Life on the Amazon oil frontier: From exploration to ecotourism (Mongabay)

LLANCHAMA, ECUADOR – A long passenger boat floats abandoned outside Andres Machoa’s house, along the Tiputini River in Ecuador’s Amazon rainforest. The community bought the boat more than five years ago when the state-owned oil company, Petroamazonas, moved into the area and promised everyone stable jobs, including as water taxi conductors to transport their staff along the Tiputini and Napo rivers.

In the end, the company only contracted five people to drive the water taxis, who rotated every two or three months. Less than two years later, the company stopped hiring them entirely. With no passengers, nobody in the community can afford the gasoline to even move the boat. It sits on the riverside as a symbol of unfulfilled promises.

“What they offered us was work, they said they would give work for everyone … they bought us with that,” Machoa tells Mongabay, adding, “but it only lasted two or three months.”

Machoa is one of several people in the community of Llanchama who expresses regret over signing a deal with the oil company in 2014. Apart from the lack of work, the construction of the oil platforms and the ongoing noise of the drilling operations have disrupted the once abundant wildlife in the area, he says. The company also gave rise to divisions in the community, as some families were able to profit directly from its  presence and others weren’t.

Despite these divisions, most people in Llanachama agree that the solution lies in ecotourism, a growing trend among Amazonian communities seeking autonomy and an alternative to oil or mining income. As the government continues to expand oil production in Yasuní National Park, these are the two choices indigenous communities here are increasingly left with.

Llanchama is a small indigenous Kichwa community of some 65 families that lies on two important frontiers. It sits on the edge of Yasuní National Park, an area rich in biodiversity, surrounded by towering ceibo and mahogany trees, as well as hundreds of endemic birds, mammals and amphibians. It’s also on the border between what the government calls oil blocks 31 and 43, the latter also known as the controversial ITT (Ishpingo-Tambococha-Tiputini) project.

The ITT block was once a beacon of hope for conservationists worldwide. In 2007, then-president Rafael Correa launched the ITT initiative, in which he asked the international community to donate $3.6 billion in return for keeping oil in the ground in the ITT field. Correa extended the deadline twice, but the project finally failed in 2013 with less than 10 percent of the target figure raised.

That same year, PetroAmazonas began putting pressure on the community of Llanchama to sign contracts that would permit the oil company to extract oil in their territory. This was the beginning of the first ITT field, Tiputini, whose operations began in 2016. The government has since opened Tambococha, in 2018, and approved the opening of the third and final field, Ishpingo, in 2019.

Llanchama resisted these initial approaches by Petroamazonas in 2013, but over time many residents became convinced by its promises of jobs, infrastructure and other rewards. This included a one-off payment of $230,000 that Petroamazonas gave the president of the community, according to local media reports. The compensation was for access to territory, where Petroamazonas planned to perform the 3D seismic testing necessary before extraction can begin. In this process, explosives are put into the ground every 100 to 250 meters (330 to 820 feet), and detonated. Machines then read the vibrations of the earth to decipher where the oil is located in the ground.

The company also promised to hire people from Llanchama to perform the seismic tests themselves. The Ecuadoran government agreed to pay the community workers $20 for every 11,500 hectares (28,400 acres), while Petroamazonas promised an extra $20 per hectare (2.5 acres) to be paid in the form of infrastructure for Llanchama, reports local newspaper Plan V. Given these promises of money and stability, in 2014 the majority of the community voted in favor of oil.

After these jobs failed to materialize, and the money was spent on things like boats and personal electricity generators, residents of Llanchama were forced to find other forms of income. Today, most people here make money from selling cacao for about 77 U.S. cents a kilogram (35 cents per pound), residents told Mongabay, which they grow in their nearby community gardens.

But since the price of gasoline for the boats is so high, at nearly $1 per liter ($3.50/gallon), many say the cost of taking the cacao to the nearest market in the town of Tiputini, two hours downriver that uses 5.5 liters (1.5 gallons) of gasoline, doesn’t result in much profit. They also say the option of hunting is less feasible than before, since the animals have been chased away by the noise of the construction and drilling. Many of the families live off yucca and plantains that they also grow in their community gardens.

Llanchama resident Holmer Machoa, Andres’s son, has been leading the fight against the extractive industry in his community. He says neither the oil company nor the government informed the residents of the environmental impacts that seismic testing and the resulting oil extraction could have on the environment. Most of the community now regrets voting in favor of oil extraction, he adds.

The Ministry of Energy and Non-renewable Natural Resources, the government body that manages Petroamazonas, did not respond to Mongabay’s various requests for comment.

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