Oil Roads to Ecological Ruin: Ecuador's Bushmeat and Wildlife Trade Print

By Sean Mowbray

The building of oil roads into the Amazon has led to unsustainable indigenous hunting, fed an illegal bushmeat market, possibly facilitated the pet trade, and is emptying rainforests of wildlife.

  • Oil companies build extensive road systems to service drilling operations in Ecuador, and they often offer gifts of vehicles, canoes, outboard motors and guns to indigenous people, enabling hunters to hunt more efficiently to feed the illegal bushmeat trade.
  • Studies in Ecuador show that roads create exposure to a market economy, upsetting the equilibrium that exists in indigenous cultures. Hunting becomes a commercial pursuit, and wildlife populations quickly plummet.
  • A study of the Maxus road that penetrates Yasuni National Park, found that it resulted in new indigenous settlements along the road and a shift of Waorani hunters from sustainable hunting practices to unsustainable commercial hunting. Both prey and predator wildlife species numbers dropped precipitously near the oil road.

Ecuador's troubled relationship with oil began in 1964, when Texaco first discovered 'black gold' in the Eastern Amazon. That discovery led to some times violent cultural clashes between modern society and indigenous people, who were forcibly removed from isolation, and uprooted from their homes and traditional ways of life.

Today, the Ecuadorian Amazon makes up 80% of the country's remaining forest cover, but oil exploitation, which depends heavily on new road construction, continues to threaten previously untouched rainforest. New roads continue to impact indigenous culture as well, making sustainable hunting practices unsustainable and gravely threatening endemic wildlife.

The slow degradation of Yasuni National Park, established in July 1979, is a case in point. Located in far eastern Ecuador, Yasuni was designated a UNESCO Biosphere Reserve in 1989, and when combined with the adjacent Waorani Ethnic Reserve covers about 6,500 square miles. It is a treasure house of global biodiversity; researchers have counted nearly as many tree species on just 2.5 acres inside the preserve, as are found in the entire U.S. and Canada combined. The region also happens to be underlain by an estimated 850 million barrels of crude oil, some 20% of Ecuador's reserve.

In 1992, the Maxus Oil Company cut a road into Yasuni, penetrating Ecuador's northeast Amazon. The road triggered a series of cascading events that, according to one study, culminated in members of the previously semi-nomadic Waorani tribe becoming settled commercial hunters — turning a sustainable hunting lifestyle into an unsustainable one that is depleting wildlife.

Oil road to declining biodiversity

Although the Maxus road was closed to the public, the Waorani could legally pass freely along it. This gave the tribe easy access to hunting grounds previously reachable only on foot and with great difficulty. This enabled them to hunt more efficiently and kill more animals over a bigger area than ever before. The Waorani, intensely proud hunters and warriors, located new settlements near the Maxus Road to maximize their access.

Ocata_Waorani_cazadorOcata, an adept Waorani hunter, is enticed by outside markets to use his traditional skills to acquire modern goods, but the forest simply cannot sustain this enhanced level of harvest. Photo courtesy of Kelly Swing.

The indigenous hunters were not hunting illegally. Traditional subsistence hunting for bushmeat, or carne del monte, among indigenous Ecuadoreans is permitted and remains the primary source of protein for many indigenous communities. However, when the Waorani began to sell their excess catch, the act became illegal.

An illegal trade in carne de monte began soon after the road opened in the small town of Pompeya, just five kilometers (3 miles) outside the Yasuni park boundary. Dr. Esteban Suarez, a researcher at the Universidad de San Francisco Quito, and his team studied the market for seven years and found that the indigenous tribes were hunting bushmeat in unsustainable quantities. By 2007, nearly 12,000 kilograms (13 tons US) of bushmeat was being sold at the market per year.

The team's study, published in 2009 in the journal Animal Conservation, found that four species accounted for 80% of the meat sold: white-lipped peccary (Tayassu pecari); paca (Cuniculus paca); collared peccary (Pecari tajacu), and the woolly monkey (Lagothrix poeppigii). The Woolly monkey is listed as Vulnerable by the IUCN and its populations are decreasing. Those selling the animals in the town were overwhelmingly indigenous Waroani or Kichwa, with non-indigenous settlers selling only 5% of the total weight in meat sold.

