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Pipeline unearths Ecuadoran fury

By REESE ERLICH
© St. Petersburg Times
published April 26, 2002

QUITO, Ecuador -- A tropical mist envelopes the top of Mindo ridge in the heart of an Ecuadoran cloud forest. Several years ago, an international birding organization counted 450 species, 46 facing extinction.

The cloud forest also accumulates vital water for farmers living on either side of the ridge, 22 miles northeast of the capital, Quito.

But now that winter rains have subsided, an international consortium of oil companies, OCP Ecuador, wants to resume construction of a pipeline to carry crude from the Amazon rain forest to the sea -- passing through Mindo ridge.

Mindo residents and many other Ecuadorans strongly oppose the OCP pipeline. In March, police arrested 17 people who had been participating in a tree-sitting protest trying to block construction. In response, residents shut down a major road, hijacked two trucks and painted "OCP Out of Mindo" on pipeline tubes.

Environmentalists, farmers and indigenous groups have joined to oppose the pipeline on environmental and economic grounds.

"The oil will not benefit the Ecuadoran people," says Patricia Granda, a leader of the environmental network Oil Watch. "It will be sold by foreigners. The oil will come from protected areas and indigenous territories in the Amazon."

Supporters of the pipeline, including most of the political and business leadership of Ecuador, argue that the $1.1-billion project is vital for the nation's economic recovery. Having defaulted on its international debt last year, Ecuador needs the oil revenues, says Hernan Lara, president of OCP Ecuador.

"We have some extremist organizations that are against not only the pipeline but everything that is needed for development in the modern world," he says. "They are against the oil industry."

Petroleum is the single largest industry in Ecuador, generating $2.1-billion worth of business in 2000 and accounting for 50 percent of the country's exports. The new pipeline is necessary, Lara says, because Ecuador's increasing production of heavier crude can't be shipped through an existing pipeline.

The OCP consortium includes seven major international oil companies, including U.S. firms Occidental Petroleum and Kerr-McGee. The pipeline will facilitate transport of oil from new wells in the Amazon region of eastern Ecuador.

Critics say the pipeline unnecessarily damages Ecuador's delicate environment. On Mindo ridge, for example, they say pipeline construction and pumping will disrupt bird migration and undercut eco-tourism.

Lara argues that OCP has consulted with birding organizations and narrowed the path on either side of the pipeline at Mindo ridge to minimize disruptions. The OCP will "do the least environmental damage possible," Lara says. "It's a beautiful area."

Mindo residents aren't the only Ecuadorans angry at the OCP. Just outside the city limits of Nueva Loja, near Ecuador's border with Colombia, crews work around the clock to complete the Amazon Station, one of dozens of pumping facilities for the pipeline.

The city initially opposed building the Amazon Station so close to town because of the noise, environmental effect on migratory animals and potential for industrial accidents.

Maximo Abad, mayor of Nueva Loja, resents what he calls OCP's arrogant tactics.

"The constitution says when the state is going to build a project that affects the environment, it must consult with the affected communities and fully inform them," Abad says. "But the OCP didn't do this."

Lara maintains that the company did consult with the community but had to go around the mayor, who was opposed to building Amazon Station. The OCP promised public works projects for the city.

"We managed to get to five of the seven city councilmen," Lara says. The OCP offered a "social compensation plan and they agreed with the location of the station."

The mayor says the city council eventually voted to oppose the location of the Amazon Station but was ignored by the OCP and federal authorities.

Abad and other local politicians complain they have seen few of the 50,000 jobs that the Ecuadoran Chamber of Commerce claimed would be generated by the pipeline.

The pipeline has employed only 4,800 workers, Lara says. The other jobs were estimates based on the supposition that 10 jobs would be created in other sectors for every one pipeline job. But Lara concedes he has "no record" of how many jobs were created.

Anselmo Salazar, vice president of the Federation of Kichwas Organizations in Nueva Loja, says few indigenous people are hired for pipeline construction, although they make up 25 percent of Ecuador's 13-million people.

"They don't think we have the ability," Salazar said.

While resentment against the pipeline continues to simmer, OCP management is rushing to complete construction by its announced deadline of May 2003. Lara says the pipeline is only 33 percent complete, however, and the deadline might be pushed back.

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