The roadless warrior

Published online on November 30, 2011, in Nature.

To save the Amazon, Bruce Babbitt wants to isolate islands of oil and gas production amid a sea of trees.

Bruce Babbitt ambles down a walkway flanked by manicured lawns, gleaming office trailers and tidy rows of housing. The drone of vehicles competes with Latin music playing softly in the distance. Only the occasional birdsong or glimpse of macaws serves to remind that this encampment is smack in the middle of the Peruvian Amazon. Babbitt looks into the distance, where the separation towers of a natural-gas facility rise above the trees and shimmer with industrial splendour in the evening sun. “It’s an amazing sight,” he says.

The Malvinas natural-gas plant might seem the ultimate insult to a largely unspoiled tropical paradise, particularly for a lifelong conservationist such as Babbitt, who served as Secretary of the Interior — responsible for managing much of the United States’ federal land and natural resources — under US President Bill Clinton from 1993 until 2001. But where others see blight, Babbitt sees a vision of the future. He looks past the pipes and pollution and focuses instead on what makes this project stand out: seen from the sky, Malvinas is an island of industrial activity in a sea of trees. There are no roads into the site; everything that enters or leaves Malvinas, including gas, rubbish, food and people, does so by plane, boat or underground pipeline.

The design is called an offshore–inland development, and Babbitt thinks it might be the western Amazon’s only hope. Historically, roads have paved the way for uncontrolled development throughout the region. Without them, there can be no associated logging, squatting or large-scale invasion of the forest, as has happened around other oil and gas operations in the Amazon. “There’s a huge rush all across this region, and the place is going to be destroyed unless this model is embedded in all future discovery and operations,” Babbitt says. “This is a message that curiously does not have a messenger.”

It does now, in Babbitt. In partnership with the non-profit Blue Moon Fund based in Charlottesville, Virginia, Babbitt has used his prominence to urge governments in the region to require that any oil and gas development in the Amazon basin follow the offshore–inland model. His efforts run counter to industry, which fears regulation, and to some environmentalists, who want to avoid selling out to oil and gas producers that have a poor track record in the Amazon. But Babbitt’s campaign is an extension of the work he did in the US government, where he forged innovative policies that balanced business and conservation interests on issues ranging from endangered species to energy development in Alaska.

Now 73 years old, Babbitt is dedicating himself to protecting the Amazon. Working with Enrique Ortiz, a programme officer with Blue Moon, Babbitt has been shuttling back and forth between Peru and his home in Washington DC to promote the offshore–inland model and a broader goal of smart, controlled development in the Amazon.

The heart of their campaign is Malvinas, which began processing gas from the surrounding Camisea natural-gas field in southeast Peru in 2004. Apart from one field in Brazil, Camisea is the only example of offshore–inland development in the Amazon. The roadless plan was implemented under pressure from environmental groups and the Inter-American Development Bank (IDB), but the idea received scant attention, in part because Camisea has been beset by environmental problems such as pipeline leaks. Babbitt and Ortiz, however, see potential here. They are promoting the idea of roadless development at a crucial time, as energy companies look to expand their operations in the Amazon. Earlier this year, Babbitt and Blue Moon were instrumental in blocking a plan to build a new pipeline from the Camisea field that could have spurred widespread road construction and deforestation.

“I’m not a very emotional guy, but I’ll tell you I got emotional about this,” Babbitt says, after delivering his first public speech promoting his vision for roadless development at an energy conference in Lima in September. “It was important to make an issue of it, to demonstrate that it was possible to mobilize opposition.”

Damage control

Malvinas’s isolation comes into focus as Babbitt’s helicopter rises into the sky and arcs out to the east, across the jungle. The Urubamba River borders the plant on the west, and a sea of green surrounds it on all other sides. Babbitt and Ortiz are accompanying a crew of six workers to San Martin Number 1, a platform for multiple wells tapping natural gas, propane, butane and other light hydrocarbons trapped in a sandstone formation thousands of metres below ground. En route, they pass over a clearing dotted with thatch-roofed huts near the Camisea River. It is home to one of several indigenous communities that have leased their land to a consortium led by the exploration and production firm Pluspetrol, based in Buenos Aires. ‘Uncontacted’ tribes that have yet to establish any ties with modern society roam the rolling hills on the horizon.

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