Oil roads increase hunting, reduce prey and predator species

The shift from nomadic self-sufficiency to commercialised hunting sent ripples throughout ecosystems in the vicinity of the Maxus road.

A follow up study by Suarez compared wildlife densities along the much older Auca road — built in the 1970s by Texaco — and the Maxus road. Researchers found that the species sold most at market, plus other species including predators, were absent along both roads, regardless of the "closed" nature of the Maxus road, which protected the forest but did not preserve wildlife.

nina_WaoraniA Waorani girl with a peccary. In traditional societies such animals are often kept as pets, a tendency that has over time been widely adopted by Ecuadorian society in general. In areas close to oil roads prey species such as peccaries are much diminished, as are the predator species that hunt them. Image courtesy of Santiago Espinosa

"What I have observed is that the areas where bushmeat hunting is intense, have much less jaguar abundance," Dr. Santiago Espinosa, of the Pontificia Universidad Católica del Ecuador, told mongabay.com. Espinosa conducted a camera trap study on jaguar populations in the Maxus road vicinity.

"The Maxus road has about a sixth, or even less, jaguars than areas that are remote where you have more prey for them," Espinosa said. Yasuni National Park is considered a 'hotspot' for jaguars, but clearly, the big cats are threatened by oil roads along which indigenous hunters have largely eliminated prey species.

The driving force behind the bushmeat trade, as with any illicit trade, is demand. And the demand for bushmeat is deeply ingrained in the culture of Ecuador, with little sign of abating. Bushmeat is sought after for many reasons. Tourists seek a taste of 'el sabor Amazonico'; locals see health benefits in the wild meat; and for indigenous and mestizo people, who have become "trapped" in urban areas far from their native home, Suarez suggests that bushmeat provides a sense of nostalgia. "I guess that eating [bush] meat for them is like eating that hearty soup that reminds you of your mom and of the time when you were little," he theorized.

In terms of volume, the Pompeya market is not in the same league as Peru's Iquitos market which sells over 70,000 kilograms (77 tons US) of bushmeat per year, but it is important at a local, and perhaps a regional level. Nearly half of the meat from Pompeya finds its way to dinner plates in the nearby urban centers of Puyo, Lago Agrio and Tena, according to Suarez's study.

In the wake of Suarez's findings, authorities in the Ministerio del Ambiente (MAE) took action to shut down the Pompeya market. They've had a lot of success. "Now [bushmeat] cannot be sold openly as was the case some years ago," Suarez reported.

But the trade still exists. According to the most recent MAE figures, nearly 680 kilograms (1,500 pounds US) of bushmeat were seized during 120 enforcement operations across the Amazonian region in 2012. Those seizures continue to be made, and don't take into account what enforcers don't find to confiscate.

"It has become an underground activity, and you can still find [bushmeat] in local restaurants and markets if you know who to ask," said Suarez. "So, we have some evidence suggesting that it has decreased a little bit, but it is still happening."

AtelesSpider monkeys (Ateles Belzebuth), sometimes kept as pets by indigenous families, are primates with stereotypically low reproductive capacity, which means they are easily overhunted and disappear quickly with the inidgenous acculturation process. Photo courtesy of Kelly Swing.

New bushmeat trafficking routes have emerged as a means of avoiding MAE enforcement. Espinoza has witnessed the new methods first hand: "I have travelled in the bus with the Waorani who come from inside Yasuni and along the Maxus road." He said.

"What they do is take a little detour, and take down from the bus the bushmeat and hand it to the people of the Kichwa village." From there the meat finds its way by secret routes to hidden markets, from which it makes its way to middlemen who transport it to cities to fetch higher prices. "It's difficult to track it," said Suarez, but "it's possible to see it, if you are in the bus with the Waorani. Otherwise you cannot see it."

The transformational power of oil and roads

The impacts of oil companies usually focus on what is extracted from an area, or on oil spills. But little analysis is given to the impacts of technology inserted into an oil-rich area. When oil companies roll in, the first thing they usually do is carve a road through the forest. They also often make promises to indigenous communities — sometimes broken — in return for permission to drill on ancestral lands.

