David against Goliath
Mindo "Acción por la Vida" organization versus OCP oil consortium in the fight for the preservation of unique protected forests
March 2002: The special unit of the Ecuadorian army came at night. Heavily armed, in camouflage suits and with faces pained black almost invisible in the surroundings, some 50 soldiers intruded in the small village of Mindo. They freed two articulate trucks, loaded with two pipeline tubes of OCP from the hand of a desperate village community who tried with all means to press their arrested fellow citizens free.
The dispute between the oil consortium and the mountain village started two years ago. Construction troupes with a heavy machine came overnight and made a forest aisle around Mindo. None of the land owners and 800 inhabitants of the mountain village was informed of the OCP plan to build a pipeline through the tropical Mindo-Nambillo mountain forest.
The region belongs to five protection areas with the largest richness of species worldwide and is in many parts hardly accessible because of its steep mountain ridges. More than 2000 plants - and 350 partly endemic bird species live in the region.
The inhabitants set up the "Acción por la Vida" association. The option of an alternative route was to be discussed in an open dialogue with the pipeline building owners. OCP's response was very cautious and the organization had difficulties in obtaining information. The army controlled the access roads to the construction sites.
On 25 March, 2002 numerous village inhabitants and foreign activists came together on a lot affected by the pipeline construction to protest peacefully against the construction. The lot terminates on the Guarumos mountain ridge where the pipeline tubes should be located.
The army, in many regions along the trans-Ecuadorian route financed by the oil consortium, used violence to quell the demonstration.
17 people were arrested and brought to Quito. The activists coming from the USA, Columbia, Ireland, Italy and Germany were expelled from the country, their Ecuadorian fellow disputants arrested for 10 days. Desperate village inhabitants seized two articulate trucks of OCP and tried to press their friends free. In vain.
Since the public prosecution could not present sufficient evidence for the arrest, the activists were soon released. The OCP consortium filed an objection and denounced five members of "Acción por la Vida" for sabotage and support of subversive groups.
"We just wanted to show presence on the lot and did not hurt anyone," Edwin Villota does not understand the world anymore. The culprit waits in Mindo for his trial. Natalia Arias, speaker of "Acción Ecologica", asserts his explanation: "OCP accuses the activists of having entered the lot armed. They are alleged to have constructed wood barricades and to have dug trenches. But this was an absolutely peaceful event, nothing like that happened."
The activists have to expect eight to twelve years in prison in the event of a conviction. "We have got a very good layer and the prosecutor has no evidence, " Edwin Villota tries to be optimistic. However, his face shows fear of an uncertain future.
In order to prevent the dangerous construction on the mountain ridge the organization decided to buy an area of 800 hectares.
The pipeline requires a route about eight metres wide. Therefore, OCP must remove the mountain ridge, which is only two metres wide, in order to locate the tubes. The neighbouring lot is thus also affected by the construction measures.
"We are not going to grant the right of way to OCP," says Cesar Fiallo, the speaker of "Acción por la Vida", about their strategy. "The route is supported on both sides only by sand bags and wooden boards. The wood rots very fast in our climate. Heavy rainfalls caused smaller landslides already during the construction. Just imagine that the pipeline constructed up there will be damaged in a landslide. The leaking oil would irrecoverably devastate the wildlife on both sides of the mountain."
OCP adheres to its construction plans with no regard to the ownership. Therefore, "Acción por la Vida" commissioned an official expert to clarify whether OCP is authorized to work on the lot. A possible unauthorized activity on the lot should be proved by means of satellite measuring.
"We have heard that the outcome of the inspections is going to be favourable for us," reports German biologist Heike Brieschke, who lives with her family on a finca seven kilometres off the village. The judicial examination of the inspection could lead to a building freeze.
A further delay that the building owners are not going to dislike. The overall construction project is already now behind schedule and the planned completion in June 2003 will be difficult to achieve. "From December until April the construction on the hardly accessible route cannot continue because of the heavy rainfalls that are to be expected," says Cesar Fiallo.
OCP relies therefore on the completion of the pipeline route near Mindo before the rainfall period begins.
Up to now the consortium has a construction team of 400 men accommodated in the small mountain village. With some 800 inhabitants, this brings much social friction. Violent conflicts are nothing out of the ordinary.
Whether OCP transfers another 500 construction workers to the region as planned seems currently rather questionable. The very poor payment bellow the tariff wages and dangerous work in the steep mountains led to the first strikes among the workers. For ten days, the construction site has been abandoned.
"The men get for a 12 hours day about four to six US dollar. And the job is extremely dangerous," says Natalia Arias from the Acción Ecologica, which also struggles for the preservation of the mountain forests. "So far, as many as 20 construction workers have lost their lives on the overall route."
In order to complete the construction stage in spite of the strikes before the rain period, last month OCP applied with the government for the deployment of a heavy construction machine.
"We have learnt these days that the motion has been sustained," adds Heike Brieschke. "In order to get with the excavators to the construction site, new streets will be needed. This is going to damage vast areas of the intact protected region. We have to get ready again."
Nevertheless, the opposition of the population has significantly declined in the last few months.
"Until a few months ago, we had counted almost 200 active pipeline opponents, now there are only 25 of us. Whoever is an active opponent of OCP gets some money offered at first. This is of course a temptation for the many poor here in the region. Who cannot be bought, is menaced by the construction owners," says Cesar Fiallo about the rapid fall in the number of his activists.
Cesar Fiallo and other members of the organization cannot be bought. "They offered me a responsible position in the pipeline control in addition to a large sum of money. But it is the principle what matters," resists the head of the organization all offers of the oil consortium. His "lacking understanding" is repaid to the hotel owner and his family with everyday reprisals.
Particularly since the mayor has changed the sides. "Here in Mindo we have always a latent water problem. To supply overnight some additional 400 workers with water is impossible. Several days ago, they stopped my water supply up here," says Fiallo about his trouble. The activist manages together with his wife a small hotel for nature fans on the outskirts of the village. "My water tanks are empty, the toilette does not flush. And the mayor tolerates the situation." Right next to Fiallo's home a construction team was accommodated. Deep tracks in the clayish drive remind us of the heavy construction vehicles that parked here over night.
"It is like in David and Goliath," says Fiallo thoughtfully, "but we cannot really beat the enemy. It is everywhere."
The stone that might make OCP rock could be the inspection on the mountain slope. Should OCP remove land for the route without permission, the construction must be suspended upon a judicial examination. A resumption of the construction before May 2003 is impossible because of the approaching rainfall period. At the moment, no-one can tell whether the expert opinion will mean the fall of the oil giant in the struggle for the Guarumos mountain slope.
to the pictures from Mindo