Showdown in Ecuador
A destructive pipeline project
meets resistance in the Amazon
by Jim Tarbell
Toward Freedom, Winter 2003
Thirty years ago, as petroleum finds were
being developed in the Ecuadorian Amazon, the local political
elite used potential oil exports as collateral for bank loans.
This ultimately led to the highest per capita debt in South America,
and, in the fall of 1999, Ecuador became the first country to
default on Brady Bonds. Named after Reagan/Bush Treasury Secretary
Nicholas Brady, these are financial instruments collateralized
by zero percent US Treasury bonds and designed to avoid national
Desperate to maintain the support of the
international financial community, President Jamil Mahuad "dollarized"
the economy, substituting the US dollar for the national currency,
while attempting to privatize the national petroleum company.
But the main strategy involved an ambitious project to help feed
the US gasoline addiction: a two-foot diameter tube filled with
petroleum. The goal was to pump 500,000 barrels per day up 12,000
feet, out of the Amazon basin, over the Andes mountains, and down
the steep western slope to the Pacific port of Esmeraldas.
In a corruption-tainted deal, six international
oil companies - Alberta Energy (Canada), Kerr-McGee (USA), Occidental
Petroleum (USA), AGIP (Italy), Perez Companc (Argentina), Repsol-YPF
(Spain) and Techint (Argentina)-known as OCP Ltd. (Oleoducto de
Crudos Pesados - Heavy Oil Pipeline) received permission to construct
the pipeline in June 2001. Banks from Germany, the US, and Italy
provided the financing. On paper, the project was to cost $1.1
billion. But the actual price, including the loss of primary jungle,
indigenous homelands, and protected habitats, is incalculable.
Since then, however, Ecuadorians and pipeline
opponents from Los Angeles to London, Barcelona and Warsaw have
been resisting the scheme.
In the Northern Ecuadorian Amazon, oil
production over the last three decades has produced toxic runoff
and spills that have destroyed 2.5 million acres of jungle. The
pipeline will make matters even worse, subjecting national parks,
wildlife reserves, and the roadless indigenous region of southeast
Ecuador to exploitation. Parks and preserves will be polluted
and cut down. Resources that have sustained the indigenous Shuar
and Achuar people for centuries will disappear, destroying their
culture if not their lives.
On the Pacific side, rather than following
the path of Ecuador's existing pipeline, the OCP will pass through
the Northwest of Pichincha Province. From 1973 to 1975, I worked
there as a Peace Corps volunteer with a government agency, promoting
a land reform project along a road being built between Quito and
the coast. In the intervening years, almost all the pristine jungle
that once covered this area has been cut down.
In the 1980s, the people of Mindo, located
at the eastern end of this region, realized they were losing their
wilderness. To save what was left, they created the 47,000-acre
Mindo-Nambillo Preserve, reaching from Mindo up over the ridges
of Mount Pichincha. This pristine area encompasses a highly bio-diverse
cloud forest with 450 species of birds. Birdlife International
calls it the most important bird sanctuary in Latin America.
But the OCP route crosses the slopes of
the volcanically active Mount Pichincha to the spine of the Mindo-Nambillo
Preserve. From there it follows the Guarumos Ridge for miles,
through the dense cloud forest of the preserve, until it drops
back down to the road headed toward the coast. When people in
the region learned about this plan, virtually everyone including
Mayor Marco Calle said no. Those who knew about the old pipeline,
which had leaked 145,000 gallons of oil over the past three years,
feared not only for the bird preserve, but also for the health
of their land and water supplies.
In response, the OCP consortium turned
on the money machine, while the Ecuadorian government sent in
the troops. After the mayor received $900,000, ostensibly for
a potable water system, his opposition to the pipeline vanished.
"What could I do?" he explained. "It was a national
project. They signed the contract without asking us. Sure, there
was opposition, but we have to get on with our lives."