Along with the roads and promises, companies offer 'gifts.' Motorized vehicles, canoes, outboard motors, deadly accurate hunting rifles and ammunition have all been among the presents given by oil companies. All of these provide easier access to remote areas of forest, or increase hunting efficiency in areas already opened up by road expansion.

Such gifts shatter the sustainable balance that once existed between wild species and hunters who formerly used bows and arrows and travelled on foot. Indigenous people suddenly have the mobility and weaponry to devastate the Ecuadorean Amazon's wildlife populations, while improving their livelihoods. Of course, these hunters must now begin to pay for gasoline and bullets, which requires more money, which requires more hunting — launching a vicious economic cycle.

"When an individual receives a gift, receiving the gift would be in quotations marks, right? Because this is not really a gift, it's a bribe," Espinosa said. "If the oil company doesn't give a gift, the Waorani will block any kind of [oil] activity. So it becomes a very toxic relationship."

While conducting his own research, Espinosa was confronted with the legacy of oil company gift-giving. Some aggressive Waorani demanded payment in return for not sabotaging his research project. The gifts given are "subsidising" the bushmeat trade, according to Espinosa, a contention echoed by Suarez's study.

Roads alter indigenous values and can lead to wildlife trafficking

Prior to contact, poverty, wealth and manufactured objects were not of great importance to indigenous peoples such as the Waorani. The 'things' they now desire are 'artefacts of modernity' that have become an 'aspiration and a preoccupation' for tribes people — a huge, sudden shift in their culture. That's according to Dr. Kelly Swing, founder and director of the Tiputini Biodiversity Station. Thrust from isolation into a cash economy without any recourse to income, the Waorani hunters have little or no option but to use their traditional skills to earn money. Provided with new weapons, a means of transport and an open route to markets, the choice seems simple: hunt more.

In a comparative study between two indigenous tribes, the Waorani in Ecuador and the Bagyoli in Cameroon, Swing analysed the impact of acculturation, the process by which 'remote' tribes are brought into 'modernity', whether forcibly or otherwise. Prior to contact, indigenous peoples of the world more often than not live in a state of equilibrium with the environment.

Swing suggests that an "odd perception of the 'noble savage' as natural guardian" is deeply rooted in Ecuador. He believes the suggestion that indigenous peoples will always use resources sustainably, despite significant changes to their circumstances, no longer holds true in many places.

"This [perception] falls apart pretty soon with the acculturation process," he said. "Access to [modern] markets provides an incentive to use skills that already exist to produce cash needed for goods for the outside," he told mongabay.com.

Espinosa explains pre-contact indigenous hunting relationships as a source — sink dynamic. A "source area" is basically one that experiences little or no hunting, where birth rates of wild species exceed death rates, whereas a "sink area" is the opposite. "Within a hunting system in a protected area you can have this dynamic," said Espinosa. Animals "can move from areas that are sources to areas that are sinks. And in that sense the system can be maintained... because the [wildlife] populations can be replenished by animals coming from the source areas."

JaguarJaguar populations fell dramatically along the Maxus road after its construction, probably due to steeply declining prey numbers. Photo by Rhett Butler.

When roads break into a region, and hunters can move easily beyond their previous geographical limits, the dynamic can shift, and the delicate balance between hunter and hunted is disturbed. "The important thing about this system is we have a large enough source area so we have enough animals that can move into the sink area. If the sink area becomes bigger than the source area, what will happen is that we don't have enough source and eventually [animal] populations will disappear."

Put simply, exposure to a market economy upsets the equilibrium that exists in indigenous cultures. Hunting becomes a commercial pursuit, and wildlife populations quickly plummet. It's important to note that hunting can be for the bushmeat trade, or to provide culinary delicacies in the form of turtle meat or eggs to regional cities or to markets as distant as China; or to provide tropical birds or fish to the international pet trade.

No matter the form wildlife trafficking takes, the result is the same. Indigenous hunters, supplied with modern weapons and transport, and with a strong economic incentive, can quickly empty forests and rivers of wildlife. And when law enforcement cracks down, the hunters will often seek out black market traffickers — criminals expert in moving illegal goods — with whom they can trade. Those traffickers are often expert in moving a range of goods, ranging from bushmeat and live animals for the pet trade, to weapons, drugs, and even human beings destined for illegal markets.

