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Oil drilling threatens Ecuador ecotourism

AAP logoAAP 26/07/2016 Sarah Marshall

An Ecuadorian ecolodge run by an indigenous tribe who made contact with the outside world less than 100 years ago has closed for the foreseeable future due to oil exploration in the Eastern Ecuadorian Amazon.

The Huarorani Eco Lodge on the fringes of Yasuni National Park has been showcasing the rainforest to tourists since 2008 and was even the subject of a documentary with Ross Kemp, who visited to report on the tribe's long-term battle with oil companies in the area.

That battle, though, may now have been lost.

In May, Jascivan Carvalho, director of Tropic Ecuador, who helped set up the project, said the lodge would close until further notice due to dangerous activity in the area - and there are no signs it will reopen any time soon.

The government launched a large-scale oil exploration project in 2014, with the first drilling operations taking place in March this year. Last week Ecuadorian national newspaper El Universo reported 750 million more barrels of oil had been discovered in the ITT oil fields, taking the total to 1.67 billion barrels - a value of roughly $US19.5 billion ($A26.03 billion) based on today's prices.

"Very good news," tweeted Ecuadorian President Rafael Correa. "We deliver these reserves to the country for future generations."

Not everyone would agree. Yasuni National Park, which sits within the 16,835sq km area of interest, was declared a Biosphere Reserve by UNESCO in 1989. Described as "one of the most biologically diverse" regions on earth, it's home to 4000-plant species, 173 species of mammals and 610 bird species and has more documented insect species than any other forest in the world. It also provides critical habitat to threatened species such as the giant otter, Amazonian manatee, pink river dolphin and white-bellied spider monkey.

Worryingly, state-owned company Petroamazonas, which is working with co-funders Sinopec (PetroChina), has already broken several environmental restrictions including the building of much bigger and wider access roads in the park, reports British journalist Huw Hennessy, resulting in deforestation and a loss of habitat.

Additionally, there are concerns of oil leaks and pollution. Spills from Chevron-Texaco pipelines in the area date back to the 1970s.

In 2007 Correa launched the Yasuni-ITT initiative to keep oil reserves underground in the Amazon in exchange for carbon credits to be paid for by the international community. But it was scrapped in August 2013 after only 10 per cent of the required sum was raised.

Given the pressure on the government to bolster the Ecuadorian economy and pay off foreign debt, it seems unlikely it will reverse decisions to drill in areas including land occupied by the Huaorani for millennia.

The tribe's award-winning ecolodge was set up to provide a sustainable alternative to oil projects and to preserve their culture. Financially, it supported more than 300 people.

But Tropic's Jascivan Carvalho suspects the hard cash offered to the community by Sinopec in exchange for not protesting was too tempting to resist. He also rebukes the government for faltering on its support for sustainable tourism in the Amazon.

He told eTurboNews: "The Ministry of Environment approval of the testing will also send a clear message that ecotourism as a sustainable alternative is simply not being given the support it needs to flourish and to benefit indigenous communities in Ecuador."

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