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Science in Yasuni Sheds Light on Impacts of Oil Development in Amazon

By Kelly Swing In 1993, Universidad San Francisco de Quito and Boston University administrators asked me to suggest possible sites for a new biological field station somewhere in Ecuador’s eastern rainforests. Instantly, I was fantasizing about all the wondrous things that we could do and see at such facilities, if the location were chosen wisely....

By Kelly Swing

In 1993, Universidad San Francisco de Quito and Boston University administrators asked me to suggest possible sites for a new biological field station somewhere in Ecuador’s eastern rainforests. Instantly, I was fantasizing about all the wondrous things that we could do and see at such facilities, if the location were chosen wisely.

Immediately, a rush of all the unique scientific and educational opportunities inundated my brain. Wow! Just imagine what would come along with a never-before-explored site in a truly intact piece of western Amazonian wilderness. Being a bit of a worrier, a moment later, the initial fantasy was elbowed aside by preoccupations. That “IF” quickly grew exponentially into a list of many practical and logistical considerations. And when I say “considerations,” I mean “complications”; when I say “many,” I mean “big.”

Certainly in the beginning, if you truly expect to attract visitors of any kind, the place must provide great opportunities to view animals. And nobody cares about insects and spiders – they want the big stuff. If you don’t have something to offer in this realm, most people simply won’t bother to come. If you don’t have visitors, the money dries up and the whole thing falls apart. And if it’s to be successful over any time at all, it has to be reasonably accessible. Yeah, I know, that part is more than a bit of fantasy.

Nature lovers everywhere will tell you that these two characteristics are in their very essence, mutually exclusive. Wild fauna and accessibility? No way, can’t be done. If people, any people, have access, they have impacts; the greater the access, the greater the impacts. But what’s more exciting than a good challenge, right?

Tiputini in Ecuador
All photos by Kelly Swing unless noted

Aerial view of northern Yasuní along the Tiputini River just west of the Tiputini Biodiversity Station in the lowlands of eastern Ecuador.

How to find a balance? In my opinion, for this endeavor to be worthwhile, we simply had to be far from population centers, developmental and agricultural frontiers, hunting activities and timber harvest. But we certainly didn’t want to encroach upon any lands that rightfully belong to indigenous peoples. Above all, we wanted to be good neighbors to everyone in the region – without actually having neighbors.

To put it simply, we wanted to be able to study and teach about nature itself, not human impacts on nature. Some pragmatic scientists are quick to point out that this is the real fantasy; science should in fact be studying impacts to provide solutions to real problems as opposed to dwelling on a situation that barely exists any longer and has even less likelihood to exist in the future. Well, I’m not quite ready to throw in the towel yet. And besides, I think we should have a legitimate zero point with which to compare our impacts as well.

arrival at TBS Tiputini Biological Station

Entrance point to the Tiputini Biodiversity Station, run by the Universidad San Francisco de Quito.

Another huge concern: oil deposits are scattered all over eastern Ecuador – and since the 1970s, the country’s economy has depended heavily upon the extraction of Amazon crude. Historical fact #1: If there’s oil around, someone, sooner or later, will come for it. Historical fact #2: No matter where in the world, places that underwent oil extraction before widespread environmental awareness and the implementation of modern technologies have suffered indelible consequences. Hence, we also wanted to stay as far away from oil as possible.

oil men on rig Ecuador

Oil operation in Amazonian Ecuador.

OK, we had to sacrifice on the accessibility side a hair. I ended up choosing a site that’s a challenge but you can get there from the capital city of Quito in 8 hours – on the north bank of the Tiputini River, along the north central border of the Yasuní National Park. A couple of years earlier, in 1991, a canoeing/camping trip along this same river made it stand out forever in my mind as a paradise for viewing fauna.

On one of the first days, I’ll never forget taking the dugout a short distance up a right-bank tributary, the Tivacuno, where we were soon delighted by the appearance of a giant otter family. While completely enthralled by these chatterboxes 10 feet ahead of the canoe, from the back of the boat, our cook said, “Wouldn’t you rather see something big?” pointing over her shoulder at a 500-pound tapir curiously swimming toward us!

tapir swimming Ecuador

Amazon tapir swimming near our boat.

