The yasuni

The Yasuní is one of the most bio-diverse places in the world and home to one of the greatest genetic varieties of plants and animals on Earth. It spans nearly a million hectares of almost untouched primary rainforest and is situated in the Ecuadorian Amazon, predominantly in the province of Francisco de Orellana.

It is thought to be a zone that did not freeze during the last ice-age, which began 2 million years ago and lasted up to 10,000 years ago. As a result, it became an island of vegetation where flora and fauna took refuge, survived and eventually re-populated the Amazon.

The Yasuní National Park is famous for its extraordinary and unique biodiversity. For example, the forest accommodates the largest number of species of trees per hectare in the world. Only one hectare of the Yasuní is home to the same number of native tree species as the whole of North America.

The Park contains 44 per cent of the Amazon Basin's birds, making it one of the world's richest avian sites. The statistics are similarly plentiful for the variety of bats, amphibians, reptiles, bees and other creatures.

In 1989 UNESCO declared the park a Bio-reserve and Cultural Heritage site due to its exceptional diversity and the presence of the Taromenane and Tagaeri people.

The Ecuadorian national government declared 700,000 hectares of the park an 'Untouchable Zone'. The designation implies that the zone is to be protected from any mining, oil activity, logging, colonization or anything that might tamper with the biodiversity and ethno-cultural nature of the area.

People of the Yasuní

Inside and around the Yasuní National Park live various indigenous groups including the Waorani, Kichwa and Shuar. The Waorani, who have been living in harmony with the Yasuní for centuries, have now begun to lose their home due to oil exploitation, deforestation and colonisation.

Some indigenous people have managed to preserve aspects of their culture and live in the most traditional way possible resisting and fighting against further infringements on their rights.

Others such as the Tagaeri and Taromenane, the descendents of ancient warriors, have fled further into the forest to escape 'civilisation' and maintain no contact with the outside world...


The Waorani have lived in the Yasuní for centuries. Today, it is thought there are around 2,300 Waorani, living mainly on their ancestral lands located between the Curaray and Napo rivers.

The Waorani are semi-nomadic hunters and foragers and therefore need a large territory in order to maintain their traditional way of life. Their lands used to extend over about 2,000,000 hectares, but nowadays they have only 612,560 hectares, and even then these boundaries are not respected.


The Tagaeri clan separated from other Waorani in 1968 when, led by Taga, they rejected colonization and fled deeper into the forest to live in isolation.

Together with the Taromenane they make up the two last known indigenous groups living in voluntary isolation in Ecuador.

It is not known which nationality the Taromenane are, but it is believed that they are related in some way to the Waorani people.


The exact origins of the Shuar culture are lost in time. The Shuar who today live in the Yasuní are not originally from the area and moved there in the late 1980s from the south of Ecuador.

The Shuar people are famous, or infamous, for tzantza, their former practice of shrinking the heads of their enemies.


Today's Amazonian Kichwa are descendants of the former inhabitants of the region: the Quifkos, Záparas, Omaguas, Shuar, Achuar and Siona. Within the Kichwa, there are still various sub-groups.

The Amazonian Kichwa called themselves Naporunas meaning people of the Napo river in the Kichwa language. According to Kichwa belief, the father (the Napo River) fertilizes the mother (earth) in order to ensure abundance.


'Oil spills are common as prevention techniques are considered as too expensive for the oil companies and spills are seen as a good way to make money by pipe companies. Oil seeps into the ground resulting in toxic crops, polluted water, diseased animals, infecting indigenous people and spreading disease. The oil settles in pools lasting years after the spill; the destruction is endless.'


Until 1958 the Waorani in particular had fought hard against the incursion of oil companies into their territories and this largely stopped oil advancement in the Ecuadorian Amazon.

The first peaceful contact made with indigenous groups in 1958 had devastating consequences, the region was lain bare for oil colonisation. Two main indigenous groups - the Tagaeri and Taromenane - rejected such colonisation strongly and fled deeper into the forest.

Oil exploitation meant the need to transport the oil from the Amazon, on one side of the country, to the refinery on the other side of the country, a 420km pipeline was built right across the Andes. This meant prising open the land and hacking down the forest from one side of Ecuador to the other to build roads. This development brought thousands of colonisers who began cutting down more trees to create farms and plantations. Along with them came disease, corruption and conflict, as well as the devastating effects of oil exploitation.

Some 20 years later new oil deposits were found in and around the Yasuní National Park, including in a reserve marked out for Waorani protection.

Oil companies soon invaded the protected areas and the 16,000 Waorani in the reserve were reduced to only 1,000. Those outside the reserve, the Tagaeri and Taromenane were in constant conflict with loggers, oil companies, missionaries and other intruders who were trying to exterminate or pacify anyone or anything that stood in the way of them and more oil.

In recent years the Yasuní park boundaries have been re-drawn several times to accommodate oil exploitation which would be otherwise forbidden. In 1999 the Constitutional court approved plans to extract oil from the Yasuní National Park, a decree which violates the park's legal status. In the same year the southern part of the Yasuní was declared an 'untouchable zone', supposedly a safe haven for the non-contact indigenous people. Despite this, illegal logging has persisted.


Ecuador's oil reserves are divided into different geographical "blocks", with rights given to different companies to exploit each one.

Block 16, at the entrance of the Yasuní, is under the control of Spanish oil company Repsol, giving them virtually complete control over what goes on in the area. In 2004 Petrobras, the Brazilian state oil company, was granted a license to drill in block 31 which is almost entirely in the Yasuní and just north of the untouchable zone.

Ishpingo-Tambococha-Tiputini (ITT) is the name for the block in the heart of the Yasuní under which lies between 412 million and a possible 920 million barrels of oil. Despite the fact that this area overlaps the 'untouchable zone', those with interests in oil, led by the multinational oil companies, are currently pressuring the government for the right to exploit these reserves.

