If Ecuador must drill for Yasuní oil, let's encourage the least damaging methods | Kelly Swing

President Correa has promised that the most environmentally sound strategies will be employed - but will he follow through?

Ecuador's president, Rafael Correa, announced earlier this month that he has no choice but to go ahead with drilling operations in one of the planet's most biodiverse region, the Yasuní national park.

Back in 2007, he proposed the Yasuní-ITT initiative, an innovative way to protect this biologically important piece of Amazon rainforest. The plan sought funds to cover a portion of the loss of income associated with not extracting a full 20% of the country's oil reserves, with the understanding that Ecuador, a developing nation with a poor economy, simply cannot afford to leave any of its resources untapped.

To give the plan a fighting chance, Ecuador committed to forego half of the estimated value of the oil in its easternmost concession block if it received a total of US$3.2bn over a period of 13 years. Concerned countries, corporations and citizens were invited to contribute, but six years of campaigning were ineffective in accumulating sufficient funds to offset financial losses, leading to Correa's decision.

The people of Ecuador may or may not get a chance to vote on this issue. Correa is now saying that as much as $18.2bn could come from this concession area and that less than 0.1% of the area's forest would have to be sacrificed. Understanding that poverty applies one of the greatest pressures on the environment, Correa is suggesting to Ecuadorians that this is the only rational decision at this juncture.

Ecuador has depended heavily on oil income since the 1970s. In that time, the small South American nation has extracted a little more than half the oil within its boundaries, leaving perhaps as much as 5 billion barrels still available for exploitation. Most of this oil has come from Amazonian lowlands that coincide with rainforest ecosystems. The first region to be involved, north of the Napo River, has suffered devastating environmental damage, ranging from horizon-to-horizon deforestation to the poisoning of surface and groundwater supplies. The big question is whether these new extractions can be carried out in a responsible way that will leave neighboring forests intact in their majority.

Over half of the Yasuní reserve already has active oil wells scattered across it, resulting in a variety of impacts. In the west, expansive natural areas have been lost – to oil fields with wells, pumping and refinery facilities, settling ponds, housing for workers adjacent to large gravel parking lots all surrounded by chain-link fences, located on access roads that have served as magnets to homesteaders who, in turn, have harvested timber and fauna, clear-cut wide swaths to establish crops such as manioc, coffee, cacao, corn and sugarcane, thereby converting biodiverse habitat into open areas that cannot support more than a tiny proportion of the species that once lived there. In the northern part of the reserve, impacts are lesser but still significant. Now Correa has made the claim that the most modern, environmentally sound strategies and techniques will be employed to minimise direct impacts and to avoid indirect impacts altogether.

Both inside the country of Ecuador and on the international scale there is doubt as to whether this can be accomplished on the ground. In theory, recent improvements in oil industry practices can avoid repeating those old-style nightmarish scenarios but even the largest, most modern companies still have accidents. Just think back to the 2010 BP disaster in the Gulf of Mexico. Also consider the vulnerability of the most biodiverse parts of the globe where any impact affects 100,000 species per hectare.

If Ecuador feels that it has no choice but to exploit the oil deposits in every part of Yasuní, we must encourage the use of equipment and methods that protect surrounding nature to the maximum degree possible. At the very least, this implies no new roads.

Contracts for extraction in particularly sensitive areas should be designed differently from all standard contracts so as to avoid becoming obsolete as soon as they're signed. Advances are always being made but new ones cannot be predicted and included in typical contracts. In these cases, we should make stipulations that new techniques must be incorporated as they become available. Otherwise, operations are likely to be utilising best practice methods that are five or 10 years out of date at any point in time.

The conservation community had hoped that the Yasuní-ITT initiative would serve as a line in the sand, sparking a badly needed push to set aside greater expanses of unique habitat across a corridor from Colombia to Bolivia in western Amazonia that could potentially save 15% of all species on Earth. Given the world spends $3bn on tobacco every two days, a few billion dollars to save a million species could have been the most fantastic bargain ever in the history of conservation.

• Dr Kelly Swing is a professor of environmental science at the Universidad San Francisco de Quito and founding director of the Tiputini Biodiversity Station, a scientific field research center in the Ecuadorian Amazon

Kelly Swing

The GuardianTramp

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