Travelers who go to Africa on safari typically judge the quality of their visit on the “Big Five.” Such a short list doesn’t really exist for visitors to Amazonia; anyone who comes here has to recognize that getting a glimpse of the various classic symbols of the Neotropics requires everything from having a guide with magical powers to putting in some time previous to the trip working on your karma. Rainforest provides serious cover; savannah not so much. I tend to think that’s precisely why it’s so gratifying even when experiences are fleeting.

Seeing any or several of these following species in the wild should be considered a stunning success: jaguar, tapir, giant otter, giant anteater, ocelot, capybara, spider monkey, woolly monkey, anaconda, harpy eagle, curassow, pink river dolphin, scarlet macaw, sloth, giant armadillo, roseate spoonbill, boa constrictor, fer-de-lance, vampire bat, white-lipped peccary, toucans, bushmaster, and the Amazon’s equivalents of the unicorn, the bush dog, short-eared dog, black jaguar, and silky anteater.

I’ll go on into the realm of the aquatic with the black caiman, electric eel, and ocellated stingray, piranhas, peacock bass, tiger-striped flathead catfish, the arapaima, and finally a real oddity showing up from inside the forest about nightfall, skimming the water’s surface to gaff small fish, bulldog bats. Among the invertebrate world, trophy sightings include electric blue Morpho butterflies, bird-eating tarantulas, giant earthworms, peanut-headed bugs (or any of their bizarre wax-bug relatives), giant leaf mantis, army ants, leaf-cutter ants, bullet ants, camou katydids, bearded weevil, elephant beetle, rhinoceros beetle, Hercules beetle, giant stick insects, harlequin beetle, and the white witch (a huge moth). All these, beginning to end, are present in the Yasuní, part of a contingent estimated at as much as one million total species (mostly insects) – or about 1/10th of all life on the entire planet Earth!

Acrocinus longimanus face-600

Face of the harlequin beetle, Acrocinus longimanus, one of the invertebrate prize sightings.

Being situated very near the Equator and blessed with abundant rainfall (annually receiving right around 10 feet of precipitation) in ecologically-stable western Amazonia, near the Andean foothills has provided the conditions that produced all this biodiversity. The question now is how this particular patch has managed to survive into this century. An area once equally as diverse, just to the north, has been converted horizon-to-horizon into a cut-over land of oil wells, dusty gravel roads, scattered bamboo huts, open pastures full of introduced elephant grass and practically devoid of its original copious dose of biota.

The difference is that outsiders, in their lust for oil dollars, ran roughshod over that region while they were terrified to venture south of the Napo. Yasuní is the traditional territory of the Waorani,“the fiercest tribe in all Amazonia,” according to their own completely justified description, a nation of warriors that repelled all intruders with deadly barrages of serrated palm-wood spears, until quite recently. Their own densities were always low so their impacts at the landscape level were minimal over thousands of years. Thanks to the Waorani for having kept most outsiders out for so long, and for giving us one last chance to document life at its pinnacle of diversity.

Currently, a wave of acculturation is quickly converting these guardians into their own worst enemies in relation to the traditional resource base. Bush meat markets have turned their hunting skills into money makers and in some parts, they are now depleting the abundant game of their forefathers faster than it can be replenished through natural cycles.

Onya Tega, blowgun in Ecuador

A traditional Waorani warrior, Oña Tega, demonstrating his skill with the blowgun, a sophisticated piece of ancient Amazonian technology, used primarily to hunt canopy specialists, ranging from birds to monkeys.

Because there are so many kinds of life in this exuberant ecosystem, seeing any particular one tends to be a challenge. There’s a phrase that sounds just plain stupid when you first hear it, but it’s absolutely applicable. “It’s rare to be common and common to be rare.” A few things can indeed be seen all the time, but most are only seen now and again, and many are truly once-in-a-lifetime sightings.

From my hometown of Greensboro, North Carolina, I made my way to Amazonia for the first time in 1979; I’ve lived permanently in Ecuador since 1990 and chose the land for the Tiputini Biodiversity Station in 1994. After all that time, I still can’t go for more than a few minutes at TBS without seeing something I’ve never seen before – and knowing that in most cases, I’ll never see again. At this point, I’ll admit that new sightings are mostly small creatures, primarily among the insects and spiders, but I have yet to see in the wild several mammals from the list in that earlier paragraph, including the giant armadillo, bush dog, melanistic jaguar, and silky anteater.

