For Washington and Lee University professor James Kahn, last week's announcement that Ecuador will begin drilling for oil in a portion of Yasuni National Park was alarming. But Kahn is less concerned about the potential impact on the total Amazonian system and more concerned about local environmental problems and the likely impact on indigenous populations.
Kahn, the John F. Hendon Professor of Economics at W&L, heads the University's interdisciplinary department of environmental studies. He has been affiliated with the Universidade Federal do Amazonas (Manaus, Brazil) since 1992, where he has, with colleagues there and with W&L faculty and students, been conducting research on issues of environmental preservation and sustainable development in the Amazon watershed.
Consequently, Kahn is intimately familiar with environmental threats to the rainforest system in the Amazon. He says that the implications of the decision to open oil drilling in the Yasuni Park are not that great because it is such a small area — only about 4,000 square miles of rainforest.
"In terms of the threat to rainforest in total or the threat to green house gas emissions, it's not that high," he said. "It's the local effects that potentially devastating. There is an indigenous group that lives in that national park. They are likely to suffer contamination of their water from oil and from chemicals used in the drilling process. They are likely to lose access to fish, which is their primary source of protein. And there are likely to be very negative social consequences associated with this type of activity."
Kahn said that Ecuador has a history of problems with oil production. It was, he said, "a colossal mess" that has resulted in "a historical legacy of great abuse of the environment of oil production in Ecuador."
Oil production, he added, is never risk free. But with redundancies in safety features and equipment and personnel onsite for immediate cleanup, impact from accidents can be minimized. Kahn was part of a team led by Brazilian professors Alexandre Rivas and Carlos Freitas (both collaborating professors at W&L) that led a 10-year project to look at the social and environmental aspects of oil production in the Brazilian portion of the Amazon.
"Most of the recommendations that our team made were followed by Petrobras, including avoiding areas of unusual biodiversity, not allowing roads along the pipeline, and servicing the pipeline by robots and helicopters," he said. "But Brazil has a higher state of technological and scientific expertise than Ecuador, and solutions that would work in countries like Brazil or the United States won't necessarily work in a country like Ecuador."
Although the Ecuadorian government was willing to forgo oil production if they received $3.6 billion to protect the environment, only $13 million was donated. Kahn does not believe that this represents a lack of concern in other countries for the Amazonian ecosystem, but simply that the price was too high. The price was based on the value of the forgone oil production, not the value of the ecosystem or the cost of preserving it. For $3.6 billion, one should be able to protect hundreds of thousands of square miles of forest. It is not surprising that foreign governments and NGOs were not willing to contribute to this fund, he said.
Kahn thinks that hydroelectric facilities are a greater threat to the Amazon than oil drilling. "There are dozens of hydroelectric projects planned for the Andean portion of the Amazon and 58 projects planned for the Brazilian portion of the Amazon. These projects, such as the widely criticized Belo Monte project, have the potential to have much greater environmental effects," he said.
Jeffery G. Hanna
Executive Director of Communications and Public Affairs