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Public Radio's Environmental News Magazine (follow us on Google News)

Ecuador Pipeline

Air Date: Week of

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Reese Erlich reports on the efforts by a group of oil companies to build a new oil pipeline in Ecuador and the almost daily protests that follow the construction project.


CURWOOD: Welcome to Living on Earth. I’m Steve Curwood. The nation of Ecuador relies heavily on oil from the Amazon rainforest for revenues. To get to market, the oil must flow through a single pipeline across the Andes Mountains and down to a port on the Pacific coast.

Now a group of oil companies is building a second pipeline they say will double capacity and use state-of-the-art technology to minimize oil spills. But not everyone in Ecuador favors this new pipeline project. As Reese Erlich reports, it’s drawing almost daily protest.


ERLICH: In the center of Quito, a Quichua shaman shakes a rhythm instrument as he stokes a small fire as an offering to the Great Spirit. He and hundreds of others are protesting the arrest of environmentalists opposed to the building of Ecuador’s heavy crude pipeline, known as OCP.


ERLICH: For months, there have been protests here in the city and along the route of the pipeline. The line is slated to pass through an Andean cloud forest area called Mindo Ridge, which Birdlife International says is used by 450 species of birds as a flyway.

In March, 17 people were arrested after sitting in trees for four months to protest building the OCP along the Mindo Ridge. Now, environmental groups have actually purchased land there in hopes of stopping construction. Patricia Granda, an activist with the environmental network Oil Watch, says laying the huge pipeline requires cutting a 25 to 30 yard wide swath through sensitive forests. She says it will disrupt bird migration and also harm local residents.

GRANDA: The ridge top splits two hydrographic basins, the Mindo Valley and Guyabamba Valley. These provide water for a lot of people, because the top part is the cloud forest reserve. So, we understand that, there, a lot of water condenses, and feeds these two basins. And .if the OCP goes through the land, Mindo area. A lot of people will not have the same ways to live. They don’t have work. They won’t have water.

ERLICH: Without vegetation, says Granda, the water in the cloud forest won’t condense in the same way. The 310-mile pipeline will stretch from Ecuador’s Amazon forest to the sea. It’s designed to move heavier crude out of newly developed oil fields. Ecuador’s existing pipeline moves mainly lighter crude. Most of Ecuador’s political and business leaders support the $1.1 billion project.


ERLICH: Hernan Lara is the picture of a modern oil company executive in slacks and a sport shirt. Oil companies have a history of polluting farmland and rivers in Ecuador. But, Lara, who is president of OCP Ecuador, says the industry has changed. For example, the pipeline right of way will narrow to seven yards as it goes over Mindo Ridge. And Lara says workers will lay pipe by hand if necessary to minimize environmental damage.

LARA: We know how sensitive the area is. We’re working with people like CECIA, who are the local representatives of Birth Watch, to do studies for us on the habitat of the birds, and so on, so that we can implement practices that will reduce the risk of damaging the environment. It’s a beautiful area. I really enjoy going there.

ERLICH: Critics also worry that earthquakes or landslides will damage the pipeline, a problem that has plagued Ecuador’s original oil duct. U.S. experts say a big natural disaster can rupture any pipeline. But modern technology will quickly shut off the flow of oil.

Dr. Stewart Scott, an associate professor of Petroleum Engineering at Texas A&M University, says the OCP does use modern computerized shutoff valves, but not the very latest technology. He says some U.S. companies now use a small sensor pipe attached to the main pipeline to detect any leaking oil. Dr. Scott says that’s a far better way to find small leaks that plague underground pipelines such as the OCP.

SCOTT: If there’s any release, even a very, very small release, it can be detected.

ERLICH: Local residents are concerned about pipeline leaks, but they have many other worries as well.


ERLICH: Here in Nueva Loja, in eastern Ecuador close to the Columbia border, trucks hit the gravel roads 24 hours a day to speed up construction of an OCP pumping station.

Mayor Maximo Abad says local residents don’t want the station so close to town because it brings noise, the possibility of an accident, and disruption of animal migration. The mayor resents what he considers the OCP’s arrogant tactics.


VOICEOVER: The consortium doesn’t observe the laws of our country. For example, the constitution says when the state is going to build a project that effects the environment, it must consult with the affected communities and fully inform them. But the OCP didn’t do that.

ERLICH: But Hernan Lara says the OCP convinced a majority of city councilmen to support the pumping station. He says the OCP will repair roads and schools in Nueva Loja and pay for other public works projects in towns along the pipeline’s route. Mayor Abad says the city council actually rejected the station. But the OCP and national government ignored the decision. And Abad says so far, the region has seen few of the 50,000 jobs the pipeline was supposed to bring.


VOICEOVER: The oil well isn’t reinvested here. That’s ironic. We don’t have anything close to decent electric power. Many places don’t even have potable water. But we are one of the richest provinces in Ecuador. In reality, we leave a negative impression with foreigners. Other places have good roads, good services. Here, no.


ERLICH: In February, peasant farmers, workers and indigenous groups organized a work stoppage that virtually shut down Ecuador’s two eastern provinces for 11 days. They demanded the government provide more electric power and better roads and that it shut down the pipeline construction.

Instead, the government imposed marshal law in those provinces for three weeks. Four protesters were killed and dozens injured. Anselmo Salazar is a leader of the local Quichuas, Ecuador’s largest indigenous group.


VOICEOVER: We supported the work stoppage. We are struggling for many things in this province. The OCP is supposed to be the most modern, most technologically advanced pipeline that won’t break or cause environmental problems. But many small farmers don’t want the pipeline so close to our homes, or to populated areas.

ERLICH: Pipeline opposition keeps growing. An increasing number of Ecuadorians now say any jobs and government revenues derived from the OCP are not worth the damage to the environment. Oil Watch activist, Patricia Granda.

GRANDA: The oil that will fill up the OCP pipeline will come from protected area, indigenous territories in the Amazon.


ERLICH: Back at the high rise OCP office in Quito, Hernan Lara vows the OCP pipeline will be completed despite the protests. Ecuador’s economy collapsed last year, and the government defaulted on international debts. He says the $2 billion a year oil industry, which provides 50% of the country’s export earnings, is crucial for the country’s economic survival. And the pipeline is crucial for the oil industry.

LARA: The country without oil would be in a heck of a mess. I wish it was different. But, as long as that is the situation, you need to exploit what you have. And what we have here is oil.

ERLICH: Opponents say their protests and legal action have slowed progress on the pipeline. OCP managers are rushing to complete construction by working some crews 24 hours a day. Still, the pipeline is only about one-third finished. And Lara hints that it may not be completed by the announced deadline of May 2003.


ERLICH: For Living on Earth, I’m Reese Erlich in Quito, Ecuador.



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