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Jane Ahlin, Published April 12 2014

Ahlin: Developing countries wiser than North Dakota

On a recent trip to the South American countries of Peru and Ecuador, nothing was more impressive to my husband and me than the unwavering commitment of both nations to places of natural beauty, scientific significance and historical importance. Indeed, we were enjoying some of those unusual sites (and sights) in March when North Dakota’s Industrial Commission voted on the “extraordinary places” drilling permit review policy for the western part of our state, pretty much taking the teeth out of it. The contrast between the attitudes we encountered in Peru and Ecuador and the attitude ruling the day on the North Dakota home front were striking.

Originally proposed by North Dakota Attorney General Wayne Stenehjem, the “extraordinary places” measures would have balanced support for the oil industry with protection of iconic places, historical sites, and panoramic views, assuring their preservation for future generations. But oil companies objected, and that was that.

The oil industry is huge in Peru and Ecuador, too, but both countries protect special places. Yes, it’s a stretch to equate the 15th century Peruvian Incan ruin Machu Picchu to the Killdeer Mountains or the equatorial wonder of Ecuador’s Galapagos Islands to the North Dakota Badlands. The point is, Machu Picchu remains unspoiled – even though more than a million travelers visit every year – because it is strictly protected. No vendors are allowed; there aren’t even restrooms. Consequently, exploring the ruin is awe-inspiring.

Likewise, the Galapagos Islands are fiercely protected. Tour guides must be naturalists, extra security checks luggage for soil or plants, and every single airplane is sprayed outside and inside to prevent insects or critters from hitching a ride. Boats and the activities of tourists also are controlled. The reward? Wildlife – from a blue-footed booby in the air to an orange Galapagos shark in the sea – is everywhere. To go snorkeling is to enter a magical world of colorful creatures unharmed by modernity.

The area in Peru and Ecuador where oil exploration bumps up against cultural preservation is in the Amazon: oil drives the national economy but ordinary life is lived on the river and its banks. Men fish or ferry supplies in narrow flat-bottom boats, women squat on rocks to wash dishes or scrub clothes, children giggle and roughhouse, jumping in and out of the water. And everybody cools off in the turbid Amazon. (The Amazon’s rosy-brown turbidity is much like that of our own Red River.) You don’t see people throwing trash in the Amazon. The river is lifeblood for them and a source of pride. When we fished for piranhas or were amazed watching pink dolphins jump and play, we understood their pride.

Unfortunately, the environmental impact oil has had on some of the indigenous tribes of Peru is tragic. Only in recent years have natives fought back, and last year a moratorium on permits was put in place. Whether new policies actually prove workable for oil companies and acceptable to natives remains to be seen.

In Ecuador, the unpopular president’s decision to allow drilling for oil in the Yasuni national park is about to face referendum. Bio diverse, “with each hectare containing more tree species than the U.S. and Canada combined ...,” Yasunit also is “the last (region) in Ecuador where indigenous groups live in voluntary isolation.” Ecuadorians know that once lost, the flora, fauna and people of Yasuni cannot be replaced. They’re determined not to let that happen.

North Dakotans know our “extraordinary places” can’t be replaced, either. Once marred, these places that define our heritage are forever changed. Surely we have as much determination as the people of a developing country not to let that happen.


Ahlin writes a Sunday column for The Forum. Email janeahlin@yahoo.com