Ecuador: oil company has built 'secret' road deep into Yasuni National Park

The road is up to 60 metres wide. Photo: Finer M, Pappalardo SE, Ferrarese F, De Marchi M (2014) /
The road is up to 60 metres wide. Photo: Finer M, Pappalardo SE, Ferrarese F, De Marchi M (2014) /
Ecuador's state oil company PetroAmazonas has, in secret, built a road deep into the heart of the world-famous Yasuni National Park in Ecuador's Amazon rainforest, writes David Hill - violating promises and threatening uncontacted indigenous tribes.
While no one had been looking, while the world wasn't watching, PetroAmazonas went ahead with a plan rejected by the Ministry of Environment years before.

The existence of the 'secret road' into Yasuni, leading directly to an oil production platform, has been confirmed by high resolution satellite images just released in a new report.

Plans previously approved by Ecuador's Environment Ministry in the project's environmental Impact Assessment (EIA) provided for a "cutting-edge, roadless helicopter-enabled design".

The Ministry has also expressly forbidden road construction. Only narrow "ecological trails" 10 metres wide or less were meant to be built in the Park.

But these conditions have clearly been breached - images show a full scale but undisclosed 26 metre wide road and 'flowline corridor' for a prospective pipeline, the two cutting a swathe through the rainforest up to 60 metres wide at one point.

As recently as September 2013 PetroAmazonas's Oswaldo Madrid told the Ecuadorian government's Permanent Special Commission on Biodiversity and Natural Resources that only "ecological trails" would be built in the concession area of Block 31 and Block 43.

Uncontacted and isolated tribes under threat

The report, written by three researchers from Italy's University of Padova and one from the Amazon Conservation Association (ACA), says the initial, "roadless" design was approved by the government in 2007 when the operating company for Block 31 was Brazilian state oil and gas firm Petrobras.

However, PetroAmazonas took over in 2009 and "violated these approved plans and instead built a network of business-as-usual, high-impact access roads within and around Yasuni National Park."

The report notes that the "centrepiece of hydrocarbon best practice is no new access roads", that roads are "leading drivers" of tropical deforestation.

It adds that in "extremely remote" areas like Yasuni roads "may also threaten the integrity of territories of uncontacted indigenous people living in isolation."

PetroAmazonas set to build roads even deeper into the Park

The report also highlights the fact that PetroAmazonas holds the licence to operate in the adjacent concession, Block 43, where the Ishpingo, Tiputini and Tambococha (ITT) oil fields are located.

Last August the government abandoned its officially-declared support for a plan to forgo exploiting those three fields in return for international financial compensation - the pioneering, internationally renowned 'Yasuni-ITT Initiative'. On 22nd May this year the Environment Ministry approved PetroAmazonas's plans to exploit Tiputini and Tambococha.

"This issue of building new access roads ... is critically important at the moment because PetroAmazonas just received these same approvals to begin work in the adjacent ITT block", the report states.

"Without improved oversight, PetroAmazonas will likely continue building new access roads deeper into the core of the Yasuni National Park in both Blocks 31 and 43 (ITT)."

While no one had been looking, while the world wasn't watching, PetroAmazonas went ahead with a plan rejected by the Ministry of Environment years before.

Future oil highways may penetrate 'into the core of the Park'

ACA's Matt Finer, a co-author of the report, told The Ecologist that the oil company appeared to have been exempted from the conditions set down in the original 2007 plan, and that this has "direct implications" for the ITT block.

"The EIA recently-approved is with the same design: roadless access to Tambococha with a very narrow 10m right-of-way for the flowline. However, it appears that PetroAmazonas is just getting these licenses from the Ministry and then ignoring the hard-fought technical gains and building traditional access roads.

"We're ultimately going to have these highways, not ecological trails, going into the core of the park and to the doorstep of the intangible zone [for indigenous people living in 'voluntary isolation']. No one's talking about this."

The report argues that PetroAmazonas has turned a "flowline corridor" for a prospective pipeline - linking two oil fields to a processing facility just north of the park - into an access road, as shown by "numerous vehicles" moving along it in both directions and "permanent waterway crossing structures such as bridges and culverts" being built.

It also argues that the combined width of the flowline corridor and road is more than 2.5 times greater than that approved by the government, and that it extends into Yasuni for over 20 km.

It was meant to be a 10m-wide 'flowline'

Massimo De Marchi, another co-author from the University of Padova, cited numerous details and figures such as the number of bridges being built and the methodology used during their research.

"It's clear this is not an ecological trail", De Marchi said, before highlighting that companies routinely ignore what is approved in EIAs. "This a global problem, not just Ecuador's."

Finer added that Ecuador's Environment Ministry had previously specifically banned the construction of roads in Block 31:

"Between 2003 and 2005 there was a big debate between scientists and government authorities, above all in the Environment Ministry", he said. "In the first EIA by Petrobras - the owner of 31 in 2003 - they proposed a road in Yasuni and then in 2005 Petrobras began to build it.

"Scientists did a report on this, against the road, and the Ministry looked at it and requested another EIA to do the project without roads. What was then approved was a flowline right-of-way of just 10 metres. From the scientists' point of view, this was solved - no one was going to build a road in Yasuni - but then Petrobras left and PetroAmazonas arrived.

"We have proved with these images that, in reality, while no one had been looking, while the world wasn't watching, PetroAmazonas went ahead with a plan rejected by the Ministry of Environment years before."

This really is a road!

PetroAmazonas's new road in Block 31 is not the first to be built in the Yasuni National Park. US company Maxus built a road in an adjacent concession, Block 16, now run by Repsol, which has had a "significant" impact on Yasuni, according to Finer and other scientists, leading to deforestation, migration and unsustainable hunting practices.

The report states that the Block 31 road into Yasuni was built in 2012, and that in 2013 an even longer road was built outside the park connecting the processing facility to an existing pipeline in another concession, Block 12.

One photo of the Block 31 road into Yasuni was first published in January 2013 by National Geographic, and others have since been published by environmental news website Mongabay.

One of the aims of the ACA and Padova researchers was to prove that it really is a road and not just a flowline or "ecological trail", following the claims and promises of company officials like PetroAmazonas's Oswaldo Madrid.

45% of the park now under oil concessions

A report published last year by the same three Padova researchers - De Marchi, Salvatore Eugenio Pappalardo and Francesco Ferrarese - revealed that more than 45% of the Yasuni National Park is now overlapped by oil concessions.

PetroAmazonas could not be reached for comment.



The report: High Resolution Satellite Imagery Reveals PetroAmazonas Violated Environmental Impact Study by Building Road into Yasuni National Park.

David Hill is a freelance reporter based in South America. Read more of his Andes to the Amazon articles. 

Twitter handle: @DavidHillTweets

Also by David Hill on The Ecologist:


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