Ecuador's police have detained 17 environmental activists who tried to block construction of a controversial oil pipeline through an ecologically unique Andean rainforest and plans to immediately deport the 14 foreigners in the group, including one U.S. citizen.
Among those arrested are members of Greenpeace International and a local environmental group, Accion Ecologica, which has been working for months with other international green groups, including Amazon Watch, Rainforest Action Network, and Friends of the Earth International to stop construction of the pipeline, the so-called 'Oleoducto de Crudo Pesado (OCP, or Heavy Crude Pipeline).
After the arrests, residents in the area who strongly oppose the pipeline, blockaded the main highway to protest the action. The foreign detainees, who had entered the country on tourist visas, had violated their immigration status by promoting "disobedience to the law," the government said, adding that they will be deported as soon as possible.
The pipeline, which will span some 300 miles from the Amazon Highlands of the Andes to the Pacific Coast, is supposed to cross the Mindo Nambillo Protected Cloudforest Reserve, a fragile habitat that is home to unique species of hummingbirds, as well as other rare animals and plants, many on the verge of extinction.
This week's detentions, which, according to Amazon Watch, included some 100 troops from the National Police, were designed to put an end to the occupation by activists of the most fragile zone of the Reserve since January 2. The environmentalists had chained themselves to trees near the entrance of the area.
Under international pressure, the OCP's managers had announced a halt to construction shortly after the activists began their occupation, but Ecuador's president, Gustavo Noboa, ordered police to clear the area in order that construction could proceed.
The government has long favored the US$1.1 billion project which when completed will double the country's oil exports, its most important hard-currency earner.
He said he was prepared to fight activists "trench by trench" if they continued to obstruct the project, which is backed by a banking consortium led by Germany's Westdeutsche Landesbank (WestLB), as well as a consortium of multinational oil companies, including Canada's Alberta energy, Italy's Agip Oil, Spain's Repsol-YPF, and Untied States-based Kerr McGee and Occidental Petroleum.
At the same time, the government's environment ministry had revoked OCP's environment license for the Mindo area until it repaired existing damages caused by the construction.
The suspension followed protests earlier this month by mainly indigenous communities throughout the Amazon region against the OCP and older oil sites north of the Mindo Reserve in which three people were killed.
Late Wednesday, reports indicated that at least two children were killed during the afternoon in related protests forcibly dispersed by police.
"We demand the immediate release of those detained whose only crime is defending the Ecuadorian patrimony and humanity," said Efrain Toapanta of Accion Por la Vida (Action for Life), another local environmental group. "We declare that these types of repressive measures will not stop us."
This week's events are only the latest controversy to hit the project. WestLB, which arranged $900 million in financing for the project, has come under heavy fire in North Rhine-Westphalia, where the government owns 43 percent of the bank's shares.
The state's own environment minister strongly opposes the project, and political pressure for WestLB to cancel its participation has grown to such an extent that the state's finance minister, Peer Steinbruck, a long-time champion of the bank's role, now says he wants to review the situation firsthand.
The World Bank, which refused to finance the project, has also raised questions publicly about the OCP's compatibility both with other environmental projects it supports in the Andean region, as well as its own environmental standards.
"With this latest activity, OCP has shown its blatant indifference to sensitive ecosystems, the livelihoods of local communities, and basic human rights," said Kevin Koenig, the head of oil campaigns at the California-based Amazon Watch.
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