But they’re out there, and knowing that is extremely exciting – there’s always a chance. How do I know? The giant digs of giant armadillos are seen every day. And naturally,while I wasn’t around, an individual visited our camp every night for a week while I was tending to chores in other parts of the country – and lots of good-hearted students have since made special efforts to show me their pictures posing within feet of this behemoth, and with their cabins in the background. Both the bush dog and black panther have been captured by our camera traps. Now and again, one of our scientists happens upon these canines out in areas rarely tread by humans.

A few months ago, while seeking photographs for a book we just published (Yasuní, Tiputini and the Web of Life), Pete Oxford spent an hour and a half within 8 or 10 yards of a magnificent black jaguar right out on the riverbank, less than half a mile upstream from our camp. A couple of primatologists, Sara Alvarez and Laura Abondano, tell the tale of their study subjects knocking something loose from the canopy (as often happens when spider monkeys hurl their 20-pound bodies from tree to tree) and having fall literally at their feet, the diminutive silky anteater, a fluffy straw-colored ball of fur complete with a baby on its back! In case you’re also a worrier, mother and child were fine; soon after the tumble, they were back up in a tree, the mother feasting on termites.

Giant armadillo Ecuador

A giant armadillo captured by our ongoing camera trap project.

Of course, we treasure those experiences and recognize that these stories say something important about the quality and condition of the Yasuní in general, but we’re not here just to rack up trophy sightings of charismatic megafauna and other rare beasties. With the founding of the Tiputini Biodiversity Station were established three pillars of our raison d’être: scientific research, environmental education, and ecosystem conservation. We’d learn as much as possible, share the harvested information amply and try to have a lasting positive impact on the region’s nature as well as its people. Our purpose, albeit admittedly presumptuous given the scope that would come to be clearer over time, would be to find out everything possible about the most complex ecosystem anywhere. Once again, nothing gets your juices flowing like someone telling you something can’t be done.

Because of where we are, documenting biodiversity/developing species inventory lists was always a priority. Explaining the extreme concentration of species is a corollary part of the story. Saving it forever is the ultimate goal. Why are these listings so important? Do we really need to know precisely how many of everything there are?

Well, if you sincerely intend to attain that ultimate goal, it becomes quite necessary to have a list and a number so that your success or failure can be measured in a realistic way. If we don’t know where we’re starting, then it’s quite easy to say, “We’re doing a great job; no one can point out one single species that’s been lost.” Basically, sports fans, we need to keep score. If we don’t, well, we all know what it’s like to play any game “just for fun,” don’t we?

Of course, by default, the task gets easier if we keep delaying progress on the list. Harvard professor E.O. Wilson estimates that the world is losing an average of 27,000 species per year. But this has to be a best guess, as he himself would admit, because we haven’t actually catalogued all the species of any place on Earth, much less the Tropics. This even includes Sweden, the high-latitude, rather biotically depauperate home country of Linnaeus who started all this naming and counting of species back in the mid-1700s. This means, by default, that the vast majority of those 27,000 disappear without notice or news headlines. They were never known; they’ll never be missed. How many, in fact, are we losing and where? And do some of them actually matter to us, or the planet? How can we even know before we’ve blown right past some tipping point and it’s just too late?

Omura grasshopper Ecuador

The face of a blade-of-grass grasshopper, Omura sp.

Let’s start off trying to quantify Yasuní plants: 600 or so tree species per hectare (110 yards X 110 yards, roughly equivalent to the entire floor of a football stadium), and over 2,000 tree species in the whole park – compared with about 560 cited for the U.S. and Canada combined. If we add in all the air plants (epiphytes) as well as the lianas and herbaceous species rooted in the ground, the species count goes up to over 1,500 plant types per hectare.

