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Strikers protest pipeline
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Demonstrators in Amazon provinces call for the government to keep its promises.

After 10 days of violent clashes, a strike called by community organizations and local government officials in the northeastern provinces of Orellana and Sucumbíos ended on March 4. Protesters were demanding that the government fulfill promises that it had made after demonstrations a year ago.

On Feb. 21, 2001, a strike in the same region ended with an agreement that the government would provide regular electric service, improve roads linking the provinces with the capital, upgrade local roads and increase spending for the health and educational systems.

The promises, however, were never fulfilled.

"We were told that they were going to solve the electricity problem and improve the roads. They offered us everything, but the only thing the government has given us is death and destruction with the pipeline," said Mayor Guadalupe Llori, of El Coca, in Orellana, refering to the pipeline being built to carry heavy crude from Amazon oil fields to the coast, crossing fragile Andean and tropical ecosystems (LP, July 16, 2001).

Petroleum production in Orellana and Sucumbíos finances 70 percent of Ecuador’s budget and provides revenue for improving government administration, building highways and investing in national industry.

The two provinces, however, receive the fewest state funds. They lack basic roads, as well as adequate telephone and electric service, health-care programs and sanitation infrastructure.

According to Carlos Terán, of the Human Rights Collective, a non-governmental group that works with health-care networks in Sucumbíos, about 80 percent of the population of 10 de Agosto, a town two kilometers from the Colombian border, suffers from endemic health problems, including parasites, malnutrition, asthma and tuberculosis.

"The same is true in the entire province," Terán said.

Tensions over the pipeline increased when the consortium in charge of the construction began to clear land claimed by indigenous communities.

Local residents also complained that the land being used for the pipeline was undervalued.

"They’re paying us US$0.10 per square meter of pasture, while they’re paying $2 for the same amount of land in Lago Agrio," Adela López, a local resident, wrote in a letter to President Gustavo Noboa. "And if they kill a fruit tree that is producing, they want to pay us $25."

López added, "You may say that the parties need to reach agreement, but when people are dying of hunger, anything goes."

With prices for fruit and coffee depressed "and with some fruit left to rot because no one has the money to buy it, we see our children hungry and end up accepting any price," she wrote.

The strike in Sucumbíos and Orellana coincided with an escalation of the armed conflict in Colombia, after Colombian President Andrés Pastrana suspended talks with the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) and sent troops to regain control of the rebel group’s safe haven in the southern part of the country (LP, March 11, 2002).

Saying that Ecuador needed to beef up its border security after the breakdown of peace talks in the neighboring country, President Gustavo Noboa sent troops to Sucumbíos and Orellana. Officials later admitted, however, that the curfew and state of emergency were imposed in the two tropical provinces to quell the social unrest.

The measures angered local residents, and clashes followed between protesters and military troops, who were backed up by commandos known as Iwias, who are experts in jungle and guerrilla warfare.

The protesters blocked airports, oil wells, highways and bridges, paralyzing the two provinces. They also set fire to facilities of the Orellana Electric Co., destroyed the offices of the Army Mobilization Office and threw rocks at several government offices.

The clashes left four people dead, including two children who died after inhaling tear gas, and dozens injured. Dozens more were detained.

"The state of emergency was designed to limit free public participation and keep people from holding meetings," Llori said. "The Cabinet ministers called the communities and local authorities vandals and subversives, when until that moment all of our protests had been peaceful. Their declarations made people angry and aggravated the situation."

On March 1, the government agreed to hold talks, although new clashes between Army troops and protesters in Loreto, Sucumbíos, raised the level of tension again.

In talks mediated by Aese Smelder, UN representative in Ecuador, and four representatives of the lower house of Congress, officials pledged to finish road construction under way in the Amazon region, increase electricity generation for the area by 10 megawatts, provide loans to small farmers through the Banco de Fomento and lift the state of emergency.

According to the Human Rights Collective, the protests, with the accompanying deaths, injuries and social and economic costs, were avoidable.

"The agreement between the government and the Bi-Provincial Management Committee of Sucumbíos and Orellana makes it clear that the citizens’ demands were not a political ploy or an effort provoked by subversives to destabilize the government. The agreement shows that the strike was rooted in the people’s call for defense of their dignity and respect for basic human rights," the group said in a statement.

"The government’s delays in fulfilling its promises and its unwillingness to negotiate complicated matters," Lago Agrio Mayor Máximo Abad said, adding that further delays could lead to more protests.

"This time the provinces aren’t going to wait very long for results," he said.


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