Under the Amazon rainforest of Ecuador there is oil. It was in the 1970s when its existence was discovered and extraction began. At present, 30% of the Amazon is included in oil blocks that have been concessioned to oil companies, with Ecuador being the country with the most area exploited for the extraction of crude oil of all the Amazonian countries, despite being one of the smallest of the area.
However, 30% seem to have fallen short. In September 2015, the president of Ecuador, Rafael Correa, admitted for the first time that the country's growth was beginning to stagnate and could even decline in the following months. The fall in the price of oil was to blame. The country, whose economy depends on oil production, cut its budget by 2 billion dollars because of the drop in crude oil and a solution had to be found.
The Ecuadorian Government has already made an economic move. Now it has plans to extend the coverage of the oil fields in another 30% of the Amazon, so if the auction that has been opened manages to allocate the new blocks on offer, adding the different percentages almost 70% in the Ecuadorian area it will be concessioned to the oil industry in the coming years.
An international study in which the Spanish researchers from the Real Jardín Botánico-CSIC participate Jesús Muñoz and Javier Fajardo, which has just been published in the scientific journal Ecology and Evolution, warns of the danger that this expansion in the extraction of oil and proposes some conservation alternatives to avoid future irreparable ecological disasters.
More than 740 endangered species with the new exploitation scheme
“At least 25 ecosystems and 745 unique and irreplaceable species are in danger with the new oil exploitation scheme that is proposed in the southern Amazon, a region especially vulnerable to the loss of biodiversity, and whose protection coverage is insufficient to face new oil extractions ”, says Jesús Muñoz, one of the signatories of the article and current director of the Real Jardín Botánico de Madrid. "Therefore, its preservation becomes essential to improve the protection of Amazonian biodiversity in Ecuador," he adds.
The government of President Correa, aware of the ecological importance of some of the most biodiverse areas of Ecuador, which coincide with oil blocks, launched the Yasuní-ITT Initiative in 2007. Its objective was to promote a development model different from the one that only considers the unsustainable exploitation of resources. Specifically, the initiative proposed to stop exploiting certain oil blocks, receiving economic compensation from the international community linked to the carbon market. Unfortunately, the project did not have the necessary international impact and Ecuador ended it in 2013.
The history of oil exploitation in the Amazon is stained by numerous environmental and social disasters in areas where numerous indigenous peoples live, some of whom, called "peoples in voluntary isolation," have never contacted Western society. For example, in July 2014 an oil spill occurred in the Ecuadorian Amazon that affected Lago Agriío. About 1,700 barrels were collected.
Improve current technology to reduce environmental impact
In this context, and with this background, the work explores conservation alternatives for the Ecuadorian Amazon. "In our conclusions we emphasize that the expansion of the oil map seriously compromises an important part of the Amazonian biodiversity", says Javier Fajardo.
As suggestions for their safeguarding, the scientists propose increasing the level of protection of certain key areas due to their biological composition, and offering a categorization of oil blocks based on their importance for conservation. "In the study we highlighted the need to use state-of-the-art technology in oil extraction to reduce environmental impacts," explains Fajardo.
The work, which together with the Spanish researchers are also signed by Janeth Lessmann, from the Ecology department of the Faculty of Biological Sciences of the Catholic University of Chile, and Elisa Bonaccorso, from the Indoamerican Technological University of Ecuador, presents an updated vision of the oil map of the Amazon and a future perspective based on the increase in oil extraction that will not only affect Ecuador, the country in which this study focuses, but also other countries such as Colombia, Peru or Bolivia.
According to scientists, the Government of Ecuador must find solutions to meet the economic needs of the country, but not for this to allow uncontrolled extraction in protected areas and affect indigenous communities. The team recalls that, while the price of oil decreases significantly, the environmental impact in sensitive areas increases alarmingly at the same rate.
Bibliographic reference: Janeth Lessmann, Javier Fajardo, Jesús Muñoz and Elisa Bonaccorso. 2016. "Large expansion of oil industry in the Ecuadorian Amazon: biodiversity vulnerability and conservation alternatives" Ecology and Evolution. doi: 10.1002 / ece3.2099