A huge leap in our knowledge of Yasuní flora occurred back in the mid-1990s due to some extraordinary vision on the part of botanists in Ecuador and at the Missouri Botanical Gardens. They integrated a plan to collect as many specimens as possible during the opening of an oil access road from the Napo River south into the heart of the National Park. As thousands of trees were brought down for this construction project-turned scientific transect, flowers, fruits, and leaves were all made accessible to the waiting hands of excited and diligent plant collectors below. Along the 90-mile route, they amassed tens of thousands of scientific samples that could be shared with specialists around the world, and discovered dozens of new species of plants for global botanical rosters, and made even more additions to the records of what exists within the country of Ecuador.

As scientists, we must recognize that access for oil extraction in this case, although typically considered a death knell for wilderness, also provided unique access for inventory; some destruction occurred but we learned a ton as a result. Admittedly, oil has financed some other research and covers the cost of its localized environmental monitoring, all of which has produced new data and resulted in other discoveries as well.

Passifloraceae Ecuador

A member of the passion flower family, a group that includes many already utilized species.

Is there some plant of import that is being impacted directly by oil? Once again, we don’t know precisely because there’s too much out there for us to handle without a whole lot of help from the next generation of scientists so desperately needed to fill the gap. Whenever we talk about the potential value of plants to humankind, we turn inexorably toward the argument of traditional medicinal usage. So many plants utilized by so many cultures for so many ailments. So many modern medicines derived from ancient knowledge of local weeds, so little scientific evaluation of so many leads.

As development pushes farther into remote areas, it is very likely that potential source plants are disappearing forever. It is likewise probable that the old shaman that knew which one served what purpose has just died without passing on that information. We’re losing cultures and knowledge all in one go, because of a drive to get the one product that we see as a priority (oil in this case) without taking into account that other treasures may coincide with its geographical location. Yasuní is the planet of Pandora, and the Waorani are the Omaticaya of James Cameron’s animated film Avatar.

Ana de Ompure Ecuador

Ana de Ompure of the Waorani nation leads a fairly traditional lifestyle despite the fact that she lives near an oil road.

For insects, through the efforts of many specialists, we’ve learned that this is where the real diversity of Yasuní, and the world, lies. During a great proportion of his career, Terry Erwin, of the Smithsonian, has been collecting insects from the top of the forestall over Latin America using a strategy called canopy fogging. This specialized technique has given entomologists access to a world that was nearly as remote as the oceanic abyss until the last few decades.

Prime result of these studies: best estimate, there are 100,000 species of insects in each hectare here – roughly equivalent to the estimate for the U.S. and Canada combined. Just think – less than a city block versus that entire continent. And I’m not talking about individuals, I mean species. Another take-home message: 80% of them don’t even have scientific names. For the 20% with names, we know very little beyond that, except for the fact that some are extreme specialists that appear to only live on one kind of plant or at one elevation above the forest floor. A surprise: despite the presence of a few meaty giants, the average size is down in the 1/8th inch range, meaning that some are the size of dust particles.

Membracidae, Cladonota cf biclavatus Ecuador

The membracid treehoppers are tiny relatives of the cicadas, mostly under ½ inch long; many species like this example of the genus Cladonota, come complete with an elaborate “hood ornament.”

What has oil and development meant for the insects? Once again we can say that access has been important to the advancement of science but we must also point out some real concerns. When Terry and I were contracted to carry out some environmental impact studies (he worked on insects, I on fishes) back in 1994 with the arrival of the Maxus oil consortium in Yasuní, we immediately noticed the huge gas flares at certain wells and separation/pumping facilities.

Another thing we noticed was how many insects were drawn in and met their deaths each night. Their scorched carcasses accumulated enmasse below the gargantuan torches, piling up so deep, they had to be loaded with tractors into dump trucks to be hauled away. Nowadays, there are hundreds of these flares scattered across the Ecuadorian jungle-scape. How many sautéed insects does it take to make one pound? Or one ton? And more importantly, who cares?

As it turns out, all those insects, drawn in from miles around “like moths to a candle,” actually have roles in this ecosystem. Some are pollinators, some are food for frogs, lizards, or birds, some are predators of smaller insects like mosquitoes, and some fall into several of these categories simultaneously. Of course, we know so little about them and their lives that we can’t possibly follow the ripple effects out across the entire ecosystem for the next century – and this lack of knowledge is typically interpreted as meaning that there is no documented impact.

