Published on Monday, April 1, 2002 by Common Dreams
Ecuadorian Government Raids Environment Camp, Faces International Incident
by Chris Strohm and Yvonne Zimmerman
Quito, Ecuador -- Twenty people have been arrested and imprisoned by the Ecuadorian government for visitng a camp in northwest Ecuador that was established to raise awareness about a massive oil project that is being financed by a consortium of transnational oil corporations.
Six Ecuadorian citizens and 14 people from foreign countries were arrested last week for visiting a camp in the small village of Mindo that was established to raise awareness about the Oleoducto de Crudo Pesado (OCP) oil pipeline, a mega project that will pump oil from the fragile Amazon basin to the Pacific Ocean. The majority of people visiting the camp had only been there four days when they were arrested.
Environmental activists are denouncing the arrests as being illegal and orchestrated by the oil companies, and the Ecuadorian government now faces the possiblility of having an international incident on its hands because the majority of those arrested are international travelers.
The OCP is being planned and financed by five transnational corporations: Occidental Oil and Kerr McGee from the United States, Repsol from Spain, Agip from Italy and Perez Company from Argentina.
About 60 Ecuadorian police raided the camp in Mindo on March 25, arresting four people that were in the camp and another 13 that were on the road between the camp and the village. The next day, three more people were rounded up and arrested. Those arrested include 14 international travelers from Germany, Italy, Colombia, France, the United States, Ireland and Switzerland.
The 14 foreigners have all been officially deported by the Ecuadorian government. As of Sunday, March 31, seven had left the country and travel arrangements were being made for the others. The situation for the imprisoned Ecuadorians remains unclear, however, and fears are being raised that they will face harsh sentences once all the foreigners are deported and international attention withers.
A support network for those in prison has quickly grown during the last week as supporters make daily visits to the prison and bring those in jail water, food and other items.
But the situation is escalating into an international incident for the Ecuadorian government as three members of the German parliament are expected to arrive in Quito on Sunday, March 31, to meet with the arrested and to visit Mindo. The members of parliament also have influence over funding for the OCP.
Natalie Arias of Ecological Action, an environmental group in Quito that is leading the opposition to the OCP, says the transnational consortium appears to have orchestrated the arrests.
"Our reading of the situation is that this is an operation that has been constructed and financed by the OCP," she says. "The arrested people got transported to Quito in buses paid for by the OCP; the OCP organized buses for the 60 policemen that took part in the operation; and the OCP also paid for the food for the 60 policemen.
"While the arrested people only had a limited amount of food, the policemen got well fed by the OCP," she adds. "Also, the way the process was manipulated shows us that there is some political and economic pressure behind this to make sure that the people stay in jail inspite of the irregularities of the arrests."
The charges against those arrested are destruction of private property, destruction of the construction of the OCP pipeline, and damage to pipeline roads.
Arias says all the charges are false. According to Ecological Action, the camp is located on private property with the permission of the landowner; the construction license for the OCP in Mindo has been suspended; and damage to pipeline roads was caused by soil erosion and faulty construction of the roads.
"The whole process has violated the human rights of the arrested people and the legal proceedures of this kind of cases," Arias says.
A court hearing is scheduled for the morning of Monday, April 1, in which a petition will be filed to release those in prison on grounds that their human rights have been violated and the arrests were illegal.
The camp in Mindo was established in early January as a meeting place to raise awareness about the OCP pipeline, which is planned to stretch 400 kilometers across Ecuador and through fragil ecosystems and indigenous communites. The camp consists of treehouses and a kitchen and was established with the support of the local community in Mindo and environmental activists inside and outside of Ecuador.
Mindo is located about two hours northest of Quito and situated next to a protected forest. The people of the village primarily make their living off ecological tourism and fear that their survival is threatened by the OCP pipeline.
Wilfrido Vaca, a Mindo local, explains that the camp was created to make opposition to the project visible.
"People asked us what we were doing. My answer was very simple and very complicated. All the people who are living on this planet have the responsibility to save the planet, so our mission is to defend the forest," he says.
Arias says that in a number of cases construction work on the pipeline started before any kind of agreement with landowners was achieved, which is a violation of private property. In other cases, landowners along the route of the pipeline got threatened or blackmailed to allow the OCP to pass through their land, she adds.
While the Ecuadorian government has lent support to the ambitious pipeline project, opposition has been growing within communities affected, as well as environmental groups inside and outside of Ecuador. Their argument is not only that biodiversity is in danger and that new oil fields would cause the destruction of natural reserves, but that the pipeline itself is at risk because it is planned to go through an area of volcanic activity and earthquakes.
Arias says the pipeline is planned to go through environmentally vulnerable zones and thus will put ecosystems as well as human communities at risk. Also, the pipeline will pass through many geological faults, areas that are geologically unstable and areas of volcanic activity.
"To make the OCP work, oil extraction will have to be increased, new oil fields will have to be opened in areas that are environmentally vulnerable and also in protected areas, national parks and indigenous territory of ethnias that have lived there for generations," Arias says. "Oil drilling would provoke the loss of biodiversity, deforestation, pollution of water and air and soil which will also make the conditions for survival of indigenous peoples much more difficult."
Although the camp has been raided, reistance to the OCP pipeline continues in Mindo. Protests were held almost everyday in Mindo last week, organized by the local population.
And the experience of being arrested for visiting the camp has also been a radicalizing experience for some. A German female who was arrested said from jail that the only way she will leave Ecuador now is by being forced out through deportation.
The names and country of origin of those arressted are as follows:
Ecuador: Wilfrido Vaca, Boris Murcia and Cristian Vaca (the other three names were not available at press time)
Chris Strohm is a freelance reporter traveling in South America. He is based out of Washington, D.C. and previously covered military affairs and Congress for Inside Washington Publishers. Yvonne Zimmerman is a freelance reporter from Switzerland traveling in South America.