Ecuador’s government yesterday issued oil drilling permits for the Yasuni reserve, a U.N. listed biosphere reserve in the western part of the country. Despite calls for a referendum on the issue and a failed international fundraising campaign to keep the oil in the ground, production could begin as soon as 2016.

In 2007, Ecuador offered the world a unique opportunity to help preserve the Yasuni region. It pledged not to extract the area’s vast oil reserves in exchange for donations equivalent to half the value of the oil in the ground. The asking price was US$3.6 billion, but by August 2013 Ecuadorian President Rafael Correa said only $13 million had been raised and he scrapped the program. At the time he stated, “The world has failed us.”

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With the first permits signed yesterday, access roads and camps will now be built by Petroamazonas, a subsidiary of the state-run oil company. Work will begin in what is known as block 43, a 6,500-square-mile reserve. Work was also approved for another area, block 31. It is anticipated that the areas will produce 225,000 barrels of oil a day when fully operational, a little under half of the country’s current production levels. Correa claims that the drilling will affect only 0.1 percent of the total Yasuni basin area. He also states the estimated $22 billion raised from oil production in the region will be used to alleviate poverty in the developing nation.

While the government insists that every measure will be taken to minimize impacts on the forest ecosystems and the area’s two indigenous groups who live there in relative isolation, many are not convinced measures will be adequate. “We want them to respect our territory. Let us live how we want,” Waorani representative Alicia Cauilla stated. Environmental activist Esperanza Martinez was also quoted as saying that Petroamazonas has a terrible record of oil spills. In addition to potential environmental disasters on the ground, it is estimated that the oil produced will release 407 million tonnes of CO2 into the atmosphere.

Via The Guardian, The Huffington Post and Reuters

Photos by Sara y Tzunki and Alexander Farley via Flickr