Logically, the loss of all that functioning biomass has repercussions on anything that could have interacted with those organisms as living forms. Loss of specialized pollinators will mean decreased reproduction for the plants they should have visited and consequently 50 or 200 years from now, there will be fewer of certain trees we’d like to harvest and sell for profit. Loss of dragonflies could result in a rebounding abundance of vectors of malaria and an epidemic out there in the future, directly impacting/killing people who also happen to be voters. Some modern operations have now incorporated enclosed flares that avoid this scenario almost altogether.

Gas flares have been a standard part of oil industry infrastructure for a long time. Direct impacts on local fauna have led to the development of alternative management strategies; these towering infernos are fortunately being phased out in many operations. Of course, some opportunistic species, such as the russet-backed oropendola, whose nests hang in the tree in the foreground, can be favored by their effects; here these birds take advantage of the artificially high density of insects attracted to such sites.

The likelihood of an ecotourist seeing any species is a reflection of its abundance or rarity, combined with its habitat preference (easily accessible versus living in dense vegetation/underground/underwater/in the treetops), its behavior patterns (nocturnal/diurnal, active/quiescent), its size (small or very small versus large) and its overall appearance (brightly colored versus camouflaged). The likelihood of science encountering a new species works the same way. Most frogs and lizards and snakes lie on the difficult side of these categories; frogs tend to be the smallest and most secretive.

Consequently, among vertebrate zoologists, herpetologists are the ones finding more new species than anyone else. A dozen or so new frog species have been discovered in Yasuní in the last decade. In the entire world, among all life forms, best estimates are 18,000 new species described each year; the tiniest minority represents the vertebrate phylum. A dozen newbies from one place is literally a biological mother lode. The total for Yasuní frogs has reached 150 species – and they keep coming. That’s already 50% more than the number for the U.S. and Canada together.

Most of them are coming from the treetops through labor-intensive searches by driven scientists like Shawn McCracken of Texas State University. He’s not just finding new species; he’s trying to understand their lives and distributions. One of his investigations has definitively linked the loss of canopy specialists with development. Of course, anybody would guess that frogs that are specialized to live in trees suffer serious losses when you cut down the trees. Homer Simpson moment.

Shawn has been able to go several huge steps further by actually quantifying the decline with varying levels of impact. If a large portion of the trees in an area is removed, the remaining treetops become virtual deserts and frogs can’t even occupy the ones left standing because the microclimates have been altered so radically. Even when the panorama along an oil road still looks rather like an intact forest, the adjacent open area provokes a warming and drying effect that diminishes frog densities greatly, implying that finding them becomes nearly impossible. Bottom line: opening new roads decreases the potential for the discovery of certain new species, and generally decreases everything nearby that occupies the forest interior.

Anole toothpick Ecuador

An understory anole, Anolisnitens, finishes dining on a leaf litter grasshopper, using a spiny leg as a toothpick.

At Tiputini, a series of studies on understory birds has been going on for a full decade. The project, directed by University of Florida scientists John Blake and Bette Loiselle, has produced many new Ph.D.s and involved collaborators from all over. Part of what they’ve been doing is trying to explain how so many species can fit into this part of the forest. In general, we’re talking about extremely fine partitioning of the resources and habitat space on a per-species level.

fasciated antshrike female Ecuador

In the deep shade of the forest interior, a female fasciated antshrike takes advantage of the chaos created by raiding army ant swarms to capture fleeing insects.

We also want to know about their vulnerability to habitat degradation. Through research in various places, we now recognize that typical forest interior inhabitants simply cannot tolerate edge conditions. This means that opening a road or eliminating the forest eradicates these species.

How do we know? Specialized ornithologists like Bob Ridgely, Francisco Sornoza, and Chris Canaday have developed skills over decades that allow them to survey the bird fauna of an area rapidly, based on the fact that each species has a specific vocalization as unique as our fingerprints. These bird songs, if you will, are key parts to communication within and between species; they are particularly integral to courtship and mating. These auditory signals evolved in relation to one another and with the forest setting, and have been polished through millions of years of trial and error at the genetic level.

