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Environmentalists arrested
Luis Ángel Saavedra*
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Protesters attempt to block construction of an oil pipeline that will run through a protected area.

An elite police squad arrested 17 environmental activists on March 25 for attempting to block construction of a 500-kilometer heavy crude pipeline being built to carry oil from the Amazon province of Sucumbíos to Esmeraldas, on the coast.

About 60 police raided the camp, arresting three Ecuadorans and 14 protesters from Germany, Italy, Colombia, the United States, France, Ireland and Switzerland.

The arrests came during protests staged by residents of the area around the Mindo-Nambillo Protective Forest, about 50 kilometers northwest of Quito. According to Birdlife International, the area has the greatest diversity of bird species in South America.

The protesters had been camped since Jan. 2 on Guarumos Mountain, at the entrance to the forest, in an attempt to block construction by OCP Ltd., the consortium charged with building the pipeline, which will cross fragile Andean and Amazonian ecosystems (LP, July 16, 2001).

Although the Ecuadoran government declared Mindo-Nambillo a protected area in 1988, the route through the forest was considered the most cost-effective. The pipeline must cross Guarumos Mountain, as well as property belonging to area residents who oppose the project. They decided to block the construction route and allowed the environmental activists to camp on their land.

Some of the protesters took up residence in treetops, while others chained themselves to trees.

"They need to reach the ridge in Mindo-Nambillo and use its height to avoid having to build several pumping stations," said Ricardo Buitrón, of the Quito-based environmental organization Acción Ecológica, which has spearheaded opposition to the pipeline.

Pipeline planners said the ridge is just the right height to take advantage of gravity.

Alternative routes across higher mountains would have required construction of more pumping stations to transport the oil uphill, as well as pressure-reduction stations on the downhill side, as is the case with the older Trans-Ecuadoran Pipeline.

In October, OCP Ltd. — which began construction on the US$1.1-billion, 25-month project last July — announced a plan for protecting the Mindo-Nambillo area, saying that the forest would not be damaged because the pipeline would be supported by overhead cables, making bulldozing of a pathway unnecessary.

In November, however, the Argentine company Techint, one of the partners in the consortium, began to clear a route up to three meters wide in the forest, bringing in tractors to build an access road to denser areas.

The move prompted protests from Acción Ecológica and the international environmental group Greenpeace. On March 5, the Ministry of the Environment announced that it was temporarily suspending OCP Ltd.’s environmental license for operating in the Mindo-Nambillo forest.

Acción Ecológica documented environmental damage due to the clearing of pathways and the cutting of first-growth forest in Mindo-Nambillo, as part of a petition to the Ministry of the Environment to suspend the company’s environmental license permanently.

"The Ministry of the Environment’s report refers only to the access route to Guarumos Mountain, but doesn’t include inspection of the work done within the Mindo-Nambillo Protective Forest, where the damage has been even greater," said Natalia Arias of Acción Ecológica. "The environmental damage done and the lack of compliance with construction regulations to which OCP committed in its environmental management plan can be seen in all the areas where pipeline construction is under way."

Techint has also had problems with residents of Lago Agrio, the capital of Sucumbíos province, and the neighboring district of Cascales, where rainforest was destroyed. In October, landowners accused construction crews of starting work on their property even though they had not reached an agreement with the company on the use of their land.

In late February, military troops clashed violently with residents and government officials in Sucumbíos and the neighboring province of Orellana (LP, March 25, 2002).

In Mindo-Nambillo, however, the construction consortium decided to challenge the protesters directly. On March 8, OCP manager David Arce Rojas filed a complaint with the police in the Pichincha province, which includes the forest, claiming that the demonstrators had violated its right-of-way, damaging sections of the pipeline that had already been built.

According to inspectors from the Ministry of Energy, Mines and Petroleum who visited the area during the first week of March, however, the damage described in the complaint was due to erosion and landslides caused by poor construction. The ministry also called for the suspension of the consortium’s license.

Although suspension of the license halted the work in Mindo-Nambillo, Techint continued construction in other areas, advancing toward Guarumos Mountain and a showdown with the protesters.

Superintendent General Víctor Hugo Olmedo of the Pichincha police and Prosecutor Edison Fierro Dobronski defended the arrests, saying that the foreign protesters had engaged in activity that was illegal under their tourist visas.

The protesters were taken to García Morena Prison in Quito. Seven of the foreigners were deported on March 30; the rest were freed two days later and left the country immediately. In response to the arrests, between March 28 and April 1, residents of the Mindo-Nambillo area hijacked some of the company’s construction equipment.

The same day, Quito’s acting mayor, Efrén Cocios, freed the Ecuadoran protesters in response to a writ of habeas corpus. OCP Ltd., however, has sued them, alleging sabotage of the construction project.

"The arrests were politically stupid. They attracted the attention of organizations from all over the world, especially in Germany, and increased pressure on German banks, which are the main backers of this project, to withdraw their financing," Arias said.

Other activists have taken up residence in the Guarumos camp, which has become a symbol of environmental protest in Ecuador. Arias called the Guarumos protest site "a camp of peaceful civil resistance that will not give ground."



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