While it is proven that the Waorani and other indigenous peoples in eastern Ecuador are involved in supplying the domestic bushmeat trade, it is still largely unknown and undocumented as to their participation in supplying the international pet trade or gourmet food trade.

Disappearing wilderness, vanishing wildlife

Swing's Tiputini Station was originally envisaged as a place where nature could be studied without the complicating inputs of a human footprint. "We wanted to be good neighbors to everyone in the region — without actually having neighbors," he wrote in a blog post for National Geographic. "To put it simply, we wanted to be able to study and teach about nature itself, not human impacts on nature."

Now, his "patch of forest" is under threat, as his previously distant neighbors come to him.

Although he doesn't believe extensive hunting is occurring within Tiputini's 6.5 square kilometer (2.5 square mile) boundary, ominous images of hunters armed with shotguns have been caught by the station's camera traps.

deforestacinSettlements and deforestation along a road in the Napo River in the Ecuadorian Amazon. Photo by Jeremy Hance.

"Along the river in our vicinity, we are aware of the taking of a variety of mammals and birds," he said. One of the worst victims of hunting are black caiman (Melanosuchus niger). Previously abundant along the station's adjoining river, the caimans declined as boat traffic increased, and are now nearly locally extinct. While the black caiman is a species listed as being Of Least Concern by the IUCN at present, it is such winnowing away of animals throughout their range that eventually pushes them toward oblivion — local extinctions compound until they become global extinctions.

"Until oil companies provided road access and transportation in trucks, or in the form of gifts [such as canoes and outboard motors] for pacification of native neighbors, no one came to our patch of forest," said Swing. "Nowadays, it is easier for hunters to visit our area."

It's not only bushmeat coming out of the Amazon along oil roads, but live animals to feed an extensive domestic trade and the international market. This trade is considered by some researchers to be a by-product of the bushmeat trade.

According to MEA figures, nearly 8000 animals were rescued from Amazon trafficking between 2003 and 2013, and sent to rehabilitation centers in Ecuador. The largest numbers of live animals illegally traded for the pet trade were reptiles, followed by mammals and birds.

These animals find their way to all areas of Ecuador, where a long tradition of keeping wild animals as pets is deeply ingrained. While this is slowly changing, it will take time and a lot of awareness-building to convince a sceptical public that keeping exotic pets at home is endangering populations in the wild.

"Ten years ago, it was very common for people to have a pet monkey or [tropical] bird, and it was not frowned upon," Frank Weijand, founder of the Merazonia wildlife rescue centre based near Puyo, told mongabay.com. "Nowadays, awareness campaigns, along with an already growing national consensus that wild animals do not belong in homes, have diminished their presence in households."

From bushmeat to pet trade

Ecuador's comprehensive criminal code was updated in February of 2014 to specifically include crimes against wild flora and fauna. A person who traffics or markets threatened, endangered and migratory species can now be punished with imprisonment from one to three years.

derrame_de_petroleoOil roads are followed by oil wells and oil pipelines, and then often by oil spills. In remote areas around the world, oil spills such as this one in the heart of Yasuni Nationa Park, are common but they rarely receive any attention from the media. These events degrade the environment and diminish wildlife. Photo by Kelly Swing.

Despite these new laws, Suarez says wildlife crime is given "the lowest priority that you could imagine," in Ecuador. He recalls the case of a video released early in 2015, in which local government officials were shown celebrating the successful hunt of an endangered Andean bear.

"It is gruesome, and the bear is sort of crucified, while the people chant and laugh around the corpse," Suarez said. In the video people of the town can be heard to shout "Viva el Alcade" and "Viva el Vicealcalde."

"The ministry of Environment announced an investigation," Suarez said. "But nothing happened in the end because the authorities involved in the incident are from the ruling party."

Speculation is that those gathering animals for the pet trade are often the same indigenous hunters who hunt bushmeat. Live animals are likely captured along the same oil roads, transported along many of the same secret trade routes, and handled by the same black market middlemen as the traded bushmeat. Animals captured for the pet trade likely end up in an Ecuadorian shop or home, or may be smuggled out of the country to foreign markets. However, documenting this illegal clandestine trade is difficult and much more research is needed.