Horrified by this capitulation, youthful
wilderness guides and eco-tourist entrepreneurs in Mindo formed
Accion por la Vida (Action for Life) and soon became the central
force in an international coalition to block the OCP. The strategy
was to challenge the publicly-owned Westdeutsche Landesbank, which
initiated the financing. According to bank policy, its projects
must follow World Bank environmental guidelines, which supposedly
don't permit the destruction of natural habitats in existing protected
areas. Since huge D-9 tractors and hundreds of workers were poised
to denude a 100-foot swath through the heart of the Mindo-Nambillo
Preserve, installing an oil pipeline on a seismically active mountain
and potentially spilling thousands of gallons of petroleum down
two pristine watersheds, the project clearly didn't meet the guidelines.
Nevertheless, the OCP managed to convince
the bank that this wasn't a problem. Undeterred, Accion por la
Vida's next step was to buy land on the Guarumos Ridge, directly
in the pipeline's path. They also created tree-sits, and Julia
Butterfly joined them.
The government responded by sending in
the military. "They kidnapped us right off our own property,"
recalls Jenny Patino, a young and effective spokesperson for the
group. Protesters were jailed in Quito, and Julia Butterfly was
deported. The government subsequently used the police to prevent
these landowners from returning to their property.
By the time I visited last November, Accion
por la Vida had filed a lawsuit. But as their case languished
in the Ecuadorian judicial system, OCP crews continued to plow
through the jungle. Frustrated by the failure to defend their
beloved forest, members of the group sat around a table at Cesar
Fiallos' hotel in Mindo and came up with another plan to subvert
Guioseppe de Marzo, a leader of the Italian
Green Party, was in town. Three people volunteered to guide him
past the armed guards to the top of Guarumos Ridge. If he was
deported, they hoped the outrage in Italy would lead the Italian
bank to withdraw its financing.
Arriving at Cesar Fiallos' inn two days
before the planned action on Guarumos Ridge, I found de Marzo
sitting alone at a table. III from tourista, he struggled to get
some food down, hoping to strengthen him
self for the climb. The next morning,
Fiallos left for Quito to rally student support. That night, a
dozen journalists from Brazil, Germany, Peru, Italy, Colombia,
the US, and Ecuador showed up. Most were connected to Indymedia,
an activist news network that has spread around the world since
the 1999 protests against the WTO in Seattle. At four the next
morning, de Marzo was guided to the top of the ridge. Three hours
later, members of Accion por la Vida, along with the international
activists, went to the OCP's gated and heavily armed roadway to
stop the police from taking de Marzo and his guides back to Quito.
Soon the arrests began. But busloads of
students arrived by the time the first prisoner, Fiallos' brother,
was brought down. After the crowd blocked the gate, the police
let their prisoner go.
Next, Ecuadorian soldiers showed up. Still,
the people from Mindo stood firm. When a hooded truck, possibly
carrying the other three prisoners, descended the muddy hill,
Patino and her compatriots leaned against the closed gate. But
the soldiers and police wedged it open enough for a vehicle to
pass. In desperation, Patino and two other women dropped to the
ground and refused to move. The truck stopped. Unable to overcome
such determination, it backed up and disappeared into the jungle.
Pushing the gate closed, the protesters celebrated.
At days' end, however, hundreds of workers
streamed down the road and opened the gate. And under cover of
darkness, a police truck sped by with the prisoners.
By this time, I was hungry, cold, tired,
and feeling a little of my own tourista illness. On the ride back
to Mindo I found myself stuffed shoulder-to-shoulder, in the back
of an enclosed, exhaust-filled van with more than a dozen activists
and a dog. Bumping down the rough, jungle road, I would have been
sick had it not been for the enthusiasm that surrounded me. Everyone
was singing, first in Spanish, then in English, Portuguese, German,
and Italian. Buoyed by the vitality of a movement determined to
defy a commercial empire and block its destructive plan, my spirit
Jim Tarbell co-published Ridge Review
Magazine in Northern California for 15 years, and is currently
hosting a radio program on KZYX in Philo, CA.