Amazon Watch launch ‘Keep the oil in the ground’ campaign as world gears up for major climate change march

Environmental and indigenous rights NGO Amazon Watch launch new campaign calling for oil reserves in the Amazon rainforest to be left underground, coinciding with a major upcoming UN climate summit.

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Organisers have been planning what could be the largest ever global march in favour of action on climate change, the People’s Climate March, to take place this weekend (September 21st), to coincide with a high-level UN summit held at the global body’s New York headquarters, presided by Secretary General Ban-Ki Moon. The summit will see most of the world’s heads of state and government assemble on Tuesday September 23rd, in the most important such meeting since 2009, when world leaders tried and failed to reach a global agreement on tackling climate change in Copenhagen.

Using the welcome extra coverage that the topic of climate change action is receiving as a result of the summit and march, Amazon Watch, one of the most important international NGOs dealing with environmental and indigenous issues, has launched a new publicity campaign reiterating its call for the vast oil reserves known to lie under the Amazon rainforest, one of the most important and fragile ecosystems on the planet, to remain indefinitely underground. This is essential for the survival of the region’s countless plant and animal species, as well as for the cultural integrity and survival of some 400 distinct indigenous groups who have the Amazon rainforest as their ancestral home.

It would also be an absolutely vital step in order to bring down global carbon emissions and thus helping to fight climate change. Compelling research has shown that between 60-80% of the world’s known fossil fuel reserves need to be left in the ground, instead of being burned and thus resulting in vast amounts of carbon dioxide being released into the atmosphere, if the world is to limit global warming to within a 2°C temperature rise. Climate scientists believe that if this is surpassed, catastrophic climate change will likely ensue.

The Amazon rainforest is one of the planet’s most important ecosystems, and plays a vital role in helping to regulate the local and global climate by absorbing atmospheric carbon dioxide and releasing oxygen, as well as providing up to a fifth of the world’s freshwater resources. Photo via Amazon Watch.

The campaign from Amazon Watch consists of a petition to be signed by supporters and sent to international and civil society leaders at the upcoming summit, along with a four-minute promotional video (see above) which underlines the dangers of oil production for the Amazon, and features a series of personal messages from Nina Gualinga, an indigenous Sarayuku woman from the Ecuadorean Amazon.

The video highlights the role of the Amazon rainforest in supporting life, not just in providing for local inhabitants and ecosystems but on a global scale, as the ‘Lungs of the Earth’ – as it is sometimes known – absorbs carbon dioxide from the atmosphere and turns it into oxygen. As the largest rainforest system on the planet, it is estimated that a fifth of the world’s oxygen is generated by the trees of the Amazon, and a similar portion of the Earth’s fresh water ends up flowing through the Amazon Delta. Despite the rainforest’s vital role in helping to regulate the global climate, it is being “destroyed” by oil companies who are looking for “short-term economic gain”, in the words of the video’s narrator. This is a development that is fiercely opposed by local populations, but supported and enabled by local governments.

“Ecuador is not going to get out of poverty just because they come and drill for oil in the Amazon”, Nina Gualinga tells the viewer. “Ecuador is going to lose the only rainforest that we have left; it’s going to destroy cultures, and the environment, kill animals… That’s not getting out of poverty”. She makes an observation that many political scientists and opponents of unabated oil extraction have done before: that the regions where most oil extraction has taken place are also the ones with the most poverty, the least access to education, and the worst health problems.

The climate has already begun to change in the Ecuadorean Amazon, Gualinga says – a claim backed up by research and other observations by local populations living in that part of the Amazon. Seasons are the wrong way round and rain comes when it’s not meant to, or doesn’t come when it is meant to, which ends up affecting the entire ecosystem, according to Gualinga. The video’s narrator goes on to explain that this is not just a local issue – there are global implications due to the Amazon’s unique role in helping to regulate the world’s climate system.

The video also draws a link between the oil that is being extracted from the Amazon and elsewhere, and the carbon dioxide emissions that result from the combustion of fossil fuels and drive global warming. According to the narrator, the International Energy Agency (IEA) has said that at least half of the world’s reserves of oil, coal and other fossil fuels need to stay in the ground, otherwise global temperatures could lead to catastrophic climate change that would bring a serious risk of the global ecosystem suffering an “unstoppable collapse”. The fate of the Amazon is implicit in the chances of such a scenario being avoided: “It is from the Amazon that the breath of the world comes; without the Amazon, the world would not breathe”, as Gualinga’s grandfather apparently once put it to her.

Drilling for oil in the Amazon threatens the rainforest’s ecosystem and indigenous inhabitants, as well as undermining global efforts to combat climate change by limiting the amount of carbon dioxide released into the atmosphere through the burning of fossil fuels. Photo courtesy of Carol Foil via Flickr.

The video ends with a reminder that, however serious the situation may already be, it is not too late to act. Amazon Watch calls on “citizens from all over the world” to “come together and urge political leaders to keep the oil in the ground”. From here viewers are encouraged to sign the organisation’s latest petition, which reiterates many of the points made in the video and in the wider debate on climate change. It places more emphasis on the fate of the 400 or so ‘distinct indigenous peoples’ who have inhabited and protected the Amazon for centuries, saying that “Amazonian communities have been doing their part to defend the Amazon; now it is time for us to do ours” by encouraging Amazonian countries to break the link between economic development and fossil fuel extraction, and leave the oil permanently in the ground.

Of course, such an attempt has already been made, with the proposed Yasuní-ITT Initiative in Ecuador that saw the Ecuadorean government initially pledge to leave vast reserves of crude oil under one of the Amazon’s most biodiverse and untouched corners in the ground indefinitely, in exchange for financial contributions from ‘global society’ to help compensate the Ecuadorean state for lost revenue, which would have gone a long way towards funding social and economic development.

The initiative, however, was cancelled last year after Ecuador’s President, Rafael Correa, criticised the lack of financial support from the rest of the world, with just US$130m promised or deposited in six years out of a target US$3.6bn in twelve years. Environmental and local activists were dismayed at the decision, and have voiced concern at the risk of pollution that the region now faces as a result of oil exploration and exploitation, especially given the long history of devastating oil spillages in the Ecuadorean Amazon and elsewhere.

Petroamazonas workers clear up an oil spill in the Ecuadorean Amazon earlier this year. Campaigners fear that the failure of the Yasuní-ITT Initiative and the subsequent approval of oil drilling in the area by the Ecuadorean government will lead to devastation as a result of operations and accidents. Photo courtesy of Yasunidos via Amazon Watch.

To find out more about Amazon Watch’s campaign, you can either watch the video (found at the top of this article) or follow this link to read and sign the petition.

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