The oil in the ITT is a heavy crude oil which is very difficult to extract and has a higher carbon content, making it even more polluting than other oil.

It is suspended in hot toxic water, which contains high concentrations of salt, metals, hydrocarbons and acids. This water comes to the surface with the oil in quantities sometimes as high as 10 times the volume of the oil - that means that for 1 barrel of oil there can be 10 barrels of waste.

Ways of disposing of this water and other solid waste are under-developed and ineffective. As a result all, or a large quantity of, this toxic waste ends up in rivers killing animals and spreading disease.

To read more about the extraction of oil, see the New Internationalist article "Toxic Blocks".


Unregulated exploitation by multinational oil companies; widespread illegal logging; indiscriminate and unsustainable hunting as well as infectious diseases have all contributed to the devastation of the forest, its people, plants and animals. Through the pollution of water sources, deforestation and toxic contamination, people's traditional ways of life are put in peril. Birds, plants, insects and other animals will have to move or die out, as will the social fabric of ancient human cultures.

  • Environmental impacts: the extinction of known and unknown species, oil contamination of water and soil and a large contribution to climate change through further oil production and extensive logging.
  • Cultural impacts: the final extermination of ancestral non-contact indigenous tribes through disease and violence.
  • Political impacts: repression, violence and conflict.
  • Social impacts: high levels of disease particularly cancers and children born with deformities, alcoholism, prostitution and sexually transmitted diseases.
  • Economic impacts: loss of livelihoods due to environmental impacts, i.e. crops and cattle destroyed by contamination.


'Despite threats and other repressive measures often carried out at the behest of the oil companies, local people are defiant — they continue to fight bravely, with heroism and dignity'

When the oil companies arrived in the region 50 years ago indigenous resistance was strong and entering the Oriente (the Ecuadorian Amazon) was almost impossible. Oil companies began to use alternative means to enter the region, for example missionaries, anthropologists, and also by funding environmental observation.

These days resistance by indigenous communities and other people in the region are generally ignored, even within Ecuador, never mind in the wider world.

However, in spite of threats and other repressive measures often carried out at the behest of the oil companies, people continue to fight bravely, with heroism and dignity.

Local populations have organized and mobilized to denounce the lack of environmental policies; the broken promises; the flouting of legal obligations; and to publicize the threats and abuse as well as the depletion of the region´┐Żs natural resources.

Strikes are usually a last resort for the local people in order to try and get their voices heard and their demands presented. Such actions can take the form of blocking roads to stop the movement of workers and supplies to the oil wells, so halting production. Rarely a month goes by without a community going on strike and these protests can bring together other communities. But sadly the events are often met with repression by the army, which at times seems to be working hand-in-glove with oil interests.

The local authorities are acutely conscious of the need for sustainable development, making use of the biodiversity and the traditional knowledge of the native people. They have set-up local assemblies, which generate alternative solutions oil. However the national government has not fully delivered on its side of the agreement.

The history of the yasuni

El Dorado

In 1541 the explorer Francisco de Orellana ventured into the heart of the Yasuní in search of the mysterious 'El Dorado', a kingdom of gold, minerals and precious stones...

The rivers of the Amazon have always brought explorers, colonizers and missionaries in pursuit of dreams, myths and legends about what lies deep in the forest. Each group has left a deep footprint, changing the fate of the Yasuní forever.

Among the first of these adventurers enticed by the secrets of the Amazon was the Spaniard Francisco de Orellana, who in 1541 left Quito with Francisco Pizarro and eventually reached the mouth of the Amazon River.

He was driven by stories of a kingdom of gold, minerals and precious stones hidden deep in the forest - 'el dorado'. Orellana's expedition has become one of the most famous pieces of Amazonian history and the region was name after him.

Like its golden predecessor, oro negro — black gold — has enticed legions of oil workers, settlers and adventurers, along with their fellow-travellers of disease and greed corrupting and destroying indigenous ways of life...

Next to come in search of treasures in Orellana were those looking for black gold. Like its golden predecessor it attracted legions of oil workers, settlers and adventurers and with them came disease and the destruction of indigenous ways of life. Companies operating in the areas came with promises of progress and the reduction of poverty, but people have been left with extreme adverse economic impacts, disease and the destruction of their homes and livelihoods.

The loss of people's farm animals and crops due to water contamination and wild animals for hunting, has meant the standard of living has not only decreased but also left people completely reliant on oil.

Oil seeps its polluting way into the ground, tainting the water, poisoning or killing any living thing around it. Unregulated exploitation by multinational oil companies; widespread illegal logging; indiscriminate and unsustainable hunting as well as infectious diseases have all contributed to the devastation of the surrounding forest, its people, plants and animals.

People's traditional ways of life have been put in peril, while plants and animals are forced from what was a safe haven to the brink of extinction. On top of this, the indigenous local population has faced serious repression, threats and even death when they have tried to challenge the consequences of the obsession with oil.

And now, beneath the Waorani Reserve and Yasuní National Park, 412 to 920 million barrels of heavy crude oil new oil deposits have been found.

The true wealth of the Yasuní does not lie below the ground or in gold or minerals, but instead with its extraordinary and unique bio-diversity and the indigenous people that choose to live, un-contacted, within its canopy...

It is because of the endless record-breaking statistics that pour out of the Yasuní, such as that there are more species of ants on one tree in the Yasuní than in the whole of England, that it is necessary to refocus the attention from the oil under the Yasuní to the importance of its biological and cultural richness in order to allow for sustainable alternatives for the region.

It is because the lives of the people of the Yasuní cannot and should not have a price put on their head, that it is important for everyone to understand this is not just about oil versus trees but about the basic human right to life.



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