"Most of the animals we confiscated were from small markets and private homes," Gloudina Joy Greenacre told mongabay.com. She has worked extensively with animal rescue centers in Ecuador's Pestaza region.

Greenacre claims that hunting for the pet trade by indigenous people is common because they look for "opportunities, and what they have most is jungle, so they use whatever is in the jungle". She believes, however, that blame should not be placed on those who hunt, and that that the problem is not even one of law enforcement. Rather, in Ecuador there is a deeply engrained culture of animal use that has normalised the consumption of bushmeat and the keeping of exotic animals as pets.

She explains how in the Puyo region, the mores of some indigenous culture have been accepted by society to the degree that certain practices, such as hunting, are no longer seen as unusual. "The governor was sometimes defending some rescue center, then you can see them wearing jaguar skin or walking in a parade using anacondas wrapped around the indigenous people."

"At the start, I was an activist and I was standing up to the hunters and the people who were selling in the markets," She said. "But that wasn't the problem. The problem isn't the people selling [animals] at the local scale. It's definitely a problem of culture and education."

Oil roads making new Amazon inroads

In 2012, it was discovered that an oil company had illegally carved an immense new road deep into Yasuni National Park, to reach Block 31 in the Ecuadorean rainforest. The Ecuadorian government had only approved the Block 31 drilling site under the condition that the area around it remained roadless, with all equipment brought in by helicopter. This was done to protect Yasuni's extraordinary biodiversity. High-resolution satellite imagery revealed that the PetroAmazonas oil company, or its predecessor, violated the pledge with a massive road into the site.

mono_ninaNina, a woolly monkey (lagothrix logotricha), was confiscated during a raid on a hotel by Ecuador's MEA and, according to Frank Weijand, unleashed a "Braveheart like cry of freedom" when she was released from her tight harness. Image courtesy of Frank Weijand, founder of the Merazonia wildlife rescue centre based near Puyo.

Dr. Matt Finer and his research team, using satellite images, documented the full extent of the new road and found that less than 6% was below the agreed upon 15 meter width of a flowline, the pipeline access approved by the government. PetroAmazonas is Ecuador's state-run oil company; they have denied the existence of any new roads, stating that they were only "ecological trails."

For the moment, the "non-existent" Block 31 road is closed, and guarded by the military, making it nearly impossible for the public and researchers alike to gain access. But a precedent appears to have been set. The road has, as shown by Finer's work, pushed beyond any semblance of an 'ecological trail.' Satellite imagery clearly shows large trucks moving along a wide highway through the rainforest.

More recently, in 2014, Ecuador green lighted Petroamazonas' plans to drill in the Ishpingo-Tambococha-Tiputni concession, or ITT oil block — Block 43 located in the country's Amazon region and partially overlapping Yasuni National Park. It is still unclear whether the company will build roads into the site or not, but conservationists are skeptical of the project.

The clandestine road built into Block 31 gives reason to doubt Petroamazonas' intentions, said Finer in a February 2015 Mongabay article. "[O]ne of the most critical components to implementation of the offshore inland development model is ensuring that the flowline or pipeline corridor is not used as an access road. That is what is happening now in Block 31 and likely to be repeated [in Yasuni National Park's ITT Block]."

The eventual impacts of the Block 31 road — or of drilling in the ITT Block — upon wildlife and trafficking are unknowable at present. Much rests on the Ecuadorian government maintaining its promise to keep the Block 31 road sealed. The government has, thus far, kept settlers out of the area, but Santiago Espinosa is not optimistic for the future.

"If that road ever gets connected to the main network, well you can expect that you will have some serious [ecological and wildlife] degradation in the area," he said. Stopping indigenous colonization along the new road, particularly by the Waorani, would be "very hard."

"I hope the [government] succeeds, because otherwise it will be another Maxus road, no doubt about it."

Scientific evidence now shows that oil company roads, pressed deeply into forests, are a first step toward ecological degradation. With those highways come permanent indigenous settlements, the end of sustainable subsistence hunting, and the exploitation of the bushmeat trade. While more research is needed to confirm the role of such roads in facilitating in-country and international wildlife trafficking, conservationists are deeply concerned. It remains to be seen whether the Ecuadorian government and oil companies can operate deep in the Amazon without seriously undermining the region's precious biodiversity.


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