Ecuador signs permits for oil drilling in Amazon's Yasuni national park

Companies could start extracting oil underneath key biodiversity reserve on Earth by 2016

Drilling for oil in a part of the Amazon rainforest considered one of the most biodiverse hotspots on the planet is to go ahead less than a year after Ecuador's president lifted a moratorium on oil drilling there.

Last August, Rafeal Correa scrapped a pioneering scheme, the Yasuni Ishpingo-Tambococha-Tiputini (ITT) initiative, to keep oil in the ground under a corner of the Yasuni national park in return for donations from the international community.

He said only $13m (£8m) of the $3.6bn goal had been given, and that "the world has failed us", giving the green light to drilling.

On Thursday, environment minister, Lorena Tapia, said permits for drilling had been signed for the 6,500-square-mile reserve, known as block 43, and oil production might begin as soon as 2016.

The permits allow Petroamazonas, a subsidary of the state oil company, to begin construction of access roads and camps to prepare for drilling.

Esperanza Martinez, an environmental activist in Ecuador, was quoted in a leading national daily as saying Petroamazonas had a bad record on oil spills and it could not be trusted to drill safely in the Yasuni-ITT.

Earlier this month, Ecuador's government rejected a petition calling for abandoning plans for drilling in the area, saying the organisers had failed to get enough signatures to trigger a national referendum.

The petition's backers, YASunidos, accused the government of fraud after only 359,762 signatures of around 850,000 submitted were deemed genuine – the threshold for forcing a referendum is 583,323.

The ITT block of the Yasuni park, where the drilling will go ahead, is home to two uncontacted tribes. It is a Unesco site, and one hectare of the area is home to a richer mix of trees, birds, amphibians, and reptiles than the US and Canada put together.

Oil drilling has been taking place in the wider Yasuni national park for decades, dating back to Shell in the 1940s. In 2012, access roads had already been built in blocks neighbouring Ishpingo-Tambococha-Tiputini.

In February, the Guardian revealed that documents showed the Ecuadorean government had been negotiating a $1bn deal with a Chinese bank to drill for oil in the area, at the same time as seeking donations for the Yasuni-ITT initiative. The Ecuadorean ambassador to the UK, Juan Falconi Puig, rejected the claim as "baseless" and claimed the document was "fraudulent."


Adam Vaughan

The GuardianTramp

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