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Monday, 15 April, 2002, 13:56 GMT 14:56 UK
Ecuador's oil pollution fears
Cleaning up and oil spill in the Amazon basin
Activists fear spills from new oil pipeline in Ecuador
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By Tim Mansel

Environmental activists in Ecuador are fighting to persuade the government to divert the course of a new oil pipeline away from one of South America's most important bird reserves.

Fourteen of the activists were arrested in March when police broke up their camp high up in the Mindo Nambillo cloud forest reserve west of the capital Quito.
Wilfredo Vaca, environmental activist
Wilfrido Vaca: Worried about seismic activity

They had built platforms up in the trees in a bid to thwart the construction of the pipeline, which they say presents a dangerous threat to a forest boasting an extraordinary diversity of birdlife, animals and flora.

Wilfrido Vaca, one of the protest leaders, who was arrested last month, says the whole eco-system of the area is threatened by the new construction.

"At one point the pipeline has to go over a ridge that is only 80 centimetres wide, and that is just impossible," he said. "This is also an area of much seismic activity and we are only a few kilometres from two active volcanoes."

Forest under threat

Part of the pipeline route goes through an area that since the 1980s has been designated a protected forest by the Ecuadorian Government.
The new oil pipeline will run from east to west, through Mindo Nambillo

The designation is largely due to the work of Pedro Peņafiel who spent three solitary years charting the flora and fauna of the cloud forest.

"People said I was crazy," he said, sitting in his home in the village of Mindo watching as humming birds swarm to the feeders he has set up outside the window. Mindo Nambillo is internationally known for its humming birds.

It also boasts more than 3,000 species of orchid and is home to the spectacled bear, a rare creature found only in South America.

Pedro Peņafiel describes the decision to route the new pipeline through Mindo Nambillo as "absolutely perverse".

Oil spills

Oil spills are the big fear, and if the history of Ecuador's oil industry is anything to go by, the fear is a real one.

Activists say that more oil has leaked into the ground as a result of accidents, incompetence or sheer indifference in the 30 years since oil exploitation began in Ecuador, than was spilled in the Exxon Valdez super tanker disaster off Alaska in 1989.

Pedro Peņafiel
Pedro Peņafiel spent years charting the flora and fauna of the cloud forest
A visit to the oil fields around the town of Lago Agrio in the Amazon Basin bears witness to the problem.

Oil waste is collected in vast pools often on agricultural land, making further cultivation impossible.

Gas is burned off giving the impression of giant Bunsen burners lighting up the sky. And small spills are shovelled up, put in plastic bags and buried.

The whole area reeks of oil and local farmers talk of how the groundwater is contaminated large black drops forming on the vegetation when it rains.

Local people also feel that the vast amount of money made by the oil industry does not trickle down to them.

Government unmoved

In February this year protests against the industry became so fierce that a state of emergency was declared around Lago Agrio and the army was sent in to break up the disturbances.

The government is unmoved. It says the new pipeline, the OCP, will enable the country to double oil production and thus earn millions of dollars in much needed hard currency.
Hernan Lara, The chairman of OCP
Hernan Lara: The consequences of not completing the pipeline would be very grave

The chairman of OCP, a consortium of foreign oil companies, is a Colombian, Hernan Lara.

He says he understands the concerns of the environmentalists, but that it would be wrong to consider not building the pipeline just because it goes through a delicate area.

"The consequences of not completing the pipeline would be very grave," he says. "It would send a message to the international investment community that you can't work in Ecuador.

"And that would be just the opposite of what's happening at the moment.

People are seeing the development of OCP as a signal that changes are taking place in Ecuador, and that it is possible to see it as a money-making proposition in the long term."

Crossing Continents, broadcast on 18 April at 1100 GMT on BBC Radio 4, will be reporting on Ecuador's football hopes.

See also:

07 Mar 02 | Country profiles
Country profile: Ecuador
26 Feb 02 | Business
Protest threat to Ecuador oil
12 Apr 02 | Americas
Ecuador's World Cup goal
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