Now, with the encroachment of oil operations, the backdrop for all this has been altered; all of a sudden, industrial sounds introduced into the system disrupt communication frequencies and some species are confused because the intended messages simply don’t get through. You guys can think about trying to flirt with a beautiful girl on a speed boat while she’s sitting right by the engine. You can forget about even trying out your best line. Some species are more vulnerable to this kind of complication precisely because their voices coincide with the pitch of some sounds that waft in from drill sites or pumping stations miles away.

And now, we can forget about being able to record natural sounds without interference of industrial noise pollution. This syndrome doesn’t just affect birds. Some frogs have similar kinds of communication complications. David Romo, TBS’s Co-Director, developed a program years ago to utilize their voices as a way to evaluate the overall health of amphibian communities based on species composition.

For large mammals, this may be a bigger problem than we might have previously assumed. In the last decades, we’ve noticed that elephants and some whales transmit courtship and territorial signals across tens or hundreds of miles. Tapirs may well do the same. If this turns out to be the case, the industrial hum of a generator in an oil camp could result in decreased population densities over large areas simply because potential mates are less efficient at finding one another in their expansive, cluttered environment. Possibly hard to believe, but science has already documented these kinds of changes in various species in many parts of the world.

Some rainforest species are particularly wary and avoid us; this makes learning about them quite a challenge. Since 2004, we’ve been using camera traps to get an idea about the secretive denizens of the forest that we rarely see for ourselves. This allows us to have eyes in the forest 24 hours a day and to study in a non-invasive way, the large, ground-dwelling fauna in our area. While humans can witness some of this wildlife by chance, such data accumulation is very slow.

Primarily through the efforts of Diego Mosquera, Jaime Guerra, and John Blake, we’ve managed to collect enough information in association with 45,000 photos to draw many conclusions about several species that were previously poorly known. The big take-home message coming out of this project is that fauna is far more abundant in this region that we ever might have imagined; our numbers represent densities that are greater than any previously reported in scientific literature. Some, like peccaries and deer, show up in thousands of images, implying truly surprising densities. Others that can easily be recognized as individuals due to their unique patterns, like jaguars and ocelots, can tell us something more. In eight years, in the space of a couple of square miles (the area where we’ve had our cameras), we’ve been able to distinguish over 20 individual jaguars and 45 ocelots.

The question is whether this abundance is natural. Was all of western Amazonia like this before people arrived 10,000 years ago? Our area is quite isolated and there is no hunting for some distance in every direction. The abundance occurs at all food chain levels; many pacas and wild pigs, many tapirs and deer should imply plentiful resources for, and explain high densities of jaguars and ocelots along with the presence of pumas, margay cats, and jaguarundis, as well as two species of wild dogs. Or could there be something more insidious going on? Is the encroachment of development (opening of roads, industrial oil extraction, colonization, clear cutting, timber harvest, hunting, etc.) driving heavily hunted species (peccaries, deer, etc.) and their predators (primarily jaguars) out of adjacent areas, yielding an unusual concentration in our study area where they perceive some level of refuge? This is a difficult question to answer until we can make comparative assessments in other parts of Yasuní.

Tiputini ocelot

Captured by our 24-hour eyes in the forest, this is only one of dozens of ocelots on Station lands; heat- and motion-sensitive equipment informs us about fauna that is especially difficult to observe directly. One of our cameras is visible in the background.

When we speak of refuge, primates are particularly needy in this regard. All the large species that are considered worth going after, especially spider and woolly monkeys, are unable to withstand ongoing hunting pressure. In areas where indigenous people no longer hunt at the subsistence level, but instead sell monkey meat in order to acquire commodities like rice, cooking oil, sugar, and yes, beer, populations crash immediately.

A team of primatologists led by Tony Di Fiore of the University of Texas, has been studying monkeys in Yasuní for nearly 20 years. Due to the fact that these arboreal mammals receive no hunting pressure at the Tiputini Biodiversity Station, they don’t instantly flee at the sight of humans and that fact has allowed intensive study of our primate community. Natural limitations on spider monkey reproduction make them especially vulnerable to harvest. They take several years to reach sexual maturity and then, adult females only have one baby every two or three years; replacement rates are very low. This tells us that when roads are opened and access is provided, this species is one of the first to disappear locally. Add on complications associated with acculturation and exportation of bush meat and their extirpation is guaranteed.

