Wed, Jan 23, 2013 - Page 9 News List

Can oil save the rainforest?

When another new oil field was found beneath an Ecuadoran national park in the Amazon jungle, environmental campaigners feared the worst, but a daring plan to hold the drilling rights ransom could save the planet’s most biodiverse area and set an important precedent in conservation

By John Vidal  /  The Observer

Illustration: Mountain People

US biologist Kelly Swing thwacks a bush with his butterfly net and a dozen or so bugs and insects drop in. One is a harvester, or daddy-long-legs, and another a jumping spider, which leaps on to a leaf where two beetles are mating.

This is the Tiputini Research Station, on the edge of the Yasuni National Park in Ecuador, where the foothills of the Andes Mountains meet the Amazonian rainforest on the equator. Swing and I are searching for unidentified creatures, and within a minute or two of looking we may well have found several. The daddy-long-legs, the spider, possibly the beetles on the leaf, even the bee that flies out of the undergrowth to bite Kelly on the neck, may well be unnamed by science, Swing said.

Yasuni is terra incognita, one of the beastliest, most fecund, lush, abundant, but unknown, places on Earth. Up to 100 people from two tribes of war-like Huaorani Indians live there in voluntary isolation and it has been estimated that there are 150 frog, 120 reptile, 600 bird and 200 mammal species — including nearly 100 species of bat — living within 1km of where we were standing. To give a sense of scale, there are only 18 bat and six reptile species in the whole of Britain.

Yasuni has astonished biologists, who say it could have the greatest concentration of species on the planet, having been a refuge during the last Ice Age. So far, nearly 1,500 species of plants and 400 fish species have been found in the 1.2 million km2 national park. More species of frogs and toads have been recorded than are native to the US and Canada combined, and more birds than in all of Europe. However, when it comes to insects, Yasuni is truly world-class Swing said.

“There are perhaps 10 million insect species in the world, of which one in 10 could be living here. It would take a team of scientists possibly 400 years just to identify them all and a book of 10,000 pages to record them in,” he said.

A walk in this Garden of Eden is revelatory, like going to the supermarket via the chemists’ and the zoo. These berries make soap, those plants are good contraceptives, this leaf is good for kidney and heart diseases. There are troops of spider and woolly monkeys, frogs smaller than a fingernail, tapirs the size of horses, as well as ants which taste of lemon and berries so poisonous you could die in seconds if you ate one. Even more amazing is the “walking tree,” which follows the light, hitches up its roots and moves 7m or more.

Last month, some Yale University undergraduate students stumbled across a mushroom capable of eating polyurethane plastic. It could revolutionize landfills.

“Frankly, no one knows what is here,” Swing said.

It was not until he and a colleague from San Francisco University in Quito, Ecuador, paddled their way here 20 years ago to set up the science research station that anyone really understood the true abundance of life in Yasuni.

It was also not until 2007, when 960 million barrels of oil were discovered in one part of the Yasuni Park, that people realized that the most biodiverse place on earth could be totally destroyed. It was calculated that the oil under Yasuni would earn Ecuador US$7 billion, but would last the world just 10 days.

Ecuador’s first barrel of oil sits in a corner of the Temple of Heroes in a military museum in Quito, alongside the bones of fallen combatants in old independence wars, British machine guns and German torpedoes. It is surprisingly small. It was discovered by the Gulf and Texaco oil company on March 29, 1967. Five years later, when the area was exploited, Ecuador’s military dictatorship paraded this barrel through the streets. Old film footage shows people trying to touch it for luck.

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