Friday, August 16, 2013

Humans Discover the Olinguito - and Condemn It?

An olinguito. (Photo: Smithsonian Magazine)
This week, the Smithsonian Institution announced the 'discovery' of a new species of carnivorous mammal, related to the raccoon, native to the cloud forests of Ecuador and Colombia. It's the first new carnivore species to be identified in the past 35 years.

Indigenous people walk thru Yasuni National Park.
Will oil drilling devastate their culture? 
Except that the olinguito isn't really new. Specimens had been studied in laboratories and even kept in zoos - where the keepers couldn't understand why they weren't interested in mating with other with their zoo companions. It turned out that zoologists had been confusing the olinguito with other, species in the olingo genus.

Ecuador's Yasuni National Park,
on the Colombian border.
Humans' tardy realization that the olinguitos were a distinct species in the olingo genus probably doesn't matter as much to the olinguitos as do peoples' other activities - their invasion and deforestation of the olinguitos' cloud forest habitat. Almost half of the little animals' habitat has already been destroyed by agriculture and urban development.

And that trend looks to accelerate with Ecuador's decision this week to open its vast Yasuni National Park to oil drilling. The park, which covers 9,820 square kilometers may be one of the most biodiverse places on earth, according to Wikipedia. In a single hectare, it has as many insect species as all of North America, as well as myriad bats, amphibians and mammals. Several groups of indigenous people also inhabit the park, living in voluntary isolation from outsiders.
How much impact? Mining titles
awarded by Colombian departments. 

But the park, a UNESCO Biosphere Reserve, also close to a billion barrels of oil. In 2007, the Ecuadorean government offered to leave that oil underground if other countries would pay Ecuador half of the oil's value, or more than 3 billion dollars. But Ecuador received only $13 million and more than $100 million in pledges.

"The world has failed us," Ecuadorean Pres. Rafael Correa said this week, and criticized rich countries' "hypocrisy."

Yasuni National Park at nightfall.
(Photo: Understory.ran)
Correa is right, of course. But one can also criticize Correa's policies as short-sighted and selfish. When it is burned, the oil will pump hundreds of millions of tons of global warming gases into the atmosphere, making Ecuador, a member of OPEC, even more of an accomplice in climate change. The drilling work will also trigger wide pollution and deforestation.

I don't think that the olinguito, which inhabits high-altitude regions, lives in Yasuni park. But Ecuador's decision is only the beginning of wider oil exploration and mining across the Amazon. Ecuador, in fact, is also opening huge areas adjoining the park to oil drilling. And Colombia, naturally, is opening its own wilderness areas to resource exploitation. (Coincidentally, this week Nicaragua also announced that it will open sea waters awarded to it last year by an international court to oil exploration. The waters are disputed by Colombia, which had barred oil exploration from the region, which contains the largest barrier reef in the Americas.)
A waterfall in Yasuni National Park.
(Photo: Sense and Sustainability)

Matt Finer of the Center for International Environmental Law told Britain's Guardian newspaper that Ecuador's decision was "deeply disappointing..."The Yasuni-ITT Initiative was the lone exception to the relentless expansion of hydrocarbon projects deeper into the most remote tracts of the western Amazon. Now there is really no viable alternative to stop the wave of drilling slated for the most biodiverse region of the world."

The olinguito may have entered human awareness only to be soon driven to extinction by human greed. And with it will go many other species still unknown to humanity.

By Mike Ceaser, of Bogotá Bike Tours


L fairfax said...

The problem with giving money to Ecuador to stop them drilling for oil, is that Correa is a chavista and so can't be trusted.
Giving them money would only save it for a few years sadly.

A great shame as I would have contributed to it.

Miguel said...

That's quite a generalization about 'chavistas.' I expect that he would have fulfilled his promise - otherwise, nobody would have given him more donations.


L fairfax said...

Correa refused to pay foreign debts because they were illegitimate

Do you really believe that his successor might not take the same attitude with any protected forest?

Look at what happened to foreigners living in Venezeula who lost everything when Chavez disliked them.

Miguel said...

Any president's succesor could refuse to pay debts. You can't blame Correa for that. And I think he's a different man from Chavez.


L fairfax said...

Of course I can blame Correa, he established the principle that Ecuador's treaty's are not binding.