Pristine Amazon jungle threatened by big oil firm

This month, Peru granted Mobil a deadline extension on a decision to

Mobil may have struck black gold - natural gas that is - in one of the most unspoiled and biodiverse valleys in the Amazon. But it may neither choose nor be allowed to extract it.

Mobil has until the end of February to do more exploration and analyze data to determine whether it will release its claim on the Candamo Valley - a 350,000-acre hidden valley that is home to crystal-clean water, jaguars, pumas, tapirs, and anaconda - or whether it will hold it for future development.

The recent announcement has heightened the tension in a national debate as to whether this coveted valley should be declared a national park or remain in private hands for hydrocarbon development, and further exploration for energy resources, like oil and natural gas.

"It is not the worst news. It's gas and not petroleum, the lesser of two evils. But it's not the best news either, which would have been that they found nothing," says Daniel Winitzky, who made a television documentary about Candamo and is considered by many to be the valley's foremost defender.

The Candamo Valley, often referred to as the last jungle without humans, benefits from the natural protection of the steep mountains surrounding it and its extremely difficult river access. For the past half century there has been virtually no human presence in the valley until a consortium made up of Mobil, Exxon, and Elf, entered in 1996 to look for hydrocarbons.

"I think it is one of the most pristine ecosystems around," says biologist Carol Mitchell. "It is hard to get to and very isolated."

For these reasons, it's probably one of the last areas that's going to be utilized by people moving into the Amazon. Ms. Mitchell works for Conservation International, a US environmental organization, which was contracted by Mobil to monitor its exploration work in the area.

The research that Conservation International has done there shows that Candamo is, in fact, one of the most biodiverse areas in the southeastern Peruvian Amazon. Candamo is also home to a number of endangered and vulnerable species like giant otters and giant armadillos, a new species of fish, and possibly a new plant variety as well.

Despite the valley's remarkable ecological characteristics, it doesn't enjoy the protection of national park status. Originally, Candamo was slated to be included in the Bahuaja-Sonene National Park in southeastern Peru, but when the park was officially formed in 1996, Candamo had been written out of the limits. Conservationists say this was because Mobil was interested in exploring the area. Resource extraction is currently permitted in the Tambopata-Candamo Reserve.

Between May 1996 and May 1999, Mobil executed preliminary work in the valley. In the first phase it laid seismic lines. Based on the results of this phase, Mobil entered into a second phase in which it drilled a roughly 130-foot well on a nearly five-acre swath of land beneath which it expected to find oil.

On Sept.18, the government announced that Mobil may have found as much as 1.3 to 2 trillion cubic feet of natural gas in the valley.

At this point, environmental damage has been relatively low. Mobil has not built any roads into the valley, accessing it solely by helicopter. There was one minor accident in the valley when heavy rains caused a small landslide on the hill where Mobil's well was located. Nonetheless, Mitchell says that the overall impact of the exploratory phase on the ecosystem of Candamo has been "minimal."

But should Mobil decide to move into the development phase, that would be a different story. "I think even if an oil company does things in the best way possible with all the best technology available in 1999, they are not able to guarantee that there won't be an accident, and an accident could mean that we could lose this place forever," says filmmaker Mr. Winitzky.

Mobil's office in Lima refused multiple requests for an interview on the issue of Candamo. A clause of the law that formed Bahuaja-Sonene National Park allows for Candamo to be included in it in the future, if it is released from Mobil's contract. And that is precisely what the majority of Peruvians would like to see happen, according to a recent poll.

Peru's decision to grant a deadline extension has roused suspicion that the government is quite anxious to pursue exploration and eventual financial benefits, despite popular opinion.

In June, Mayeutica, the Peruvian research firm that has done polls for companies like Coca-Cola and Procter and Gamble among others, included two questions on Candamo in a national poll they conducted of 18- to 70-year-olds across the country. Of the people interviewed, 75 percent knew what Candamo is, and of those, 84 percent said it should be declared a national park, while 16 percent said it should be drilled for oil.

But the decision is not up to Peruvian citizens. "What is so incredible about this situation is that the decision is in the hands of a multinational corporation," Winitzky says. "I think that oil companies would also benefit greatly in terms of image by having contributed in the protection of an area of such high ecological value."

(c) Copyright 1999. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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