately, up by the station the beautiful, forest-lined river had so far escaped that sort of desecration.

When the time finally came for our departure, nobody in the group was eager to leave. At least, as the boat took us back upstream, we were able to view the beautiful, wild river that we had descended in darkness the night of our arrival. Kingfishers, Anhingas, and herons flushed ahead of our boat while toucans, parrots and macaws passed overhead or perched high in the tall trees along the banks. Then we rounded a bend and with the sight of the Maxus Road bridge, cleared land, and rumbling trucks raising clouds of dust on the road ahead we were thrust back into the world of oil development.

According to Patricio Toco, the director of Yasuní National Park, at the time of our visit Yasuní National Park was working with a 1989 park management plan. The park's boundaries had already changed twice to accommodate oil interests since the 1989 management plan was developed, but still the park had been almost completely carved up into a series of oil concession blocks operated by PetroEcuador, Braspetro, Texaco, Occidental Petroleum Corp., ELF-Aquitene, and Periscompa. The World Bank was at the time funding a study for a new park management plan. This is the same World Bank that has also placed debt-connected demands on Ecuador for continued oil production, so it is a safe bet that the new plan will continue to place a higher value on sustained oil development than on protection of biological diversity.

How long will the rainforest we saw at Tiputini endure? How long before still more oil is discovered in the ground beneath the field station and the "petroleros" move in to claim it? One can only hope that our species has the wisdom to permanently protect the rainforests of the Rio Tiputini, and Yasuní National Park, and the rest of the Oriente of Ecuador before it is too late.