As it turns out, the Yasuní coincides almost exactly with the natural range of the golden-mantled tamarin, a brightly-colored, two-pound primate. This small endemic understory specialist depends completely upon the lower third of the forest interior for its food, shelter, everything. They are as vulnerable as interior birds to alterations; deforestation even in adjacent areas spells their demise. Even minor changes quickly translate into the loss of half of the ten species in our region. Their absence has significant repercussions at the level of seed dispersal, forest dynamics, and plant species composition. And that has serious implications for future timber harvest.

Golden-mantled tamarin feeding Ecuador

The golden-mantled tamarin, Saguinus tripartitus, can only be seen in Yasuní; here an adult relishes what appears to be a most delectable find.

Our research in the Yasuní Biosphere Reserve for almost two decades has shown that this region is without doubt, deserving of its United Nations World Heritage recognition; this is certainly one of the world’s most amazing natural heritage sites. During this time,we have also seen that this biotic paradise is extremely vulnerable. We have witnessed the nibbling away of the park around the edges and along penetration roads and we have watched accelerating erosion of traditional cultures.

Saying we are concerned for the future of the ecosystem’s integrity is a tremendous understatement. Science confirms that cause and effect are measureable and predictable. If history repeats itself, and it does have a nasty reputation for doing just that, we could be facing a near future when the Tiputini Biodiversity Station is converted into a tiny island of rainforest reserve that can’t possibly accommodate the entirety of Yasuní’s biodiversity, where we will be relegated to study impacts on nature rather than the wonders of nature. I remain a firm believer that this outcome is not obligatory.

The country of Ecuador has already lost native ecosystems across more than half its hyper-diverse territory but its Oriente, especially in the Amazonian range south of the Napo River, represents a last big stronghold of wilderness and wonderment, at once both a fantastic opportunity and a daunting responsibility. Most of Yasuní can still be saved in spite of an image tarnished by industrial extraction in parts of its expanse. Modern oil extraction in and of itself, does not, by default, result in the horizon-to-horizon damage seen north of the Napo. Specialized technologies and strategies (e.g. “off-shore”) have been developed specifically to minimize direct impacts, but they must be employed with continued proper oversight and due diligence to make a real difference.

It must be emphasized that historically oil has been, without any doubt, responsible in this part of the world, and many others, for opening the door to a series of changes that result in widespread habitat degradation and species loss. The felling of forests to build access roads provides the ignition for these changes to occur. In roads, the Amazon’s poor and disenfranchised see irresistible opportunities and this situation provides the fuel for quick and lasting destruction. If countries like Ecuador can’t live without oil revenue, our plea is that they decide to extract their natural resources in the most environmentally sound ways possible, with visionary steadfastness, and without sacrificing one unexplored treasure of inestimable value and longevity (above-ground living ecosystems and genetic diversity) for another of known value (below-ground mineral riches) of limited duration.

Yasuni Ecuador road cut

Yasuni in 2001, showing development damageThese two aerial images, from 1975 and 2001, of the same section of oil road were captured by Ecuador’s Instituto Geográfico Militar and made public years ago. They illustrate all too clearly the historical outcome of oil extraction and colonization along access roads in the northeastern part of the country. Less than 50 miles to the south lies the Yasuní Biosphere Reserve. The earlier one shows the condition of the surrounding forest when the road had just been opened to provide access to this well site; the later one shows the results of a quarter century of human presence and uncontrolled activity. Only a minute proportion of the tens of thousands of species present in 1975 could possibly survive in the 2001 conditions, certainly none of the large ones.

If humanity cannot make a conscious decision to protect the world’s most biodiverse place, will we indeed be able to save anything of nature? What is required to put effective policies into play? Can we learn from the powerful lessons in northeastern Ecuador so we can save areas immediately to the south? If more roads are built here, can we realistically expect anything other than devastation at the landscape scale, the same kind that has resulted from this scenario in the past?

“In the end, our society will be defined not only by what we create, but by what we refuse to destroy,” said John C. Sawhill of The Nature Conservancy.


Kelly Swing, PhD is the director of the Tiputini Biodiversity Station in Ecuador for the Universidad San Francisco de Quito and a professor of tropical ecology for Boston University. He has often served as a consultant in the evaluation of environmental impacts of the oil industry in Ecuador.

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