Tuesday, May 11, 2010

To Save a Rainforest

abandoned amazon tribe photo

A remote indiginious indian camp found abandoned after developers entered their region in Peru. Photo via Agencia Andina

There are some things in this world that are worth saving and need to be saved. Rainforests fall into that category. There was a time when rainforests covered at least 14% of the earth's land surface. Today they cover a mere 6%. It is estimated that it may take less than 40 years before the last remaining rainforests are decimated.

There are many repercussions from destruction of the rainforest.. Besides the deforestation of the land, other plants, animals and insects are being lost. Also the disappearance of indigenous tribes is continuing along with their knowledge of the medicinal value of rainforest species.

The rainforests are being destroyed not only for the value of the land and the timber but also for the exploration of oil.

In Ecuador, the government has a plan to keep the oil underground: that's to say, to forgo drilling millions of barrels of oil in the Yasuni National Park in the Ecuadorian Amazon in return for billions of dollars compensation. But in Peru, there is no such plan.
The Yasuni-ITT initiative, as it is known, has even caught the imagination of the likes of Leonardo DiCaprio and Edward Norton, both of whom met Ecuador's vice president last month.

Since it was first proposed in 2007, Yasuni-ITT has generated huge controversy. Some see it as a key way to combat climate change, and Ecuador itself has dubbed it a chance to "make history." Others suspect it is simply a clever ruse to make some easy money and that Ecuador, in the future, will drill for the oil anyway. Any day now, the initiative is expected to be finalized, pending a deal between Ecuador and the UN.

But what's happening just across the border in Peru?

No such history in the making. ConocoPhillips is gearing up to explore for oil by cutting 454 kms of seismic lines through the rainforest -- i.e. dynamiting it -- while another company, Perenco, has recently revealed plans to build a pipeline through the region to help move Conoco's oil, if found, and 300 million barrels of heavy crude found several years ago to Peru's Pacific Coast.

When I say just across the border, I mean it. In fact, there is a group of nomadic uncontacted Indians that appears to move backward and forward between Ecuador and Peru -- between the zone one country has said it is prepared to leave alone, and one the other has declared a "national necessity" to devastate and drill. The Indians are known as the Taromenane, related to the celebrated Waorani.

As a team of scientists has recently argued, Yasuni and this part of Peru are, environmentally speaking, much the same. It is an area uniquely rich in amphibians, birds, mammals and plants, so much so that one of the scientists, Dr Matt Finer, described it as "the most biodiverse area in South America." Ecuador's government, to some degree, appears to have recognized that. Not so Peru's.

When the decision was made in 2006 to exploit the 300 million barrels, Peru's president, Alan Garcia, marked the occasion by personally visiting the site in the remote Amazon, with the press and his energy minister, Juan Valdivia Romero, in tow. "We'll be a net exporter of oil," declared Valdivia. The message was clear: these are oil deposits that Peru's top brass are determined to exploit.

That determination is best illustrated by Peru's attitude to the uncontacted tribes in the region. Garcia has publicly claimed such tribes have been "invented," and a report by the government's indigenous affairs department, INDEPA, concludes there aren't any in this area. So too the companies. Both Perenco and Repsol-YPF, ConocoPhillips' partner in the region, say there is no proof of the tribes' existence.

What could happen if the government and companies get their way? Disaster. The pipeline is projected to be 207 kilometers long and to affect the rainforest for 500 meters on either side, but the biggest threat of all is the risk of contact between company workers and the uncontacted tribes. The latter have no immunity to outsiders' diseases, meaning that any form of contact can decimate them.

What many people -- Leonardo DiCaprio and Edward Norton included -- are so desperate to avoid in Yasuni is already happening a few kilometers away in Peru: to the same unique rainforest, and to some of the same people. By working there, ConocoPhillips, the other companies and Peru's government are violating international law and endangering the existence of some of the world's most vulnerable people.
The consequences of oil exploration in the Peruvian Amazon could be devastating to the forest's fragile ecosystems, as well as the nation's indigenous populations, some that are uncontacted tribesmen that call the region home.

Here is a cause to fight for which will have lasting effects around the world as well as at home.

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