Rock Center   |  May 03, 2013

Oil boom threatens Amazon tribesmen

Wauroni tribesmen, who live in the rainforest of Ecuador, are getting ready to challenge the Ecuadorian government’s plan to auction as much as 8 million acres of rainforest for oil drilling, saying they are prepared to fight to the death to protect the land. NBC’s Ann Curry reports.

Share This:

This content comes from Closed Captioning that was broadcast along with this program.

>> finds ann curry in the middle of a confrontation that is quite literally david versus goliath in, as you may have figured out by now, one of the most remote jungles on earth and it turns out we all play a role in this fight which hits uncomfortably close to home .

>> reporter: under the expanse of ecuador 's rainfort canopy, the richness of a garden of eden . teaming with plants and creatures, known, rain and still undiscovered. but as bountiful as it is above the forest floor another wealth lies beneath, endangering the wildlife and the way of life for some of the most reclusive people on the plan in the. some never even seen by the outside world . and because of this, a bottle is brewing in this paradise. people here say it has everything to do with us in the outside world and our way of life .

>> how could that be? to find out, we traveled by water, land and air deep in to the amazon rainforest , landing in a village called bomeno to find the rarely seen people of the tribe. we are met by wary tribal leaders who nevertheless greet us with a gift. they are more stone age than modern age . they are skilled in the ways of survival in the rainforest , encourage their children to grow up deeply connected to nature so they can understand its creatures, great and small. and above all, honor the ways of their ancestors. it's when we hear this song that we understand why they are so ready to fight. he's singing "we are not going to lose our culture. we are going to protect our land" the song is about the threat of oil drilling , which they fear will destroy life as they know it. their fears are not unfounded. the government of ecuador just launched a new oil boom taking bids for drilling rights on 8 million acres of the rainforest including on some tribal lands. that's where our role in this battle comes in. america for years has consistently been the number one oil importer from ecuador to make plastic, fuel our cars and heat our homes.

>> we are definitely guilty in the story. no matter how remotely removed we are from what is going on here, the u.s. citizens are at least a portion of the problem here.

>> reporter: few people know more about this rainforest and the people living in it than boston university biology professor kelly swing. he set up a research center in the remote part of the rainforest . the most biodiverse population in the world.

>> we have a greater density of pew mas,s of lots.

>> and 80% of the wildlife in the rainforest has never been documented by scientists. as if to prove his point, hiesking through the forest we stumble upon not just any tarantula.

>> markings sets it apart.

>> reporter: it turns out to be a species unknown to science.

>> we need to make a specimen available so that this species can come to have a scientific name .

>> reporter: the professor's discoveries have become a race against time and now he's sounding the alarm.

>> i'm really starting to have this sense of dread that this place is extremely threatened. the things you seep here you could never see inside the forest .

>> reporter: to show us what he means, he leads us up a spiraling tower above the forest canopy . we hear the sounds of exotic birds. oh, my goodness but also something else.

>> there is an industrial hum coming from the north here.

>> reporter: it's a sound of oil production which first brings the road that he says are the greatest threat to the forest . he says they cut like daggers in to the landscape and as evidence he showed us these before and after photos.

>> this chain reaction begins with the opening of an access road . as you start to have some commerce it spreads and spreads and spreads until you end up with nothing left.

>> reporter: we travelled to the area where those photos were taken. a place the professor believes was one a rainforest even more biodiverse today it is an oil town with gas clouds that kill species vital to the food chain . donald became an anti-oil activist after spills and open sludge pits like this one contaminated ground water and he says made people sick. he's part of a massive multibillion dollar lawsuit against texaco, now owned by chevron, which ended operations in ecuador some 20 years ago. chevron says it cleaned up its share of polluted sites and the sites pose no significant health risks and the ecuador ran company is responsible for remaining contamination. that is small comfort for him. he wades in to a pit of oil waste and carries back thick sludge. smells pretty bad. see how far back it goes. this pit is more than half of the size of a football field and judging from a branch, he plunges in to it.

>> oh, man, all the way.

>> it is also at least six feet deechl environmentalists say billions of gallons of oil and toxic waste were left behind by oil companies between '64 and '90. in fact, more oil has been spilled in this rainforest than alaska's exxon valdez disaster. while he worries about what's to come, he shows us on a map how widespread oil drilling is inside of tsuni. he says it surrounds his people. his message to the golf, let us live in peace and we will be guardians of the forest . we want to leave it with our children. but it may not be that simple. ecuador 's vice president --

>> if ecuador were in a position to provide for all of the needs of its people we would be happy not to exploit it. however, that's not the case.

>> reporter: up to 50% of ecuador 's revenues come from amazon oil and the vice president asks, how a government can give up revenue that pays for roads, schools and social programs just to preserve the culture of a small portion of the population? still another government official yvonne bacci, an environmental minister is not completely in line with ecuador 's oil- central government .

>> why is money just important? what about the human, the people.

>> reporter: she has seen the human cost of oil drilling firsthand.

>> people, many of them have died because of the diseases and it's very sad.

>> reporter: you acknowledge then that people have died because of pollution.

>> of course. and the streets are not as clean as it should.

>> reporter: she is spear heading an effort to preserve the yasuni rainforest . the offer they would not pump out $8 billion worth of oil if the rest of the world donates to trust finds it.

>> would be an example to the world.

>> reporter: 3 million of the required $4 billion has been pledged. the u.s. has not contributed so far. but it won't protect another tribe we visited. the government has told them to expect oil operations to begin at anytime. they believe the spirits of their ancestors live on in the forest . and they say they will fight alongside their men to protect it. their tribe of 423 is ready for a last stand. tribal leader also a shaumen healer says they believe they have no choice.

>> my godfather protected this land and my father said you need to protect. if i am leaving i'm going to fight for my community.

>> as long as you are alive you will fight for your community.

>> yes.

>> you feel so strongly?

>> yes.

>> reporter: he sees no difference between the survival of the forest and the survival of his people and the government sees no way for the drilling to stop.

>> reporter: sif confronted with indigenous people with spears, would ecuador use force?

>> translator: according to international law , if dialogue fails, there is a process of escalation of the use of force .

>> reporter: they are clearly out matched in this looming battle. defeat maybe inevitable. but these leaders say they still won't back down. he says we have trees. we have forests. we have rivers and with that strength we will fight. and if we have to, we will die for this. they are reaching out to the world over the internet and sharpening their spears, making poison darts for their blow guns and waiting. witnessing it all, professor kelly swing says what's playing out here, unknown to most of the outside world , could forever destroy one of earth's greatest treasures and the culture of an ancient people.

>> i definitely see this as a human rights issue. i think it is very sad to say that most human rights issues don't really come to be recognized as human rights issues until people start to die.

>> ann curry 's report tonight from one of the most beautiful places on earth, the rainforest in ecuador .