Ecuador signs deal for oil drilling in sensitive Amazon park
Companies could start extracting crude under key biodiversity reserve by 2016
Drilling for oil in a part of the Amazon rainforest considered one of the most biodiverse hotspots on the planet is to go ahead after Ecuador's president lifted a moratorium on oil drilling there.
Last August, Rafeal Correa scrapped a pioneering scheme, the Yasuni Ishpingo-Tambococha-Tiputini (ITT) initiative, to keep oil in the ground under a corner of the Yasuni national park in return for donations from the international community.
Correa said only US$13 million of the US$3.6 billion goal had been given, and that "the world has failed us", giving the green light to drilling.
On Thursday, Environment Minister Lorena Tapia said permits for drilling had been signed for the 16,800 sq km reserve, known as block 43, and oil production might begin as early as 2016.
The permits allow Petroamazonas, a subsidiary of the state oil company, to begin building access roads and camps to prepare for drilling.
Environmental activist Esperanza Martinez said Petroamazonas had a bad record on oil spills and it could not be trusted to drill safely in the Yasuni-ITT.
Ecuador's government this month rejected a petition calling for abandoning plans for drilling in the area, saying the organisers had failed to get enough signatures to trigger a referendum.
The petition's backers accused the government of fraud after only 359,762 signatures of about 850,000 submitted were deemed genuine - the threshold for forcing a referendum is 583,323.
The ITT block of the Yasuni park, where the drilling will go ahead, is home to two uncontacted tribes.
It is a Unesco site, and one hectare of the area is home to a richer mix of trees, birds, amphibians, and reptiles than the US and Canada put together.
Oil drilling has been taking place in the wider Yasuni national park for decades, dating back to Shell in the 1940s. In 2012, access roads had already been built in blocks neighbouring Ishpingo-Tambococha-Tiputini.