Cuyabeno, Ecuador 2015
As destructive as oil development in Ecuador’s Amazon region has been, we would not have been able to experience the remarkable headwaters of the world’s mightiest river system without it. Exploitation of the country’s petroleum reserves opened up the vast, flooded rainforest in the northeast corner of Ecuador, near the convergence of its boundary with Colombia and Peru.
Roads carved into the “impenetrable” forest brought in hordes of oilfield workers and pipeline installers so that the black treasure could be pumped away, over the daunting Andes range and on to the Atlantic for export.
World attention has been fixed on the rampant deforestation of Brazil’s Amazon region, which is finally recognized as an unparalleled crisis for the planet’s ecosystem. But the 2.9 million square- mile basin —the world’s largest, draining about 40 percent of the continent— covers much more than the expanse in Brazil where the burning of cleared land has exacerbated carbon accumulation in the atmosphere.
Ecuador is one of the smaller South American countries, especially compared to Brazil, but devastation of its rainforest derives from extraction of fossil fuel rather than burning of trees or the clearing of land for grazing. Ecuador has oil reserves estimated at eight billion barrels.
International concern over wanton destruction of Ecuador’s Amazon region gave rise to an ambitious program for a 2007 deal by which the Ecuadorian government would prohibit oil development in the Yasuní Reserve if the international community would pay $3.6 billion in exchange. When only $13 million was raised, the deal was cancelled and petroleum exploitation began in 2016.
As a result, swathes of Ecuador’s Amazonian rainforest have been cleared, the equivalent of 110 football fields a day on average. To service some 3,400 oil wells there, more than 6,000 miles of roads were carved into the jungle, especially around Cuyabeno. In one of the region’s indigenous languages, Siona Secoya, “cuyabeno” means “river of kindness.”
For various reasons —one suspects they include the remote location, bribes to regulators, and the powerlessness of native tribes —oil companies contaminated surrounding waterways with dumped petroleum waste and spills. In 2011, an Ecuadorian court levied a settlement of $9.5 billion against Chevron, which had acquired Texaco’s disastrous oil extraction legacy here. That judgement dampened the industry’s interest for a while. But in 2019 more oil fields were acquired in the area around the Reserva de Producción Faunística Cuyabeno.
The lakes and waterways here in the eastern foothills of the Andes receive an average of 180 inches of rain yearly —often more than 15 feet —which pours into the vast Amazon floodplain.
Easily ranked among the most biologically diverse regions in the world—especially considering that so much of the surface is water—the reserve is home to 10 species of monkeys, two species of river dolphin, jaguar, puma, boa constrictors, anaconda and nearly 600 species of birds.
Getting around is limited almost entirely to boat during much of the time and to visit some parts, paddles are the chosen method of propulsion to maintain serenity for wildlife. Gliding slowly beneath the jungle canopy, we can see monkeys crossing the waterways in single file except for the occasional rebel who leaps from a high branch to land on a cushy mat of vegetation at water’s edge and rejoin the troop.
I first visited Ecuador’s Amazonas territory in 1962, a young journalist invited to accompany two government officials inspecting rain-eroded roads into the jungle. Passing Shell Mera, the oil exploration outpost established by Royal Dutch Shell in 1937, we continued on to the very end of the unpaved road where we did, indeed, find severe damage.
Shell abandoned the village and its airstrip after about ten years, but both were revived in 1954 by missionaries determined to spread Christianity to the jungle tribes. Five of the missionaries were killed with spears by members of the Huaorani tribe (also known as Aucas) six years before my first visit. The region’s Jivaro tribes were also thought to still produce shrunken heads, known as tsantzas, in those days.
The lure of oil riches soon attracted more intense exploration by U.S. companies which announced in the early 1960s that they had found nothing of interest. But Ecuadorians were convinced that was false—that the oil companies had simply capped the wells to await more favorable market conditions. That inflamed anti-American sentiment while I was there in 1962.
That suspicion proved justified; by 1980 Ecuador produced an estimated 230,000 barrels of crude oil daily. Now most of it comes from wells around, and even inside, Cuyabeno Reserve.